COMMENTARY ON ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: BOOK I, 4
(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)
Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics
“Now, let us pick up again and —since all knowledge and every choice have some good as the object of their longing —let us state what it is that we say the political art aims at and what the highest of all the goods related to action is. As for its name, then, it is pretty much agreed on by most people; for both the many and the refined say that it is happiness, and they suppose that living well and acting well are the same thing as being happy. But as for what happiness is, they disagree, and the many do not give a response similar to that of the wise. The former respond that it is something obvious and manifest, such as pleasure or wealth or honour, some saying it is one thing, others another. Often one and the same person responds differently, for when he is sick, it is health; when poor, wealth. And when they are aware of their ignorance, they wonder at those who say something that is great and beyond them. Certain others, in addition, used to suppose that the good is something else, by itself, apart from these many good things, which is also the cause of their all being good.
Now, to examine thoroughly all these opinions is perhaps rather pointless; those opinions that are specially prevalent or are held to have a certain reason to them will suffice. But let it not escape our notice that there is a difference between the arguments that proceed from principles and those that proceed to the principles. For Plato too used to raise this perplexity well and investigated, whether the path is going from the principles or to the principles, just as on a racecourse one can proceed from the judges to the finish line or back again. One must begin from what is known, but this has a twofold meaning: there are things known to us, on the one hand, and things known simply, on the other. Perhaps it is necessary for us, at least, to begin from the things known to us. Hence he who will listen adequately to the noble things and the just things, and to the political things generally, must be brought up nobly by means of habituation. For the “that” is the principle, and if this should be sufficiently apparent, there will be no need of the “why” in addition, and a person of the sort indicated has or would easily get hold of the principles. As for him to whom neither of these is available, let him listen to the words of Hesiod:
This one is altogether best who himself understands all things
But good in his turn too is he who obeys one who speaks well.
But he who neither himself understands nor, in listening to another,
takes this to heart, he is a useless man. ” (NE, 1095a14-1095b13; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)
I. PRIVATE PUZZLES
1) Why does Ar. proceed in such a STRANGE manner, first telling us that after the previous digression he will get back on track with his own argument regarding the architectonic good of the political art, only to, a few lines later, digress once again (!) (at, “but let it not escape our notice”)? Why is he going about things as he is? Why is he so very hesitant to get to the point, so to speak? What is so crucial about getting things right from the beginning? For surely it seems a sign of prudence and sensitivity towards the actual independence, specially from the philosophical, of the practical sphere, doesn’t it? And isn’t this precisely WHY Ar. has become so relevant to us moderns, children of the Copernican revolution who attempted for centuries to side-step these initial Aristotelian “preludes” or digressions? Because, aren’t WE children of the scientific/technological grid, virtually unaware of such beginnings? Isn’t this why we find in the writings of Husserl the clear example of this procedural history? For, Husserl first wrote a very strange defence of philosophy IN TERMS OF the natural sciences themselves in his weirdly named “Philosophy as Rigourous Science”, only in his later years to back off from such a “kneeling” posture to a defence of a more Aristotelian notion, that of the “life-world” in his last book revealingly entitled The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Philosophy? Isn’t it, then, precisely out of respect for the independence of the practical that Ar. digresses anew, before going back to the argument presented? Doesn’t he have us LISTEN to a defence of the practical political life as AGAINST a certain kind of IMPRUDENT scientific/philosophical undermining of the realm of serious practical human things? Or put yet another way in terms of the history of philosophy, isn’t the young Wittgenstein of the Tractacus also guilty of not having begun in such a prudent way? For, doesn’t his logical attempt give way to the language as a way of life in his much more mature Philosophical Investigations? And much more importantly, in the early history of this constant tension, did not Socrates himself tell us that there came a point in his life in which he too had to undertake a “second sailing” (see, Phaedo), one in which philosophy was brought down from the Heavens to Earth for the very first time in time in philosophical inquiry (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations)? Don´t we see this clearly in Aristophanes´ comic presentation of the early Socrates in his Clouds? And don´t we see it MUCH MORE clearly in Xenophon´s Economics where we are told Socrates saw the need for a radical shift in HIS philosophical undertaking while simply LISTENING to the best of gentlemen, Ischomachus? Isn’t this respect for the dignity of the practical what redefines Socratism —and the whole of classical political philosophy— as against the pre-Socratics and their apolitical concern with the whole? But if so, what are the impending dangers of Heidegger´s and Nietzsche´s urging US to “return” to the PRE-Socratics who themselves did not know of this initial starting point for ethical inquiry? Isn’t this, in part, why Heidegger could not take back his troubling past? Musn’t THIS destabilizing danger, this mocking of logos within the practical sphere, be the one to be confronted HEAD ON (see Pangle ‘s poignant and ironical remarks on Rorty in The Ennobling of Democracy)? And, in Aristotelian terms, isn’t his different attitude from the EE to the NE precisely a similar expression of such a change in procedural outlook as well? Isn’t this THE key to understanding how the EE must be regarded as an earlier, less mature, work (vs. Kenny)?
