Sunday, June 25, 2017

Nicomachean Ethics


I have always felt sympathetic toward Aristotle even though I have read very little of his work.  I had to read The Republic and several Platonic dialogues in college political theory classes, and I found the arguments unconvincing, to say the least.  Aristotle seemed much more down to earth as a thinker, which appealed to me.

Now that I have finally read this seminal work, I am glad to say that my impressions have been confirmed.  Not that it was at all pleasant to read; to the contrary, it was incredibly tedious.  I think I got a bad translation, but I'll leave that question to the side.

Early on, Aristotle assures us that "precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions," which already gets my respect.  I'm all for being as precise as possible, but also for recognizing the limitations of our understanding.  In fact, I would say that this is one of the principles of my approach to learning.

After making some basic arguments, Aristotle adds, "we must consider [this matter], however, in the light not only of our conclusion and our premisses, but also of what is commonly said about it."  This is, again, refreshing.  It's not that Aristotle feels that his philosophy has to agree with common wisdom, but he at least feels a need to engage with it.

Aristotle is sort of the anti-Plato, of course, but (to pick a thinker I have read more recently) he is also the anti-Spinoza.  Spinoza tries to create an airtight argument through geometrical logic on a subject that does not lend itself to such reasoning; and, when he comes to conclusions that contradict basic moral principles of society, he doesn't feel any need to justify his conclusions.  This also makes me think of Wittgenstein, who tried to show that mathematical language was not suited for philosophical discussions, but instead required speaking in everyday language.  I might add here that I appreciated how Aristotle tried to name each of the states of vice or virtue that he discussed, but admitted that many had no common name.  If you absolutely must create a new word, or fasion an old word with a very precise meaning that differs from how it is widely understand, do so; but for most purposes, it is annoying when philosophers try to create their own language.

Apart from these premises, I didn't find much particularly compelling or interesting in the arguments, just because Aristotle starts from such a radically different perspective than I do (or, I would think, almost anyone these days) that it is hard to relate to what he is saying.  Of the few things that struck me, I will just mention two.  I liked the way he disagreed with Solon's assessment that you can't judge a man happy until the end of his life, as though the rest of his life was negated by an unhappy death.  "All or most men," Aristotle asserts, "while they wish for what is noble, choose what is advantageous" (VIII.13.), thus making this fundamental principle of economics, and, I may say, Christianity, a central part of his own philosophy.