Aristotle’s Virtue, in poetry, in translation, in prose
Theophrastus (our co-blogger) here has shared a number of wonderful books he’s picked up from the OUP 2013 Spring Sale. I’d like to begin to discuss one of them:
Aristotle as Poet: Song for Hermias and Its Contexts by Andrew L. Ford.
Fortunately, for those still considering purchasing the book from amazon.com, the online bookseller with the publisher’s permission has given a look in that allows us to focus on just a few pages, even here, together. Let me show you what Ford has brought in of the Aristotle original, and then we can look at his own translation; and then we can read a bit of Ford’s translation commentary including some his philosophy of translation here and some his understanding of the key, initial Greek word ἀρετα, or “virtue.”
Following that, I’d like to show two other earlier English translations, with a just a bit of my own commentary on them. Finally, I’d like to return to what Ford has claimed about Aristotle’s and Christians’ use of “virtue.” I believe we need to consider Ford’s statement as extreme, which as we all know Aristotle would have his disciples avoid.
Here’s what Andrew Ford has done very very well. And his entire book is really worth studying, I must exclaim! He shows us Aristotle’s poetry:
Then Ford gives us his Englishing of Aristotle’s lines:
Then Ford gives us commentary on this translating as “rather literal” as if to “follow Aristotle’s words and themes as they would have unfolded”:
Later in this post I want to come back to Ford’s claim that Aristotle’s arete is more precisely if more awkwardly to be rendered in English with the phrase “human excellence” without some alleged merely “Christian literature” meaning of “virtue” as having “moral or sexual connotations” that are allegedly “later acquired.”
For now, here are two other English translations. The first is from someone signing as “-R” and the second from Christopher North. Both can be found in the 1833 publication, Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine, Volume 33, which begins with a section of “Greek anthology” (produced the same year in another volume), where there is the acknowledgement of some honor given to Aristotle for this poem. In particular, the mid-16th century Italian scholar Julius Caesar Scaliger is quoted making the claim that Aristotle as a poet is equal to Pindar. The two translations follow:
What is odd about these, but consistent with the Italian (neo-Roman) scholarship on the poem, is how the English uses the Roman gods’ names. Clearly, both translators find “Virtue” to be the English for Aristotle’s arete. And while “R” uses “Maid,” as does Ford, for parthene, North uses “Virgin.” This certainly begs the question of whether North is using some “Christian” understanding of the Greek or whether the apparent Victorian flair here is due to the Romanish influence.
Or perhaps Aristotle himself gives us all cause to see his arete as having “moral or sexual connotations.”
This is, in fact, the case. Let’s look at Aristotle’s own uses of the phrase in his prose.
First, what we find in general is that Aristotle makes “virtue” or “human excellence” something that is gendered, an attribute that males have in ways that females do not and cannot. For example, in Aristotle’s Rhetoric (1367a, trans. by J. H. Freese), we read:
Virtues [ἀρεταὶ] and actions are nobler, when they proceed from those who are naturally worthier, for instance, from a man rather than from a woman.
Likewise, in his Politics where Aristotle is assuming that “the male is by nature better fitted to command than the female” (1259b, trans. by H. Rackham), he asserts the following:
First of all then as to slaves the difficulty might be raised, does a slave possess any other excellence, besides his merits as a tool and a servant, more valuable than these, for instance temperance, have the courage, justice and any of the other moral virtues [ἀρετὴν], or has he no excellence beside his bodily service? For either way there is difficulty; if slaves do possess moral virtue [ἀρετή], wherein will they differ from freemen? or if they do not, this is strange, as they are human beings and participate in reason. And nearly the same is the question also raised about the woman and the child: have they too virtues [ἀρεταί], and ought a woman to be temperate, brave and just, and can a child be intemperate or temperate, or not? This point therefore requires general consideration in relation to natural ruler and subject: is virtue [ἀρετὴ] the same for ruler and ruled, or different? If it is proper for both to partake in nobility of character, how could it be proper for the one to rule and the other to be ruled unconditionally? we cannot say that the difference is to be one of degree, for ruling and being ruled differ in kind, and difference of degree is not a difference in kind at all. Whereas if on the contrary it is proper for the one to have moral nobility but not for the other, this is surprising. For if the ruler is not temperate and just, how will he rule well? And if the ruled, how will he obey well?
