On the Opposition Between Good and Bad in Aristotle

On social media some contrast Donald Trump’s alleged courage in ordering the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles against Syrian government targets with Barack Obama’s cowardly inaction to do anything similar against the Syrian government. Yesterday the New School’s Public Seminar published a critical response to this comparison. The commentator, Michael Weinman, turns to Aristotle’s practical philosophy, specifically Aristotle’s description of courage as the mean between the extremes of recklessness and cowardice, to undermine the contrast. The problem is that there is a flagrant error in Weinman’s account of Aristotelian ethics. It’s just false to say that for Aristotle “courage is not the opposite of cowardice”. As a mean and as a virtue, that’s precisely the relation courage has to cowardice, namely it’s the opposite of cowardice. More on Trump’s idiocy later.

Categories 10-11 contradicts the premise of this post. For Aristotle every contrary is an opposite, though not every opposite is a contrary. Here is what I mean. At Categories 10 (11b15), Aristotle distinguishes four kinds of opposition (ἀντικείμενα) (cf. Topics II 8, V 6, Metaphysics Iota, 1054a20f., 1055a38, 1057a33). (1) Correlatives (τὰ πρός τι, 11b24), e.g. double and half or knowledge and what is knowable, are named what they are in virtue of their opposition or relation to one another. (2) The second kind of opposition is that of contraries (τὰ ἐναντία, 11b38), e.g. sickness and health, good and bad, odd and even, etc. Aristotle makes an important distinction between two types of contrariety. Firstly, if one or the other contrary naturally occurs for a thing, or if it is necessary to predicate one or the other contrary for the things that they naturally occur in, then there can be “no intervening condition” (τὸ ἀνὰ μέσον, cf. Metaphysics 1057a29 for Aristotle’s different terminology = τὸ μεταξὺ] between the contraries, since one or the other contrary must belong. This applies to the contraries of sickness and health with respect to animal bodies, or odd and even with respect to whole numbers, between which there can be no intervening condition. On the other hand, if one or the other does not naturally belong to a given thing, or if it is not necessary to predicate one or the other contrary to a given thing, e.g. that a cup be white or black, then there is an intervening condition ([τι] τὸ ἀνὰ μέσον) between the contraries. For contraries of this sort, reciprocal change from one contrary to the other is possible, e.g. from good to bad or from bad to good – unless one side of the pair of contraries belongs to something by nature (13a17), e.g. hot belongs to fire.

The possibility of reciprocal change between contraries is foreclosed for the (3) third kind of opposition: privation/state (στέρησις καὶ ἕξις), being deprived or not having and having a given feature. These opposites are said in relation to the same thing, that is, with respect to whatever the possession naturally occurs in (ἐν ᾧ ἡ ἕξις πέφυκε γίνεσθαι). In Categories 10, Aristotle stipulates that change is not reciprocal for this third kind of opposition, for the “one who has gone blind does not recover sight nor does a bald man regain his hair nor does a toothless man grow new ones.” Change takes place from state to privation, but not from privation to state. The reason for this non-reciprocal and uni-directional degenerating change follows from Aristotle’s simple conception of privation in the Categories:

“We say that anything capable of receiving a possession is deprived of it when it is totally absent from that which naturally has it or at the time when it is natural for it to have it.” Ἐστερῆσθαι δὲ τότε λέγομεν ἕκαστον τῶν τῆς ἕξεως δεκτικῶν, ὅταν ἐν ῷ πέφυκεν ὑπάρχειν καὶ ὅτε πέφυκεν ἔχειν μηδαμῶς ὑπάρχῃ. 12a26

This conception of privation is narrow in at least two fundamental two ways. First, it limits privation to natural capacites such that a plant cannot be said to be deprived of ears, since plants do not (at any time) naturally have ears. Second, Aristotle conceives of privation as a total state of privation, even for that moment in time or development when a given thing does not yet possess what it might naturally come to possess: “since if it is not yet natural for something to have sight it is not said either to be blind or to have sight, so that these [the opposites of state/privation] would not be contraries of the sort that have nothing intermediate between them” (13a3). For the kind of contrary that has no “intervening condition” (e.g. even and odd or sickness and health), it is necessary for one or the contrary to belong to that which is capable of receiving them (e.g. whole numbers). Furthermore, Aristotle denies the possibility of an intervening condition for this oppositon, to emphasize that this (3) kind of opposition is not in any way the same as the (2) opposition of contrariety – that goes for contraries with intervening conditions and those contraries without intervening conditions. In contrast to those contraries without intervening conditions, Aristotle introduces an important temporal qualification that distinguishes the mode of natural necessity that belongs to privation/state from the mode of natural necessity that belongs to the opposition of contrariety without intervening conditions. Aristotle notes that when, or at a time when, it is natural for a thing to have a certain feature, either it necessarily has that feature or it necessarily does not have it. This mode of natural necessity however is based on a more fundamental contingency, for it will be necessary as chance will have it. Moreover, the mode of contingent necessity distinguishes the opposition of privation/state from those contraries with intervening conditions, for those there is never any necessity or any temporal qualification for the one or the other contrary to belong. Finally, (4) the fourth and last kind of opposition is affirmation and negation (κατάφασις καὶ ἀπόφασις), e.g. ‘he is sitting’ and ‘he is not sitting’. For this kind of opposition, it is always necessary (ἀναγκαῖον ἀεὶ) for the one opposite to be either true or false; for no other form of opposition is this always the case. “Nothing that is said without combination is true or false; and all the above [the three other kinds of opposition] are said without combination.” Aristotle renames this mode of opposition as “contradiction” (ἀντίφασις) in Metaphysics Iota 4 1055a20, but this is not the only change that he makes to his fourfold theory of opposition.

In short, this means that for Aristotle every state of contrariety is an opposition. At Categories 11: “what is contrary to a good thing is necessarily a bad; *this is obvious by induction from cases – health and sickness, justice and injustice, courage and cowardice, and so on …” Since courage is the contrary of cowardice, courage must also be the opposite of cowardice. This is basic Aristotle.

While Weiman does grant contrariety — “Courage, the virtue, is contrary to both rashness and cowardice” — from that correct admission he draws the absurd conclusion that the virtue of courage “is not opposed to either of them”, that is, to either vice! Once again, it is patently false to say that a given thing is contrary to another thing and then to deny the oppositional character of that contrary. Why is this absurd? It holds that virtue (qua good and qua mean) is not opposed to vice (qua bad and qua non-mean = excess and/or deficiency). This is not an Aristotelian reflection.

The lesson applied here to correct the accusations of Obama’s cowardly inaction and Trump’s courageous action is therefore misplaced. In fact, why assume that the emotional response of fear is relevant in this situation, and not desire (for honor), pity, anger, pleasure or pain (esp. indignation)? The premise of the entire discussion of the U.S.’s response to Syria in terms of courage/cowardice seems far-fetched and preposterous: is fear really the relevant emotion in our judgment of  Trump’s decisions with respect to Syria. Fear of what, exactly? (this is not to deny the reaction of fear in Trump or Obama, or others in either administration advising POTUS). More relevant than fear or courage, it seems to me, in the decisions to engage in military action is the issue of justice, i.e. those legal norms within the U.S. that sanction military action and those norms of international war regulating acts of aggression between nation states.  An Aristotelian reflection could begin there. Legal theorists weigh in on Trump’s Syrian strikes here.

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