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Archive for June, 2012

COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 1

(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 ONE

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action as well as choice, is held to aim at some good. Hence people have nobly declared that the good is that at which all things aim. But there appears to be a certain difference among the ends: some ends are activities, others are certain works apart from the activities themselves, and in those cases in which there are certain ends apart from the actions, the works are naturally better than the activities.

Now, since there are many actions, arts and sciences, the ends too are many: of medicine, the end is health; of shipbuilding, a ship; of generalship, victory; of household management, wealth. And in all things of this sort that fall under some one capacity —for just as bridle making and such other arts as concern equestrian gear fall under horsemanship, while this art and every action related to warfare fall under generalship, so in the same manner, some arts fall under one capacity, others under another —–in all of them, the ends of the architectonic ones are more choiceworthy than all those that fall under them, for these latter are pursued for the sake of the former. And it makes no difference at all whether the ends of the actions are the activities themselves or something else apart from these, as in the sciences mentioned.” (NE, 1094a1-18; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)

I. PRIVATE PUZZLES

1) Why does Aristotle begin his text by using such complicated, even technical, vocabulary (technē, methodos, praxis, proairesis, kalos, telos, energeia, ergon, dynamis, epistēmē..)? For surely this is not your everyday terminology, is it? I mean, one just needs to read the contrast between epistēmē and technē in Book VI to see the comprehension requirements of such a beginning, doesn’t one? Or, alternatively, one just needs to survey the complex commentaries which such a beginning has spawned in academia! But then, WHO precisely is Ar. addressing as his audience by proceeding thus? Does he wish to point to the fact that his audience must be prepared to engage a vocabulary that is not simply given in everyday experience? Will everyday experience have to somehow be “clarified” as we proceed along his path? So, wouldn’t Aristotle be seeking from the very start an audience friendly —or better, that could potentially become friendly—– to philosophical jargon, its complexities and its detailed characterizations? But, how can he guarantee this? And MUCH more importantly, doesn’t Ar. begin AS WELL by signalling to the fact that he will bow in his ethical investigations to what is “held to be” (dokein) the case? And surely “what is held to be” is precisely what thinks itself in no need whatsoever of investigation, isn’t it? So, isn´t the audience that hears Ar. comprised as well by those morally sound citizens whose opinions are seen to be noble (kalos) from the very beginning? And, aren’t the examples actually given in subsection 1 taken from the very everyday activities known to any educated citizen of the polis? For it would be odd to think that shipbuilding/war goes on in the Lyceum, wouldn’t it? Consequently, wouldn’t Ar. be pointing to the fact that this audience has a kind of dual nature? Aren’t we moved to understand that philosophers must confront a mixed kind of audience, namely, those who have been properly educated in moral things, and those —-much much fewer, one surmises—– who being properly educated in these noble things, have a underlying longing to understand whence such education? Thus, wouldn’t such an audience be conformed both by serious citizens as well as would be individuals keen in understanding the foundation of such moral education, and because GOOD, absolutely clear on the dangers of philosophy to practical life? (Warning made explicit in EE, 1216b39-1217a6)

2) But then again, why does Aristotle wish to point to the relationship between the noble and the good? Why exactly should this be THE beginning? What is it about the noble that gives it such weight that IT allows for the beginning of THE serious ethical inquiry? Who could be the audience such that the noble would be an object of admiration and desire? Who would actually be moved by such initial assumptions? All humans? Surely not. All the citizens? Perhaps only those ALREADY capable of hearing the noble? But then, what are THEY to learn? Or, is it would-be philosophers in the Lyceum? But aren’t they supposed to question “assumptions” such as this? And, crucially, what is the nature of this kind of relationship between the noble and the good that the means of communication by the philosopher is by way of rhetorical argumentation and the use of enthymeme (Rh, 1355a)? Why does rhetoric in the investigation of the ethical take precedence over the scientific and logically syllogistic? Is the enthymeme simply a truncated syllogism? Or is it the other way around, the truncated syllogism being that syllogism which is SIMPLY scientific? Don’t many modern discussion around the ethics suffer, precisely, from this illness of inversion? But then again, what if modernity has actually subverted such rhetorical skills? How then are we to prepare ourselves to be able to listen to such beginnings? Can we moderns, in fact, even listen to the noble in its true magnitude?