Clearly, Aristotle is making differentiations by gender and by class and by age, and the differences are marked in what he’s theorizing as “virtue.” Not only does Aristotle differentiate arete itself by gender, class, and age but he also makes the differences rather pronounced when discussing related concepts of character. Anne Carson, for example, observes:
The celebrated Greek virtue of self-control (sophrosyne [σωφροσύνη]) has to be defined differently for men and for women, Aristotle maintains. Masculine sophrosyne is rational self-control and resistance to excess, but for the woman sophrosyne means obedience and consists in submitting herself to the control of others.
Where Aristotle maintains the different definitions is a little later in his Politics (1260a, trans. by H. Rackham):
It is evident therefore that both must possess virtue [ἀρετῆς], but that there are differences in their virtue [ἀρετήν] （as also there are differences between those who are by nature ruled）. And of this we straightway find an indication in connection with the soul; for the soul by nature contains a part that rules and a part that is ruled, to which we assign different virtues [ἀρετήν], that is, the virtue [ἀρετὰς] of the rational and that of the irrational. It is clear then that the case is the same also with the other instances of ruler and ruled. Hence there are by nature various classes of rulers and ruled. For the free rules the slave, the male the female, and the man the child in a different way. And all possess the various parts of the soul, but possess them in different ways; for the slave has not got the deliberative part at all, and the female has it, but without full authority, while the child has it, but in an undeveloped form. Hence the ruler must possess intellectual virtue [ἀρετὴ] in completeness （for any work, taken absolutely, belongs to the master-craftsman, and rational principle is a master-craftsman）; while each of the other parties must have that share of this virtue [ἀρετὴ] which is appropriate to them. We must suppose therefore that the same necessarily holds good of the moral virtues [ἀρετὴ]: all must partake of them, but not in the same way, but in such measure as is proper to each in relation to his own function.  Hence it is manifest that all the persons mentioned have a moral virtue [ἀρετὴ] of their own, and that the temperance [σωφροσύνη] of a woman and that of a man are not the same, nor their courage and justice, as Socrates thought,but the one is the courage of command, and the other that of subordination, and the case is similar with the other virtues [ἀρετήν].
And this is also clear when we examine the matter more in detail, for it is misleading to give a general definition of virtue [ἀρετή], as some do, who say that virtue is being in good condition as regards the soul or acting uprightly or the like; those who enumerate the virtues [ἀρετὰς] of different persons separately, as Gorgias does, are much more correct than those who define virtue in that way. Hence we must hold that all of these persons have their appropriate virtues, as the poet said of woman:
“ Silence gives grace to woman” though that is not the case likewise with a man. Also the child is not completely developed, so that manifestly his virtue also is not personal to himself, but relative to the fully developed being, that is, the person in authority over him. And similarly the slave’s virtue also is in relation to the master. And we laid it down that the slave is serviceable for the mere necessaries of life, so that clearly he needs only a small amount of virtue [ἀρετῆς], in fact just enough to prevent him from failing in his tasks owing to intemperance and cowardice.
So here we begin to see how Aristotle associates arete with sophrosyne. Virtue and temperance have “moral connotations” in Aristotle long before the could have been derived from Christian senses.
Second, then, we may find Aristotle using arete with “moral and sexual connotations.” For example, only a bit later in his Politics (1263b, trans. by H. Rackham), we see this:
Selfishness on the other hand is justly blamed; but this is not to love oneself but to love oneself more than one ought, just as covetousness means loving money to excess—since some love of self, money and so on is practically universal. Moreover, to bestow favors and assistance on friends or visitors or comrades is a great pleasure, and a condition of this is the private ownership of property. These advantages therefore do not come to those who carry the unification of the state too far; and in addition to this they manifestly do away with the practice of two virtues, temperance in relation to women [δυοῖν ἀρεταῖν φανερῶς, σωφροσύνης μὲν τὸ περὶ τὰς γυναῖκας] （for it is a noble deed to refrain from one through temperance when she belongs to another） and liberality in relation to possessions （for one will not be able to display liberality nor perform a single liberal action, since the active exercise of liberality takes place in the use of possessions）.
Here Aristotle is advising that men be virtuous, temperate in relations toward the opposite sex.
Now, if we turn to the New Testament and to the Greek Septuagint from which it draws the Greek phrase under discussion, then we find nothing of the moral or sexual connotations that we might find in Victorianism. There’s nothing at all of this Aristotelian prosaic connotations either. (There are six uses of the phrase in the NT and 32 in the LXX.)
In his prose, Aristotle does make his arete different for males and females and he does bring to the phrase both moral and also sexual connotations. Why would we assume that it’s devoid of such connotations in his poetry? While Andrew L. Ford gives us much insight into Aristotle’s single poem, he fails to give correct insight into its first and key word.