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Richard Bodéüs, Le véritable politique et ses vertus selon Aristote. Recueil d’études

Louvain-la-Neuve, Éditions Peeters, 2004 (Aristote. Traductions et études), 192 p. ISBN 90-429-1435-1 (Peeters Leuven) ; 2-87723-778-8 (Peeters France)
Christopher J. Rowe
p. 278-282
Référence(s) :

Richard Bodéüs, Le véritable politique et ses vertus selon Aristote. Recueil d’études, Louvain-la-Neuve, Éditions Peeters, 2004 (Aristote. Traductions et études), 192 p. ISBN 90-429-1435-1 (Peeters Leuven) ; 2-87723-778-8 (Peeters France)

Texte intégral

1There are ten studies in the collection, three (1-3) previously unpublished, six either in press or already published (4-8, 10) either in French or in English ; the ninth was published in Portuguese, but now appears in French. One of the latter seven items (no.8) has evidently been revised ; otherwise only 1-3 appear to be genuinely new. 4-10 also seem by and large to retain their original formatting ; there are no cross-references – none, at any rate, that I have observed – between the pieces, which are essentially self-standing ; and the publishers, to judge by the high number of typographical errors (often at a rate of one or more per page), appear to have provided no copy-editing.

2It is, in short, a pile of items as much as a collection, and with a good deal of repetition : that, combined with the somewhat makeshift printing and produc­tion (acceptable, presumably, if it keeps down the price : I do not have enough information to say if it does), makes for a degree of irritation on the part of at least this reader – who was at the same time made to work very hard to put together the author’s overall views on the subject, or subjects, in hand, and is not at all sure that he managed to do so. In fact, all or most of the essays bear in one way or another on the politikos of the title, and/or the Aristotelian notion of ‘sagacité’ (phronesis), but Bodéüs – hereafter simply B. – is firm : what he is offer­ing is not a systematic account of the subject – not ‘les éléments d’une synthèse, propre à clore les débats, mais les pistes d’une analyse, je l’espère, de nature à les engager plus avant’ (p. 2). I confess that B’s reasoning here rather escapes me ; I cannot see that a more organised presentation of his views would have been any more likely, in itself, ‘clore les débats’ than an unconnected assemblage of those same views – if they are the same views, throughout the whole series of essays (it would have taken the kind of synthesis B. declines to provide to discover whether they are).

3Nevertheless, in case the above should appear ungracious, it will be useful (as B. suggests) to have all of these pieces in a single location, because there are surely not many who know Aristotle’s text better than B. does, or who are better qualified to explain Aristotle from that text in the way that B. does. Or, more specifically : the collection will be useful to experienced readers of Aristotle, used to the kinds of issues in question, and versed in the literature, references to which are relatively sparse (reflecting the origin of most of the pieces as oral communications : p. 3). What the volume offers is essentially a veteran’s take on a series of debates whose productive outcomes have sometimes been in inverse proportion to their intensity. And more than once this veteran’s eye succeeds in seeing things – or so it strikes the present reviewer – in a way that bids fair to resolve the debate. So, in particular, with chapter 3 (‘La fin de l’agir et la raison’), on the hoary question whether Aristotle really means to exclude reason from a role in determining the ends of action. B. here ranges himself explicitly against what Monique Canto-Sperber recently described as the majority view, namely that – despite all appearances – he means to do nothing of the sort ; and to my mind he succeeds in showing that this majority view (if indeed it is such) is plainly wrong. The most important consideration he puts forward is that the motivation of the ‘virtuous’ individual does not – cannot – have an intellectual origin : ‘Aurait-il en effet conscience intellectuellement des impératifs de la vertu, s’il ne la désire pas de toute son âme, la perspective d’avoir à la mettre par-dessus tout ne le séduit pas. Et pour cause ! La vertu, qui est l’état équilibré de l’âme ir­rationnelle, ne peut séduire comme une fin et incliner le souhait de l’âme ration­nelle si elle ne lui est pas conjointe’ (p. 61). Further : ‘Quand Aristote soutient que le bien n’apparaît pas à l’intelligence sans vertu, cela ne veut donc pas dire que, dans ces conditions, l’on n’a absolument pas conscience de l’impératif de la vertu (même si c’est le cas chez le vicieux) ; cela veut dire qu’alors, même s’il a conscience de cet impératif, rien n’incline le sujet à regarder la vertu comme une fin, c’est-à-dire à la souhaiter vraiment par dessus tout.’ And finally, ‘il s’ensuit que l’intelligence, dans ces conditions, n’incline pas non plus à délibérer pour savoir comment être vertueux !’ (p. 61-62).

