The status of the human is presently in question in some corners. The momentum behind post-humanism, transhumanism, and transgenderism indicates new doubts about what it means to be human—and indeed about the desirability of being human at all. Thus, Mary Nichols’s new book, Aristotle’s Discovery of the Human, despite chiefly being a reading of 2,500-year-old texts, could scarcely have come at a better time. In Nichols’s hands, these texts and their relevance to our times quickly become clear.

“Clear” is a word one rarely sees applied without qualification to Aristotle, given his rigorous pedagogical style that requires the writer and the reader to reckon with the complexity of vital topics. Fortunately, Nichols, Professor Emerita of Political Science at Baylor University, is a lucid writer, avoiding jargon but never oversimplifying the unavoidable intricacy of her subject. Her title recalls Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare’s Invention of the Human, yet there remains a world of difference between discovery and invention. That we ourselves in fact require some discovery gives a clue to the topic’s difficulty.

Nichols takes as her starting point what is perhaps Aristotle’s most well-known statement on the human question: man is a political animal, and one would have to be a beast or a god to live outside of a political community. She is in many ways most interested in the second part of that statement. “Beast” and “god” define the lower and upper limits, respectively, of our capacities. The fact that these reference points are used in lieu of any technical definition indicates the elusiveness of this theme. Humans lack a completely fixed and definable nature, possessing instead a range of potentiality that can justly be called human. There are simply more ways to be a human than to be, say, a carp.

Nichols’s treatment also serves as a useful corrective to the widespread misapprehension of Aristotle, associated particularly with Hannah Arendt, that we most fully realize our human potential via participation in political life. Nichols correctly understands the Aristotelian zoon politikon to refer to our intrinsic faculties rather than being a hieratic claim about what is finally best in life. Politics may be the architectonic science, and our political faculties and communities do make possible human flourishing—but political activity itself isn’t the highest form of flourishing, and we should judge a political community by its ability to support the flourishing of human lives, not simply its ability to maintain itself. But what makes such a life human in the first place?  

Nichols takes up this question through a reading of the Nicomachean Ethics. Her answer (reminiscent of both Aristophanes’ and Socrates’ speeches in Plato’s Symposium) is that our humanity is characterized by incompleteness. An animal enjoys a kind of low wholeness (requiring limited necessities to live in accordance with its nature), and a god is divinely self-sufficient, but humans are by nature incomplete. Nichols notes that this gap is a “source of suffering and failure” but “also the condition for attaining the blessedness that is possible for human beings.” It is our essential incompleteness that allows us to enjoy “the nurture and care of family life, the common deliberations of citizens, the loving and being loved that occur in friendships, and a wonder about the divine.”

This last pleasure is of particular importance for Nichols, as her most notable innovation in this work is to elevate the importance of Aristotle’s conception of “piety” in relation to the rest of his thought. This is a complex move, and it is impossible to do justice here to her treatment of piety or to the larger questions it raises about the relationship between human life and the divine. The difficulty arises from the fact that, as Nichols notes, Aristotle did not number piety in his taxonomy of virtues, and his explicit use of the term itself is limited to but a couple of instances across the Ethics and the Politics.

She is persuasive, however, that a certain attitude of piety might be an essential component of a life that avoids either hubris or animalistic degradation. This attitude is not necessarily religious, and it does not make Aristotle into a theologian—but it does call for greater attention paid to the things above humanity. The question is whether this elevation of piety truly reflects Aristotle’s understanding of it as opposed to Nichols’s interpretation of it, informed as such an interpretation must be by her historical awareness of Christianity.

Nichols concludes, as a good Aristotelian should, with some practical considerations of how Aristotle’s account of the human might apply to our situation in modern liberal democracies. This epilogue is too brief to spar extensively with her foils, but following Paul Ludwig and Stephen Salkever, she contrasts Aristotle’s thought with the fundamentally limited and unsatisfying understanding of the human supplied by contemporary liberal theory. She contends not only with those who believe no answer beyond liberalism is needed but also with those who seek to replace it altogether, such as Adrian Vermeule and Patrick Deneen.

She ultimately finds in Aristotle a serious alternative to liberal theory that nonetheless does not seek to do away with liberalism itself. She argues that applying an Aristotelian model of the human will “inform how we view our own liberal institutions and practices” without abandoning them. This, she believes, will protect us from the more hedonistic impulses fostered by purely liberal theory without making us vulnerable to the more authoritarian risks she believes are posed by illiberalism or postliberalism. Aristotelian piety can thus serve as a corrective that maintains the advances she believes liberalism has made possible without being blind to its weaknesses. Here, one admires her prudent moderation (again befitting a good Aristotelian) while also wishing she allowed just a bit more for the difficulties posed by some of Aristotle’s own claims. One still wonders at the distance between ourselves and Aristotle when it comes to the practical experience of political life, even as we seek to recover the full depth and scope of his teaching. In any case, I can think of few recent works that persuade the reader of the value of this task as does this one.

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