Two Conceptions of Physis in Aristotle¡¯s Ethics and Politics[1]


Julie K Ward



¡°The virtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature; we are naturally able to receive them but they are brought to completion by habit¡± (EN, 1103a25-25).



I. Introduction


Aristotle¡¯s analysis of  physis  or ¡°nature¡± marks a high point in ancient Greek thought about nature and the natural that begins with the Ionians in the 6th century B.C.E..  As one of the most influential accounts of nature in Western philosophy, Aristotle¡¯s theory is that with which later thinkers in the medieval and modern periods have to contend.  Setting aside its historical impact, an initial difficulty involves drawing the lines of the theory precisely insofar as physis appears in a range of works including physics, biology, metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Some clarification among the uses is gained in the scientific works where he finds one sense of physis as signifying what he considers to be the central or fundamental instance (Phys. II. 1, Meta. V.7 ).  To put the matter non-technically,  physis is that principle which accounts for the progressive changes that a subject undergoes in its development toward some specific end, as for example, what occurs to an acorn in becoming an oak tree.   As Aristotle sees it, physis is an internal principle of change of a living thing that explains its capacity to undergo alteration while retaining its species identity (Phys. 193b21-22). In this sense, Aristotle¡¯s notion of nature compares to the modern biological conception insofar as it refers to an internal set of capacities for change arising from the species or kind to which an individual belongs.   Extrapolating from his view in the scientific works, one may suggest that a thing¡¯s nature provides an explanation or reason for which a living thing follows a path toward some end, like the acorn growing into an oak.  Since the path that the living thing follows in the familiar biological examples is relatively determinate, and its end is fixed in relation to the species, the notion of nature appears to be static.  In these cases, it seems that the nature of a thing explains all that is necessary for the living thing to attain its required final state, or end.   When we turn to examine what Aristotle has to say about nature in the ethical and political treatises, the results are not in line with what he has said in the physical works – and given Aristotle¡¯s penchant for working through views to arrive at one favored, correct view on a topic, this result comes as a surprise.  


The fundamental difficulty in importing the understanding of physis from the scientific to the practical works is that the central texts in the ethics and politics resist this conception – and even seem to contradict it.  Whether we begin with Nicomachean Ethics II. 1 concerning what moral virtue is and how it is attained, or turn to texts in the Politics about the acquisition of political virtue and why women, slaves and barbarians are unable to achieve full virtue, we do not find an analogous notion of nature undergirding these discussions.  To put the matter more bluntly, the account of nature in the practical works appears to reverse and undermine the view of nature in the scientific works.  To begin with, the notion of a nature that is fully adequate as an explanation for a thing attaining its end seems absent in the practical works where possession of physis is far from sufficient for explaining how the goal of moral and political virtue is reached. This initial finding seems remarkable: is Aristotle nodding? Or does he, perhaps, apply the same term, physis, in different contexts with different senses such that we cannot reasonably expect a coherent account across its occurrences?  In this case, physis would have to be considered to be homonymous by accident– a term signifying various different things, such as the English ¡°bank¡± meaning, among other things, a river¡¯s edge or a financial institution.   After textual re-consideration, my working hypothesis is that Aristotle intends the discussion of physis in the practical works to constitute a coherent whole with that in the scientific works, but, for reasons that I will develop, the goal often eludes his grasp.  As I see it, while it appears that the practical works introduce a different conception of nature from that in the Physics and Metaphysics, it would be more accurate to observe that the Ethics and Politics develop a more complex account of nature as it relates to human moral development.  As will become clear, this examination of physis in the practical works is not without its difficulties.  In what follows, I set out the two conceptions of nature, and outline a way in which the two views may be found to be related.  I shall suggest that the more complicated analysis of natures and natural changes emerges in the  practical works, and that this analysis appears to arise from a dual perspective about human nature and its capacity for moral and political virtue.   




II. Physis in the Physics, Metaphysics


The notion of  physis perhaps most familiar to us in Aristotle is that which he employs in Physics II. 1 to differentiate ¡°natural¡± things from artifacts.  There he states that animals, their parts, plants, as well as the simple bodies (i.e., the four elements) are ¡°due to nature¡± (192b8-12).  The differentiating characteristic of natural from artificial things consists in that ¡°each has in itself a source of change and of staying unchanged, whether in respect of place, growth, decay or alteration¡± (192b13-15).  Furthermore, having a nature is identified with something having an internal principle of change that belongs to the thing in virtue of itself  (192b21-22): this internal principle is that which distinguishes plants, animals, and humans from non-natural things, like artifacts, which lack such a principle.  For, although artifacts are susceptible of change, such as  change of place, they are capable of such motion only by being acted upon by an external source, say, as a stick moves a stone (192b27-33).  The fact that some things are capable of moving themselves as well as capable of other complex ways modes of change such as growth is thus explained by their possession of a physis, an internal principle that guides and restricts change so as to lead to the specific telos, or completed state of the thing. 


The more technical end of the discussion in Physics II. 1 is to organize the various notions of physis that he enumerates here into one coherent whole.  The three main senses of ¡°nature¡± he includes in the present list are: (i) the source and cause [arche] of what changes and what remains unchanged in a thing (192b20-23), (ii) the shape and form [eidos] of a thing (193a30-31), and (iii) the end [telos] toward which something moves and changes (193b12-13).  Seeking to find some inter-relation among these uses, Aristotle suggests that the source and cause of the changes of a thing and the end of the thing is explained by physis as form (eidos). Nature-as-form is that which guides the changes that a thing experiences in the development toward its completed state (193b17-18).  Thus, he explains the activity of physis by drawing a connection between its use as ¡°cause¡± or ¡°source of change¡± and its use as ¡°end¡± of a thing.  These two senses of physis are linked by means of the third notion, ¡°form,¡± which is given as the explanatory basis for the other two.  In this way, physis signifies the dynamic form of the living thing, the potentiality of the living thing to become actualized in the capacities proper to it.  In Physics II. 1, then, nature is an internal source of change directed toward an end that is determined by the form of the thing.  Given this conception of nature, we may conclude that physis refers to what is causally sufficient for producing a certain actualized state.


