Archive for the ‘Έλληνας’ Category



  1. Ethics

Standard interpretations of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics usually maintain that Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) emphasizes the role of habit in conduct. It is commonly thought that virtues, according to Aristotle, are habits and that the good life is a life of mindless routine.

These interpretations of Aristotle’s ethics are the result of imprecise translations from the ancient Greek text. Aristotle uses the word hexis to denote moral virtue. But the word does not merely mean passive habituation. Rather, hexis is an active condition, a state in which something must actively hold itself.

Virtue, therefore, manifests itself in action. More explicitly, an action counts as virtuous, according to Aristotle, when one holds oneself in a stable equilibrium of the soul, in order to choose the action knowingly and for its own sake. This stable equilibrium of the soul is what constitutes character.

Similarly, Aristotle’s concept of the mean is often misunderstood. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle repeatedly states that virtue is a mean. The mean is a state of clarification and apprehension in the midst of pleasures and pains that allows one to judge what seems most truly pleasant or painful. This active state of the soul is the condition in which all the powers of the soul are at work in concert. Achieving good character is a process of clearing away the obstacles that stand in the way of the full efficacy of the soul.

For Aristotle, moral virtue is the only practical road to effective action. What the person of good character loves with right desire and thinks of as an end with right reason must first be perceived as beautiful. Hence, the virtuous person sees truly and judges rightly, since beautiful things appear as they truly are only to a person of good character. It is only in the middle ground between habits of acting and principles of action that the soul can allow right desire and right reason to make their appearance, as the direct and natural response of a free human being to the sight of the beautiful. 

  1. Habit

In many discussions, the word “habit” is attached to the Ethics as though it were the answer to a multiple-choice question on a philosophy achievement test. Hobbes‘ Leviathan? Self-preservation. Descartes‘ Meditations? Mind-body problem. Aristotle’s Ethics? Habit. A faculty seminar I attended a few years ago was mired in the opinion that Aristotle thinks the good life is one of mindless routine. More recently, I heard a lecture in which some very good things were said about Aristotle’s discussion of choice, yet the speaker still criticized him for praising habit when so much that is important in life depends on openness and spontaneity. Can it really be that Aristotle thought life is lived best when thinking and choosing are eliminated?

On its face this belief makes no sense. It is partly a confusion between an effect and one of its causes. Aristotle says that, for the way our lives turn out, “it makes no small difference to be habituated this way or that way straight from childhood, but an enormous difference, or rather all the difference.” (1103b, 23-5) Is this not the same as saying those lives are nothing but collections of habits? If this is what sticks in your memory, and leads you to that conclusion, then the cure is easy, since habits are not the only effects of habituation, and a thing that makes all the difference is indispensable but not necessarily the only cause of what it produces.

We will work through this thought in a moment, but first we need to notice that another kind of influence may be at work when you recall what Aristotle says about habit, and another kind of medicine may be needed against it. Are you thinking that no matter how we analyze the effects of habituation, we will never get around the fact that Aristotle plainly says that virtues are habits? The reply to that difficulty is that he doesn’t say that at all. He says that moral virtue is a hexis. Hippocrates Apostle, and others, translate hexis as habit, but that is not at all what it means. The trouble, as so often in these matters, is the intrusion of Latin. The Latin habitus is a perfectly good translation of the Greek hexis, but if that detour gets us to habit in English we have lost our way. In fact, a hexisis pretty much the opposite of a habit.

The word hexis becomes an issue in Plato‘s Theaetetus. Socrates makes the point that knowledge can never be a mere passive possession, stored in the memory the way birds can be put in cages. The word for that sort of possession, ktÎsis, is contrasted with hexis, the kind of having-and-holding that is never passive but always at work right now. Socrates thus suggests that, whatever knowledge is, it must have the character of a hexis in requiring the effort of concentrating or paying attention. A hexis is an active condition, a state in which something must actively hold itself, and that is what Aristotle says a moral virtue is.

