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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 7

(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 SEVEN

Let us go back again to the good being sought, whatever it might be. For it appears to be one thing in one action or art, another in another: it is different in medicine and in generalship, and so on with the rest. What, then, is the good in each of these? Or is it for the sake of which everything is done? In medicine, this is health; in generalship, victory; in house building, a house; and in another, it would be something else. But in every action and choice, it is the end involved, since it is for the sake of this that all people do everything else. As a result, if there is some end of all actions, this would be the good related to action; and if there are several, then it would be these. So as the argument proceeds, it arrives at the same point. But one ought to make this clearer still.

Since the end appears to be several, and some of these we choose on account of something else –for example, wealth, an autos, and the instrumental things generally– it is clear that not all ends are complete, but what is the best appears to be something complete. As a result, if there is some one thing that is complete in itself, this would be what is being sought, and if there are several, then the most complete of these. We say that what is sought for itself is more complete than what is sought out on account of something else, and that what is never chosen on account of something else is more complete than those things chosen both for themselves and on account of this [further end]. The simply complete thing, then, is that which is always chosen for itself and never on account of something else.

Happiness above all seems to be of this character,  for we always choose it on account of itself and never on account of something else. Yet honor, pleasure, intellect and every virtue we choose on their own account —for even if nothing resulted from them, we would choose each of them —- but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, because we suppose that, through them, we will be happy. But nobody chooses happiness for the sake of these things or, more generally, on account of anything else.

The same thing appears to result also on the basis of self-sufficiency, for the complete good is held to be self-sufficient. We do not mean by self-sufficient what suffices for someone by himself, living a solitary life, but what is sufficient also with respect to parents, offspring, a wife, and, in general, one´s friends and fellow citizens, since by nature a human being is political. But it is necessary to grasp a certain limit to these; for if one extends these to include the parents [of parents], and descendants, and the friends of friends, it will go in infinitely. But this must be examined further later on. As for the self-sufficient, we posit it as that which by itself makes life choiceworthy and in need of nothing, and such is what we suppose happiness to be.

Further, happiness is the most choiceworthy of all things because it is not just one among them —and it is clear that, were it included as one among many things, it would be more choiceworthy with the least addition of the good things; for the good that is added to it results in a superabundance of goods, and the greater number of goods is always more choiceworthy. So happiness appears to be something complete and self-sufficient, it being an end of our actions.

But perhaps saying that “happiness is best” is something manifestly agreed on, whereas what it is still needs to be said more distinctly. Now, perhaps this would come to pass if the work of the human being should be grasped. For just as in the case of the aulos player, sculptor and every expert, and in general with those who have a certain work and action, the relevant good and the doings of something well seem to reside in the work, so too the same might be held to be the case with a human being, if in fact there is a certain work that is a human being’s. Are there, then, certain works and actions of a carpenter but none of a human being: would he, by contrast, be naturally “without a work”? Or just as there appears to be a certain work of the eye, hand and foot, and in fact of each of these parts in general, so also might one posit a certain work of a human being apart from all of these?

So whatever, then, would this work be? For living appears to be something common even to plants, but what is peculiar to human beings is being sought. One must set aside, then, the life characterized by nutrition as well as growth. A certain life characterized by sense perception would be next, but it too appears to be common to a horse and cow and in fact to every animal. So there remains a certain active life of that which possesses reason, and what possess reason includes what is obedience to reason, on the one hand, and what possess it and thinks, on the other. But since this [life of reason in the second sense] also is spoken of in a twofold way, one must posit the life [of that which possess reason] in accord with an activity, for this seems to be its more authoritative meaning. And if the work of a human being is an activity of the soul in accord with reason, or not without reason, and we assert that the work of a given person is the same kind as that of a serious person, just as it would be in the case of a cithara player and a serious cithara player, and this would be so in a all cases simply when the superiority in accord with virtue is added to the work; for it belongs to a cithara player to play the cithara, but to a serious one to do so well. But if this is so —and we posit the work of a human being as a certain life, and this is an activity of the soul and actions accompanied by reason, the work of a serious man being to do these things well and nobly, and each thing is brought to completion well in accord with he virtue proper to it —if this is so, then the human good becomes an activity of the soul in accord with virtue, and if there are several virtues, then in accord with the best and most complete.

But, in addition, in a complete life. For one swallow does not make a spring, nor does on day. And in this way, one day or a short time does not make someone blessed and happy either.

Let the good have been sketched in this way, then, for perhaps one ought to outline it first and then fill it in later. It might seem to belong to everyone to advance and fully articulate things whose sketch is in a noble condition, and time is a good discoverer of or contributor to such things: from these have arisen the advances in the arts too, for it belongs to everyone to add what is lacking.