4No doubt the argument on the two sides will still rumble on, but my own sense is that B. has here perfectly understood why Aristotle takes the line that he undoubtedly – pace all those who have doubted it – does take (that it is virtue/ excellence, not reason, that fixes the end for the individual agent). If the obser­vations of B.’s just cited, among others, are true – B. claims that they ‘ne semblent pas douteuses’, and I agree – then, for all that it might appear from some perspectives counter-intuitive, Aristotle’s position is clear, and moreover needs no explaining away, even if it remains an open question whether we should share the views about the virtues/excellences and their relationship to reason that entail that position. (That, however, is the sort of question that lies beyond B.’s brief.) Chapter 3 almost justifies the volume by itself.

5Another of the new pieces, ‘L’introduction des “Grandes Morales” et le Politique’ (ch. 2), is distinctly slighter, less engaging, and also lacks the clarity and persuasiveness of the chapter just discussed. The issue discussed is ultima­tely whether or not the opening few lines of the MM (1181a24-1182a1) do or do not represent a genuinely Aristotelian view of politike ; the conclusion reached is that, despite their concise and somewhat awkward (‘maladroit’ : p. 31) manner of expression, they do. The first lines of MM are chosen presumably because the aim of the piece is general (to show the treatise generally to be Aristotelian despite its ‘maladroitness’) ; why not begin at the beginning ?

6My concern about B’s argument, however, is that it fails to acknowledge the point at which mere maladroitness ends and incoherence, even incompetence, set in. ‘[...] of what is ethos a part ?’ is the question with which the MM begins : answer, ‘of politike’. ‘Ce genre de question suppose’, B. writes, p. 39, ‘... un juge­ment selon lequel une discipline générale comporte autant de sous-disciplines qu’il y a de parties à l’objet global qui est le sien’, and this must surely be the point ; what is more, Politics I.2, 1253b3-4, to which B. refers us, provides a close parallel (‘the parts of oikonomia are the things of which, in turn, a household consists’). Evidently Aristotle was capable of saying things like ‘ethos is part of politike’. (Contrast Dirlmeier’s ‘Ar. hat sich nirgends so seltsam ausgedrückt’.) But to my ear, the first two sentences – apparently pace B., p. 35 – still sound like someone mimicking Aristotle rather than Aristotle himself : ‘Given that we are undertaking to talk about things ethical, first it will be necessary to consider of what ethos is a part. Well, to put it concisely, it would seem to be part of no other [scil. techne/pragmateia] than politike’ – grand enough for a beginning, but without, quite, the substance to match the tone.