Some translators make Aristotle say that virtue is a disposition, or a settled disposition. This is much better than calling it a “habit,” but still sounds too passive to capture his meaning. In De Anima, when Aristotle speaks of the effect produced in us by an object of sense perception, he says this is not a disposition (diathesis) but a hexis. (417b, 15-17) His whole account of sensing and knowing depends on this notion that receptivity to what is outside us depends on an active effort to hold ourselves ready. In Book VII of the Physics, Aristotle says much the same thing about the way children start to learn: they are not changed, he says, nor are they trained or even acted upon in any way, but they themselves get straight into an active state when time or adults help them settle down out of their native condition of disorder and distraction. (247b, 17-248a, 6) Curtis Wilson once delivered a lecture at St. John’s College, in which he asked his audience to imagine what it would be like if we had to teach children to speak by deliberately and explicitly imparting everything they had to do. We somehow set them free to speak, and give them a particular language to do it in, but they–Mr. Wilson called them “little geniuses”–they do all the work.

Everyone at St. John’s has thought about the kind of learning that does not depend on the authority of the teacher and the memory of the learner. In the Meno it is called “recollection.” Aristotle says that it is an active knowing that is always already at work in us. In Plato’s image we draw knowledge up out of ourselves; in Aristotle’s metaphor we settle down into knowing. In neither account is it possible for anyone to train us, as Gorgias has habituated Meno into the mannerisms of a knower. Habits can be strong but they never go deep. Authentic knowledge does engage the soul in its depths, and with this sort of knowing Aristotle links virtue. In the passage cited from Book VII of the Physics, he says that, like knowledge, virtues are not imposed on us as alterations of what we are; that would be, he says, like saying we alter a house when we put a roof on it. In the Categories, knowledge and virtue are the two examples he gives of what hexis means (8b, 29); there he says that these active states belong in the general class of dispositions, but are distinguished by being lasting and durable. The word “disposition” by itself he reserves for more passive states, easy to remove and change, such as heat, cold, and sickness.

In the Ethics, Aristotle identifies moral virtue as a hexis in Book II, chapter 4. He confirms this identity by reviewing the kinds of things that are in the soul, and eliminating the feelings and impulses to which we are passive and the capacities we have by nature, but he first discovers what sort of thing a virtue is by observing that the goodness is never in the action but only in the doer. This is an enormous claim that pervades the whole of the Ethics, and one that we need to stay attentive to. No action is good or just or courageous because of any quality in itself. Virtue manifests itself in action, Aristotle says, only when one acts while holding oneself in a certain way. This is where the word hexis comes into the account, from pÙs echÙn, the stance in which one holds oneself when acting. The indefinite adverb is immediately explained: an action counts as virtuous when and only when one holds oneself in a stable equilibrium of the soul, in order to choose the action knowingly and for its own sake. I am translating as “in a stable equilibrium” the words bebaiÙs kai ametakinÍtÙs; the first of these adverbs means stably or after having taken a stand, while the second does not mean rigid or immovable, but in a condition from which one can’t be moved all the way over into a different condition. It is not some inflexible adherence to rules or duty or precedent that is conveyed here, but something like a Newton’s wheel weighted below the center, or one of those toys that pops back upright whenever a child knocks it over.

This stable equilibrium of the soul is what we mean by having character. It is not the result of what we call “conditioning.” There is a story told about B. F. Skinner, the psychologist most associated with the idea of behavior modification, that a class of his once trained him to lecture always from one corner of the room, by smiling and nodding whenever he approached it, but frowning and faintly shaking their heads when he moved away from it. That is the way we acquire habits. We slip into them unawares, or let them be imposed on us, or even impose them on ourselves. A person with ever so many habits may still have no character. Habits make for repetitive and predictable behavior, but character gives moral equilibrium to a life. The difference is between a foolish consistency wholly confined to the level of acting, and a reliability in that part of us from which actions have their source. Different as they are, though, character and habit sound to us like things that are linked, and in Greek they differ only by the change of an epsilon to an eta, making Íthos from ethos

