COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS
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.
Or, to put in with reference to the capital cities of both of these central traditions: Athens confronts head on both the Holy city of Jerusalem and each and every single modern political Western capital (be it London, Paris, Ottawa, Washington, or Bogotá), and it does so like no other city ever could, or perhaps, will.
So, realizing the strangeness of this path, we are a bit better prepared to say that at the very least this commentary is a response to that specific challenge which some have set before us in terms of learning not about Aristotle, but learning from him. For one must begin by truly opening oneself to the very possibility that classical political philosophy/history in general (Socrates, Plato, Thucydides, and SPECIALLY, the forgotten but immensely important Xenophon), and particularly the ethical/political work of Aristotle, might have an understanding that is not simply true for them or their times, but rather which is and may remain SIMPLY TRUE. And if this is so, then the motivation to proceed in search of such truth(s) cannot but focus one intently on the complex dynamics of the work itself. For otherwise, if we knew/supposed beforehand that we moderns held a superior view to that of Aristotle, what would be the motivation to take seriously what one sees as lacking and inferior from the very start? In other more personal words, if THE democratic spirit is the END of history, why return to those serious critics of the permanent dangers of democratic extremism (or as the neo-Aristotelian Tocqueville emphatically puts it, the permanent dangers of the “tyranny of the majority”)? For surely by being shaken by the oddness of the postures and the puzzles presented, one begins to have a taste for the type of liberal education which actually lets us come to grasp the erotic need in some of us to seriously question the frameworks of our alleged liberties. And thus one must be constantly aware that to learn even the smallest thing from such a man as Aristotle, is no easy feat, for such a man’s generous complexity cannot but make us feel so terribly unprepared throughout each step of the process itself. But to encourage ourselves, we do remind ourselves that Aristotle too had teacher’s, principally, Socrates’ legacy. And foremost, it is precisely Aristotle‘s formidable elegant prudence, which is most difficult for us to make permanently our own. Elegant prudence which nonetheless we MUST remember did not save HIM either from the same fate as Socrates; though, reasonably following his own words, he in fact did not choose the hemlock. But as I began saying, perhaps now the time has arrived —-a time in which I am no longer as young, a time in which health has returned as a friend to me—- to reflect on what to a great extent, one senses, or better, one knows one has already for the most part become.
B. SOME INITIAL BROAD PUZZLES
But more specifically, the central aim of this commentary is to try to clarify the complex relation between virtue (and the virtues, both practical and intellectual) and happiness as Aristotle sees it. Fundamentally, if virtue is of the essence, what to make of modernity’s disregard of virtue(s) in the classical sense? Or to put it more fairly, what to make of modernity’s radical transformation and reorganization, of the role virtue plays in the development of character and of political and the now foundational economic life? For truly the economic virtue of “frugality” is as un-Aristotelian as a virtue can be, isn’t it? It rather stands as an almost incurable vice in his eyes, doesn’t it? Or put another way, can our slow and carefully prepared separation from Aristotelianism over the centuries, allow us to even perceive in the political/ethical arena the virtues Aristotle actually speaks of admiringly? Can we, for instance, actually see magnanimous human beings “out there”? Who are they? Is Churchill an example? Is Washington? Is Bolívar? Would Aristotle regard them as such? For, aren’t they MODERN humans, albeit, of course, exceptional MODERN humans? Or put yet another way; does our redefinition of ourselves in modern times as living i) within the realm of commercially-oriented society (Montesquieu/Locke), ii) as belonging to contractual artificially-created political societies (Hobbes/Locke/Rousseau), iii) as accepting the conditions of representative government and its institutions (Montesquieu and his famous separation of powers) and iv) as defending continuously the ever-present need for control over nature which is our technological horizon (Bacon; seen critically first by Rousseau), make it now altogether almost impossible to see beyond mere utility, simplistic self-preservation, love of power, impoverished equality and need for control? Are we caught in the permanent “joyless quest for joy” of which some have poignantly warned? Little wonder we sense the urgency and the relevance of reaching back to the strangeness of Aristotle and his defense of an ethics of happiness.
