Properly Human, More Than Human?

The conclusion of Aubry’s essay has a very different character from what preceded it. It rejoins her development elsewhere of a purely Aristotelian theology, and provides an interesting complement or contrast to the medieval debates about the spiritual significance of Aristotelian “intellect” that I have reviewed recently. As usual, in reading this it is best to forget what we think we know about what “intellect” is. It also seems to me there are a few resonances here with Harris’ reading of Hegel’s views on religion.

“Aristotelian ethics poses the possibility, for every human, of acceding to the divine in oneself. Far from being the prerogative of luck and of the blessings of the gods, this possibility is inscribed in the essence of every rational being: it demands to be developed and modified by virtuous work, the exercise of reason and of freedom. Thus, the access to this immanent transcendence, instead of being a natural gift or the effect of a divine inspiration, requires the mediation of the specifically human faculties: it is in being fully human that one can, for Aristotle, accede to the divine in oneself” (Aubry in Dherbey and Aubry, eds., L’excellence de la vie, p. 91, my translation).

I very much like the formulation “it is in being fully human”. This is an ethical criterion. Being human for Aristotle has little to do with biological species — any rational animal would be human. I have noted that being a rational animal is only having a certain potential. To be fully human is to actualize that potential.

Aubry notes that Aristotle “rejects the ethics of privilege and election as well as that of the natural good and of talent: he does not believe in conversion, in a first choice to which one can only, throughout one’s life, remain faithful” (ibid).

Aristotelian potentiality in its ethical dimension, Aubry says, is a conceptual translation of the figure of the Platonic daimon. This suggestion is new to me. She particularly refers to the myth of Er in Plato’s Republic, in which the human is said to choose her daimon rather than being chosen by it. In the same way, she says that for Aristotle the human chooses her potentiality instead of being determined by it.

She credits her colleague Dherbey at the end, and I think Dherbey’s remark that for Aristotle choice is more a matter of character than of punctual decision is highly relevant here. Putting the two together suggests a kind of reciprocal determination between character and this sort of nonpunctual choice. Paul Ricoeur has richly developed this kind of reciprocal relation, with explicit reference to Aristotle’s notion of character.

Next she moves to Aristotle’s brief explicit discussion of a kind of immortality, which does not seem to me to be an immortality of the soul. Aristotle linked immortality to what he calls intellect (nous) but left many details open, which later led to extensive debates between Thomists, Averroists, and Alexandrists like Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525).

“One could even say that Aristotle radicalizes the Platonic project: for the Platonic injunction to ‘immortalize oneself insofar as it is possible’ becomes, in Aristotle, an invitation to ‘immortalize oneself according to potentiality’. The divine is not in the human as a simple possibility, but indeed as a real potential. The human contains by nature her beyond-nature: she bears within herself an immanent principle of [self-] exceeding” (p. 92, emphasis in original).

This would seem to be a reference to the potential intellect, much discussed by Alexander of Aphrodisias, Averroes, Aquinas, and others. Despite their differences, these writers all basically agreed that potential intellect is fundamental to what distinguishes rational animals. For all of them, to be a fully realized rational animal is to have a certain relation to “intellect”, which transcends the biological organism.

Aubry continues, “One has seen in effect that the definitional dunamis [potentiality] that the ethical effort aims to realize is reason…. To the definitional dunamis of the human corresponds a double ergon [work] — for, if the first is properly human, the other is a bit more than human” (ibid). She had introduced the idea of “definitional potentiality” earlier in the essay. I think this just means the potentiality inherent to any rational animal. As noted above, the commentary tradition links this specifically to potential intellect.

Next she quotes from Nicomachean Ethics book 10 chapter 7. I will substitute a slightly longer version of the quote from Joe Sachs’ translation:

“But such a life would be greater than what accords with a human being, for it is not insofar as one is a human being that he will live in this way, but insofar as something divine is present in him, and to the extent that this surpasses the compound being, to that extent also the being-at-work of it surpasses that which results from the rest of virtue. So if the intellect is something divine as compared with a human being, the life that is in accord with the intellect is divine as compared with a human life. But one should not follow those who advise us to think human thoughts, since we are human, and mortal thoughts, since we are mortal, but as far as possible one ought to be immortal and to do all things with a view toward living in accord with the most powerful [Aubry has “noble”, and I don’t have my Greek text handy] thing in oneself, for even if it is small in bulk, it rises much more above everything else in power and worth. And each person would seem to be this part, if it is the governing and better part; it would be strange, then, if anyone were to choose not his own life but that of something else. What was said before will be fitting now too: what is appropriate by nature to each being is best and most pleasant for each, and so, for a human being, this is the life in accord with the intellect, if that most of all is a human being. Therefore this life is also the happiest” (Sachs trans., p. 193).

Aristotle compresses a tremendous amount into a few lines here. Many have found him too minimalist on these topics. I take his minimalism as reflecting an admirable intellectual modesty, carefully avoiding claims that are beyond human knowledge.

Traditional scholastic readings expanding on this aspect of Aristotle narrowly emphasize elaborating his very schematic, sketch-like remarks about intellect. I think the work of Paul Ricoeur (and of Hegel, particularly as read by Brandom, Pippin, and Harris) provides rich, multidimensional alternative expansions of Aristotle’s minimalist formulations on the ultimate ends of human life that are genuinely Aristotelian in spirit.

Aubry continues, “To be human in act, therefore, can signify being human among humans, or being a bit divine. One is certainly far, here, from the tragic wisdom, from an ethic of resignation and of limit. The Aristotelian ethic includes rather an irreducible dimension of [what from the tragic point of view would be] hubris [pride]. Divine knowledge is not posed as a simple ‘ideal’, nor divinization as a ‘regulative, not constitutive, principle’: on the contrary, and we underline it, the divine element that nous [intellect] is in the human, this immanent transcendent, is indeed a constitutive potentiality, a faculty to be actualized, and not a simple possibility. This actualization is nonetheless mediated: it is by the intermediary of humanity that the human rejoins the divine in herself, in exercising her reason, her virtue, her freedom. If the Aristotelian ethic is an ethic of surpassing, it passes nonetheless through full humanity: the daimon of Aristotelian eudaimonism [pursuit of happiness] is not enthusiasm, delirium, possession, or an irrational guide, arbitrary and infallible…. [I]t is possible, at the end of becoming virtuous, to be perfect and happy, even though this accomplishment, hindered by matter, broken by fatigue, is only ephemeral.”

“To the God of pure act of the Metaphysics, that God without power who has no other force than the desire he arouses, thus corresponds, in the Ethics, the divine posed in human potentiality” (p. 93).

Later religious traditions have often regarded talk about divinization of the human as objectionable. The great Persian Sufi Mansur al-Hallaj (858-922 CE) was stoned to death for saying “I am the Real”. Teachings of the great Christian theologian-philosopher-mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) were condemned in the West.

Aristotle, however, has a very positive concept of a kind of pride that he calls “greatness of soul” (see Magnanimity), which he actually makes into a key virtue. He sees it as as promoting other virtues, and as prompting people to help others and be forgiving. Alain de Libera and Kurt Flasch have emphasized that the affirmative view of human life in Aristotelian ethics found a significant audience even in the middle ages.

All this provides an interesting contrast to both sides of the debate about humanism in 1960s France.