Supporting evidence for the conception of physis from Physics II. 1 emerges from an examination of Metaphysics Delta –  Aristotle¡¯s philosophical lexicon – where Aristotle sets out in detail all the senses of physis available to him. More specifically, what we find in Metaphysics Delta, 4 (V. 4) is an extensive list of senses of ¡°nature¡± overlapping with that in Physics II. 1, and an explanation of the inter-relation among the various notions.[2]  In Delta, 4, Aristotle enumerates six meanings of physis, importantly adding the notions of substance (ousia) and matter to the list developed in Book II. 1of the Physics. [3]  In this discussion, Aristotle connects nature with substance (ousia), form (eidos), and end (telos).  He states that nature is ¡°form, or substance, and this is the end of their coming to be¡±  (to eidos kai he ousia: touto d¡¯esti to telos tes geneseos,1015a-10-11).  Since physis refers to the form and substance of a thing, and since this is identified with its end, a natural thing has its physis properly speaking when it has reached the end of its process of coming to be.  As in Physics II, 1, he forges a connection between physis as a thing¡¯s form and substance (eidos, ousia) and its end (telos).[4]

The technical reduction of the various ways of speaking about physis to one central way is undertaken in the last section of Delta, 4. At this point, Aristotle says that from what has been said about physis, there is one ¡°primary¡± (protos) and ¡°precise¡± (kurios) way of speaking about physis and this is as ¡°substance (ousia) of things having in them as such a source of motion¡± (101513-15). The analysis of many ways of speaking about physis is thus introduced: in what follows, he gives a kind of reduction of secondary instances of nature to a primary instance which is ¡°substance.¡± According to the terms of the reductive analysis, ¡°substance¡± is mentioned in each of the secondary definitions of nature, showing that substance is logically presupposed by the other notions. He demonstrates this strategy (pros hen, or ¡°focal¡± analysis) by linking the accounts of the secondary instances to the primary notion (viz., substance) so that each secondary account refers back to one core meaning of  physis.[5]  More precisely, each secondary account of nature mentions ¡°substance¡± and adds some qualification so as to differentiate it with regard to the other secondary accounts. Thus, the focal analysis of physis is accompanied by three accounts of secondary things called ¡°nature.¡± In the first, he says that hule, or matter, is called ¡°nature¡± because it is capable of receiving the thing¡¯s substance (1015a15-16); in the second, he notes that the processes of coming to be and growth are called ¡°nature¡± because they are derived from the thing¡¯s substance (1015a16-17).[6] Finally, he claims that being an arche of motion belongs to (or, ¡°is present in¡±) the substance of natural things (1015a17-20).  In this manner, Aristotle accomplishes the focal reduction of the secondary definitions of ¡°nature¡± to a primary one, ¡°substance.¡±  The definition of matter counts as a derived account of nature because its definition refers to substance (ousia), and substance is what Aristotle finds to be the primary instance of nature.[7] In another case, generation and growth are said to be nature in the sense that substance is said to be ¡°that from which¡± the changes proceed (1015a16-17) and again, the definition of the natural changes mentions substance, which is primary to all the accounts of nature.[8]  The third derived case, nature as source (arche) is defined so that substance is the internal source (arche) of change (either potential or actual) belonging to natural things. In this case, too,  substance is identified as the primary item in the definition of nature.  So, Aristotle provides a specific kind of organization among the various meanings, or instances, of ¡°nature¡± (given in the initial list at 1014b16-1015b5).


As has become apparent, what we find in the three derived or secondary instances of physis is that substance is referred to within the account of each one (also, the notion of substance is presupposed by each of the secondary notions).  He demonstrates the strategy of ¡°focal¡± relation by linking the accounts of the secondary instances to the primary notion by employing ousia or substance as the part of the explanatory meanings of the other senses of physis.[9]  Each secondary account of nature mentions ¡°substance¡± and adds some qualification so as to differentiate it from the other secondary accounts. Thus, ¡°matter¡± is called nature because it is capable of receiving the thing¡¯s substance; coming to be and growth are called nature because they are derived from the thing¡¯s substance; and finally, a source of motion is called nature because it belongs to the substance of natural things.


Two points may be made about Aristotle¡¯s consideration of nature in Meta. V. 4, and Phys. II. 1.  First, he finds that the primary or core meaning of physis as substance (ousia) points to ¡°substance qua form¡± of the living thing.[10]  Second, Aristotle takes this understanding of nature, as ¡°substance qua form,¡± in two ways: either as a potential innate power to move the living thing through its various stages to its end, or with the actual power of the mature thing to perform its functions. In one conception, nature as substantial form is understood as the internal principle of change that drives the development of the compound thing in an unidirectional fashion toward a pre-determined end.  On the other, nature is that which accounts for the activities of the developed, mature living thing. On neither account is nature considered as liable to be thwarted by other causes so as to render its action ineffective.  Yet, as we shall see, this conception of nature cannot be fully correct when we come to the ethics and politics– because if this conception of nature held, women, slaves, and barbarians would have the same natural moral capacities as free men, and yet he denies this.  Thus, we need to inquire what kinds of natures and natural capacities are involved in terms of moral and political capacities, and why Aristotle seems to reverse his teaching about nature in the scientific works when he comes to discuss moral and political capacities in the Ethics and Politics.




