On the Role of Reason in the Ethical Thought of Aristotle and R. Saadia Ga’on

Left[1] to their own devices, most animals do what they want, when they want. When they’re hungry, they eat. When they’re thirsty, they drink.  When they’re aroused, they copulate. When they’re tired, they sleep. In short, animals spend their days satisfying their instincts. And why shouldn’t they? No way of life could possibly be more natural or more desirable, it seems.

Yet this is precisely the way of life whose value philosophers call into question when they suggest that there is an “ethical” way to act, distinct from and superior to the merely “pleasurable” mode of conduct. To convince man that he ought not to do that which he wants to do is, of course, a monumental task.  Nevertheless, both Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics,[2] and R. Saadia Ga’on (“Rasag”), in his Sefer Emunot V’De’ot,[3] attempt to do just that: they reason with their readers in an effort to demonstrate why pleasure is not quite as attractive as it might appear on the surface.[4]

For his part, Aristotle challenges the worth of pleasure by observing that it is finite—since it can vary in degree—whereas “nothing can be added to the [truly] good to make it more choiceworthy.”[5] Aristotle also emphasizes that pleasure is fleeting, for “no one is continuously pleased.”[6] Meanwhile, Rasag notes that what is pleasing to one person, such as murdering an enemy, is often painful to another person, so that if pleasure is the measure of good and pain is the measure of evil, one arrives at the absurd conclusion that the same act could be both “good and evil at one and the same time.”[7] Thus, while we might intuitively assume that pleasure is the end of human action, both Rasag and Aristotle reject this notion on rational grounds. Of course, this leaves us wondering: if pleasure is not the ultimate good, what is?

On this question, the two thinkers would part ways. For Aristotle, “the human function is activity… in accord with reason.”[8] As such, he contends, “the life in accord with understanding will be supremely best.”[9]  To be sure, Aristotle acknowledges that acting in accordance with reason – living “virtuously,” as he terms it – does not alone produce happiness; to be happy, one must also be blessed with “externals” such as “good birth, good children [and] beauty.”[10] Nevertheless, Aristotle insists that “actions in accord with virtues are pleasant in their own right”[11] and that such actions are unique in this regard. Rasag disagrees. He views God’s commandments, not virtuous actions, as “the means whereby [one] attain[s] complete happiness and perfect bliss.”[12] Moreover, Rasag’s “bliss” is not intrinsic to ethical activity, as the “good” is in Aristotle’s conception. Instead, Rasag identifies the “perennial delight and perpetual reward” and the “painful torment and perpetual sojourn in hell-fire”[13] of the afterlife as the primary factors which motivate one’s conduct. Indeed, he concedes, “were it not for these two alternatives, there would have been nothing to imbue man with either aspiration or fear.”[14] Unlike Aristotle, Rasag does not consider virtue, or “actualized reason,” to be a sufficiently satisfying recompense for moral behavior. Hence he presents an extrinsic incentive for such behavior, in the form of divine blessing and punishment.

Actually, Aristotle also makes mention of the divine when explaining why the virtuous life is preferable to any other. Having established that conduct in accordance with reason is inherently pleasant, Aristotle proceeds to map out the mechanisms which make it so. It is in this context in which he invokes the divine. Aristotle claims that “the best [virtue] is understanding” for it is “the most divine element in us.”[15] From this premise he concludes that “happiness extends just as far as study extends, and the more someone studies, the happier he is.”[16] For Aristotle, man’s rational faculties–his “virtues of thought”–are his “supreme element”[17] precisely because they are rooted in the divine. He even equates “the activity of study” with “the gods’ activity,”[18] arguing that it is unreasonable to imagine that the gods spend their time in any activity other than study. According to Aristotle, then, the gods are essentially reasonable. Thus, humans, too, should act rationally, in order to lead a life which is “valuable in itself.”[19]

Interestingly, the notion of God as fundamentally reasonable is one which Rasag also seems to assume throughout his treatise. At one point in his work, Rasag struggles to understand why God commands mankind to worship Him given that He does not derive any benefit from said worship. Rasag settles this question by observing that “logic” itself “demands that whoever does something good be compensated,” and that “it would not have been seemly for the Creator” to “neglect” the “general demands of reason.”[20] Elsewhere Rasag claims to “have demonstrated clearly that [logical] necessity led God to dispatch messengers [i.e. prophets] to mankind.”[21] In yet a third passage Rasag argues that “if God were to exercise his force upon His servant there would be no sense to His command”[22]–taking it for granted that the commands should be “sensible” in the first place. Indeed, Rasag explicitly asserts that a large body of God’s commandments fall into what he calls the category of “rational precepts of the Torah.”[23] He even purports to understand the logic behind these commandments. Thus we find statements such as “the divine Wisdom imposed a restraint upon bloodshed among men because…”,[24] “divine Wisdom forbade fornication in order that…”,[25]  “theft was forbidden by divine Wisdom because…”,[26] and many other statements to this effect. Rasag imposes the standard of human reason upon God with considerable frequency. He thereby communicates his tacit belief that God’s system of ethics is, for the most part, intelligible to human beings.