We are finally back to Aristotle’s claim that character, Íthos, is produced by habit, ethos. It should now be clear though, that the habit cannot be any part of that character, and that we must try to understand how an active condition can arise as a consequence of a passive one, and why that active condition can only be attained if the passive one has come first. So far we have arranged three notions in a series, like rungs of a ladder: at the top are actives states, such as knowledge, the moral virtues, and the combination of virtues that makes up a character; the middle rung, the mere dispositions, we have mentioned only in passing to claim that they are too shallow and changeable to capture the meaning of virtue; the bottom rung is the place of the habits, and includes biting your nails, twisting your hair, saying “like” between every two words, and all such passive and mindless conditions. What we need to notice now is that there is yet another rung of the ladder below the habits.

We all start out life governed by desires and impulses. Unlike the habits, which are passive but lasting conditions, desires and impulses are passive and momentary, but they are very strong. Listen to a child who can’t live without some object of appetite or greed, or who makes you think you are a murderer if you try to leave her alone in a dark room. How can such powerful influences be overcome? To expect a child to let go of the desire or fear that grips her may seem as hopeless as Aristotle’s example of training a stone to fall upward, were it not for the fact that we all know that we have somehow, for the most part, broken the power of these tyrannical feelings. We don’t expel them altogether, but we do get the upper hand; an adult who has temper tantrums like those of a two-year old has to live in an institution, and not in the adult world. But the impulses and desires don’t weaken; it is rather the case that we get stronger.

Aristotle doesn’t go into much detail about how this happens, except to say that we get the virtues by working at them: in the give-and-take with other people, some become just, others unjust; by acting in the face of frightening things and being habituated to be fearful or confident, some become brave and others cowardly; and some become moderate and gentle, others spoiled and bad-tempered, by turning around from one thing and toward another in the midst of desires and passions. (1103 b, 1422) He sums this up by saying that when we are at-work in a certain way, an active state results. This innocent sentence seems to me to be one of the lynch-pins that hold together the Ethics, the spot that marks the transition from the language of habit to the language appropriate to character. If you read the sentence in Greek, and have some experience of Aristotle’s other writings, you will see how loaded it is, since it says that a hexis depends upon an energeia. The latter word, that can be translated as being-at-work, cannot mean mere behavior, however repetitive and constant it may be. It is this idea of being-at-work, which is central to all of Aristotle’s thinking, that makes intelligible the transition out of childhood and into the moral stature that comes with character and virtue. (See Aristotle on Motion and its Place in Nature for as discussion energeia.)

The moral life can be confused with the habits approved by some society and imposed on its young. We at St. John’s College still stand up at the beginning and end of Friday-night lectures because Stringfellow Barr — one of the founders of the current curriculum — always stood when anyone entered or left a room. What he considered good breeding is for us mere habit; that becomes obvious when some student who stood up at the beginning of a lecture occasionally gets bored and leaves in the middle of it. In such a case the politeness was just for show, and the rudeness is the truth. Why isn’t all habituation of the young of this sort? When a parent makes a child repeatedly refrain from some desired thing, or remain in some frightening situation, the child is beginning to act as a moderate or brave person would act, but what is really going on within the child? I used to think that it must be the parent’s approval that was becoming stronger than the child’s own impulse, but I was persuaded by others in a study group that this alone would be of no lasting value, and would contribute nothing to the formation of an active state of character. What seems more likely is that parental training is needed only for its negative effect, as a way of neutralizing the irrational force of impulses and desires.