III. Physis in the Ethics and Politics


We turn now to examine Aristotle¡¯s conception of nature and the natural in his practical works. There are three main texts about nature that require examination in the Politics, and one in the Nicomachean Ethics (henceforth, EN). Let us begin with the latter work.  Book II, chapter 1 of the EN opens with claim that is at once familiar and yet perplexing: it states that becoming morally good (ethike arete) is not achieved by nature, but produced by habituation (ex ethous) and training (1103a17-20).  While the idea that moral virtue is attained by ethical practice is common to students of the Ethics, the denial that virtue is reached by means of nature is surely puzzling. For how could we become morally good if this conflicts with human nature? As the passage unfolds, we see that Aristotle¡¯s argument about reaching moral virtue consists in two parts.  In the first part (1103a19-26), he claims that if something has a natural tendency towards an end, no amount of ¡°habituation,¡± or practice, can change the tendency: thus, a stone¡¯s natural tendency to move downwards is not contrarily affected by throwing it upwards repeatedly (1103a20-21).  Nor can fire be trained to move downwards contrary to its natural tendency (1103a22).  In contrast to the natural potentiality of the elements to produce a single effect, he thinks that the process of reaching moral virtue is ¡°neither by nature nor contrary to nature¡± (oute phusei oute para phusei): he states that we are naturally capable of moral virtue, but that the virtues are brought to completion in us through habituation (1103a24-25). Unlike the stone whose single natural tendency is to move downwards and this cannot be effected by throwing it upwards, we possess dual natural tendency: we may become virtuous or the contrary, vicious.  This is why he argues that we become morally excellent only through such a process of habitual training.  In the second part of the argument (1103a26-b2), he draws a further contrast about kinds of natures by demarcating the capacity for moral virtue from the capacity for sense-perception.  Both capacities are in some way ¡°natural,¡± and yet their realization is quite different since we do not have to be trained in order to see, as Aristotle puts it.  This passage in EN II. 1 will be re-visited for further study in a subsequent section; for the present, suffice it to say that moral virtue is not the result of a simple natural process, as the stone falling to the earth, and in this respect, the contribution of nature to fully realized moral virtue appears to be secondary in relation to moral training.


Another set of passages concerning moral virtue and nature comes from the Politics, one passage discusses the natures of women and slaves (A), another, the natures of barbarians (B), and the third, the roots of moral excellence(C).  In each one, Aristotle states or implies some claim about the causal power of nature in relation to moral virtue.


(A)  In Bk. I of Politics, Aristotle justifies in-egalitarian rule and subjection by arguing that free women and slaves (both men and women) are unable to deliberate and should be ruled in a ¡°political¡± or a ¡°despotic¡± manner by men who can deliberate (Politics I. 13).10  I am not at present concerned with these claims specifically,11 but with what underlies them – the idea that both free women and slaves (both men and women) are different from free men by nature. For, according to Aristotle, although free women and slaves have the same parts of the soul as free men, each possesses these parts differently (1260a10-12).  More precisely, Aristotle states that women possess the faculty of deliberation, but it is ¡°without authority¡± (akuron, 1260a13), whereas natural slaves do not possess the faculty at all (1260a12-13).12   In spite of an overall similarity of psychology, free women and slaves differ from free men by a lack in deliberative capacity.  This psychological discrepancy proves to be pivotal insofar as Aristotle considers the variance in deliberative capacity to imply different ¡°natural capacities.¡±  Regarded from the perspective of having or lacking deliberation, then, women and slaves possess different ¡°natures¡± from free men.  Let me pause here: Aristotle is not saying that free women and slaves differ in species from free men for all possess the same species-form.13  Since human beings share the same species-form, the cause for the difference in capacities is not a result of differing kinds of species-form, but to some other cause, or causes, the full consideration of which lies outside the confines of the present paper.14  Here I am concerned to focus upon texts where Aristotle marks off so-called ¡°natural¡± political differences between free men, women, and slaves.  At various points throughout Bk. I,  he claims that the male ¡°is by nature more capable of command than the female¡± (1259b1-2), or is ¡°by nature superior¡± to the female (1254b13-14).15  As he sees it, men are more capable of command by nature than women are, and so, they ought to rule women in a ¡°political¡± manner, where this excludes sharing rule with them as typical of political ruling (arche politike, 1259b1-10).  The contrast between the natures of male citizens and natural slaves consists in that natural slaves are neither free nor able to deliberate at all; so, he argues, it is just that free men rule natural slaves in the asymmetrical manner termed ¡°despotic rule¡± (arche despotike, 1254b3-4, 1259a37-38).  Neither female citizens nor natural slaves ought to participate in ruling, rather, both classes ought to be ruled in one manner or another because they possess different natural capacities from citizen men.16 


In this set of passages, we have seen that Aristotle draws a line between the natures of free women and slaves on the one hand, and free men on the other.  For Aristotle has said that ¡°men are naturally more capable of command than women¡± (1259b1-2), and that slaves are unable to deliberate and so, command at all (1260a12-13).  To these passages, we must now add a text from Politics VII.7 concerning the natural dispositions of certain non-Greeks, those people traditionally referred to by the Greeks as ¡°barbarians¡± (barbaroi). 


 (B) The text in VII. 7 centers around the idea that the natural characteristics needed for good citizens include ¡°spiritedness¡± and ¡°intelligence,¡± as one observes from Greek cities and other non-Greek peoples (cf. 1327b3-37).  However, when Aristotle considers the so-called barbarians from Europe or Asia, he notes that they tend to lack one characteristic or the other due to differences arising from variations in the climate.17  As he sees it, Europeans, living in a cold climate, tend to possess a wild, ungovernable disposition that is antithetical to living in a polis, whereas Asians, living in a very warm climate, tend to possess a timid, servile disposition that makes them prone to succumbing to tyrannical rule (1327b25-28).   In contrast, he states that Greeks, living in a temperate climate, possess the right combination of the two qualities and so, has the best political institutions (1327b28-30). In this passage, he forges a line of separation between Greeks and non-Greeks based upon cultural and what might be considered to be ¡°ethnic¡± differences, on the whole finding Greek men to be temperamentally better suited to becoming good citizens than either Europeans or Asians.   