On the other hand, Rasag certainly acknowledges that human reason is limited in its ability to lead one towards the ethical life. In one particularly pointed remark, Rasag labels the person who is unable to “concede to the existence of any wisdom that might be hidden from him” as someone who is “dominated” by “arrogance and conceit.”[27] For Rasag, this “hidden wisdom” is to be discovered primarily through “authentic tradition”–a source of knowledge without which, he points out, man “would not even be certain of being the son of his mother.”[28] What is more, those who abandon the tradition will necessarily neglect aspects which Rasag considers critical to proper conduct, since some commandments, in his view, “consist of things neither the approval nor the disapproval of which is decreed by reason.”[29] Although Rasag surmises that even the commandments in this category “have some partial uses as well as certain slight justifications from the point of view of reason,”[30] he maintains that these commandments are ultimately arational. Without the tradition, we would never know of them.

Needless to say, Aristotle would not countenance Rasag’s inclusion of “arational precepts” within the rubric of ethical activity. Yet even Aristotle recognizes the moral limits of reason, in his way. At the very outset of his work, Aristotle establishes that the “purpose of [ethical] examination is not to know what virtue is [through study], but to become good, since otherwise the inquiry would be of no benefit.”[31] By way of analogy, Aristotle compares those who try to “become excellent people” by “taking refuge in arguments [and] philosophy” to a “sick person who listens attentively to the doctor but acts on none of his instructions.”[32] So convinced is Aristotle that reason alone cannot produce ethical behavior that he actually doubts whether someone who has not received prior training in ethical conduct can benefit at all from ethical philosophy. To that end, Aristotle states that “we need to have been brought up in fine habits if we are to be adequate students of fine and just things,”[33] and cautions that it is “very important” to “acquire [the right] sort of habit right from our youth.”[34]

Where Aristotle speaks of ethical “education” or “habituation” as the necessary precursor to ethical reasoning, Rasag speaks of revelation. Since Rasag posits that “all matters of religious belief… can be maintained by means of research and correct speculation,”[35] he is led to conclude that these “matters” could just as soon have been transmitted by God through “intellectual demonstration” as through “prophecy.”[36] The question thus arises as to why God ultimately elected the latter over the former. By way of response, Rasag explains that God chose to communicate via “His messengers” in order to “afford… quick relief” to those who “might never complete the process because of some flaw in [their] reasoning” or because they are “overwhelmed by uncertainties.”[37] God, implies Rasag, prioritizes ethical conduct over ethical comprehension: He prefers to see man act ethically today–even if man does not currently appreciate the significance of his actions–rather than waiting until tomorrow, by which time man might gain complete cognizance of what he is doing. In this way, Rasag echoes Aristotle, who also holds that ethical actions must precede ethical thoughts.

But of course, neither Aristotle nor Rasag regards the interplay of these two factors as a zero-sum proposition. More accurately, the relationship between ethical conduct and ethical comprehension is, in their view, symbiotic: one must act ethically even before one understands the nature of proper actions, and yet only by gaining said understanding can one’s actions truly be deemed “ethical,” in the fullest sense of the term. Aristotle puts it bluntly when he states that “actions are not enough.”[38] Rather, he argues, the man of virtue “must know that he is doing virtuous actions,” and must “decide on them for themselves.”[39] By way of analogy, Aristotle reminds us that “it is possible to produce a grammatical result by chance or by following… instructions.”[40] To qualify as true grammarians, however, “we must both produce a grammatical result, and produce it… in accord with the grammatical knowledge in us.”[41]  Aristotle extends this principle to the realm of ethics, claiming that “we must take someone’s pleasure or pain following on his actions to be a sign of his state.”[42]  For instance, someone who “stands firm against terrifying situations” is only brave, from Aristotle’s standpoint, if he “does not find it painful”–otherwise, “he is cowardly.”[43] According to Aristotle, then, one’s mindset is just as important as one’s actions in determining the quality of one’s conduct.