7Here, already, there is surely at least a certain awkwardness – largely obs­cured by B.’s own proposed translation : ‘Dès lors que nous décidons de parler des formes du caractère [B. reads ethon in place of ethikon], il faudrait d’abord examiner quelle discipline s’occupe en partie du caractère. Eh bien, pour dire les choses en bref, il semblerait que ce ne soit nulle autre que la politique en partie’ (p. 33) : a kind of smoothing over of the MM’s Greek that seems to sit uneasily alongside B.’s insistence, e.g., on rendering spoudaios as ‘sérieux’ (based on what looks like an over-translation of EN X, 1177a3 : ibid.), or his rendering of (ho) kalos kagathos as ‘le bel homme bon’ (p. 44). More importantly, however, it seems to me hardly obvious that Aristotle would regard the, or a, second ‘part’ (‘preoccupation’ ?) of politike as the other part of the ‘irrational soul’, the ‘nutri­tive’ (p. 40), as B. claims (and as he fills in the argument of MM here) ; and then I also begin to wonder what Aristotle would have thought the ‘parts’ of politike really were. (For a different way in which the politikos will be concerned with the nutritive soul, and with quite different implications, see e.g. Sarah Broadie’s comment on NE I, 1102a18-20, on p. 293 of her 2002 Oxford commentary.) Or maybe we should after all accept B.’s interpretation as representing the thought of the master. But what of the following lines ? B. renders ‘En effet, l’on ne peut absolument pas réussir (outhen ... praxai) dans les affaires politiques sans avoir une certaine qualité, je veux dire être sérieux (lego d’hoion spoudaion) ; or être sérieux, c’est avoir les vertus ; si l’on veut donc être capable de réussir (praktikos einai) dans les affaires politiques, il faut avoir un caractère sérieux.’ (1181a27-b25.) The problem here, clearly enough (if we accept the treatment of prattein/ praktikos : there seems no alternative), is whether Aristotle really would have said that success in politics, that is, real success ( ?), depends on the possession by the politikos of the excellences ; and maybe, in some moods, he would have said that. But how, then, does it follow, exactly (ara, b26), that ethos/he peri ta ethe pragmateia is ‘part ... and starting-point [‘principe’ : arche]... of politike’, and that the said pragmateia would ‘justly be called, not ethike, but politike’ (b25-28) ? If the author had said that politike concerns itself with producing the right kinds of ethos along­side other concerns, then it might follow. And, again, perhaps that is what he meant to say. But he didn’t say it ; and what he does say, insofar as it makes the possession of excellence a precondition of political success, comes close to entailing the opposite of what he pretends to want to show (so Dirlmeier, echo­ing Brandis ; B.’s apparently scornful note, p. 45 n. 40, on Dirlmeier’s comment – which he also partly misrepresents – is hardly justified). Just how much gene­rosity should we show MM, and how badly wrong does it have to get things to be declared unAristotelian ? B. himself, so far as I can see, does not comment directly on the ara (‘donc’) in b26, preferring simply to make b25-28 say what it should and declaring, on the strength of that, that ‘la fidélité de l’auteur des MM à la pensée d’Aristote est ici flagrante’ (p. 45). I beg to differ. But the whole debate, if Dirlmeier et al. are brought into it, is an interesting one.

8Other striking aspects of B.’s interpretations in the volume are (1) that the ‘true’ political expert will have ‘virtuous’ action as his end, while the merely ‘good’ political expert will find the laws/the means to any given end (ch. 1, ‘La nature de la politique’), and (2) that ‘pour Aristote, il n’y a... pas lieu de faire une différence entre l’homme parfaitement sagace et le parfait législateur, capable d’instituer de bonnes lois’ (p. 78, at the end of ch. 4, ‘La nature politique de la sagacité’). B.’s attachment to (1) and (2) may be part of the reason why he is so ready to cut the author of MM so much slack in those opening lines (see above) ; equally, my own doubts about (2), when taken with all its implications, and a certain scepticism, so far, about (1), give me added reason for not following suit. (On (1), inter alia : in EE I, 5, 1216a23-7, which forms part of a statement of endoxa, ‘true’ politikoi are distinguished especially from those who are in politics chrematon kai pleonexias heneka – and so, by implication, illustrate a life of consum­ption rather than the political life ; in other words, we are not necessarily justified in supposing a straightforward reference here to Aristotelian man, and the Aris­totelian politikos. B.’s other key passage, EN I, 13, 1102a8, is subject to similar qualifications. And in the Politics – Book IV, for example – is the politikos as B., and, it seems, the author of MM, propose ? Some of the same range of conside­rations give rise to my doubts about (2).)

9But here too B. does a service by raising central issues : no ‘closure’ here, for sure. Similarly in those other previously published but previously disiecta membra : ‘De l’âme servile au citoyen affranchi des lois’, ch. 5 ; ‘La justice, état de choses et état d’âme’, ch. 6 ; ‘Les fondements du droit naturel et la philosophie aristoté­licienne’, ch. 7 ; ‘La concorde politique, l’amitié parfaite et la justice’, ch. 8 ; ‘Le bonheur parfait à titre secondaire’, ch. 10. The Portuguese piece, now in French, ‘Vertu achevée et vice achevé’ (ch. 9), quite usefully discusses three different aspects (‘modalités’) of the notion of arete teleia.

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Christopher J. Rowe, « Richard Bodéüs, Le véritable politique et ses vertus selon Aristote. Recueil d’études »Philosophie antique, 8 | 2008, 278-282.

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Christopher J. Rowe, « Richard Bodéüs, Le véritable politique et ses vertus selon Aristote. Recueil d’études »Philosophie antique [En ligne], 8 | 2008, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2021, consulté le 15 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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