Nagel on Aristotle on identifying with the ‘highest part of ourselves’

What is the ergon of human beings, asks Thomas Nagel in his essay on Aristotle’s eudaimonia, for the answer to the question of how to live hangs on this. The ergon (function) of the hammer is to pound in nails; a poor hammer may be too heavy to wield, too flimsy, too poor at pound in nails, etc.; a good hammer may  even be called perfect if it pounds in nails most excellently. But what of the ergon of human beings?

As Nagel reads Aristotle, the function of humans cannot be what we share in common with plants or animals (or angels). Locomotion, for instance, we share in common with animals, but analyzing human beings in terms of locomotion would not help us to understand in what eudaimonia (human flourishing) might consist. Survival and reproduction are other erga, but these too we share with animals. In neither case do we have the distinct ergon without which it remains vague what will make human living matter. (To see the force of this point, imagine providing food and shelter for your children. You can do so and, as a parent, it would be the right thing to do, but yet what would be the point of raising children well?)

Among Aristotle scholars, there has continued to be debate about how to square Aristotle’s case for the moral virtues, which are at home in the political community, with his ‘intellectualist’ case that human beings should seek to transcend their worldly status. Does Aristotle, in the end, give us a worldly vision, a contemplative vision, or some admixture? Nagel’s conclusion is that Aristotle plumbs for the intellectualist view.

Aristotle believes, in short, that human life [those aspects, in other words, concerned with reproduction, survival, and securing reproduction and survival] is not important enough for humans to spend their lives on. A person should seek to transcend not only his individual practical concerns but also those of society or humanity as a whole.

Nagel later:

The imperfections of applications of reason to practical matters is that these applications make human life the primary object of rational attention, whereas with reason man has become the only creature capable of concentrating on what is higher than himself and thereby sharing in it to some extent. His time is, so to speak, too valuable to waste on anything so insignificant as human life.

Nicely summarizes:

We must identify with the highest part of ourselves rather than with the whole. The other functions, including the practical employment of reason itself, provides support for the highest form of activity but do not enter into our proper excellence as primary component factors. This is because men are not simply the most complex species of animal but possess as their essential nature a capacity to transcend themselves and become like gods. It is in virtue of this capacity that they are capable of eudaimonia….

For a program whose goal is to identify with the highest part of oneself, see Plotinus….

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