But much more fundamentally, is virtue, particularly moral but also intellectual virtue(s), for Aristotle really the core of the most blessed and/or the most self-sufficient happiness? Can a life dedicated to the virtues, the virtues sought for their own sake and for no ulterior gains, actually lead to happiness? Or are the virtues rather sacrifices which, as sacrifices, urgently call for some kind of return? Aren’t the virtues the very sphere within which one can dimly begin to see the nature of the tragic view of things? For surely, it is in Athens wherein the most profound tragedies also came to appear, isn’t it? Or put another way, what is it that completes the virtues if not sought for their own sake, a Deus ex machina? Or can the virtues point beyond themselves towards another kind of life free of certain dilemmas/delusions? But, what is the return for something one claims to do for its own sake? Or is it that we are truly taking up virtue only as instrumentally beneficial? But if so, how then is it that, in our day to day lives we do IN FACT praise the virtuous as truly superior to us? For surely the soldier —-the Colombian soldier who risks it all for us each day—- who gives his life for our political stability must, in a sense, be a greater human than us? Or isn’t she? And why, a little embarrassed we ask, all the hooplah about the medals, then? To put it bluntly, why would Socrates give up his medal to Alcibiades, if he was the one risking his life, even if in retreat? But how can the virtues be solely sacrifices if we actually have come to educate and mold our citizens with a view to them? For it would be VERY odd to desire to live among a vicious set of citizens, wouldn’t it? Surely, Colombia under Pablo Escobar, does not sound right, does it? And is not the fundamental role of law and of justice based precisely on the understanding that the virtuous life is worth living and defending? For, how could one sit still when seeing that the “evil” prosper and yet the “good” do not? Don’t we admire Colonel von Stauffenberg, even in failure? Or is it rather that the claims of the common good, of justice with its towering presence, require a certain kind of calming diagnosis? But then, wouldn’t the vicious be getting away with something “we” all wish? But how could one actually, seriously, wish what the vicious wish themselves? Shouldn’t we just feel pity for them? And, moreover, is this return for such ennobling sacrifices humanly available to us? Is the medal enough, so to speak? Or, rather, must the virtues in their nature inevitable lead to a presentation of the divine as safeguarding the goodness of the virtuous few? For as in Sodom, only one was found who was virtuous enough, wasn’t he? And only after a very special kind of numerical pleading by Abraham, isn’t it true? And yet, once again, don’t we sense that the virtues, and specially justice, are worthy for their own sake? Isn’t justice and just acts done without any expectations? For surely, why would justice, if it is good in itself, require some back up, and particularly, why would it require a providential back up? And in this respect it bears repeating, is Aristotle not confronting directly the tragic view of things, the idea that as humans we must inevitably be forever divided within ourselves, so that any reconciliation must proceed from without and from above? Isn’t this precisely why Aristotle’s Poetics stands firmly against tragedy? Isn’t he opening up the possibility that human life, at its peak, may flourish in such a way as to rightly be said to be happy (eudaimon)? Or perhaps, isn’t it rather PRECISELY the very investigation on the dilemmas/puzzles/issues around virtue, and the virtues, THE CORE of what Aristotle is trying to argue in his Nicomachean Ethics; an investigation which opens the path towards a radically converted view on the nature of happiness at its peak as it is available to us as desiring/longing /contemplating human beings? For surely, whatever we may become, it must, in some sense be guided by the very desiring/erotic nature which provides the thrust from the very beginning of the whole process itself, mustn’t it? And isn’t Aristotle’s serious undertaking of a long and detailed philosophical presentation of the dilemmas/puzzles of friendship, pointing in this very direction?