3) In what perhaps has to be one of the complex puzzles: Why does Aristotle introduce the issue of teleology from the start? “By nature” (physis); what does that exactly mean? Does it mean what it means for Montesquieu at the beginning of The Spirit of the Laws? Does it mean what it means for us post-Galileans? Don’t we obviously know that Aristotle deluded himself into thinking that the universe had an intrinsic teleology which can no longer be accounted for? Or rather, aren’t WE deluding ourselves into thinking we in fact understand Aristotle so that we have little or nothing to learn from him in terms of the understanding of the whole (in this regard Bolotin’s An Approach to Aristotle’s Physics: With Particular Attention to the Role of His Manner of Writing, is of the essence)? Is “nature” merely a concatenation of natural effects and causes following certain “natural” laws (see Hobbes, Leviathan, Part I, Chapter V. “Of Reason and Science”? Or rather, does it refer to a certain intelligibility of the whole? But then again, what in humans makes them capable of understanding such a whole? And how is the understanding of the whole made accessible SOLELY by way of an understanding of the ethical/political things? And if this were true, wouldn’t then the NE be THE entrance point par excellence?

4) And why the initial reference to choice? Is Aristotle prudently, gently, preparing some of us for a choice which involves getting to understand the noble and its dynamics? Why so? Because in the EE, Aristotle in contrast has NO qualms whatsoever about making it LOUD AND CLEAR to the reader that the question is, in fact, one of CHOICE (EE, 1214b6-13: “everyone who can live according to his own choice should adopt some goal for a the fine life … “) ? But then again, why is Ar. so reticent about being as LOUD in the NE? Is it because of his better understanding of the nature of the mixed audience attending his lectures? Isn’t part of the audience, the noble part, less akin to the loudness of philosophical inquiry? Wouldn’t that audience rarely —if ever—- visit the Lyceum where the activity of dialogical questioning is taken for granted? And, very importantly for students of Ar., wouldn’t this signal to the greater maturity present in the NE in contrast to the EE? Or put another way, wouldn’t the EE stand to Plato’s Republic, as the NE stands to the elder Plato’s Laws?

5) And, why does Aristotle seem to struggle with the hierarchical relation between different ends, those that are activities for their own sake, and those which have an end (a work) apart from the activities themselves? Why does he FIRST say that the those with works apart are naturally better (again, in what sense of “nature”?)? But then at the end of this very same Subsection 1, he goes on to, seemingly, contradict himself by saying that actually “it makes no difference at all whether the ends of the actions are the activities themselves or something else apart form these”? Didn’t he just a few lines before argue the exact opposite? Why exactly is Aristotle trying to “confuse” us? Is he trying to get us to see that the relation between ethical activity and its “products” is one that will be shown to be problematic? For shouldn’t one be ethical for the sake of the activity itself and not for any results stemming from these noble actions? Or put another way, what is the product of being ethical apart from being ethical? Wouldn’t that alone be the greatest pleasure? Is the product for another, or rather the product becoming oneself a certain kind of person? Or put another way, can the moral virtues be seen solely for their own sake, and not for any ulterior product which they may obtain? And we know, as well, that Ar. will go on to claim that eudaimonia, which is in fact THE end of our human activity, is in fact not a state but an ACTIVITY? So once again, Ar. seems to make us puzzle precisely as to which type of ends take precedence over the others. Or, rather, may there not be instances in which the activity undergone IS the “product”? Isn’t the relation between logos (speech) and ergon (deed) a bit like this? Because, following Ar. and the Socratic legacy, isn’t the core question HOW we should lead our lives? And, isn’t Ar. starting to signal, perhaps, that understanding is some such kind of activity?

6) And as regards the famous expression “hence people have nobly declared that the good is that at which all things aim”, why once again is Aristotle so reticent to distinguish between the “good simply” and the merely “apparent good”? For surely we may believe of our arts, inquiries, actions and choices that they may be directed towards the/our good, but be totally wrong about this! Evidently too many are not (drug trafficking, lock-picking, bullying, smoking, stealing, murdering, prostituting ….) Why is Aristotle so resistant about giving us any of the too well-known bad examples? Isn’t it, of course, because of the connection to the puzzles put forward in 2)? Or to provide an example, why would Ar. simply see with amazement —or better, disgust—- the fact that Colombian TV networks, and MANY citizens, find it unproblematic to produce a series on the life of Pablo Escobar? And what is it about our anti-Aristotelianism that allows such actions to generate HUGE ratings and economic benefits? And, beyond this, if “the good is that at which all things aim”, surely what this superior end is, must be further dealt with? For Ar. knows quite well —as he will let us CLEARLY know as he proceeds in Book I—- that there is a philosophical tradition stemming from “Plato” that seems to claim that THE Good, and most probably also those who claim to know IT, are “not even of this world”! Doesn’t Ar. know all-too-well Aristophanes Clouds?

