Review of Pearson, Aristotle on Desire [Book Review]

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 9:24 (2013)
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The image of a copy of Praxiteles’ Aphrodite—nude but demurely shielding her pubic region—which adorns the dust cover of Pearson’s superb monograph, Aristotle on Desire</i>), suggests to the casual book buyer that the volume encased therein will explain Aristotle’s thoughts about sexual desire—perhaps as a central part or the paradigm case of his general theory of desire. But the goddess likes being tricky: Aristotle has very little to say about sexual desire (at best it is a subcategory of <i>epithumia</i>, set alongside the desires for eating and drinking and reduced to tactile stimulation), and it is not immediately apparent that he possesses a general theory or account of desire. No doubt, Aristotle discusses many aspects of <i>orexis</i> (Aristotle’s general term for desire) in relationship to human action, in his consideration of the rhetorical manipulation of the emotions, and in his examination of animate motion. But as Pearson notes, neither in Aristotle’s catalog of writings nor in his surviving works is there an Aristotelian <i>peri orexeôs</i>. Pearson’s monograph, which is the “distant descendant” of a Ph.D. completed at Cambridge in 2004, thus is an exercise in detective work which combs through Aristotle’s discussions of desire throughout the corpus (albeit with focus on the ethical treatises, the <i>Rhetoric</i>, and <i>De Anima</i>) in order to reconstruct what a general theory of desire would look like for Aristotle. Pearson does a masterful job at drawing together into a coherent whole many of Aristotle’s scattered remarks about the different aspects of desire and provides a model for textual analysis of philosophically abstruse passages. Along the way, he overturns a number of scholarly orthodoxies (for instance, that Aristotle’s account of <i>thumos</i> retains elements of Platonic <i>thumos</i> or “spiritedness” or that <i>thumos</i> has a unique relationship to the <i>kalon</i> or what is fine) and situates Aristotle’s theory amidst contemporary philosophers of desire such as Thomas Nagle, Thomas Scanlon, and G.F. Schuler. The result is a landmark work of scholarship that scholars working on Aristotle’s moral psychology will need to engage and argue with. Whether the work warrants the adornment of Aphrodite is a question to which I will return in my conclusion.

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Thornton Lockwood
Quinnipiac University


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