Rational Man


Rational Man: A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics, by Henry B. Veatch, Indiana University Press, 1962, Pp. 226, $1.95 paperback.

Professor Henry B. Veatch of the University of Indiana, is indeed a rarity among today's philosophers: a firm advocate of an ethics of reason. And, as one might expect, the source of his advocacy is Aristotle.

It is fascinating to watch Professor Veatch, his Aristotelian scalpel in hand, operate upon the malignant growths now on the philosophical body of ethics: relativism, skepticism, determinism, altruism, utilitarianism, the 'naturalistic fallacy', and the strident claim that one cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is'—all are cut off at the root with surgical precision.

Yet, it is the positive aspect of the Professor's thesis that is most interesting: his justification of an ethics of objective value based on the facts of reality.

The work is not without flaws. It is not sufficiently rigorous, philosophically—but this is perhaps excusable as it is written not for the academic philosopher but for the intelligent layman. Even so, one could wish for more explicit discussion of certain basic Aristotelian concepts, such as phusis, phronesis, final cause, and the intimate relationship between (or even equation of) man's formal cause (his essential identity: the capacity to be rational) to his final cause (his end or function: being rational). There are some puzzling, but very minor allusions to religion, an offensive and irrelevant quote from Erich Fromm, and a small digression into sloppy modern terminology re 'contingent facts' (Aristotle's distinction between man-made facts and facts of nature—'variable' and 'invariable'—would have helped him here). There is also an interesting but questionable attempt to ground the objectivity of value in Aristotle's metaphysics of potentiality/actuality—this seems to place 'value' in a wider context than 'life', which is nonsensical. Of course, Veatch should be read carefully: his style often takes the pose of the advocatus diaboli, whereby he gives a fair presentation of his opponent's views as if he were advocating them, before proceeding to demolish them (readers of Ludwig von Mises will be familiar with this style).

Besides the basic theme of rationality as a life-style, there are many gems of argumentation that more than make up for the above minor flaws. Many of Professor Veatch's points about the nature of emotions, Socratic self-knowledge and the 'examined life' have relevance to Nathaniel Branden's essay on THE DISOWNED SELF. Professor Veatch also sees clearly that for man, morality begins with the individual's ultimate choice to think or to evade that responsibility.

If at all possible, one should read Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics in conjunction with Professor Veatch's book. They most certainly will help the reader go a long way in living his life as a Rational Man.

What Professor Veatch is offering, without explicitly naming it, is Aristotle's man of phronesis as a moral ideal. The man of phronesis, or 'practical wisdom' is the man of moral action, the man who is able to correctly apply moral principles discerned by his reason to particular circumstances in the world. The man of practical wisdom is the man who puts reason to work to achieve his happiness. The reader will note here the crucial notion of an ethics of reason as eminently practical—a notion which Professor Veatch constantly stresses.

What is most appealing to me, however, is the fact that Professor Veatch sees clearly the major thrust of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics—which is also that of the philosophy of Objectivism, and is the common bond between the two. Aristotle and Objectivism ultimately advocate rationality as a life-style. Neither philosophy is primarily one of ethics or epistemology or metaphysics as an abstract body of intellectual principles. The key to both is their profound personal importance to the individual human being as he acts and lives in the human condition.

The 'human condition' is a term favored by the Existentialists, and it is specifically to them that RATIONAL MAN is addressed as a refutation. Professor Veatch lucidly traces Aristotle's demonstration that not only through rationality can man achieve his well-being, but that rationality, the life of reason, is his well-being—and that what man ought to achieve (his well-being as an individual) proceeds from what he is, his identity, his phusis.

Mr. Wheeler is a teaching assistant and graduate student at USC. His interests range from political theory through metaphysics…to African safaris.