The moral animal

Aristotle's ethics is indeed a form of naturalism, but according to Pierre-Marie Morel it is a problematic naturalism, in which nature retains a degree of opaqueness and proves irreducible to any biological determinism.

What place does Aristotle give nature in his practical philosophy?? Correlatively, to what extent do ethics and politics, according to the Stagirite, relate to naturalistic considerations?? First there is a tension, a anomaly (p. 1) which astonishes readers of Aristotle: on the one hand, the reference to nature (phusis / ) is recurrent in the practical corpus, including in extremely famous passages such as the first book of the Policywhere man is said to be by nature a political living; but on the other hand, it is well known that the practical sphere constitutes for Aristotle a specific and properly human domain which seems to escape at least in part from natural determinations.

The challenge of the work is to hold these two poles together to better raise the question of naturalism, to explore with meticulousness and patience this tension even in the texts instead of immediately trying to reduce it. Many commentators have in fact decided to resolve the difficulty in one direction or the other, either by placing ethics under the dependence of norms which are external to it and founding it whether these norms are of a metaphysical or physical order or, on the contrary, by rejecting the idea even of an ethical naturalism in Aristotle. It is rather appropriate, according to Pierre-Marie Morel, to question the very meaning of Aristotle's ethical naturalism. What emerges is a form of naturalism, not essentialist or narrowly scientific, but properly practical and problematic, which permeates all aspects of practical philosophy without reducing the regime of exceptionality that constitutes human action.

Pierre-Marie Morel, one of the greatest specialists in Aristotelian philosophy and ancient atomism, delivers over the course of the twelve chapters which make up the work a subtle study of the multiple ways whose nature enters the ethical and political sphere (p. 253). This question has already been partially addressed in previous works by Pierre-Marie Morel, notably in a work published in 2007 which presents a general theory of action applicable to both the simplest activities and the most complex processes such as human action. It is now a question of insisting on the limits of this integrative process, and on what the sphere of human actions remains irreducible, while being crossed by the question of nature.

How to read Aristotle?

The question of how to read Aristotle may seem trivial at best, specious at worst. Yet it is not one of the least merits of the work to invite us to take it seriously. Pierre-Marie Morel in fact underlines several times the tendency of certain commentators to resolve theoretical difficulties by freeing themselves from the texts and from what they want to tell us, with the consequence of the risk of sometimes reading an Aristotle, so to speak, outside the text. This insight is evident when certain concepts, such as that of second nature (product of habit) or that of human natureare presented as formulated or clearly defined by Aristotle himself, where they are at most reconstructions from often difficult texts, but also when certain assertions with naturalistic connotations are detached from their context and taken to be the position of Aristotle himself.

In order to limit these collections, Pierre-Marie Morel sets up a method of reading texts based on two principles: on the one hand, the systematic review and study of occurrences of the lexical field of nature in the practical corpus (Nicomachean ethics, ethical Eudme, Policy), and on the other hand, sustained attention to the contexts and specific argumentative modalities of the different passages examined. These precepts certainly seem common sense and could be affirmed by any commentator of Aristotle. As applied by Pierre-Marie Morel, however, they allow him to stand out in the field of Aristotelian studies. The highlighting of the semantic instability (p. 23) of the concept of nature from one text to another, as well as the dialectical character of numerous references to nature in the treatises of practical philosophy, indeed constitutes the basis of his thesis according to which these references have a problematic connotation much more that they do not serve as indisputable principle (p. 6). The literal and contextual approach thus most often results in deflationary or minimalist interpretations of references to nature, to the extent that these are not intended to produce properly scientific demonstrations, but are part of composite arguments partly relaying accepted opinions, or even operate as analogies, transversal concepts or simple facts imported from natural inquiry.

From the study of nature to that of human action: the embedded knowledge of practical philosophy

It is therefore necessary to determine more precisely to what extent the knowledge and implementation of practical philosophy require knowledge external to the latter. By virtue of the principle of the incommunicability of scientific genres, there should be no possible passage for Aristotle between ethics and physics (understood in a broad sense including natural philosophy). THE Master of those who knowas Dante calls him, however, seems to directly contravene this precept in his thethico-political texts, and this on multiple occasions, whether when he emphasizes the physiological basis of certain phenomena with which ethics is concerned (such as voluntary actions, intemperance and emotional processes). , or the similarities between certain human faculties and character traits compared to other animals.