C. SOME ASSUMPTIONS
And, for the sake of a certain transparency, a project such as the one here intended must at least try lo lay bare some of its most important assumptions. These include: 1) a view which holds fast to the idea that Aristotle does not seek out exclusively or even primarily an academic audience in his Ethics, least of all simply an “intellectual” audience (in great measure this commentary can only be realized at the outskirts of modern academia, remembering the life and deeds of Socrates and the nature of Xenophontic writing), 2) a view which holds fast to the idea that the central concern of classical political philosophy/history, and crucially of Aristotle, is to understand things –the political things— from the perspective of the serious citizens themselves who are the ones who actually defend AND EXHIBIT the virtues in all their admirable complexity (thus the preparation for such a commentary requires the decision to live among the serious citizens rather than simply among its intellectuals and über-specialists), 3) a view which holds fast to a much larger project which involves, first, a confrontation of our own thought with the alien perspectives of ancient and medieval texts such as those of Aristotle, but which must be completed by a second attempt to understand the modern political philosophers who decidedly and firmly rebelled against Aristotelianism (seeking to better understand the debate among Federalists and Anti-Federalists in the US exemplifies such a task), 4) a view which holds fast to the realization, as pointed out above, that modern relativism and historicism cannot but unavoidably make such a project one from which we would in reality have nothing to learn, or better put, face up to, for we would simply pity those who once believed (mistakenly, of course) that they had actually reached into the core nature of human affairs, and finally 5) a view which holds fast to the idea that Aristotle was a serious and profound writer who followed a certain order, not due to whimsical desires, but rather precisely to confront the reader in such a way as to allow the reader to think for him/herself the very strangeness of the order which the author himself is asking us to follow. So, for instance, if Book 10 —–with its too-well-known perplexing conclusion (a bit like “the butler did it” kind of conclusion)—— comes to us as a RADICAL surprise, we should expect to understand by this that perhaps we have in fact NOT followed carefully the indications set throughout by Aristotle himself! For it seems that Aristotle, would himself not be so shocked by the time he had reached the conclusion of the text he himself thought through, wrote, taught; but fundamentally, lived. (Or as Professor Pangle puts it with regard to the general interpretation of the order and style of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws: “Any commentary on The Spirit of the Laws must confront the almost universal scholarly opinion of two centuries that the work lacks order and a unifying plan ……. The disorder of Montesquieu’s greatest work is held to reflect the disorder of his thought ……. a thought which is unconsciously enmeshed in fundamental contradiction …….. The only well known commentator who persuasively opposes the general view is d’Alembert. Speaking of “the pretended lack of method of which some readers have accused Montesquieu”, d’Alembert says: “An assiduous and meditative reading can alone make the merit of this book felt …… One must distinguish apparent disorder from real disorder. ….The disorder is merely apparent when the author puts in their proper places the ideas he uses and leaves to the readers to supply the connecting ideas: and it is thus that Montesquieu thought he could and should proceed in a book destined for men who think, whose genius ought to supply the voluntary and reasoned omissions. The order which makes itself seen in the grand divisions of The Spirit of the Laws reigns no less in the details: we believe that the more one penetrates the work, the more one will be convinced of this …… ; Montesquieu’s Philosophy of Liberalism: A Commentary on the Spirit of the Laws, pp. 11-12, University of Chicago, Chicago, 1973.)
D. THE PROJECT
How will the “mechanics” of the commentary work? The related commentary for each subsection of each Book will take around a week, and will be published openly in this blog Rarefactions, a blog which is not exclusively academic in nature. Each commentary will consist of at least 6 sections, which are:
1. The text itself following the translation by Bartlett and Collins.
2. A set of puzzles set out in the form of questions for each subsection in order for me/us to come to grips with what has been pointed to above, namely, the ALIEN character of the questions, the answers, the pauses, the breaks, the digressions, the repetitions, the silences that Aristotle asks us to consider. (This “Introduction” has presented a very raw example above).
3. The commentary itself which will try to address at least some of the puzzles presented in 1.
And as an Appendix of sorts:
4. A very brief commentary of Aquinas’ own formidable commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics. For as grateful as we must be to Aquinas, as we have pointed out Aristotle it seems cannot so easily be held to provide some of the philosophical foundations for the Catholic edifice which Aquinas sought. (Contrasting examples from the Bible can also be considered in this respect.)
5. A much more flexible section which could develop via: a) the contrast with a modern anti-Aristotelian thinker such as Hobbes, or Machiavelli or Locke, b) the discussion of certain Greek terms, c) the parallel reference to the differently argued position of the Eudemian Ethics, or LEAST likely, d) the discussion of some of the issues found in the secondary bibliography on Aristotle as presented here in Rarefactions (www.amelo14.wordpress.com)
6. Some Greek terminology as it actually becomes present in the text itself.
7. The Greek text in its original as presented at Perseus digital library, which follows Bywater’s famous edition.