Taken together, the texts we examined in Ethics II, and Politics I and VII suggest that Aristotle draws a distinction between the natures of free Greek women, slaves and barbarians on the one side, and free Greek men, on the other side.  The resulting picture emerging from these texts shows that moral virtue requires training and habituation, and that natural capacities alone are insufficient for moral excellence and good citizenship.  In addition, the texts reflect the view that humans possessing certain kinds of natures (women, slaves, barbarians) cannot expect to develop the proper capacities so as to become fully virtuous as free Greek men may become. In this regard, then, it would appear that free Greek men, in contrast with free women, slaves, and barbarians, possess the right kind of nature to become good citizens.  There is surely textual reason to claim as much, and yet, the full text in VII. 7 about barbarians and Greeks yields further complexity relating to male nature.  As it turns out, even Greek men do not share the same starting point in respect of their natural capacities to be trained to the virtues.  According to the end of Pol. VII. 7, Aristotle finds that only some men have the right kind of natural temperament for citizenship, being ¡°well-blended¡± in regard to intelligence and spiritedness. Others are like the Asian or European barbarians whom he faults for being ¡°one-sided in nature¡± (ten phusin monokolon, 1327b35), having one quality dominate at the expense of the others (1327b33-36).  This characterization leads him to conclude that barbarians altogether and some Greeks exhibit a deficiency in temperament that makes them unable to be ruled politically (1327b20-29).  With this passage, we find a further distinction drawn among the groups of men, and so, among male natures.  An initial examination of passages about ¡°nature¡± and ¡°natural capacities¡± in the Politics and Ethics reveals that Aristotle distinguishes among natures: (i) by political class, as in free male citizen, free women, or slaves, (ii) by gender, as male or female,  (iii) by culture, as in Greek or barbarian, and also (iv) by natural masculine dispositions, as spirited or intelligent, among Greek or barbarian men. 


(C) The third text also illustrates the tension in between nature and moral virtue.  In this passage

from Politics VII. 12, Aristotle distinguishes three bases for moral virtue. In answer to the question, ¡°How does a man become virtuous (spoudaios)?¡± he replies that:

¡°There are, in fact, three things by which men become good (agathoi) and virtuous (spoudaioi).  These three things are nature (physis), habit (ethos), and reason (logos).  (i) First, one must have a certain nature, for example, as a human being, and not another kind of animal, and so have a certain kind of body and soul. (ii) Some [capacities] are of no help to be born with (enia te outhen ophelos phunai) since our habits (ethe) make them change; some are by their nature ambiguous (dia tes phuseos epamphoterizonta, 1332b1-2), by habits [tending] either to the worse or to the better. (iii) Other animals live by nature (physis) most of all, though some in slight respects by habit (ethos) as well, but humans live also by reason (logos), for they alone possess reason, so these things should be made consonant with one another.  For many act in accordance with reason, contrary to their habits and to nature, if they are persuaded some other action is better¡± (1332a40-b7).  


According to VII. 12, there exist three distinct bases from which humans develop morally: nature (physis), habit (ethos), and reason (logos).  Concerning the role played by nature, Aristotle states that to be able to be morally good, one has to possess a human, not an animal, nature.  Furthermore, having a human nature means having a certain quality (poion tina) of body and soul (1332a41-42). However, certain natural capacities are not determinative insofar as habits can alter them: these natural capacities are described as being ¡°ambiguous in nature,¡± capable of being affected and changed by our habits (1332b1-3).  Finally, concerning reason, Aristotle states that humans alone live according to reason, and though it may be in harmony with the other factors, humans are capable of acting according to reason, contrary to nature and to habits (1332b5-7).


Let us consider these claims, especially those concerning nature, more closely.  We see that the contribution of physis in relation to moral virtue is two-fold: one must be human and not another kind of animal, and second, one must have a certain kind of body and a certain kind of soul. The condition about the body suggests that one has to have the right kind of body, perhaps one that is strong so as to be able to be the kind of agent who can act courageously, for example.  In addition, one has to have the right kind of soul for moral virtue.  But precisely what does this signify? One scholar has suggested that Aristotle is here excluding women and slaves from being virtuous on the basis that they are those described as deficient in deliberative capacity in Bk. I, 13 (1260a10 ff.). 18 But since women and slaves are not denied virtue completely,19 this reading only makes sense if we assume that Aristotle means that some people lack the kind of soul that has been informed by full moral virtue. But given this assumption, it would make no sense for him to assert in the same passage that nature can be overthrown by habit, or by reason (1332b1-2, b5-7).  Yet he does just this: first, Aristotle states that sometimes having a certain physis makes no difference because ¡°habits (ethe) make one change¡± (1332b1): some natural capacities are ¡°dual¡± or ambiguous in the sense that they have to be supplemented by habitual training so as to be fulfilled (1332b1-2). He continues that the ¡°dual tendency¡± of such capacities consists in the fact that they are sufficiently pliable that our habits move them for the better or the worse (1332b2-3).20 This remark accords well with his description of the moral virtues in EN II. 1 as ¡°arising neither by nature nor against nature¡± (1103a24-25).  Second, in the last section (1332b5-8), Aristotle suggests that reason can replace both physis and ethos in terms of achieving right action.  Here he claims that although the three factors (nature, habit, reason) can harmonize with one another, one sometimes acts ¡°contrary to one¡¯s habits and nature on the basis of reason¡± (1332b5-6).  He allows that if one reasons that some course of action is better than what is habitual or natural, one is not prevented from following it (1332b6-7).  So, this last line implies that logos can supercede either physis or ethos as a basis for right action.  In VII. 12, then, he has argued that nature, though necessary for virtue at some basic level, can be thwarted both by habit and by reason.  The conclusions here about the effects of nature, especially in contrast with the effects of habit and reason, suggest a comparison with the view of nature and moral virtue that was developed in EN II. 1.  Yet the conception of nature as a ¡°dual tendency¡± that figures in Politics VII and EN II stands at odds with the teleological view of nature,21 as well as its conception as substance qua form developed in Meta. V, 4.  By re-examining the passage in EN II about nature and moral virtue in conjunction with texts from De Anima and Metaphysics, we shall progress towards finding a solution to the conflicting uses of nature that we have been considering.