We all arrive on the scene already habituated, in the habit, that is, of yielding to impulses and desires, of instantly slackening the tension of pain or fear or unfulfilled desire in any way open to us, and all this has become automatic in us before thinking and choosing are available to us at all. This is a description of what is called “human nature,” though in fact it precedes our access to our true natural state, and blocks that access. This is why Aristotle says that “the virtues come about in us neither by nature nor apart from nature” (1103a, 24-5). What we call “human nature,” and some philosophers call the “state of nature,” is both natural and unnatural; it is the passive part of our natures, passively reinforced by habit. Virtue has the aspect of a second nature, because it cannot develop first, nor by a continuous process out of our first condition. But it is only in the moral virtues that we possess our primary nature, that in which all our capacities can have their full development. The sign of what is natural, for Aristotle, is pleasure, but we have to know how to read the signs. Things pleasant by nature have no opposite pain and no excess, because they set us free to act simply as what we are (1154b, 15-21), and it is in this sense that Aristotle calls the life of virtue pleasant in its own right, in itself (1099a, 6-7, 16-17). A mere habit of acting contrary to our inclinations cannot be a virtue, by the infallible sign that we don’t like it.

Our first or childish nature is never eradicated, though, and this is why Aristotle says that our nature is not simple, but also has in it something different that makes our happiness assailable from within, and makes us love change even when it is for the worse. (1154b, 21-32) But our souls are brought nearest to harmony and into the most durable pleasures only by the moral virtues. And the road to these virtues is nothing fancy, but is simply what all parents begin to do who withhold some desired thing from a child, or prevent it from running away from every irrational source of fear. They make the child act, without virtue, as though it had virtue. It is what Hamlet describes to his mother, during a time that is out of joint, when a son must try to train his parent (III, Ìv,181-9):

Assume a virtue if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat
Of habits evil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain tonight,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence; the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature…

Hamlet is talking to a middle-aged woman about lust, but the pattern applies just as well to five-year-olds and candy. We are in a position to see that it is not the stamp of nature that needs to be changed but the earliest stamp of habit. We can drop Hamlet’s “almost” and rid his last quoted line of all paradox by seeing that the reason we need habit is to change the stamp of habit. A habit of yielding to impulse can be counteracted by an equal and opposite habit. This second habit is no virtue, but only a mindless inhibition, an automatic repressing of all impulses. Nor do the two opposite habits together produce virtue, but rather a state of neutrality. Something must step into the role previously played by habit, and Aristotle’s use of the word energeia suggests that this happens on its own, with no need for anything new to be imposed. Habituation thus does not stifle nature, but rather lets nature make its appearance. The description from Book VII of the Physics of the way children begin to learn applies equally well to the way human character begins to be formed: we settle down, out of the turmoil of childishness, into what we are by nature.

We noticed earlier that habituation is not the end but the beginning of the progress toward virtue. The order of states of the soul given by Aristotle went from habit to being-at-work to the hexis or active state that can give the soul moral stature. If the human soul had no being-at-work, no inherent and indelible activity, there could be no such moral stature, but only customs. But early on, when first trying to give content to the idea of happiness, Aristotle asks if it would make sense to think that a carpenter or shoemaker has work to do, but a human being as such is inert. His reply, of course, is that nature has given us work to do, in default of which we are necessarily unhappy, and that work is to put into action the power of reason. (1097b, 24-1098a, 4) Note please that he does not say that everyone must be a philosopher, nor even that human life is constituted by the activity of reason, but that our work is to bring the power of logos forward into action. Later, Aristotle makes explicit that the irrational impulses are no less human than reasoning is. (1111 b, 1-2) His point is that, as human beings, our desires need not be mindless and random, but can be transformed by thinking into choices, that is desires informed by deliberation. (1113a, 11) The characteristic human way of being-at-work is the threefold activity of seeing an end, thinking about means to it, and choosing an action. Responsible human action depends upon the combining of all the powers of the soul: perception, imagination, reasoning, and desiring. These are all things that are at work in us all the time. Good parental training does not produce them, or mold them, or alter them, but sets them free to be effective in action. This is the way in which, according to Aristotle, despite the contributions of parents, society, and nature, we are the co-authors of the active states of our own souls (1114b, 23-4).




Βράδυ όμοιο σχεδόν με τ’ άλλα: η πλήξη, λιγοστό φως,
οι χαμένοι δρόμοι
κι άξαφνα κάποιος που σου λέει “είμαι φτωχός”, σαν να
σου δίνει μια μεγάλη υπόσχεση.

The night almost same as all others: tediousness,
the faint light, lost paths
and suddenly someone says to you “I’m poor”, as though
giving you a great promise.
~Τάσου Λειβαδίτη-Εκλεγμένα Ποιήματα/Μετάφραση Μανώλη Αλυγιζάκη
~Tasos Livaditis-Selected Poems/Translated by Manolis Aligizakis

nostos and algos cover


Στάθηκε στο παραπέτο του παλιού κάστρου.
Από κάτω μας η πεινασμένη άβυσσο.
Λίγο βαθύτερα η θάλασσα λαμποκοπούσε
κι ημερωμένα κύματα χαιδεύαν
το κίτρινο αμμουδερό ακρογιάλι.

Τότε σήκωσε το χέρι του οριζόντια
λες κι ορκιζόταν στον ήλιο
σαν να υποσχόταν να ξαναγυρίσει
μιαν άλλη φορά σαν χρειαστούμε
κάποιον που να σταθεί ενάντια
στην απληστία τών μερικών
που βολεμένοι και παχουλοί
στη χαώδη χόρταση κολυμπούν.

Μα το κάστρο τούτο που δεν ανεχόταν
ηγέτες με τις παρωπίδες, έτριξε κι ίσως
γι’ αυτό κι ο ήρωάς μας επέμενε να δείχνει
σαν άπατη άβυσο τη θάλασσα.

Κι αφού σιγοπερπάταγε
στην άκρη του τειχιού
κι αφού έκανε το σταυρό του
αφέθηκε στη λύτρωση του μηδενός.

He stood at the edge of the old castle’s parapet
below it the hungry abyss and
even lower the gleaming sea
ready to splash its first wave
onto the yellow soft sandy beach

when he raised his arm
as if taking an oath
as if promising to come back
at another time when we’d need
one to stand against
the greed and gluttony of the few
who comfortable and fat
dwelled in their satiation.
Yet the old castle that couldn’t tolerate
leaders with blinkers, it creaked
as our hero insisted pointing
the endless abyss of the sea

and stepping on the parapet’s edge
he crossed himself over
then flew into
the deliverance of emptiness

~NOSTOS AND ALGOS, Ekstasis Editions, Victoria BC, 2012


Hear Me Out_cover_Jun9.indd

On the Kitchen Counter

Good morning my love,
The day is of course just starting for me, although passed three
in the afternoon, but you see, I dedicate all my night to think of
you as I go to the various bars with my friends.
Yesterday I mused that three months have already gone since we
separated, three months that I haven’t found refuge in that little
dip of your chest. There where I told you it was my secret cave,
where I felt secure.
I mused that lone moment of summer when we lied down on the
beach and the sun burnt us, I dripped a few drops of sea water to
quench the thirst I had for your love.
I get up at noon I return home almost at daybreak.
Empty as always since you left, the house welcomes me with the
radio being on since morning and the lights set on the timer.
Toast and Happy Hippo cheese are my evening meal along with
pills for the hangover.
And tears ready to run down my cheeks.
This will pass, no matter what, it’ll pass.
I remember one time when we returned home after a night
at the bouzoukia, we prepared an omelette and fried bread
because we were hungry.
Then after we ate we left the plates on the table and made love
on the kitchen counter. At daybreak, before we went to bed
hugging each other to go to sleep.
Unique moments! Our love was such, as long as it lasted.
Yet it left a deep scar behind, a scar that refuges to heal and like
a cancer eats me up from within.