2) Furthermore, what to make of the appearance of the central term happiness (eudaimonia)? How are we to get clear on the fundamental differences between the ancients´ concern for eudaimonia —which evidently goes beyond a feeling of temporary joy—- and OUR very own notion of the constitutionally defended “pursuit of happiness” (e.g., Constitution of the United States)? Won’t we make a MASSIVE mistake by not seeing the tension in which they stand? For instance, what are we to make of Kant’s very secondary, not so say, dismissive use of the term in his own ethical foundations (see section IV below)? Or, what to make of Locke’s reduction of the term and, crucially, its liberation (by way of redefinition and exclusion) from the Aristotelian moral virtues which will become the core of Ar.´s own argument (difference which is pregnantly developed by Pangle in his The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Visions of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke, see section IV below)? And isn’t this equally true of the difference between Ar.’s eudaimonia and Hobbes’s little inspiring felicity (see section IV below)? Isn’t the modern connection quite Anti-Aristotelian in that it DOES NOT believe there is an actual END to our longings? Doesn’t then modern desire –—-and particularly the desire for a certain kind of power that guarantees self-preservation—- lead the way, while reason deforms into mere utilitarianism? Similarly, can one not easily find in the Federalist vs. Anti-federalists debates over the US Constitution, precisely this very same debate on the appearance/delineation of happiness as THE END of the political (see section IV below)? Isn’t this why Brutus is so crucially upset by the unheard of proposals of Hamilton/Madison/Jay (proposals which “won the day”)? And, looking at Ar. more specifically; what exactly does it mean that happiness involves a living well and an acting well? Is living merely the substratum for acting? I mean, do we live simply to act, and specially in a moral sense? Or, in other MUCH more problematic terms, is life simply/exclusively the occasion for the presentation of the moral virtues in their alleged splendour? And if so, how are the moral virtues as the core of acting well, to be related to happiness which is BOTH acting AND living well? For surely, as we have said in our previous commentaries, sometimes the actual performance of certain virtues, such as courage, seems to GO AGAINST living itself as Ar. HIMSELF has pointed out in previous subsections? And, how is this consideration of happiness to be related to the context of the quote we find from Hesiod at the very end of this subsection (see puzzle No. 11 below)?
3) Moreover, why exactly does Ar. first mention two groups, the many (oi polloi, usually used in pejorative terms in Aristotle, see e.g., discusses of democracy in the Politics) and the refined (χαρίεντες; with the connotations of the beautiful, the graceful, the elegant, the courteous and the educated), only lines later to go on to mention a VERY different second pair, namely, the many and the wise? Are we to understand that the refined are to be passed over in silence? Or rather, that the refined are precisely THE most problematic in that they are already to a large extent educated by their society as such? What is one to learn about ethics if one is, to a large extent, ALREADY educated and courteous and graceful and …? And very importantly, what makes one part of the refined: good looks? Elegance? Or more likely, education; but WHICH education? I mean, why would the refined NEED the NE? And, are the refined variable as the just and the noble seem to be? Besides, put in modern terms, wouldn’t Ar. see the refined more in terms of Locke’s virtue of civility? And therefore, being refined —seeing oneself as one of the refined—- doesn’t THAT mean that one must appear to be refined to SOMEONE? Specially to those who are refined as well? But then, IF Ar.´s digressions are precisely to RESPECT some such education, how are we to MOVE beyond its already set parameters of what is beautiful and noble and just? In other words, aren’t we here speaking of the Ischomachus’s –the best of gentlemen (kalos kágathos)—- of our lives (see Xenophon’s crucial Economics)? For, don´t we see in Xenophon’s compelling (though little studied) text how SOCRATES is TRULY SILENT and merely listens to one of the most refined of Athens? Wouldn’t THAT be the respect of the practical sphere that Ar. seeks? But then, how to get the conversation going, so to speak, if Ar. goes on to say that the WHY should not be asked? And as regards the many, what are we to make of those thinkers who see in Ar. the beginning of radical social democracy (Nussbaum)? Aren’t they caught irredeemably in a MODERN LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC framework which has little to learn from Ar. himself? For surely Ar., in quoting Hesiod´s words in this very subsection seems little democratic in spirit, doesn’t he? But more problematic still, Ar. CLEARLY tells us that it is the many who mistakenly hold eudaimonia to be leisure, wealth or honour? But then again, who are these “many”: for surely one would tend to think that the many are the poor and therefore, in political terms, the ones least like to have the potential for honour in political office in particular? Or could it be, but this would be rather problematic given the type of digressions Ar. has made, that the many and the refined, when it comes to the CORE issues, to what truly defines happiness as the end of this “kind of political inquiry”, and more importantly to what truly defines happiness as THE END of the best human life possible simply, are very close to each other? Could it be that the refined and the many turn out to be, in their essence, almost indistinguishable; particularly when compared to/confronted by the wise? And, wouldn’t this allow us to NOT be so surprised once we reach the stunning conclusions of BOOK X? But then again, WHO are the wise? Are our professors the wise as Ar. uses the term? If not, then WHO?
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