IV. Re-Examination of Physis in the Ethics and Politics


As we have seen, the practical works invoke physis in seemingly different and incompatible ways, especially in comparison with the central use described in Physics and Metaphysics .  I think that we may exclude the possibility that Aristotle knowingly employs one term with wholly distinct senses in different texts (which would save him from the fallacy of equivocation), for he gives no sign that he takes physis to be accidentally homonymous.  So, we must look for some way in which the various uses of physis are related to one another.  By returning to the explanation of moral virtue in the Ethics, we find a solution to some of the perplexities concerning nature.


We noted previously that in EN II. 1 Aristotle says that moral virtue is not present in us in the way that heaviness is in the stone.  Nor do we possess the moral virtues in the same way that we possess the natural capacities for sense-perception.  He argues that in the case of sense-perception, we naturally possess the potentiality for perception, and then simply exercise this potentiality when objects of perception are present.  Put another way, he claims that we use the senses because we have them; we do not have them because we use them (1103a26-29).  So, the natural capacity for perception contrasts with the natural capacity for moral virtue: for we possess moral virtue only once we have repeatedly practiced it, in the same manner as we acquire the arts (1103a31-32). Unlike sense-perception, the moral virtues are ¡°states¡± (hexeis) that have to be made effective or activated first by habituation: we become just by performing just actions, and temperate by temperate actions (1103a34-b1).   It is here in the space between being a potentiality for moral virtue and for sense-perception that we find the tools with which to construct a framework for the discussion.                                                                                                                                           


The distinction Aristotle draws between what is required to move from potentiality to actuality in the case of the standard natural capacities, like sight, and in the moral virtues suggests an ontological difference between the way in which we originally possess these capacities.  In the case of a standard natural ability, like the special sense capacity of sight, we know that sight moves from potentiality to actuality by the effect of sensible form, a specific color, acting on the sense organ and causing it to see (De Anima II. 12).  Prior to actually seeing, the sense capacity is already in an advanced state of potentiality (second potentiality or first actuality) so that when the sensible form acts upon the sense, the active exercise of sight results: now the perceiver actually is seeing (second level actuality), which is the ¡°completion¡± of the prior capacity to see (417a21-b1).  In the case of sight, as with all the modes of sense-perception, no qualitative change or alteration (alloiosis) is involved in the sense moving from potentiality to actuality (417b2-6).  In contrast, in the case of the moral virtues, it is implied that there must be an initial qualitative change in us through the mediation of habituation so that we are able to have the capacity to be actually good by exercising the virtues.  In all this, there is no mention of nature being able to supply the power by which we move from being not moral to being moral.


By supplying the distinction between potentiality and actuality from De Anima II. 5, I suggest the following: prior to moral habituation (in our childhood) we have a first potentiality for moral virtue: we have the capacity for moral virtue in the same way in which the unschooled child has the capacity to become literate (DA, 417a25-27). Once we have been habituated to act morally, we reach a second potentiality for moral excellence– this is similar to the capacity of the literate person to read ¡°as long as nothing external hinders¡± (DA, 417a27-28).  This picture makes sense of Aristotle¡¯s claim that while the virtues arise neither by nature nor contrary to nature, ¡°we are by nature able to acquire them, and reach our complete perfection through habituation¡± (1103a24-26).  Considered from the standpoint of the virtues in action, the line implies that human nature provides a kind of indeterminate foundation for the virtues which must be worked on and molded so as to become the kind of capacity that may be fully actualized.  More specifically, I am suggesting that what habituation accomplishes for the virtues at the ontological level is to effect a change from first level potentiality to a second level potentiality.  To begin with, human nature only provides a basic, inchoate potentiality for moral virtue – it only provides that we are the sort of animals that might become good.  Then, through the process of habituation, which takes time and is difficult, humans may become moral agents in the sense that they become subjects with moral habits and impulses: they attain the level of second potentiality, or first actuality, for moral virtue.  The actualization of this capacity, the capacity for exercising the moral virtues, is then brought about when the agent deliberates and chooses.  So, although the change effected by habituation depends upon a qualitative change (alloiosis) from the first potentiality nature to the second potentiality nature, once we have achieved a second potentiality or hexis, we need not undergo a qualitative change for this nature to become actualized.22 


