Aristotle on Γνώμη

In the eleventh section of the sixth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins by briefly discussing γνώμη.

Remember when I shared Grant’s observation that the word Aristotle uses for what most translators called “equity” (epieikeia) “has a close connexion with what is called γνώμη [gnome] (consideration)”?

This γνώμη is the subject of the opening part of this chapter. Aside from “consideration,” the various translators render it as judgment, candor, feeling, charitableness, or equitable decision, and relate it to suggnome, equity, forbearance, fellow-feeling, pardon, indulgence, charity, forgiveness, sympathy, or kindly judgment. Chase insists that “[w]e have no term which at all approximates to the meaning of this word” and Stewart says “[i]t is perhaps impossible to bring out in any single English word the whole meaning of this term.”

In any case, it is the intellectual virtue that enables us to skillfully and correctly practice the moral virtue of equity: knowing when to deviate from the letter of the law in order to conform to the spirit of justice. (Muirhead has a take on this that picks up where Aristotle’s very-brief discussion leaves off, if you want to pursue this further.)

Next, Aristotle pulls together the threads he’s been spinning in the recent sections. Someone who has practical wisdom (or prudence) is able to make good decisions about how to act in the particular situations that come up in life. It is not enough just to know good general principles, but you must also know how to analyze particular circumstances to know which principles apply, and have the practical ability to apply them well and the judgment to apply them with equity in such circumstances. This requires all of the elements of Judgment, Understanding, and Good Deliberation.

The thing that ties these elements together is nous, a term that gave our panel of translators conniptions in this section. It’s the same word Aristotle used for “Intuition” back in section six, but there he was using it exclusively to talk about discerning the first principles that make logical deduction possible in the realm of science. Here, he uses it to refer to the realm of practical wisdom, and to refer not only to intuiting first principles but also for evaluating particular instances and even for drawing conclusions outside of the process of reasoning.

Some of the translators translate nous as intuition, moral perception, intelligence, common sense, or moral sense. Grant translates it as “reason” which I think makes it seem too much like a process of conscious deliberation. Stewart and Weldon try “intuitive reason.” Jelf calls it “moral reason without reasoning (rational sense).”

Nous is Judgment, Understanding, and Good Deliberation that has become so well-practiced as to become second-nature. It allows you to choose the right course of action immediately and intuitively, without having to think it over.

Having “good nous” is like having “a good eye for” something — being able to look at a situation and immediately recognize which aspects of it are important in deciding what your response to it should be. Like having a good eye for something, this is acquired by experience and training, and can’t just be taught in the abstract.

Nous allows you to perceive moral good & bad almost in the same way as you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel things around you. And it allows you to respond well and without thinking about it, the way a practiced tennis player knows how to respond to an incoming serve.

Any time you’re drawing logical conclusions, whether by syllogism or by induction, you have to start with certain “givens.” You can derive givens from other givens, logically, and go back as far as you’d like, but at some point you have to come across givens that just are and that you agree to accept as true for the sake of making any forward progress. The trick is choosing ones that actually are true. With experience and nous, you gain the ability to choose givens that are both true and logically adjacent to the conclusions you need to draw in order to act, so that you can make good choices immediately without needing to go through a lot of logical handwringing ahead of time.

This ability develops in a person over time. Because it is acquired through experience, rather than learned through teaching, it seems almost like a natural thing that comes on people as they get older.

For this reason, Aristotle says, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for wise elders and pay close attention to their counsel and example, even when they don’t or can’t supply a good logical demonstration for why they’re doing what they’re doing or how they’ve come to the conclusions they’ve come to.

People don’t just automatically develop good nous with age, though. It comes from being motivated by a love of truth and virtue, living attentively and temperately, and learning from your mistakes. Those things require training and education. While everyone develops some sort of nous as they mature, some people develop one that is dominated by a love of virtue/excellence, while others develop one that is dominated by a love of merely sensual pleasure.

Alas, though this process of developing a good nous sounds very interesting and very relevant here, Aristotle leaves it for one of his other works (De Anima maybe?).

Formation of the moral character.

“Formation of the moral character” from William Edward Jelf’s Notes to Aristotle’s Ethics ()

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics