The Ethics and the Enneads on Virtue: the Perfection of Self by a Self-focused Man

‘Every craftsman loves the work of his own hands more than it would love him if it came to life. Probably this happens most of all with poets, because they are exceedingly fond of their own poems, loving them as if they were their children. Well, the case of the benefactor is much the same. What he has benefited is his own handiwork; so he loves it more than the work loves its maker. The reason for this is that existence is to everyone an object of choice and love, and we exist through activity (because we exist by living and acting); and the maker of the work exists, in a sense, through his activity. Therefore the maker loves his work, because he loves existence. This is a natural principle; for the work reveals in actuality what is only potentially.’
Ethics Book IX 1167b28-1168a18

‘But how are you to see into a virtuous Soul and know its loveliness? Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.’
The Enneads I.6.9

These two quotations are from equally dense, austere texts which have resonated through Western culture – the former by a man with a passion for this world, the latter by one with equal passion for another, ‘beyond’ it.1

My argument will be that despite the many and sometimes immense differences in their thinking, these men in the two texts from which the quotations have been drawn had focused on the same subject – what a man should do to achieve the perfection of self – for the former, in this world, for the latter, in that ‘beyond’.

As Jonathan Barnes pointed out in his excellent introduction to the Penguin edition of the Ethics, the title ‘ta ethika’ transliterates to ‘The Ethics’ but translates as ‘Matters to do with Character’.2 The translation of the title is well exemplified in Aristotle’s discussion of the benefactor. Aristotle was not concerned with the effects of the benefactor’s actions on the beneficiary (or from the perspective of the Ethics as a whole, particularly with that of the good man’s actions in relation to others), rather it was the character of the virtuous man that interested him. The benefactor’s benevolence is his handiwork, the product of his activity. In crafting his benevolence and loving it, he lovingly crafts his own character, taking it from potentiality to actuality.3

In Book Two of the Ethics Aristotle defined ‘virtue’ as ‘a purposive disposition, lying in a mean that is relative to us and determined by a rational principle’.4 He gave a list of virtues lying between excess and deficiency, magnanimity being the crown.5 But the mean has nothing to do with ‘average’ or ‘mid-way’, even relative to the individual. ‘The mean’, when addressed correctly, offers the potential not just for excellence but towards perfection of character for the man of practical reason – consider the requirements Aristotle placed on its expression – ‘to feel or act towards the right person to the right extent at the right time for the right reason in the right way – that is not easy, and it is not everyone that can do it. Hence to do these things well is a rare, laudable and fine achievement.’6

Writers have criticised Aristotle for incoherence (Ackrill),7 indecision (Nagel)8 or an irreconcilable contradiction (Wilkes),9 by presenting two versions of eudaimonia10 in the Ethics - one based on the employment of practical wisdom (phronesis) the other on the engagement in contemplation (theoria). These criticisms miss the consistency, miss what ties the practical man of The Ethics to the philosopher in Book X – it is that Aristotle was interested throughout in the perfection of character based on reason, first for the practical man then for the philosopher, who represents human perfection and the pinnacle of Aristotle’s study. Wilkes herself noted that the philosopher must apply his practical reason to secure the circumstances in which he can engage in theoria, that the success of his use of his practical reason will be measured by the opportunities it creates for the exercise of theoria.11

Where the majority would choose compulsion and punishment rather than fine ideals12 and could not be encouraged towards perfection,13 the philosopher whose life is related to a fine ideal14 becomes eudaimon in the activity of contemplation, the activity of God.15

Plotinus developed on Plato’s philosophical theology and was not so much influenced by Aristotle (Porphyry wrote that the Metaphysics were condensed in The Enneads) as he adapted what he found useful in his writing to his own purpose.16 His own theorising focused totally on the individual and the ‘world’ within – the final sentence of The Enneads spoke of ‘liberation from the alien that besets us here, a life taking no pleasure in the things of earth, the passing of solitary to solitary.’17

The quotation at the top by Plotinus is the heart of The Enneads - the fifty four tractates are built around it. This simile, beautifully expressed in MacKenna’s lyrical translation of The Enneads had its source in Plato.18 In it Plotinus sets out the method by which Soul returns through Intellect to the One (or Good). Where Aristotle’s wise man lovingly crafts his character in its activity, from moral to contemplative – thereby perfecting it – the Soul of Plotinus’ man, energised by a remembrance of the unity-in-multiplicity of the realm of Forms in Intellect and a passionate and rationalised desire (which Plato understood so well) to return to its origin in the ineffable absolute beyond being, sheds the reason of the senses and the world of matter, concentrates on its beauty and in so doing perfects itself.


