November 8: Of Psychagogia and Involuntary Agents

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, tragic actions are described—at their core—as “involuntary” (unintentional), where intention is linked not to choice or to will but to an understanding or misunderstanding of the action’s fullest outcome:

But the term ‘involuntary’ does not really apply to an action when the agent is ignorant of his true interests. The ignorance that makes an act blameworthy is not ignorance displayed in moral choice (that sort of ignorance constitutes vice)—that is to say, it is not general ignorance of the circumstances of the act and of the things affected by it; for in this case the act is pitied and forgiven, because he who acts in ignorance of any of these circumstances is an involuntary agent.

–The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham (London, 1926; rpt. 1975), 3.I.15

Time and again I have invited students to make sense of this—of this passage, this section in the Ethics, this entire text—in light of more contemporary tragic actions and moral systems. Time and again, we have concluded that Aristotle’s subtleties in definition must have been made in the service of theorizing Goodness as a more practice-able, service-able art. Is “goodness” inherent?, we would ask ourselves. Learned? Acquired through social or political activity? Does it represent a way of living or a way of being? Is “goodness” a stable enough dynamic against which all other moral actions can be measured? Does Aristotle’s notion of “involuntary agent” make it more or less possible for individuals to be responsible? To be good?

Today, I am keenly aware of the challenges posed by this passage and a new set of questions to pose to students. The concept (“involuntary”) itself remains difficult to contend with when accounting for individual responses to political events. But today, the concept seems nearly impossible to apply in the face of the political spectacle that has been determined by our electoral college system, or in response to political actions that are performed through catharsis.

Throughout the Ethics, Aristotle argues that it takes a special kind of political agent to be the knowledge maker. While my students have openly criticized the racialized, imperialized, engendered nature of the qualifications that governed Aristotle’s “special kind of agent,” they have rarely disagreed that there is a need for one. Today, for the third time in this millennium, I wonder whether this agent has been abandoned altogether, or is at best an archival fiction—never actually realized beyond Aristotle’s lecture notes, and not realizable among the voluntary.


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