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1 - Aristotle on the Biological Roots of Virtue: The Natural History of Natural Virtue

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 July 2010

Jane Maienschein
Affiliation:
Arizona State University
Michael Ruse
Affiliation:
University of Guelph, Ontario
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Summary

INTRODUCTION

Traditionally, attempts to relate Aristotle's well-known passion for biology to his ethical thought have focused on two points of intersection. In Nicomachean Ethics I 7, Aristotle relies heavily on the idea that human excellence (or virtue) must be the excellence of a specifically human functional capacity, and his approach to defining that capacity is reminiscent of De Anima II 2-3: Functions shared with plants and animals are ruled out in favor of those that are distinctively human, those associated with reason. This so-called function argument has generated a good deal of scholarly discussion, but a careful reading of it, especially in light of Aristotle's remarks at 1102a 13–32 about the limited need for a scientific understanding of the soul for the purposes of ethics, must lead one to conclude that no detailed understanding of biology was needed to craft it.

A second point of possible intersection on which scholars have focused is Aristotle's concept of a political animal, used often in the biological works and extending to many species other than man. Furthermore, Aristotle's Politics, much more than his Nicomachean Ethics, is a “biological” work, opening with an extended narrative about the natural growth of the polls out of essentially biological origins:

Accordingly, if the first communities exist by nature, so too does every polis; for the polis is the goal of these communities, and nature is present in the goal. For we call that which each thing is when its generation is completed, whether horse, human, or household, the nature of each thing. […]

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1999

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