This account of the way in which I have suggested that we possess the moral virtues prior to habituation and afterwards – as a first level potentiality and as a second level potentiality– is consistent with what Aristotle says about hexeis or habits in Physics VII. 3, as well as the kinds of potentiality distinguished in De Anima II. 5.  Using an example of the potentially knowing person, in DA II. 5 Aristotle states that the first level potentiality for knowledge, that which one has by belonging to a certain genus (417a27), must undergo an alteration or qualitative change (alloiosis) through instruction in order to reach the second level potentiality for knowledge (417a30-31).  However, to move from a second level potentiality to an actuality, from the capacity for knowledge to knowing (i.e., thinking something), the transition consists in another kind of change: the transition is not an ¡°alteration,¡± strictly speaking, for this involves the destruction of one thing by a contrary (417b2-3); it is, rather, ¡°a preservation of what is potentially present¡± (417b3-4).  Aristotle describes the latter kind of change as ¡°a progression into itself and into actuality¡± (eis auto gar he epidosis kai eis entelexeian, 417b6-7).  Reading the progression from undeveloped moral capacity to full virtue along the lines of cognitive progression described in DA II. 5 accords with two critical points that Aristotle makes about hexeis, or dispositions, in Phys. VII. 3: first, habits, whether physical or mental, are not ¡°alterations,¡± some are vices and others, excellences (246a10-11); second, although the moral virtues considered as habits are not ¡°alterations,¡± certain parts of the sensitive faculty have to undergo ¡°alteration¡± for the virtues of character to come into being (247a4-7).  Aristotle¡¯s argument is that since moral virtue involves physical pleasure and pain, it requires alterations (alloioseis) of the sensitive faculty; this is why moral virtue or vice is achieved through a process of alteration (246a16-18).23  Thus, the distinction between the first and second potentialities and actuality of cognitive states in DA II. 5 is effective in filling out the process of moral habituation  in the Ethics.  Further, the mode of acquiring moral virtue in EN II involves habituation about which we learn more in Physics VII. 3.  As we have seen in EN II. 1, prior to any moral habituation, our natural capacity is undetermined: we are not in the same state with respect to the moral virtues that stone or fire is with respect to their natural tendencies to go downwards or upwards .  Rather, prior to moral habituation, we are simply able by nature to become either good or bad agents. The description of ¡°nature¡± in EN II, therefore, might be considered as signifying what one scholar has termed ¡°mere nature¡± in the sense of supplying ¡°the basic material of human beings [which] can be developed in quite opposite directions.¡±24                   


In addition to the fundamental nature implied in Ethics II. 1, the Physics passage states that moral agents will undergo an ¡°alteration¡± through the process of habituation so as to reach the level of full moral virtue (that described in EN VI.13, for example).  So, from the EN and Physics passages together, I think that we may describe the process of moral habituation as a kind of alteration that transforms the first level potentiality for virtue given by human nature as such to a second level potentiality, the functional capacity for virtue.  After moral habituation, we possess a second level potentiality for moral virtue: we possess virtue as a stable disposition, meaning that we can exercise our capacity for virtue, as long as nothing external hinders.  The parallel with the change in cognitive levels (as in DA II. 5) persists in the final transition as well, for in exercising the second level potentiality for moral virtue by performing fine actions, the change to the active exercise of the virtues may equally be considered a ¡°preservation and a progression¡± of moral habituation, and not an alteration.  The account of moral habituation in Ethics II places relatively little weight on the role played by physis at the outset; as Aristotle has it, neither the moral nor the intellectual virtues can be realized unless a prior qualitative change has taken place that alters the underlying natural capacity.  In the case of the moral virtues, the change is effected by habituation, in that of the intellectual virtues, by learning.  In the Ethics, then, he places more emphasis upon the training of the virtuous character as the antecedent of the active exercise of the virtues, rather than upon the original natural capacity which is remote from full virtue.25  As we have seen, this conception of nature as merely a basic starting point for virtuous character is common to both the Ethics and Politics.  From this perspective, original human nature is incapable of providing the fixed end of moral virtue and in this respect, human nature itself must be considered inadequate as the moving or formal cause of moral virtue. 


Finally, it must be noted that Aristotle possesses a theoretical basis upon which to ground the distinction between the ideas of nature in Ethics Bk. II and Phys. Bk. II and Meta. Bk. V.  The basis concerns what he refers to as ¡°rational capacities,¡± which figure as a species of capacities, but are different from other natural capacities in significant respects. 




V. Rational Capacities and Moral Virtues


A suggestion as to what sort of things moral capacities are arises from his discussion of  capacities (hexeis) in Metaphysics, Theta, 2, and 5. In Theta, 5, Aristotle distinguishes between two types of capacities:


¡°Since all capacities are either innate, like the senses, or are acquired by practice, like flute-playing, or by study, as in the arts, some [capacities] such as are acquired by practice or by reason we can only have by previous exercise, while for others which are not of this kind and imply being affected, it is not necessary¡± (1047b31-35). 


Aristotle goes on to describe the difference between what he terms ¡°rational¡± and ¡°non-rational¡± capacities.  Briefly, a non-rational capacity is the kind that can produce one outcome only: when an agent comes into contact with a potency in the patient, immediately, the patient is acted upon (1048a5-8).  For example, Aristotle says that heat can only produce heat (1046b6).  In contrast, a rational capacity is capable of producing contrary effects, just as the medical art can produce either health or disease (1046b6-7), implying that the doctor having knowledge of the medical art can either heal or harm the patient.  Aristotle claims that, in the case of rational capacities, an additional faculty, either desire (orexis) or rational choice (proairesix) (1048a10-11) and not the capacity itself, determines which contrary comes about. For example, when an animal desires something ¡°decisively¡± (kurios) (1048a12), and has the capacity to act, it will act in pursuit of the desired object (1018a13-15).  On the present account, given that an agent has a rational capacity to act on something, the deciding factor in the outcome of the potentiality is the presence of the strongest desire or rational wish.26


Rational capacities can produce one of two contrary effects when they are acted upon, whereas non-rational capacities produce but a single effect when they are acted upon.  What determines which of the two effects a rational capacity produces is not internal to the capacity but is something external, a faculty like desire or rational choice (1048a10-11).  So, by nature rational capacities are more open-ended, or ¡°plastic¡± than non-rational capacities are in the sense that rational capacities do not produce a single outcome necessarily.  This conclusion is consistent with the passages we mentioned with regard to ¡°natural capacities¡± in Ethics and Politics where Aristotle is discussing the capacities for moral virtue and for political ability.  For, insofar as we consider the ability to become morally good from the standpoint of a natural capacity, the outcome is weakly determined at best.  This is because moral excellence as a stable disposition depends primarily upon the exercise of virtues so as to produce the state of character (hexis). As Aristotle claims in Theta, 5, ¡°the capacities that are acquired by practice or by reason we must acquire by previous exercise¡± (1047b33-34). 




