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Log In Sign Up. Matt Walker. The Utility of Contemplation in Aristotle's Protrepticus. Various arguments survive from the Protrepticus, preserved primarily in chapters of a work of the same name by the Neoplatonic philosopher Iamblichus. Two of these arguments are especially noteworthy. In one Aristotle attempts to meet the charge that contemplation is valueless because it is useless.

Yet the utility argument, in the explicit form in which it appears in the Protrepticus, is novel, and I want to examine it more closely for two reasons. First, in the light of D. Second, the utility argument gives rise to thorny interpretive problems. If the utility argument is sound, then contemplation would seem to lack aristo- cratic leisureliness in which case the aristocratic defense would appear to fail ; if the aristocratic defense is sound, then contemplation would seem to lack useful- ness in which case the utility argument would appear to fail.

In parts 1 and 2, I begin by elucidating the aristocratic defense and the utility argu- ment. In part 4, I point out the hurdles Aristotle faces in showing how contemplation can possess the utility that he attributes to it. Nevertheless, I argue that Aristotle provides us with clues within the Protrepticus for identifying how the best sort of contemplation can be useful for deriving boundary markers of the human good. In a moment, I shall have more to say about the sort of contemplation that I believe Aristotle has in mind, but for now, suffice it to say that Aristotle needs to respond to the sorts of worries and concerns that he should expect his audience to have about any sort of contempla- tive activity.

On the contrary, if contemplation is use- less, then it meets at least one of the necessary conditions for being a highest end. To show how Aristotle develops this response in the Protrepticus, I briefly examine two passages from chapter 9 of the Protrepticus where Aristotle pre- sents this defense in a particularly clear form. In the first, Protrepticus 9. Since final goods need not be choiceworthy for any higher or more final ends, Aristotle thinks that it is reasonable to expect at least some final goods in a human life to lack instrumental value for the sake of higher ends in that life.

In particular, it is reasonable to expect the highest or most final end in a human life to lack such instrumental value. But since to lack instrumental value for the sake of a higher end is in some sense to be useless, Aristotle thinks that it is rea- sonable for at least some final goods, viz. Therefore, Aristotle thinks, even if contemplation is useless, it does not follow that contemplation lacks choiceworthiness for its own sake. Notice that Aristotle is not saying that uselessness is sufficient for being a high- est end.

After all, being useless is insufficient by itself to confer final value or choiceworthiness to all sorts of weird activities. Still, even if these useless activities are not worth pursuing, their uselessness in no way rules out other useless activities, viz. Although I have consulted various translations, translations unless otherwise noted are my own.

Given the philosophical issues at play, I seek to translate as literally as possible. Rather, like the contemplation of excellent Olympic athletes and of dramatic performances at the Dionysia, philosophical contemplation is a final good choiceworthy for its own sake.

Indeed, to hold goods such as wealth as higher than such contemplation is to reveal mistaken pri- orities: instrumental goods are choiceworthy for the sake of contemplation. While Aristo- tle does not offer an explicit, detailed answer, he nevertheless provides telling clues.

In the second passage above from chapter 9, Aristotle refers at And earlier in chapter 9, he appeals to the reputable views of Pythagoras and Anaxagoras concerning the end for the sake of which human beings exist. In a passage from Eudemian Ethics i 5 that parallels Protrepticus But later, in EE viii 3, Aristotle holds that the ultimate end for human beings is the contemplation of the god b17; b Further, the thought that the contemplation of the universe includes the con- templation of the god construed as something like divine intellect has a Platonic pedigree.

In the cosmology of the Timaeus, for instance, to understand the order of the cosmos, we need to make reference to the role of the Demiurge, which the character Timaeus identifies as the god e. Further, Timaeus claims that the Demiurge wishes all things to resemble himself as much as possible 29e , and that the Demiurge wishes the cosmic order to possess intel- lect 30b. But if the cosmic order, in possessing intellect, mirrors the Demiurge, then the Demiurge too will be a kind of intellect.