The contradiction is resolved, however, once the precise epistemological role of these references to natural philosophy is lucidated. Indeed, natural philosophy presents itself in the form of instrumental and simplified knowledgealso described as knowledge embarked (p. 62), which only corroborate and delimit the ethical theorist's investigation without founding it. The sphere of human action thus remains irreducible, as evidenced by the discontinuity between what is properly human and the rest of the animal kingdom (despite the analogies established by Aristotle), so that this usage embarked physiological knowledge is not equivalent to an application of physical explanations to the practical sphere, which has its own explanatory regime.

The part of nature in the good life

This epistemological solution does not, however, resolve all the difficulties. The sovereign good, which is identified with happiness, is assimilated by Aristotle as both a certain end aimed at by all men, and the proper function of man. These two famous statements from the first book of theNicomachean ethics seem to call for a strongly naturalist and even essentialist interpretation of ethics, since they seem to regulate ethics on the essence (the nature) of the human being. Pierre-Marie Morel reminds us, however, that despite their undeniable naturalistic dimension, these assertions are posed as waiting stones intended to be precise; they do not allow, in particular, to decide between two models of accomplished existence mobilized by Aristotle, that of political life and that of life dedicates knowledge. It is therefore not appropriate to infer too marked a naturalism, especially since the properly human end (living well) is irreducible to the animal end (living), so that its determination greatly exceeds biological investigation. The same goes for virtue, pleasure and friendship, which are all manifestations of the good life in the virtuous agent: they cannot be assimilated to strictly natural processes, either because the ethical virtues do not arise in us spontaneously, but under the effect of habit, either because the pleasures which accompany virtuous acts are appropriate to certain specifically human actions, or even because friendship towards others is not directly derivable from our spontaneous tendency towards love and self-preservation.

There therefore exists a part of undeniable naturalness which intervenes in the good life, but under the modality of power, of a potentiality which remains partly indeterminate and plastic, and which requires properly human mediations to deploy (education, exercise, deliberation). , the ordering of the city). If Aristotle's naturalism is a naturalism contrary Or inchoate (p. 185), to the extent that it makes it possible to determine the potentialities and ends of the human being without being able to prescribe the means of realizing them, the whole task of ethics and politics then consists of lucidating and putting implements these mediations which operate both as an overcoming and an accomplishment of the natural. In this, the reference to nature does have a normative dimension, but it is a problem to solve (p. 24) more than a series of standards defined a priori.

One of the results of this investigation is that Aristotle's practical philosophy appears to resist any antinomy and too clear-cut dualisms. Showing the irreducibility of Aristotelian philosophy to the great philosophical dualisms is not in itself new. What is much more important, however, is the way in which Pierre-Marie Morel articulates the overcoming of these dualisms in his analysis of Aristotle's naturalism. He thus shows, starting from the cases of justice and money, that Aristotle mobilizes the traditional distinction between nature and convention to better transform it into a constitutive duality (p. 198) characteristic of human existence in society.

It is again the indeterminate and pluriform character of the reference to nature which allows us to go beyond the antithesis between freedom and determinism: individual action is partially determined by various forms of natural processes, without it being possible to find a specific biological program that would tap into human possibilities (p. 240). The Aristotelian analysis of prudence, which allows us to overcome the opposition between the utilitarian and ontological approach to moral action, finally also calls upon the question of nature: as a politician at the head of a city, the prudent person must possess real practical knowledge. and objective which includes a minimal knowledge of nature, particularly human nature.

A discreet plea in the contemporary field

If it constitutes above all a fine and meticulous study of Aristotelian philosophy, this work can also be read as a discreet plea in favor of a nuanced and problematized approach to the question of nature, in particular in its articulation with morality. If nature is, all at the same time, insufficient and essential the good life (p. 253), on the side of possibilities rather than immutable norms, a source of questions rather than solutions, then it can still find its place in contemporary debates, and Aristotle with it.