VI. Conclusion: Nature, Habituation, and Virtue


The bulk of the passages about nature from EN and Politics suggest that in the realm of human action and moral virtue, the provisions of physis are inadequate and must be supplemented by social intervention, moral education, and the like.  The leading text about nature in this regard is EN Bk. II where perfected moral virtues are not strictly speaking natural capacities, but are states attained by the process of habituation which has effected a qualitative change from the prior state so as to become a second level potentiality.  This conclusion is also borne out by additional texts in Politics such as from Pol. VII. 13 showing that ethos and logos together can qualify, limit, or even negate the influence of human physis on moral virtue.  In these texts from Ethics and Politics, the effects of natural capacities are limited insofar as nature appears as a first potentiality that must be augmented or changed in some way so as to reach the proper end.  Additional support for this picture about the inadequacy of original human nature in relation to achieving full moral virtue is to be found in passages throughout the Politics concerning ways in which the human soul or nature is said to be affected by occupation, training, and endeavor.  For example, Aristotle thinks that citizens should not have to perform any kind of manual labor, and he excludes all laborers including skilled artisans, merchants, and farmers from being citizens in the best city.  In fact, Aristotle describes manual laborers as ¡°servile¡± (andrapododes, 1277a35), ¡°coarse¡± (phortikos, 1342a20), and ¡°base¡± (banausos, 1319a26, 1328b39).  The point is that, aside from faulting their moral character, (e.g.,1319a26-28; 1328b33-1329a2), Aristotle condemns forms of manual labor because he thinks that they do not allow for virtue.27  For example, in VII. 9 he states that occupations involving manual labor do not support sufficient skole, leisure, which is required to develop moral virtue and deliberate about public matters.28  It also becomes clear in Pol. V that Aristotle finds a correlation between occupations, social institutions, and moral character.  Indeed, if there were no effects upon character from manual labor, there would be no reason for his explicit warning against citizens in the ideal polis taking up the  trades, commerce, farming, or other ¡°base¡± activities (VII. 9, 1328b37-1329a2).  So, if occupations had no effect on the qualities of character, there would be no logic to his descriptions in Politics V. 9 about the effect of bad social institutions upon citizens¡¯ character.29  Instead, what we find is the concern that manual labor prevents moral habits from being instilled: manual labor interferes with the ability to practice virtuous actions, and so, with the attainment of virtue as a second potentiality.  If this is correct, then his statements about the natures of craftsmen, farmers and laborers lacking virtue reveals that they have failed to change their first level dual potentiality for virtue or vice into a single-ended second level potentiality or disposition due to occupational necessities.


Clearly, some of the passages in the Ethics and Politics demonstrate that one central use of nature is as a first potentiality for moral virtue that has to be augmented by good training and practice.  But does this use square with other passages, such as Pol. I. 13 where Aristotle states that the natures of women and slaves prevent them from attaining the virtue of male citizens, or Pol. VII.7 where he finds European or Asians have excessively wild, or servile, natures and are unfit for political rule (1327b23-29)?  It may, and yet these texts seem to refer to ¡°nature¡± as a fixed disposition or a second potentiality, not a first potentiality for good or evil.  For if he does not mean that the natures of female citizens and slaves count as second potentialities, then he should allow that female citizens and slaves can become virtuous in the same way as male citizens.  If  ¡°nature¡± counts as a first potentiality in the same way for all classes, free women and slaves ought to have the same ability for moral virtue as free men. For, it may be argued, the limitations in the natures of free women and slaves are only the effects of their present occupational duties, not the causes that restrict their capacity for moral excellence.  Aristotle¡¯s lack of argument in this direction reveals a dual application of physis in the practical works: where he speaks about the moral capacities of free men, ¡°nature¡± figures as a first level potentiality able to be formed by right practice; in the cases of free women and slaves, ¡°nature¡± figures as a fixed disposition that precludes being informed by right practice.  This hypothesis explains why stating that the natures of free women and slaves are deficient is adequate to dismiss them from equal moral training.  A  thinker in the liberal tradition might have argued that the education of moral and political virtue should be given to all classes since virtue is effected by training and not by nature; Aristotle does not offer this argument. In the end, the duality in the conception of nature explains why he states that the aim of the law-maker is to make the citizens good by habituating them (EN, 1103b3-6) 30 while suggesting that some classes are by nature not amenable to virtue through habituation.  Yet if Aristotle considers the natures of free women and slaves as being in second potentiality, we might ask why he does not allow they possess a similar first potentiality for virtue as free men. But this, I am afraid, is the subject-matter for another paper.

[1] This paper was originally presented as the keynote paper at the Second Annual Stephan Humphries Philosophy Conference, University of Louisville, Louisville KY, November 22, 2002.

[2] There is a greater range of senses of physis in Meta.V. 4 than in Physics II. 1: for example, 1014b17-18: the part from which growth emerges, 1014b20-26: growth as increase by accretion, and perhaps 1015a11-19: as the substance or essence (ousia) of natural things. See W. D. Ross' commentary on Metaphysics V. 4 (Ross 1924, 295-96).    

[3] The full list in Delta, 4 includes: (i) ¡°the coming to be¡± (genesis) of growing things (1014b16-17) ; (ii) the pre-existing thing from which a growing thing begins to grow (b17-18); (iii) the source of primary motion of a natural thing present in it in virtue of itself  (b18-20); (iv) the primary stuff (ex hou protou) from which a thing is or comes to be, like the bronze of a statue (1014b26-30); (v) the substance (ousia) of natural things (1014b35-36);  (vi) the form (eidos) and shape (morphe).

[4]As in Phys. II, 1, he recognizes matter as well as form as ¡°nature,¡± claiming that ¡°primary matter¡± (prote hule) is used in two ways (1015a7-8), either, specifically, as bronze is matter in relation to brazen things, or generally, (holos, 1015a9), as, he suggests, perhaps water is primary ¡°if all things that can be melted are water¡± (1015a7-10).  However, he passes over the consideration of nature as matter to the consideration of nature as form and substance, finding that ¡°by extension of meaning, in general every substance is called nature because nature is a kind of substance¡± (1015a11-13). 

