Question: How important is reason to virtue? Can an irrational person be virtuous? Correlatively, how important is reason to happiness? What role does reason play in happiness and virtue?
Aristotle systematically presented a defense of the Principle of Non-Contradiction in his treatise on metaphysics. He recognized the principle of non-contradiction as the firmest principle of all. What is brilliant in Aristotle is that he recognized that his work on Physics, whose basic purpose was to rationalize motion and change through the doctrine of four causes, is not sufficient and that his doctrine of the four causes [material, formal, sufficient, and final causes of change and motion in things] still needs a more fundamental principle which deals with first causes. And for this reason, his justifications of his theoretical claims on Physics lie outside the aforementioned book. The notion of being and not being therefore is more fundamental than the notion and explanation of the causes of the change and motion in things and thus, the latter could only hold if and only if a more fundamental principle of being could be established. This is the principle of non-contradiction.
In line with this, the tasks of this philosophical paper are as follows: (1) To provide an analysis and critique of Aristotle’s defense of the principle of non-contradiction and (2) To relate the principle of non-contradiction as a principle of reason and its implications to Aristotle’s ethical philosophy with a particular emphasis on the role of reason in the achievement of happiness and virtue.
In the attempt to understand the principle of non-contradiction, we cannot do away without analyzing the notion of being and substance which are fundamental in Aristotle’s philosophical system. Why? This is for the assumption that whatever exists, has being, and what has being has substance. This substance is also spoken of by Aristotle as essence and went on saying that in the case of primary things, a thing and its essence are one and the same. This simply means that the relationship between a thing and its essence is identical [if x is a thing and y is its essence then x=y]. If this is true then a person is identical with his essence. This seems convincing enough for what we perceive are actually the object [substance] as it appears to us. But if this is the case, then distinctions between substance and essence is unimportant for they are said to be identical. It is important to note that there exists a distinction between these two concepts for it seems that we can know a substance even if its essence is still unknown to us but it is impossible for us to first know essence without prior consideration of substance. It seems then that we know essence only through substance and not vice-versa.
Since the notion of being and substance are fundamental in this study of first principles, Aristotle laid down the firmest principle of all in the study of beings in so far as they are beings, that being the principle of non-contradiction. What exactly is the principle of non-contradiction? This is the principle that “it is impossible for the same thing to have and not to have the same feature at a single time” (Aristotle, Metaphysics 86).
Let us criticize his points in defending the said principle. His defense is directed to his so-called “opponents” who wished to maintain that “a thing can both be and not be at one and the same time” (Aristotle, Metaphysics 328). Perhaps, this thinking was heavily influenced by the Heracleitian doctrine of change. And so following Heraclitus, there is no is, nothing is, for everything is in the continuous process of becoming. Nothing is fixed and therefore, we cannot even say that anything is anything.
According to Aristotle, the name signifies being or not being this, so that not everything will be F and not F (Aristotle, Metaphysics 103). For him, a definition consists of two parts: (1) The class or group, and (2) The specific difference of a term or object by which it differs from all other members of the class. Let us consider his example, which is “man”. According to him, if man signifies one thing, which is “biped animal”, then if anything is a man, then its being a man is being a biped animal. The same is also true for “man as a rational animal”. Thus, we can say that “man” has two accounts these being (1) man is a biped animal and (2) man is a rational animal. Being biped and rational distinguishes man from all other members of the class of animals. Of course, it could be argued if man is indeed rational but that is beside the point of discussion. Accounts 1 and 2 above are both necessary if something is to be a man. This is also a way for strengthening his claim that a thing and its essence or being are one and the same. This is logically consistent. Let us further scrutinize his argument. Accounts 1 and 2 are different accounts of man. It is important to note that they are not contradictory. It is indeed the case that man is both 1 and 2.
Let us proceed to another point raised by Aristotle. The contradictories “man and not man” signify something different. His argument for this is that if man and not man signify one thing, then they are one and the same. If man and not man are one and the same then they must be one but it is clear that an object in the actual world cannot both be a man and not a man, or a plant and not a plant, or animal and not animal, etc. It is equally important to consider that Aristotle pointed out that we must try to find out if a thing can both be and not be a man in the actual world. Experience therefore is important because experience tells us that a thing either is or is not [e.g. man or not man] and definitely not both.
His arguments for the principle of non-contradiction are strong and well organized and logically presented. This characterizes the logical mind of Aristotle. Let us proceed to our next task. How can the principle of non-contradiction as the main principle of reason show the relationship of reason, virtue, and happiness?