But we must remember the points mentioned previously as well, to the effect that one must not seek out precision in all matters alike but rather in each thing in turn as accords with the subject matter in question and insofar as is appropriate to the inquiry. For both carpenter and geometer seek out the right angle but in different ways; the former seeks it insofar as it is useful to his work; the latter seeks out what it is or what sort of a thing it is, for he is one who contemplates the truth. One ought to act in the same manner also in other cases to have nobly pointed out the “that” —such is the case in what concerns the principles— and the “that” is the first thing and a principle. Some principles are observed by means of induction, some by perception, some by a certain habituation, and other in other ways. One ought not to go in search of each in turn in the manner natural to them and to be serious about their being nobly defined. For they are of great weight in what follows from them: the beginning seem to be more than half the whole, and many of the points being sought seem to become manifest on account of it. ” (NE, 1097a15-1098b8; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) Why does one have the feeling in this subsection that Ar. can FINALLY get into the real argument itself? Aren’t the digressions sort of the “hard work” prior to actually engaging in the much more rewarding, even joyful process itself? However, generally speaking, what is the point of an argument that is so strikingly formal in nature? For, aren’t we continuously speaking of happiness WITHOUT actually knowing what Ar. understands by it concretely? How are we to “fill in” this initial formalism; as Ar. himself acknowledges: “But perhaps saying that “happiness is best” is something manifestly agreed on, whereas what it is still needs to be said more distinctly”? Presumably when we finish READING the whole of the NE we will be much better prepared to fill it out? As a matter of fact, Ar. points out that ANYONE can fill it out? Isn’t this another example of clear Aristotelian humor? But then, wouldn’t this filling out suffer immensely if one simply SKIPPED parts of the text, as is generally the case with Books III (end) and IV on the moral virtues (seen as a simple apologetics of Greek virtues by a “duped” Aristotle)? And, generally, as well, why does Ar. once again REMIND us of methodological issues at the end of this subsection, and more perplexing still, now NOT calling them a digression? But most importantly, didn’t we already say that the end which hierarchically orders all others, IS that of THE political art? But then why does Ar. have us repeat: “But in every action and choice, it is the end involved, since it is for the sake of this that all people do everything else.”? Didn’t we already agree that it was the political art in subsection 3? But if so, why proceed in ways which, at the very least, seriously modify this initial political assumption? Isn’t this why Ar. says that this is a KIND of political inquiry? And further, how exactly are we going to square the public political art and the issue of individual human happiness? Will this question simply be relegated, rather, to the very end of BOOK VIII of the Politics, which ironically deals with a complex discussion of the ideal regime (almost in Platonic terms!)? Nonetheless, doesn’t Ar. want to KEEP quite distinct the investigation into the political and the investigation into the ethical? Isn’t his why he wrote SEPARATE books on these issues?  But, if the general movement is towards a demonstration of the limits of the political life, then: why does Ar. repeat once again here, that in terms of self-sufficiency we must not forget that we are NOT speaking of a solitary human, but rather —and the list is impressive— “what is sufficient also with respect to parents, offspring, a wife, and, in general, one´s friends and fellow citizens, since by nature a human being is political” (repeating for us here the famous preliminary claim found in the Politics? However, how does one KNOW that this is so BY NATURE? Didn’t Ar., just a few subsections before, say that the legal appears to be by nomos, rather than by physis? Does he think he need not back up argumentatively this assertion? But isn´t this what philosophy is all about? And further, don’t modern early political theorists REALLY think Ar.  does in fact  need some such backing up? Isn’t this why they BEGIN their political analysis from a radically different starting point, namely, that of the Social Contract? Isn’t THIS the debate which characterizes the American Founding, or more generally the confrontation between Ancient and Modern liberalism/republicanism? Moreover, wouldn’t this be THE key to our misunderstanding Aristotle as moderns? But be this as it may, if Ar. is in fact putting forth a realm beyond the political, how will it come to appear as we proceed along in the argument? And if so, how can one reveal the limits of the political, while simultaneously not destabilizing it? For, isn’t the destabilization of the political THE core point of the previous Aristotelian procedural digressions? And yet, isn’t Ar. pointing towards the possibility that there may appear a tension between the life of personal fulfillment, and the life of the political, of recognition, and of the adamant concern for justice and the power of law? Isn’t this why, in the discussion of friendship in BOOKS VIII and IX, Ar. will point out that the best of true friends do not require justice? Won’t this show up clearly also in the tension between the two peaks of the NE, namely that of the Magnanimous human (megalophuchos) and that of all the virtues covered under justice as akin to the North Star? And besides, surely we know too that Plato never married, and we need only read Xenophon´s humorous Symposium  to hear about Socrates´s ideas regarding “a wife and offspring”, don´t we? (not to mention the discussion of Ischomachus´s wife in the Economics!) Put another way, what finally is the human work (“ergon”) principally about: i) the fulfillment of individual happiness, the city being but a stage for THAT personal fulfillment, or ii) rather, understanding oneself fundamentally as part of a larger whole to which one owes a duty of self-sacrifice (be it the city, or perhaps even beyond, as part of the whole cosmic/divine order)? As assassinated (which is revealing in itself) President Kennedy famously put it; “Ask not, what your country can do for you. Ask what, you can do for your country.”?But, if ——as Ar. has argued—— law seems to be by nomos and not by physis, then how is one to critically see oneself as part of a regime that may turn out badly? How exactly will we differentiate between the good citizen and the good human? And to conclude, why does Ar. waiver back and forth, as we have seen, between these two possibilities? Is he allowing us to think for ourselves the implications either way?

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