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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 8

(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics

NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

BOOK I

CHAPTER EIGHT

“One must examine what concerns it, not only on the basis of the conclusion and the premises on which the argument rests, but also on the basis of things said about it. For with the truth, all the given facts harmonize; but with what is false, the truth soon hits a wrong note.

 

Now, although the good things have been distributed in a threefold manner  ——both those goods said to be external, on the one hand, and those pertaining to the soul and to the body, on the other —— we say that those pertaining to the souls should be the most authoritative and especially good. And we posit as those “goods pertaining to the soul”, the soul’s actions and activities. As a result, the argument would be stated nobly, at least according to this opinion, which is ancient and agreed to by those who philosophize. It would be correct to say that certain actions and activities are the end, for in this way the end belongs among the goods related to soul, not among the external ones.

 

And that the happy person both lives well and acts well harmonize with the argument, for [happiness] was pretty much said to be a certain kind of living well and good action. It also appears that all the things being sought pertaining to happiness are included in what was said: in the opinion of some, happiness is virtue; of others, prudence; of others, a certain wisdom; in the opinion of still others, it is these or some of these things, together with pleasure or not without pleasure. And others include alongside these the prosperity related to external goods as well. Many of the ancients say some of these things, a few men of high repute say others of them: and it is reasonable that neither of this two group be wholly in error, but rather that they be correct in so respect, at least, or even in some respects.

 

The argument, then, is in harmony with those who say that [happiness] is virtue or a certain virtue, for an activity in accord with virtue belongs to virtue. But perhaps it makes no small difference whether one supposes the best thing to reside in possession or use, that is, in a characteristic or an activity. For it is possible that, although the characteristic is present, it accomplishes nothing good — for example, in the case of someone who is asleep or has been otherwise hindered. But this is not possible when it comes to the activity: of necessity a person will act, and he will act well.  For just as it is not the noblest and strongest who are crowned with the victory wreath in the Olympic games but rather the competitors (for it is certain of these who win), so also it is those who act correctly who attain the noble and the good things in life.

 

But their life is also pleasant in itself, for feeling pleasure is among the things related to the soul, and there is pleasure for each person in connection with whatever he is said to be a lover of — for example, a horse is pleasant to the horse lover, a play to the theater lover. In the same manner too the just things are pleasant to the lover of justice, and in general, things in accord with virtue are pleasant to the lover of virtue. Now, things pleasant to the many do battle with one another, because such things are not pleasant by nature; but to the lovers of what is noble, the things pleasant by nature are pleasant. Such are too are the actions in accord with virtue, with the result that they are pleasant both to such people and in themselves. Indeed, the life [of those who love what is noble] has no need of additional pleasure, like a sort of added charm, but possess pleasure in itself. For, in addition, to the point mentioned, he who takes no delight in noble actions is not good either; for no one would say that somebody who does not delight in acting justly is just or who does not delight in liberal actions is liberal, and morally in the other cases as well.  And if this is so, then the actions in accord with virtue would, in themselves, be pleasant. But certainly these actions are good as well as noble; and they will be each of these specially, if in fact the serious person judges nobly about them —and he judges as we said.

 

Happiness, therefore, is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing; and these are not separated, as the inscription at Delos has it:

 

Noblest is what is most just, but best is to be healthy;

And most pleasant by nature is for someone to attain what he passionately desires.

 

For all these are present in the best activities, and we assert that happiness is these activities – or the best among them.

 

Nonetheless, it manifestly requires external goods in addition, just as we said. For it is impossible or not easy for someone without equipment to do what is noble: many things are done through instruments, as it were —through friends, wealth and political power. Those who are bereft of these (for example, good birth, good children, or beauty) disfigure their blessedness, for a person who is altogether ugly in appearance or of poor birth, or solitary and childless cannot really be characterized as happy; and he is perhaps still less happy, if he should have altogether bad children or friends or, though he did have good ones, they are dead. Just as we said, then, [happiness] seems to require some such external prosperity in addition. This is why some make good fortune equivalent to happiness, and others, virtue. ”

(NE, 1098b9-1099b8; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

 