Moreover, there is good reason to hold that the Aris- totle of the Protrepticus, like Aristotle in other works, identifies this intellect as a god, for, indeed, the Protrepticus explicitly identifies the god and intellect 8.

But in Protrepticus Hence, in chapter 10, he exhorts his audience to pursue contemplation on the basis of its utility for guiding our actions. He maintains that although contemplation is not productive, it offers a background perspective that promotes the best practical judgment. Since the chapter 10 passage is unfortu- nately not better known, I translate the entire chapter: For just as doctors and [experts] about athletic training, so far as [they are] refined, all pretty much agree that it is neces- sary for those going to be good doctors and athletic trainers to be experienced about nature, so also it is necessary for good lawmakers to be experienced about nature, and much more, at any rate, than the former.

For the [doctors and athletic trainers] are producers only of the virtue of the body, but the [lawmak- ers], being [concerned] about the virtues of the soul and claim- ing to teach about both [the] happiness and unhappiness of the city, are therefore much more in need of philosophy. The role of the god as source of cosmic order also receives detailed discussion in the pseudo-Aristotelian De mundo vi-vii.

By reference to these [tools], we discriminate what is, according to perception, sufficiently straight and smooth. For just as [in building] these tools [sc. For an imitation of [what is] not fine cannot be fine, nor [can an imitation of what is not] divine and stable in its nature [be] immortal and stable. But [it is] clear9 that for the philosopher alone among produc- ers are there both stable laws and correct and fine actions.

For [the philosopher] alone lives looking toward nature and toward the divine, and, just like some good steersman fastening the first principles of [his] life to eternal and steadfast things, he goes forth10 and lives according to himself. And so, contemplation remains useful for providing cognitive access to boundary markers of the human good, which would enable the lawmaker to judge well. Yet the passage above stands out for argu- ing explicitly that contemplative knowledge is useful.

To see more clearly how contemplation can usefully guide practical judgment, I first call attention to Protrepticus While good builders use these tools to ensure that their measurements are exact—and thus to produce well-measured buildings—bad builders rely merely on other buildings to make their measurements. By contrast, bad builders rely on unreliable measures; their works are apt to be disproportionate and poorly made as a result.

At Protrepticus Nevertheless, context suggests Aristotle was drawing a parallel between sight and contemplation in his original text. Just as the latter rely on inexact measures, the former rely on inexact measures of the human good in making practical judg- ments.

Such measures, however, are no better for agents seeking to perform excellent actions than other buildings are for builders seeking to create excellent structures. According to Aristotle, however, contemplation plays a role in providing cog- nitive access to exact measures of the human good. Aristotle thus wants to say that through exercising contemplation, we some- how come to understand the nature of the human good, i.

By judging and acting by reference to this understanding of the human good, an understanding derived from sources more stable than mere fluctuating conven- tion, contemplators most reliably achieve the intermediate in action and passion. On this basis, Aristotle identifies the philosopher as the agent possessing the most exact and reliable form of practical reasoning.

Although philosophers do not produce when contemplating, the insights they obtain through contemplation guide their production, i. There- fore, contemplation is useful after all. Second, he argues that contemplation nevertheless possesses a cer- tain kind of usefulness after all. Contemplation is useful for the cognitive access it provides to boundary markers of the human good by reference to which con- templators can judge well.

If Aristotle presses the utility argument, then Aristotle would seem to undercut the aristocratic defense of contemplation. For in allowing contemplation to be useful, Aristotle may appear to deny that contemplation is, after all, an end choiceworthy for the sake of nothing higher.

So, while Aristotle could offer either argument on its own to exhort his audience, the two arguments together would seem to cancel each other out. The goal of philosophical protreptic is to turn the listener or reader toward philo- sophical activity. If so, however, we should expect a work like the Protrepticus to include a wide variety of arguments aimed at turning the audience toward philosophy—some arguments suitable for certain audience members, other arguments suitable for other audience members.