1. The impact of Plotinus and apophaticism on Western culture is comparable to that of Plato and Aristotle. It is the greatest (and I believe, the most deliberate) failure of philosophers to be ignorant of or to hide and deny this (as did Derrida when asked about it in relation to his philosophy). No area of learning, the practitioners of which pride themselves on their use of reason, has experienced more the influence of revealed knowledge, and the most subjective form of revealed knowledge – apophaticism – than has philosophy. As one example, the philosophy of Nietzsche (that man of ‘god’ who told us God is dead) cannot be understood without an understanding of apophaticism – it suffuses his writing, from his Birth of Tragedy to the final aphorism of The Will to Power which contains a synopsis of The Enneads. Consider ‘What is this Dionysiac exultation that thrills through your being, this straining upwards of all your soul…’ Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna. London, Penguin, 1991 1.6.5. Wherever romanticism, there apophaticism. William Franke’s groundbreaking two volume anthology On What Cannot Be Said, University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, 2007 traces the history of apophaticism in the West through the writing of its greats in philosophy, religion, literature and the arts. Mark Cheetham has written on its impact on the visual arts – M. Cheetham, The Rhetoric of Purity, Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,1991

2. Aristotle, Ethics, trans. J.A.K. Thomson, Penguin, London, 1987, 27

3. ‘…it is right for the good man to be self-loving…’ ibid., 1168b32-1169a23. Aristotle treated friendship in a similar way: ‘a friend is another self…in its extreme form friendship approximates to self-love.’ Ibid., 1166a16-b4. Of self-love: ‘in the whole field of praiseworthy conduct the good man assigns himself the larger share of what is fine.’ Ibid., 1169a23-b11

4. Ibid., 1106b9-1107a1

5. Ibid., 1123b35-1124a23

6. Ibid., 1109a25-b15 On anger: ‘The man who gets angry at the right things and with the right people, and also in the right way and at the right time and for the right length of time, is commended; so this person will be patient, inasmuch as patience is commendable…the excess occurs in respect of all the circumstances; with the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, more than is right, too quickly, and for too long a time…’ 1125b14-1126a24

7. J.L.Ackrill, Aristotle on Eudaimonia, Oxford University Press, 1974, 4

8. Thomas Nagel ‘Aristotle on Eudaimonia’ in Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, ed., Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1980, 7

9. Kathleen V. Wilkes ‘The Good Man and the Good for Man in Aristotle’s Ethics’, ibid., 341

10. The term ‘happiness’ should never be used for ‘eudaimonia’, least because of the evocation of a smiley face, far more seriously because of its etymology which ties it to luck, fortune and chance – which Aristotle specifically rejected as playing a part. He wrote ‘That the most important and finest thing of all should be left to chance would be a gross disharmony.’ Ethics 1099b21-1100a9. Again ‘…intention is the decisive factor in virtue and character.’ Ethics 1163a19-b7. The eudaimon engages in a most serious intellectual activity – ‘the pleasure proper to a serious activity is virtuous’ Ethics 1175b22-1176a10. Preferably the word ‘eudaimonia’ should not be translated, but if it were to be, ‘fulfilment’ would perhaps come closest in meaning – Aristotle wrote ‘…the full performance of a man’s function depends upon a combination of prudence and moral virtue’ Ethics 1144a3-24

11. In Oksenberg Rorty op. cit., 350-351, Ethics 1099a7-32, 1178a21-b7

12. Ethics 1179b29-1180a15

13. Ibid., 1179b7-29

14. Ibid., 1179b29-1180a15

15. Ibid., 1178b7-29 It was only in the concluding six pages of the Ethics that Aristotle discussed the state’s role in education with regard to goodness.

16. Compare Plotinus’ Good with Ethics 1094a1-22 ‘the Good has been rightly defined as “that at which all things aim” ’ and the same One with the Unmoved Mover, to which all things are motivated by desire Metaphysics 1072a-b

17. The Enneads 549. In his translation of the Enneads, A.H.Armstrong referred to this as the ‘flight of the alone to the Alone’. Plotinus, Enneads trans. A.H. Armstrong, in seven volumes. London, William Heinemann, 1966-1988

18. The shaping the statue at Phaedrus 252d7, the reductive path to true beauty in Diotima’s speech Symposium 209e-211a, also Phaedrus 253d1-256c1. This simile was used as a metaphor in The Birth of Tragedy, is the basis of Nietzsche’s aesthetics and recurs throughout his writing.

Part one/To be continued…

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