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COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

INTRODUCTION

It seems now the time has arrived to put forth, as best as possible, some of the reflections —reflections which have guided me throughout the last few years of my life—– with regards to  Aristotle’s all-important views on the question of happiness as presented in his Nicomachean Ethics. For I take it that it has in fact been this encounter which has sent me on a path which I would have otherwise never encountered.

A. NEGATIVE SETTING

Which path is this? Negatively speaking, it is a path which stands in stark contrast to the traditions that have made up the horizon of my/our conceptual possibilities and practical lives. On the one hand, the horizon of our modern liberal democracies grounded precisely on the very critique of Aristotelian political philosophy; particularly as set out in the works of Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke and Montesquieu, all of whom to different degrees see Aristotle as THE rival to face and even, literally, to conquer. The realization of this inherent animosity must clearly point to us students how ALIEN the work of Aristotle must actually be to us children of such an anti-Aristotelian modern tradition. For if we ARE as modern democrats defined partly against Aristotelianism, it would be extremely odd that we would easily delude ourselves into believing that Aristotelianism is primarily akin to our own, that is to say, that it is somehow readily accessible and altogether familiar.  We must fight the easy consolation, the very troubling consolation, of assuming that Aristotle is simply “one of us”. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than precisely in the CORE Aristotelian investigation of virtue (areté), and of happiness (eudaimonía); and even more importantly of the complex and perhaps tense relationship which might come to slowly unfold as Aristotle guides us into seeing the puzzling relationships between said virtue(s) and happiness. By way of an example of how easily we disregard Aristotle’s challenge,  we can focus on the fact that many academics STILL continue to hold on to the erroneous view that Aristotle simply enumerated ——because he agreed with implicitly and explicitly—– the Greek virtues set out in Books 3 and 4; an intellectual magical disappearing act which overlooks these books which are PRECISELY the very key to understanding the dynamic and the general course of the Aristotelian argument at its most fundamental! So, we could in fact say that for us modern western democrats  Aristotle is —–at least initially, perhaps even indefinitely—- an Other that challenges our presuppositions, and does so like no Other can or ever will. Obviously then, this commentary objects to the generalized view that Aristotle is somehow solely the founder of a tradition, namely civic republicanism, that can still be seen in much later modern authors which even include Machiavelli. For surely, there is as much oxygen in gaseous form on the moon, as there is Aristotle in Machiavelli. And to make this clear, Machiavelli is certainly very proud of this.

And on the other hand, this is a path which stands in stark contrast to the traditions that have made up the horizon of revealed religion, fundamentally the tradition of the Bible in both its Judaic and Christian traditions, but also that of the Koran in Islam. Such a horizon finds its grounding not ——-as it does for Aristotle—— in the spirit of free and rational philosophical inquiry on the nature of the political and the ethical, but rather on the persistent obedience due to God in whose all encompassing and mysterious justice, merciful loving grace and creative omnipotence we alone can find THE sole anchoring required for our constantly tepid and all-too-debased sinful humanity. Again, it is the realization of this inherent tension which clearly points to us how ALIEN the work of Aristotle must be to us children of the rise and triumph of revealed monotheism (even if, of course, modern western democracies have in fact, via Locke and Montesquieu, redefined the very framework within which we have come to understand such divine revelation in our days). Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the peak which is the virtue of magnanimity (megalopsuchia), virtue which has as its most deficient extreme, the religious virtue par excellence of humility; for let us be clear, humility is, for Aristotle, a vice simply. Or further, it can be clearly seen in the very fact that the virtue of faith (pistis) is, dramatically —–and to our astonishment as part of a monotheistic tradition—– not even considered one of the virtues to be analyzed in the list of eleven virtues found in the Nicomachean Ethics itself (Evidently, this is NOT to say that Aristotle does not take up the question of the divine continuously in the text, as we shall have occasion to witness). But one could also mention, so that we again come to be taken aback by the very strangeness of Aristotle’s arguments, the inexistence of any serious development of the notion of friendship  (philia) within the Bible; or the initial unflattering status of the political within Genesis itself, Cain being the founder of the first political city which will lead directly, and not metaphorically, to the just destruction of the pretensions of the kind of “magnanimous” arrogance found in  the technological project of Babel. So we must again repeat, as we attempt to follow this new path —–and perhaps to our initial dismay—– that Aristotle once again stands as a kind of Other who questions fundamentally the presuppositions of our thought, or more truthfully and with greater relevance,  the presuppositions of our lives. And that this is so, is extremely fortunate, for realizing his otherness we can thankfully ask: how then could we still remain the same by reading and dwelling upon his strange remarks? Aristotle liberates, and it would seem, some of us are in need of a great liberal education by such dialectically challenging type of friends.
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