Reason: Our unique human function

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Allen Tucker-Madison Square, Snow-1904, National Gallery of Art

In this post, I discuss reason, the second element of living well and doing well that Aristotle presents in the Nicomachean Ethics.

  … and we consider the function of a human being to be a certain life, and this is an activity and actions of the soul accompanied by reason, the function of a good person to be to do these things well and nobly, and each thing is performed well when it is performed in accordance with the virtue proper to it… (1098a13)

Aristotle’s ethical theory is bound to rationality. Reason is the exclusive function of human beings and he presents it to discuss the highest good in more detail and differentiate between character and intellectual virtues as the drivers towards this good.

The work of human beings

Eudaimonia is the goal we pursue for its own sake and for the sake of nothing else. We are successful in this pursuit if we understand our final cause as human beings, our ergon in Greek, what we are born for; we must know the reason for our existence and the natural telos, or final purpose, we have to fulfill.

We share life – nutrition, growth, reproduction – with plants and animals, but our human telos is superior to biological functions, physical growth or bodily senses. Our telos, the unique function that fulfills our human nature, consists essentially of reason. Rationality is our guide in life and only if we are fully rational can we reach our potential. Rational activity isn’t only thinking in the sense of calculating. It also includes practical reasoning and planning for the future, it helps us make decisions and sustain relationships.

Our unique function isn’t only our ability to reason – this is something that the gods also possess. Rather, our exclusive human function is displayed in action. We fulfill our function well if we do virtuous actions. The virtues aren’t the highest good but their role in attaining it is important.

We express our excellence in good and right actions, guided by the relevant virtue each time, and if there are more than one virtues, with the best and most complete. So, to fulfill our ergon in an excellent way, we should aim to become perfectly rational.

The parts of the soul

… by eudaimonia we mean an activity of the soul. (1102a17)

Eudaimonia consists in excellent rational activity of the most perfect part of the soul. The soul, psuche in Greek, is primary in Aristotle’s theory. Its meaning is broader than that of the soul. All living organisms, even plants and animals, have psuche as the power that activates them. And the same with human beings.

But this is the only similarity we share with other living organisms: our soul possesses a rational part that is exclusively human. That part is an essential activating power and its goods, the virtues, are far superior to external goods, material or bodily.

Our human soul has two parts, a non-rational and a rational one, and we need to know what they do and how they are related to the virtues. Why? Because Aristotle defines eudaimonia as an activity of the soul driven by complete virtue. So, let’s see.

 The non-rational part of the soul and its two elements

The vegetative (or nutritive) element is common to all living organisms, regardless of type (e.g. animal, plant, human) or stage of development (e.g. embryos, children, adults) and involves the power for self-nutrition, reproduction and growth. It functions during sleep, and so good and bad persons aren’t really different for half of their lives. During sleep, our soul isn’t engaged in any good or bad actions – only probably if we are good people, we have better dreams. The virtue of the vegetative element is the excellent function of our biological organs. But no matter how well it functions, it doesn’t make us good persons.

The appetitive element is responsible for our appetites and desires. It has no reason in itself but takes part in reason and obeys it as we obey our father and friends. It disposes us to control our self and seek what is best in life or listen to the advice, criticism or encouragement of others in cases we are tempted to do something wrong. So, we obey reason and do the right thing even if we don’t understand why.

This changes as we develop the virtues, gain life experience and can reason for ourselves why it’s good to do the right thing. Being virtuous means that we probably have this element in our soul and are in harmony with it. And this is important – the appetitive element contributes to our goodness: it protects us from experiencing an inner struggle when we must do an action we perceive as our duty, or from feeling pain when we can’t satisfy our desires.

The rational part of our soul

This part expresses our unique function as human beings, our ergon and our telos. As living organisms, we have the non-rational functions above, but as human beings, we have exclusivity to reason, the ability to think, imagine or perceive. Only in being fully rational, can we be truly human.

We can see the appetitive part as an element of the rational part of our soul too since it obeys it. So, the rational part also has two elements, one possessing reason and one taking part in it and obeying it.

 The virtues of our soul

The structure of the soul helps us distinguish the virtues: some of them, like theoretical and practical wisdom, are intellectual and belong to the rational part of the soul; others – like courage or temperance – are character virtues and belong to the appetitive part. Intellectual virtues give intellectual depth to our existence in the world, and practical wisdom especially give us insight into the particular elements of a situation and the right means to achieve a goal. Character virtues guide our actions and passions according to the virtuous mean. Both kinds of virtues are essential to our goodness since it’s possible that a person is an intelligent and fast thinker, but not a good human being.

So, the rational part of the soul is related to the intellectual virtues and the appetitive to the character virtues. The vegetative element doesn’t relate to our virtues in any way.

Take care, Sophia P.