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Death and Immortality in Aristotle’s Eudemus, Fr. 6, Ross

mor segev
Tuesday, January 21, 2020, 3:30 pm – 5:10 pm


In a fragment of his lost dialogue Eudemus (Fr. 6, Ross=Plutarch, Consolatio ad Apoll. 115b-e), Aristotle relates a story in which Silenus tells King Midas that the best thing for humans is never to have been born, and the next best thing for them is to die soon. It is often assumed that Aristotle himself endorses Silenus’ statement, which in turn expresses either (1) a popular pessimistic approach glorifying death as an escape from life’s toils or (2) a Platonic stance viewing death as freeing the immortal human soul by enabling it to contemplate the eternal Forms uninterruptedly. Elements of both of these approaches do exist in Aristotle's formulation of Silenus’ dictum. However, I argue, Aristotle engages with the dictum and with these approaches critically. Aristotle is committed to the claim, familiar from De anima and the Metaphysics, that the intellect is immortal and that its disembodied contemplative activity, unlike individual humans and their life activities, survives death. However, though he thinks that the posthumous activity of the intellect is superior to anything done in a human life, Aristotle consciously avoids subscribing to Silenus’ idea that humans are better off not being born or dying quickly. I argue that Aristotle rejects that idea because, for him, the posthumous persistence of the human intellect does not afford human beings personal immortality, and because he thinks that human life, which Silenus disparages, is an indispensable feature of the world as a whole, and that the world is perfectly good as is and is thus worth preserving in all its details.