Here too Rasag concurs, adding once again a spiritual dimension to the discussion. As Rasag sees it, “men will improve in their inner beings as well as their outer conduct” only when their “[theological] doubts are dispelled.”[44] Unlike many religious thinkers, Rasag rejects the epistemic validity of “blind faith.” Quite the contrary: Rasag considers it supremely important that men develop a firm intellectual basis for their belief in God and their adherence to His commandments. In this vein, he begins his treatise by challenging his readers to “acquire in their hearts a deterrent from error”[45] on matters of doctrine or creed. By doing so, Rasag assures them, they will create space for their “beliefs to prevail in their affairs,”[46] thereby enabling their minds, hearts, and bodies to operate in harmony rather than in dissonance. In fact, Rasag claims, “our Creator Himself enjoin[s] us to do this very thing”[47]–namely, to “engage in speculation and diligent research”[48] until “the arguments in favor of [the tradition] have become convincing for us.”[49]

Given the enormous theological and chronological divide separating Aristotle from Rasag, it is remarkable to observe how closely their thinking aligns when discussing the role that reason ought to play in one’s search for the “good,” or ethical, principles of conduct. Both argue discursively against our intuitive notion that pleasure constitutes the ultimate end of human agency. Rasag would deny Aristotle’s contention that acting in accordance with reason serves as its own reward. However, both Rasag and Aristotle conceive of the divine as fundamentally reasonable, and both call on their readers to imitate this divine trait. Unlike Rasag, Aristotle does not regard revelation as a valid source of ethical information. But, like Rasag, Aristotle insists upon correct intention as a critical component of any ethical act, even as he recognizes that children must be trained to act ethically before they develop the capacity to think ethically.

In a limited sense, then, both Rasag and Aristotle acknowledge that reason and some form of “revelation” are mutually indispensable in our quest to lead an ethical life. We humans certainly possess the ability to analyze moral questions rationally. Nevertheless, caution these thinkers, we cannot rely solely on our rational faculties if we wish to ensure the morality of our behavior. Each of us depends on our parents and teachers to provide (reveal?) the axioms which then shape the trajectory of our normative thinking. It is a supreme act of faith to erect our ethical edifices upon the education with which our elders endow us. As far as Aristotle and Rasag are concerned, though, it may be one of the most reasonable decisions we ever make.


[1] This paper was originally written for a course in moral theory, in which context R. Saadia Ga’on was presented alongside Aristotle as an “ethical philosopher.” Though we use the terms “philosopher,” “thinker,” “theorist,” etc. throughout to refer to Rasag, this is merely for the sake of convenience. It goes without saying that for us as b’nei u’bnot Torah, R. Saadia—one of the foremost Halakhists, mefarshei Tanakh and ba’alei mahshava of the Geonic period— is so much more than that which is conveyed by the blanket term “philosopher.”

[2] Translations and page numbers taken from Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Second Edition, trans. Terence Irwin, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1999.

[3] Translations and page numbers taken from Saadia Gaon: The Book of Beliefs & Opinions, trans. Samuel Rosenblatt, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

[4] Aristotle was born in the fourth century BCE, in Greece; Rasag was born in the ninth century CE, in Egypt. Much of Islamic philosophy in Rasag’s day was grounded in the writings of Aristotle and Plato, and Rasag himself was certainly familiar with Aristotelean philosophy. But the name “Aristotle” does not appear once in his writings. At any rate, it is not my intention in this essay to speculate on what sort of impact Aristotle’s thought may have had on that of Rasag. Our goal here is simply to compare their ideas. Readers interested in the question of historical influence are encouraged to consult “Aristotle in Jewish Literature,” available at: www.jewishencylcopedia.com.

[5] Nicomachean Ethics, 155

[6] Nicomachean Ethics, 159

[7] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 25

[8] Nicomachean Ethics, 9

[9] Nicomachean Ethics, 165

[10] Nicomachean Ethics, 11

[11] ibid.

[12] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 137

[13] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 185

[14] ibid.

[15] Nicomachean Ethics, 163

[16] Nicomachean Ethics, 166

[17] Nicomachean Ethics, 167

[18] Nicomachean Ethics, 166

[19] ibid.

[20] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 139

[21] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 147

[22] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 189

[23] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 141

[24] ibid.

[25] ibid.

[26] ibid.

[27] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 35

[28] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 156

[29] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 140

[30] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 141

[31] Nicomachean Ethics, 19

[32] Nicomachean Ethics, 22

[33] Nicomachean Ethics, 4

[34] Nicomachean Ethics, 19

[35]This statement need not contradict Rasag’s earlier statement to the effect that some commandments are fundamentally arational. Most likely, Rasag maintains that even the so-called “arational” commandments operate according to some rationale, but that humans are not capable of accessing this rationale independently. This does not preclude the possibility of God taking the initiative, as it were, to divulge their rationale through what Rasag terms “intellectual demonstration.” In other words, although humans might not be able to derive the “arational” commandments of their own accord, they can nevertheless find “slight justifications” to understand these commandments once these commandments have been introduced to them.

[36] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 31

[37] ibid.

[38] Nicomachean Ethics, 22

[39] ibid.

[40] ibid.

[41] ibid.

[42] Nicomachean Ethics, 20

[43] ibid.

[44] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 9

[45] ibid.

[46] ibid.

[47] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 27

[48] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 28

[49] The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, 32