Στον πάγκο της κουζίνας

Καλημέρα, αγάπη μου!
Η μέρα βέβαια αρχίζει για μένα τώρα, που είναι πια περασμένες τρεις το μεσημέρι, αλλά βλέπεις, το βράδυ μου το αφιερώνω όλο για να σκέφτομαι εσένα, ενώ τριγυρνάω με αδιάφορες παρέες στα μπαράκια.
Αναλογιζόμουν χτες πως πέρασαν κιόλας τέσσερις μήνες που δεν είμαστε μαζί, που έχω να χωθώ στη λακκουβίτσα του στέρνου σου.
Εκεί που σου ’λεγα πως είναι η μυστική σπηλιά μου, που όταν βρίσκομαι δεν φοβάμαι πια τίποτα και κανέναν.
Θυμήθηκα εκείνη τη μοναδική στιγμή του καλοκαιριού, που όπως ήμασταν ξαπλωμένοι στην παραλία και μας έψηνε ο ήλιος, σου ‘σταξα μέσα της νερό απ’ τη θάλασσα και μετά το ήπια από ’κει, για να ξεδιψάσω τον έρωτά μου για σένα.
Ξυπνάω το μεσημέρι, Γυρίζω σπίτι μου τα ξημερώματα…
Άδειο, όπως πάντα, από τότε που έφυγες, το σπίτι, με καλωσορίζει με το ραδιόφωνο, που παίζει απ’ το πρωί και τα φώτα που ανάβουν με χρονοδιακόπτη, όταν σκοτεινιάζει.
Παξιμάδια, τυρί και Happy Hippo, το βραδινό μου, μαζί με τα χάπια για τον πονοκέφαλο απ’ το αλκοόλ.
Και τα δάκρυα στα μάτια μου, έτοιμα να κυλήσουν στα μάγουλά μου.
Θα περάσει, πού θα πάει! Θα περάσει.
Θυμάμαι μια φορά, που είχαμε γυρίσει ξημερώματα απ’ τα μπουζούκια και πριν κοιμηθούμε, φτιάξαμε ομελέτα και τηγανητό ψωμί, γιατί πεινούσαμε.
Και μετά, αφήσαμε τα πιάτα στο τραπέζι και κάναμε έρωτα στον πάγκο της κουζίνας. Ξημερώματα, πριν πάμε να κοιμηθούμε αγκαλιασμένοι στο κρεβάτι μας.
Στιγμές μοναδικές! Έτσι ήταν όλη η αγάπη μας, όσο κράτησε.
Η αγάπη, όχι η συμβίωση.
Αυτή τράβηξε πολύ κι άφησε πίσω της μια ύπουλη πληγή, που δε λέει να γιατρευτεί και δουλεύει από μέσα, σαν σαράκι.

~HEAR ME OUT, Tzoutzi Mantzourani, translated by Manolis Aligizakis, Libros Libertad, 2015


images of absence cover


Ήξερε είχε ακόμα χρόνο προτού
τον εκτελέσουν. Ξάπλωσε
στο τσιμεντένιο πάτωμα να νιώσει
τη δροσιά του κάτω κόσμου, εκεί
που οι ψυχές παγώνουν μες στη νύχτα
κι η σκληρότητα της πλάκας
πάνω στο κορμί έμοιαζε πόρτα
ολόψυχρη μπροστά στα μάτια του

ξάφνου γύρισε προς το μέρος μου
γέλασε ένα βιαστικό, βραχύ γέλιο
σαν να ζεστανόταν για μια ομιλία
που θ’ αρχινούσε αλλά δίχως να πει
κουβέντα άρπαξε το σακκούλι και
μου το `δωσε σαν να ταχτοποιούσε
τις τελευταίες υποθέσεις του

και σφράγισε τ’ αυτιά με τις παλάμες
μόλις μπήκε ο ιερέας
απ’ την πόρτα ψάλλοντας



He knew there was still time
until the execution. He lied
flat on the concrete floor
to feel the freshness
of the underworld where
the souls freeze at night
the hardness of the slab
against his flesh a slap like
a frozen door shut before his eyes

suddenly he turned towards me
laughed a hasten short laughter
as if warming up for
an important speech he had to give
and without any word
he grabbed his bag and
passed it over to me as if
he settled his last affairs

then he sealed his ears with his palms
when the chanting chaplain
came through the door