1) Doesn’t modern philosophy have truly much to learn from the procedural points Ar. makes in this, apparently less interesting —“philosophically” speaking—- subsection? Isn’t the modern philosophical outlook, procedural ethics a la Kant in particular, fundamentally biased towards the formal considerations of ethics rather than towards Ar.´s emphasis “on the basis of what is said about it”? Surely what Ar. means is far from Habermas´s Communicative Ethics, isn’t it? Generally speaking, isn’t our philosophical and scientific bias prone to being unable to consider seriously this second element? And particularly, isn’t Political Science, affected most profoundly and dangerously? But then again, WHO is Ar. thinking about when he adds this element? In other words, WHO, more concretely are those who ”say things about it”? Surely he has told us already that the starting point has to involve, to a certain degree, the spoudaios (the serious citizen)? But WHO are the spoudaios, we do not tire of asking: is it primarily the student of the Lyceum? But wouldn’t that be odd? Won’t it most likely be the serious citizen who lives up to the demands of the noble (kalos) and the dutiful respect for the law (nomos)? Isn’t the speaker rather Pericles, or the impressive Diodotus, or Laches, or Nicias, or Ischomachus  (even Thrasymachus already befriended) rather than the student of practical philosophy? But why continue to push this point further? For isn’t it true that we find ourselves involved in a vicious circle nowadays: serious speakers not being taken seriously by the young, and the young not taking serious speakers seriously because academy rarely invites them towards such a respectful prudent recognition? Bluntly, is it any wonder that Lincoln is seen as a racist? But leaving this point aside, what exactly does Ar. mean by telling us that “the truth harmonizes with the given facts, but hits a wrong note with the false”? What truth is he speaking of here, if he does not add ANY details; further, sees NO need to add further details? For surely, that the truth harmonizes seems  to imply some linkage to what is beautifully so, doesn’t it? But how can a relativistic academy in particular even begin to consider this “simple” statement? Isn´t the truth of modern academic theory the one which dictates what in fact harmonizes, or not, with the practical sphere (see quotes by Strauss, Section IV below)? Isn’t Ar., then, ONCE again providing ANY kind of philosophical/theoretical endeavor, with its most original and inescapable limitations? However, isn’t modern academia’s self-understanding quite different? Isn’t the modern university THE leader in the implementation of political perspectives, so that the political leaders in many cases cannot but be seen suspiciously by those who attend these learning settings? But be that as it may; really, don’t we just have to listen to Ar. to SEE which truth he is speaking of, namely, that there are 3 types of hierarchically ordered goods? Isn’t part of this truth, the one that harmonizes with “  the way things are said”,  that among those goods “those pertaining to the soul should be the most authoritative and especially good”? But, then, wouldn’t one have to INVESTIGATE what soul is as Ar. does in the De Anima? But surely he does not even ask us to refer to THAT work here, does he? Besides, what does it mean for Ar. that just simply the WAY we speak of the soul is SUFFICIENT as providing the bedrock of an investigation into the ethical? And by way of contrast, what if we have come to see ourselves as truly soulless, as truly nothing more than complex biological beings? Can a materialistic society, that perceives itself as matter in constant motion, not but see with radical irony such “high-flown” Aristotelian affirmations? Aren’t  WE Aristotelians swimming upstream in this regard? For truly one rarely, if ever, finds the word “soul” being used in philosophical discussions as Ar. uses it, doesn’t one? Isn’t this part of the shock of reading Straussian interpretations for the first time with their constant reference to the soul WITHOUT going into a epistemological/ontological debate of its core importance? And even more dramatically: doesn’t Ar. in one and the same sentence let us see his prudent initial conciliatory note by affirming that this argument is not simply any kind of argument but rather a NOBLE type of argument? Aren’t we faced once again with the intimate relation between ethics, rhetoric and pragmatics? And most dramatically still, does not Ar. HERE seem to equate the ancient WITH those who philosophize? I mean, how further from radical skepticism can one go here? But who exactly are those who have so philosophized? For didn’t just 2 subsection ago Ar. tells us how misguided the presuppositions of Plato were in core themes (against Broadie and Rowe’s  as well as Ostwald’s interpretations that EASILY provide an answer that includes Plato (!)? But then, is he speaking of Anaxagoras? Surely not, for Xenophon speaks of Anaxagoras´s fate, doesn’t he? So WHO then exactly? Hermeneutically letting go almost imprudently of ourselves: isn’t Ar. quietly hinting here to Cicero’s claim that it was Socrates who brought philosophy “back down to the earth”? And finally, don’t we better understand here Strauss´s stunning reference to Plato as being TOO LOUD, in contrast to the masterful rhetorical skills developed by Xenophon? And, thus, isn’t it obvious why Xenophon is not read in academic circles; circles not attuned to the very words of Ar.´s claim at the beginning of this MUCH “less important” subsection?

2)  Besides what is the connection of THIS procedural reference to the very possibility of happiness in humans? If what we have said above is true, then wouldn’t the lack of such procedural understanding imply to a high degree that academy is not perhaps the greatest site for human happiness itself? But wouldn’t this go against the way academics speak of themselves? But leaving this thorny point aside,  how do we KNOW that the person who is happy HARMONIZES with the argument, if we do not know WHO the happy person is, WHAT she does and HOW she lives? And why does Ar., once again, not simply AFFIRM a point but rather pregnantly adds  that happiness is not SUCH and SUCH, but rather, PRETTY MUCH said to be so and so? And what to make about the ensuing list of differing opinions as regards the core element of happiness itself? Is it virtue, or prudence or, wisdom, or an eclectic mix? And why is Ar. again so tentative with regards to the still not developed question of wisdom, qualifying it as he does by saying that it is a “CERTAIN wisdom”? So are there different kinds of wisdom? But then,  which one accords and harmonizes with  the truth? Which one hierarchically orders the whole, so to speak? And those that do not, can we reasonably call them wisdom?  But, how are we to know? How are we to lead our lives without knowing? And fundamentally, how do those that believe it is virtue, get along with those who believe it is wisdom? And those who turn to wisdom, how exactly do they relate to the prudent (primarily remembering Plato’s Third wave of the Republic)? And if the political art as we were told (but later omitted) is the ruling art, then doesn’t it make all the difference if prudence is the ORDERING political virtue par excellence? Moreover, what exactly is the relationship of pleasure to each of these? What is the pleasure of the virtuous, of the prudent, of the wise? And crucially, why clarify the argument by adding “or not without pleasure”? Why exactly is the question of pleasure SO utterly  problematic in relation to the inquiry into the ethical virtues? Briefly, how are altruism and hedonism to get along? CAN they get along? And finally, doesn’t Ar. again seek to provide SOME common ground for the ancient, those who philosophize and those bestowed with high repute? But if those who hold fast to ancient tradition and those who have come to be considered as highly reputable see THEMSELVES as being partially correct, won’t a CRTICAL inquiry into the basis of their most fundamental longings via a rational reconsideration of their primordial framework (to use Taylor’s vocabulary) become ever more difficult? Or, again, is Ar. simply healing a relationship that has gone array between the philosophers of old, and the old who lead the political space in which philosophy alone can be carried out? Doesn´t one have to constantly keep Plato’s Laws in mind here?

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