Last Things is the regular column of James Schall, S. J.
“For neither do we deliberate about what is past, but only about what will be and admits of being or not being; and what is past does not admit of not having happened. Hence Agathon is correct to say ‘Of this alone even a god is deprived—to make what is all done to have never happened.’”
—Aristotle, Ethics, #1139b8–11.
Agathon was the gentleman who hosted the Symposium that Plato wrote so beautifully about. Indeed, before he began his famous speech at the banquet, Agathon protested that he was very nervous in speaking on such an elevated topic. Socrates told him that he had just seen him present his play to a theater audience where he did not seem nervous at all. Agathon replied that, “Why, Socrates. You must think I have nothing but theater audiences on my mind! So you suppose I don’t realize that, if you’re intelligent, you find a few sensible men much more frightening than a senseless crowd” (194b). Some conversations, Aquinas said, take place among the learned because they are more difficult to understand and, no doubt, because the learned are the most stubborn to admit the truth.
Yet, more often than we like to acknowledge, kingdoms rise or fall on the merits of sophisticated issues that pass into lived reality as either true or false. It is one of the ironies of our kind that, while our guilt may be lessened or eliminated, as Aristotle also said, by passion, ignorance, or force, the things that are wrong or erroneous still live and carry on their consequences in the world once they are chosen in a human action. This fact is what Aristotle meant, in a famous phrase, when he remarked that “A small error in the beginning will lead to a huge one in the end.”
The great French philosophical historian, Etienne Gilson, once remarked, in a passage I have never quite forgotten, that once an error is posited, and not reduced to order, it will lie there till someone further down the line of history takes it up again and carries its logic out into reality.
So Schall is again reading the great Sixth Book of Aristotle’s Ethics with a class. Herein, Aristotle addresses the virtues of thought, especially prudence, the most intellectual of the moral virtues, but also nous and wisdom. Aristotle said that “We do not decide to do what is already past.” That is something so obvious that we need to read it again and again just to be sure we get its point.
We only decide about what is future, what is in our power to effect. And yet, if we are talking of human things past, we do not understand them for what they are if we do not include in our comprehension of them the fact that they could have been “otherwise.” They were not determined to be as they are.
Aristotle makes his point, as he often does, laconically, by dryly observing: “No one decides to have sacked Troy.” Troy has no doubt been sacked. That is now a fact, not an object of deliberation and decision. It was not “necessary” that it was attacked before the event happened. But once sacked, it is sacked forever. “The past does not admit of not having happened.”
At this point, Aristotle brings in our friend Agathon, a wealthy, cultured man, a playwright, and a generous host. Aristotle, recalling something Agathon had written, says that Agathon is correct when he makes the following statement: “Of this alone even a god is deprived—to make what is all done to have never happened.” Aristotle agrees with the quoted statement of Agathon.
Everyone, no doubt, has wished that something or other he did “never happened,” but it did and through his own causality. Aristotle himself gives two reactions to terrible things that did happen, namely, “pardon and pity.” What is pity? Aristotle uses the example of Priam, in the Trojan War, the good man who loses everything. The same point is also in the Book of Job. We cannot do anything about what has happened, but we can show pity for a fellow human being who has lost everything either by his own fault or the accidents of war or nature. By our show of pity, we remain bound to the most unfortunate in this case. The opposite of pity is to delight in the good of another, even if it is not our direct good, which is what we mean by praise.