[5]   The strategy employed is that of pros hen relation, mentioned centrally in Meta. Gamma 2, Zeta 4, etc. concerning to on and ousia.  Aristotle here offers an analogous pattern of reductive translation of the meanings of physis with one primary sense meaning ¡°the substance (ousia) of a natural thing,¡± and the other senses having meanings derived from or related to the primary sense of the term (b ¡°is receptive of¡± a, or b ¡°is derived from¡± a; also compare the account given at Meta. 1003a31-b15).

[6] This formulation well reflects that of Meta. IV, 2, 1003a31-b15 concerning the focal relation of to on, being, and its attendant parallel cases of ¡°healthy¡± and ¡°medical.¡±

[7] The primacy of substance to matter also holds logically in that the notion of substance is prior to that of matter, and in this way, substance is prior to matter. 

[8] This formulation well reflects that of Meta. IV, 2, 1003a31-b15 concerning the focal relation of to on, being, and its attendant parallel cases of "healthy and "medical."

[9]   The strategy employed is that of pros hen relation, mentioned centrally in Meta. Gamma 2, Zeta 4, etc. concerning to on and ousia.  Aristotle here offers an analogous pattern of reductive translation of the meanings of physis with one primary sense meaning "the substance (ousia) of a natural thing," and the other senses having meanings derived from or related to the primary sense of the term (b "is receptive of" a, or b "is derived from" a; compare the account given at Meta. 1003a31-b15).

[10] For when Aristotle explains matter as that which is capable of receiving substance (1015a15-16), he refers to form, and similarly, when he explains the processes of change as derived from substance (1015a16-17), again, he refers to form.

10 Women are ruled ¡°politically¡± (1259b1), but not in the usual sense according to which ruling is shared equally, for in this case men always rule over women.

11 See, for example, E. Cole (1994); W. Fortenbaugh (1977); D. Modrak (1994); N. Smith (1983, 1991).

12 Nonetheless, slaves ¡°are human and share in reason¡± (1259b27-28).

13 Politics I. 13 asserts the humanity of natural slaves unequivocally, saying ¡°slaves are human beings and participate in reason¡± (1259b27-28).

14 For consideration of the differences in gender, see papers by D. Tress, K. Cook on the biological aspect of women¡¯s nature (Ward 1996).

15 The first passage cited adds ¡°...if they have not been joined contrary to nature  ¡°para phusin¡± (1259b2-3), suggesting reference to cases of marriage where the wife assumes command over the husband, which Aristotle finds ¡°unnatural.¡± 

16 F. Miller, Jr. also finds Aristotle¡¯s in-egalitarianism based on the alleged natural inferiority of groups based on nationality, gender, and occupation (Miller 1997, 242 ff.).

17 This account is undoubtedly drawn from the Hippocratic treatise, Airs, Waters, Places, which contains a similar theory relating climate to natural dispositions which I discuss in a previous paper on Aristotle on racial differences (Ward 2002, 20-23).     

18 See Richard Kraut¡¯s notes on Pol. VII. 13  (Kraut 1997, 131-32).

19 Nor, in addition, is it plausible to consider it as a necessary condition for moral virtue.  For if we take the line as referring to a necessary condition, we would expect that Aristotle denies women are capable of moral virtue tout court – yet he asserts the opposite (Pol. 1260a20-24).

20 The line, ¡°what is due to nature has a dual tendency¡± (1332b1-2), appears to be referring to the human capacity for the moral virtues. Alternatively, the ¡°dual tendency¡± refers to natural rational capacities which have the possibility of contrary outcomes (Meta. IX. 2, 1046b5-10) – though the reference to ¡°better or worse¡± (1332b3) seems to rule out rational capacities.

21 For example, that nature acts for some end (Phys. 192b21-23), and that reason and intellect are the end of our nature (Pol. 1334b15). 

22 This account is analogous to the change or ¡°completion¡± that takes place in the case of sense-perception from second potentiality to actuality: see my paper on the activity of sense- perception (Ward 1988). 

23   Note that while the generation of virtue and vice is ¡°through alteration,¡± virtue and vice ¡°are not themselves alterations¡± (246a18-19). 

24 See Julia Annas, 50-51, in (Annas 1999).

25 One exception to the role played by nature in the attainment of moral virtue may appear to be that of ¡°natural virtue¡± mentioned in EN VI. 13, where the moral virtues are said to arise in us ¡°by nature¡±: we are just, moderate, brave and each of the other virtues right away from birth (1144b4-6).  But since ¡°natural virtue¡± is compared to the natural dispositions that children and animals possess (1144b8-9), it cannot amount to more than a first level potentiality here either.  

26 This account is central to Aristotle¡¯s discussion of akrasia in EN VII. 2.

27 For example, in VI. 4, Aristotle describes the artisans, merchants and paid workers as having but  ¡°a mean way of life¡± and their occupations as having ¡°no element of moral virtue¡± (1319a26-28).

28 See J. Stocks, ¡°SCOLE,¡± Classical Quarterly 30 (1936): 177-87.

29 In V. 9, he discusses the causal connection between social institutions and moral character in relation to tyrannies: he claims that tyrannies aim at developing base qualities such as small-mindedness, suspicion, servility, and the inability to act (1313b6-9).  He describes the specific means of social control of tyrannies: they prohibit institutions like the common messes, clubs, study circles, academic centers for debate, and so prevent the formation of moral and political virtue (1313a40-b5).  Thus, tyrannies flourish by following practices that isolate people from one another, and so, increase a distrust and division among the classes that serve the ends of the tyrant (1313b5-17).

30 Aristotle states: ¡°the legislator makes the citizens good by habituating them, and this is the wish of every legislator; if he fails to do this well, he misses his goal¡± (1103b3-6).