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<nettime> **Vice and "Sense Perception"** (by Joe Sachs)

[Joe Sachs, Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle), 2002, Introduction, Part II, "The Mean," pp. xi, xx-xxi, also St. John's Review, "Three Little Words," 1997]

Three words that anyone who has tried to understand the *Nicomachean Ethics* has had to wrestle with are HABIT, the MEAN, and NOBLE [originally underlined].  They might be said, very loosely, to refer to the efficient, formal and final causes of moral virtue . . .

But there is such a thing as bad character, and this is what Aristotle means by vice, as distinct from bad habits or weakness.  It is possible for someone with full responsibility and the free use of intellect to choose always to yield to bodily pleasure, or to greed, or to ambition.  Virtue is a mean, first because it can only emerge out of the stand-off between pairs of opposite habits, but second because it chooses to take its stand in principle; Aristototle makes clear that vice is a principled choice that following some extreme path toward [as described by Mandeville in his 1717 "Fable of the Bees," upon which "capitalism" was founded] or away [as described by "Puritans," including those who founded the USA
and drove its Civil War &c] pleasure is right.  (1146b, 22-3) [Ethics, Book VII, Chapter 1] Principles are wonderful things, but there are too many of them, and exclusive adherence to any one of them is always a vice.

In our earlier example [re: eating a slice of cake], the true glutton [one of the "Seven Deadly Vices"] would be someone who does not just have a bad habit of always indulging in the desire for food, but someone who has chosen on principle that one ought always to yield to it.  In Plato's *Gorgias*, Callicles argues just that, about food, drink, and sex.  He is serious, even though he is young and still open to argument.  But the only principled alternative he can conceive is the denial of the body, and the choice of a life fit for only stones or corpses. (429E) This is the way most attempts to be serious about right action go astray.  What, for example, is the virtue of a seminar leader?  Is it to ask appropriate questions but never state an opinion?  Or is it to offer everything one has learned on the subject of discussion?  What principle should rule -- that all learning must come from the learners, or that without prior instruction no useful learning can take place?  Is there a hybrid principle?  Or should one try to find the point mid-way between the opposite principles?  Or is the virtue some third thing altogether?

Just as habits of indulgence [i.e. those generated today by *electric* media, designed to maximize economic consumption and thus "growth," which is what most people today call "capitalism"] always stand opposed to habits of abstinence, so too does every principle of action have its opposite principle.  If good habituation ensures that we are not swept away by our strongest impulses, and the exercise of intelligence ensures that we will see two worthy sides to every question about action, what governs the choice of the mean? 

Aristotle gives this answer: "such things are among particulars, and the judgement is in the act of sense-perception." (1109b 23-4) [Ethics, Book II, Chapter 8] But this is the calmly energetic, thought-laden perception to which we referred to earlier [or what Aquinas called "cogitative" or "particular" reason, the culmination of the "interior senses," Summa Theologica, Book I, Question 78, Article 4].  The origin of virtuous action is neither intellect nor appetite [e.g. "emotions"], but is variously described as intellect infused through-and-through with appetite, or appetite wholly infused with thinking, or appetite and reason joined for the sake of something; this unitary source is called by Aristotle simply *anthropos. (1139a, 34, b, 5-7) [Ethics, Bool Vi, Chapter 1] But our thinking must contribute right reason (*ho orthos logos*) and our appetites must contribute *right* desire (*he orthe orexis*) if the action is to moral stature. (1114b, 29, 1139a, 24-6, 31-2) [Ethics, Book III, Chapter, Book VI, Chapter 1] What makes them right can only be something for the sake of which they unite, and this is what is said to be accessible only to sense-perception [i.e. the "interior" not the "exterior senses"] . . .

[This distinction between the "interior" and "exterior senses" (sometimes referred to as "inner wits" in English) is *not* something that Sachs seems to make clear, as, indeed, few others have either.  In particular, Marshall McLuhan appears to make the same mistake, in this regard, as did his mentors -- by avoiding this discussion and instead being satisfied with a hoped for *balance* of the "exterior" senses, as reflected in his focus on the "sensus communis" and "synesthesia" &c.]

[McLuhan seems to have been so concerned about an imbalance in favor of sight (i.e. caused by the Printing Press and, thus, Protestantism) that he was "blinded" by the follow-on corresponding imbalance in favor of hearing -- while incorrectly positing that "tactility" reflected their "balance" in exterior sensory terms (thus *television* as a "tactile medium").  Instead, the *active* ground of Aristotle's "mean" is located "in-between" these exterior senses/sensus communis (as emphasized by McLuhan) and "cogitative reason" (as emphasized by Sachs &al) -- in the interior senses of Memory and Imagination -- which represent the psychological "principles" that uniquely give rise to *anthropos* (i.e. humanity).]

[Getting all this straight is now particularly urgent, since "anthropos" is now being simulated via robots (aka, A.I., algorithms, trans/post-humanity &c), so, as a result, understanding *anthropos* has become man-datory (pun intended).  McLuhan's inadequate understanding of these processes leads to the inability to "take responsibility for our actions" which paralyzes most commentators in the face of the new *digital* psycho-technological environment and disables their ability to understand the fundamental topics of virtue and vice in human "politics."]

Mark Stahlman

Jersey City Heights


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