Yet if the Pro- trepticus must rely on such a range of arguments to reach its full audience, then we should expect to find some internal tensions in the work. Thus, if we find a potential inconsistency between the aristocratic defense and the utility argument, it is not yet clear that the Protrepticus itself is an incoherent text—at least if we keep in mind the genre-specific goals of protreptic writing.

Given the internal aims of philosophical protreptic, it would be troublesome if two major arguments clashed in a straightforward fashion. Such a fundamental inconsistency would cancel out whatever particular reasons one would have for pursuing philosophical activity.

So, although presenting a maximally consistent set of views need not be the ultimate aim of a philosophical protreptic, a consistency of basic argument would nevertheless be important for instrumentally promoting protreptic goals. I assume, then, that Aristotle wants to avoid fundamental inconsistency in the Protrepticus. Therefore, the potential inconsistency of the aristocratic defense and the utility argument does threaten to pose a problem for Aristotle, and so, the initial response to the apparent inconsistency is insufficient.

But there are other responses to the apparent inconsistency, and I turn my attention to them now. And we can do this by showing that the purported inconsistency between the aristocratic defense and the utility argument, even in the fragments that we now possess, is only apparent.

At Likewise, And Nor is such language unique to the Protrepticus. At Nicomachean Ethics x 7. At Metaphysics i 2. Rather, for Aristotle, an activity can also be useful by supporting philosophical protreptic, since such a work is intended to turn the reader toward philosophy as such, not toward any particular philosophical view.

Aristotle, I suggest, believes that contemplation is useful in this second way. If so, Aristotle can consistently say that contemplation is useless in the sense required by the aristocratic defense, but useful in the way required by the utility argument.

For how will it be nourished? Unlike plants, animals lack roots and so lack an immediate source of nutriment. Hence, if they lacked the perceptive power and its functions, which include perception, appetite, and locomotion , they would fail in two ways to reach their end. First, immature, but still develop- ing, animals would lack a means for obtaining nutriment in their youth.

Perishing before they ever attained maturity, they would never get to lead the perceptive life that characterizes fully developed animals. Second, mature animals require a perceptive means by which to obtain nutriment lest they perish as well.


Aristotle's Protrepticus and its Background (PHIL 315)

Protrepticus, an exhortation to philosophy , first developed as a genre by the 5th-cent. Opera , vol. Access to the complete content on Oxford Classical Dictionary requires a subscription or purchase. Public users are able to search the site and view the abstracts and keywords for each book and chapter without a subscription. If you are a student or academic complete our librarian recommendation form to recommend the Oxford Research Encyclopedias to your librarians for an institutional free trial. Please subscribe or login to access full text content.


Aristotle's Protrepticus an Attempt at Reconstruction

To browse Academia. Skip to main content. By using our site, you agree to our collection of information through the use of cookies. To learn more, view our Privacy Policy. Log In Sign Up. Matt Walker.



The Protrepticus was an early work of Aristotle, written while he was still a member of Plato's Academy, but it soon became one of the most famous works in the whole history of philosophy. Unfortunately it was not directly copied in the middle ages and so did not survive in its own manuscript tradition. But substantial fragments of it have been preserved in several works by Iamblichus of Chalcis, a third century A. On the basis of a close study of Iamblichus' extensive use and excerption of Aristotle's Protrepticus , it is possible to reconstruct the backbone of the lost work, and then to flesh it out with the other surviving reports about the work from antiquity for example in Alexander of Aphrodisias and other ancient commentators on Aristotle. It is also possible to identify several papyrus fragments of the work, and many references and literary allusions in later authors, especially Cicero, whose own lost dialogue Hortensius was a defense of philosophy modeleld on Aristotle's. In , we began a project to reconstruct the lost work by reevaluating all the possible sources of evidence for it. We post regular updates about the project on our blog , where you can access a quick introduction to the project.


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