Logic presents us with the rules of right reasoning, principles of valid argumentation, etc. Modern logicians of course have developed logic and their definitions of logic like the analysis of formal languages and propositions and well-formed formulae. But in any case, the term ‘valid’ and ‘invalid’ remained. It is therefore clear that we distinguish between right and wrong reasoning. We distinguish a valid proposition from an invalid one. Clearly then, logic is founded on the principle of non-contradiction. For a valid argument is valid by virtue of its logical form and can never be invalid at the same time.
This is where we need to emphasize Aristotle’s concern for the need for ‘rational discourse’. If contradictories are valid in the field of logic, then rational discourse is impossible for a person may utter contradictory statements. Moreover, there would be no distinction whatsoever between valid and invalid for they will be one. True statements would be true and not true at the same time. Rational discourse is also problematic even in ordinary language. Can the principle of non-contradiction ever be falsified by experience? To this question my reply is “No”. In the actual world as we experience it, the principle of non-contradiction holds. If we were given a task of identifying actual objects and things in the world, they are either is, or not is. Either a thing is, or it is not and it is never the case that it is both is, and not is.
Aristotle defended the principle of non-contradiction because he was aware of the logical consequence of denying the said principle. If it is false, then it is the case that a thing can both be and not be at the same time. Such a condition would logically imply a state of indefiniteness. Thus, if the principle of non-contradiction would not hold then there cannot be anything definite in thought and perhaps everything is permissible and rational discourse is impossible since we are not even asserting anything if we are uttering contradictory propositions.
Given that the principle of non-contradiction ensures the rational thought, how does the aforementioned principle of reason as well as the other principles of reason related to the achievement of happiness and virtue. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle presents a discussion of his ethical theory. Nicomachean Ethics begins with a discussion of the concept of eudaimonia [happiness or flourishing], which is preceded, by a discussion of arête [virtue or excellence]. According to Aristotle, the aforementioned traits are the character traits that human beings need to in order to live a good life. Nicomachean Ethics, in this sense, serves as a justification of Aristotle’s conception of the good life. The manner in which such a discussion springs forth begins with Aristotle’s stress of the importance of the study of ethics in Book One. Aristotle argues that the importance of such lies in its ability to present a conception of the good life based upon a conception of what a human being is. Such a conception, on the other hand, is based upon a conception of the individual’s sense of self, based upon an existing community. If such is the case, it follows that in order to account for the conception of the good, it is necessary to consider the hierarchy of goods, which are considered within society. Such an act enables the differentiation of the lesser goods, which are instrumental in seeking the higher goods as well as those goods, which are good in themselves (Aristotle, Nicomachean 3-4).
In relation to this, Aristotle notes that the highest good is the final goal of purposeful striving. He refers to this as the final good of human beings, which is eudaimonia. The achievement of eudaimonia however necessitates the human being’s activation of his potentialities. Aristotle himself notes that the proper function of human beings lies in their moral excellence, which resides in the “active life of rational element”. Eudaimonia, within this context, necessitates the ability to think rationally. However, the achievement of eudaimonia is no merely limited to the ability to think rationally, it also necessitates the achievement of virtue. If such is the case, it therefore follows that the good for human beings is “an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue” (Aristotle, Nicomachean 17). A life of virtue, however, can only be attained if one conforms to the strictures of reason. In lieu of this, what follows is a discussion of some of the virtues expounded by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics and the possibility in which such virtues may exceed the moral failings of a community.
It is important to note that the aforementioned conception of happiness is unique to Aristotle’s philosophy. By associating virtue with the commitment of virtuous acts, Aristotle enabled the conception of happiness that pertains to the lifelong activity that enables the continuous actualization of the virtues within the rational part of the soul. Within this context, it is thereby not possible for an irrational man to be virtuous since virtue necessitates the individual’s continuous struggle for the attainment of virtue. In this sense, Aristotle’s, conception of happiness [eudaimonia] is firmly attached to a conception of becoming. By forming a correlation between the act of becoming with that of happiness, Aristotle thereby provided a method in which an individual may be an expert or successful human being. Note that the notion of becoming does not allow the existence of fixed states but is always open to the change. Change, however, is construed as positive change since it involves the continuous activation or further understanding of the virtues that reside within an individual. The good life therefore should not be perceives as an immediate state which when gained belongs to an individual up to the end of his life. The good life is a state, which one continually strives for.