Aristotle and Aristoxenus on Effort

Published: Dec 28, 2021
effort conatus geometrical order self-awareness consciousness ancient Greek music musicology
John Robert Bagby
The discussions of conatus – force, tendency, effort, and striving – in early modern metaphysics have roots in Aristotle’s understanding of life as an internal experience of living force. This paper examines the ways that Spinoza’s conatus is consonant with Aristotle on effort. By tracking effort from his psychology and ethics to aesthetics, I show there is a conatus at the heart of the activity of the ψυχή that involves an intensification of power in a way which anticipates many of the central insights of early modern and 20th century European philosophy. The first section outlines how Aristotle’s developmental conception of the soul as geometrically ordered lays the foundation for his understanding of effort. The developmental series of powers of the soul are analogous to the series of shapes in mathematics. The second section links the striving of the soul to the gradual acquisition of virtues as a directed activity unifying multiplicity. The third examines the paradigm of self-awareness that Aristotelian effort involves. In the final section I show how ancient Greek theories of music were founded on the experience of striving. The “nature” of music is defined by Aristoxenus, and Theophrastus, in relation to the passion and intentionality of the soul. The geometrical order, as a synthesis of elements in geometry, music, or ethics, is a generative process in which past elements are retained and reintegrated in later stages of development. It requires effort to think geometrically, and the progress of knowledge itself is an integral aspect of all effort. Effort is the lived and self-aware cause which, moving step by step in an orderly and deliberate way, grows and advances upon itself. For both Spinoza and Aristotle, effort is the immanent intelligence which accomplishes what is in the purview of its understanding. Thus, will, in this conception of effort, is not something we already possess innately, but emerges gradually by an effort aimed at improvement.
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Author Biography
John Robert Bagby, Boston College
PhD Candidate Philosophy
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