A tangled web of “ethos” : comment on Seminar VII, The ethics of psychoanalysis, 25th November 1959

by Nicholas Stylianou on October 31, 2012

Please find below my findings on the ἔθος / ἦθος / ήθος terminology.


I have been following up the line which says:


“…habits – that’s what is meant by θος. And this θος has to be made to conform to the ήθος…” : Seminar VII, Chapter II, 25th November 1959, §1 (p22 of Porter’s English translation).


My investigation suggests no significant difference in meaning between the two accented forms ἦ and ή (other than subtle pronunciation), they are likely to simply be the ancient/modern forms respectively.


For clarification Bruno de Florence has kindly provided Lacan’s original French as:


“…c’est là l’étos, et cet étos, il s’agit de l’ob­tenir conforme à l’êtos…”


Furthermore the original text from the reference to Aristotle’s Ethics II.1 [1103α] (14-15) says:


“Διττῆς δὴ τῆς ρετς οὔσης, τῆς μὲν διανοητικῆς τῆς δὲ θικς, ἡ μὲν διανοητικὴ τὸ πλεῖον ἐκ διδασκαλίας ἔχει καὶ τὴν γένεσιν καὶ τὴν αὔξησιν, διόπερ ἐμπειρίας δεῖται καὶ χρόνου, ἡ δ᾽θικ ἐξ θους περιγίνεται, ὅθεν καὶ τοὔνομα ἔσχηκε μικρὸν παρεκκλῖνον ἀπὸ τοῦ θους.”


Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit).”


(from http://www.mikrosapoplous.gr/aristotle/nicom2a.htm )


Re-framing the English text in this context, I suggest that we have an ambiguity arising from:

  • ἔθος (Gr) → éthos (Fr) → ethos (En) meaning “habits”
  • ἦθος (Gr) → êthos (Fr) → ethos (En) meaning “morality”

and therefore that the distinction of ἦθος/ήθος is likely a red herring and we should consider reading the English text as:


“…habits – that’s what is meant by θος. And this θος has to be made to conform to the ήθος…”


i.e. habits must be made to conform to morality.


In Lacan’s Sem VII, Chapter I, 18th November 1959, §2 (p10 of Porter’s English translation) Aristotle’s text places into context the usage of the word “virtue” (morality being one of the two kinds of virtue), and perhaps also illuminates the active/passive ἦθος/ἔθος distinction in footnote 2 – morality (ἦθος) arises from habit (ἔθος), but also habit (ἔθος) must be made to conform to morality (ἦθος).