Thoughts on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

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I am currently doing a project that requires some background knowledge of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Instead of giving you a summary (because that would take too long), I thought I’d mention what stood out to me in the work.

The Nicomachean Ethics (c. 300 BCE) is roughly divided into four sections: Virtue, Justice, Pleasure, and Friendship. Aristotle’s greatest contribution to the West is arguably in the area of virtue ethics, although his Metaphysics and Politics were also influential. I decided to do my project on the Ethics because it’s a work that I have wanted to read ever since I finished The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I am fascinated by studies on habit formation. Graduate school should be about reading difficult things, so I often choose to do my term papers on texts that I have been putting off reading.

On to the book…

Moral Virtue
I love that Aristotle defines virtue as an action. It’s not an intention or a feeling. Virtuous people ACT virtuously. Although moral virtue has a natural component, it is mostly the result of habit. If you want to be courageous, you have to practice acting courageously by taking on projects that make you uncomfortable. According to Aristotle, true philosophers are not merely theoreticians. They walk the walk too.

Aristotle argues that all humans seek the good because it brings them happiness. We do everything for happiness, but not all actions can make us truly happy. Every virtue involves choice and is the mean of two extremes. The middle-path can be difficult to discern, but it leads to the greatest happiness.

There were a few things, however, that put me off to Aristotle’s teachings in this section. First, love is not listed as one of the moral virtues. Second, pride is described as the root of all virtue (!). And finally, men alone have the capacity to be virtuous. When Aristotle says “men”, he means men. Women are described as under-developed men (lovely, I know).

Unfortunately, the only notes I made in my book on this topic concern teachings that I dislike. Aristotle thinks that fathers cannot act unjustly toward their children because offspring are the equivalent of a “man’s chattel” until they can live on their own.

He also does some victim-blaming in the subsection on anger. An angry man is less guilty than the one who provoked his anger: “[F]or it is not the man who acts in anger but he who enraged him that starts the mischief”. Still, it is worth pointing out yet again that justice is not an inner disposition but an action. I’m sure Aristotle addresses political justice in more depth in The Politics.

This is arguably the most confusing section of the book. The end-notes of my Oxford World’s Classics edition describes the scholarly confusion surrounding Aristotle’s teaching on incontinence. I did, however, gather a few things from this section.

Only humans are capable of being continent because only humans have the capacity for universal judgement. Men become incontinent when sleep, anger, or alcohol impede their judgment. Incontinence, like vice, is an excess. I appreciated that Aristotle didn’t try to address a myriad of individual cases, but admitted that many situations require discernment.

Aristotle is not opposed to pleasure. In fact, he thinks it’s impossible for a person to be happy while experiencing torture (against the Stoics).

Those who say that the victim on the rack or the man who falls into great misfortunes is happy if he is good are, whether they mean to or not, talking nonsense.

I agree. I can certainly see people acting courageously in difficult situations, but they aren’t happy.

Pleasure is not evil in itself because “all things have by nature something divine in them”. Pleasure only leads to vice if it is taken to an extreme. Only if pleasure obstructs a person’s ability to reason or to behave temperately is it harmful.

This is, hands-down, my favorite section of the book. Aristotle defines a friend as a second self. For a man to be happy, he needs friends because humans are meant for community. Consequently, a healthy state functions as a kind of friendship between the leader and the people. In the 16th century, Montaigne will disagree that any kind of friendship can exist in a hierarchical relationship, but Aristotle things that equality does not necessarily mean that everyone should be treated in the same way. While I am more inclined to agree with Montaigne’s definition of equality, I appreciate the communal/political dimension Aristotle gives to the concept of friendship. He makes it clear that friendship requires justice. It is justice that creates equality in a hierarchical relationship.

Reciprocity is central to a good friendship. Bad friends only care about what they can get from another person. They are compared to tyrants who use others for their own benefit. The best friendship is between two virtuous men, but all true friendships are pleasurable and good.

Parting Thoughts
In the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne will develop Aristotle’s teachings on friendship in his essay “Of Friendship“.  This beautiful meditation is inspired by Montaigne’s life-long friendship to Etienne de La Boétie.

Aristotle is at his best when he makes general observations about human behavior. If you are interested in habit formation or virtue ethics, I recommend The Nicomachean Ethics. It is a good place to begin.

Cervantes, Miguel de, Literary Miscellanea

Don Quixote and Aristotle

In Chapter III of the Second Part of Don Quixote, Bachelor Sansón Carrasco, Don Quixote, and Sancho Panza discuss the First Part of Cervantes’ work. One of the questions addressed is the difference between poetry and history.

“Even so,” responded the bachelor, “some people who have read the history say they would have been pleased if its authors had forgotten about some of the infinite beatings given to Señor Don Quixote in various encounters.”

“That’s where the truth of the history comes in,” said Sancho.

“They also could have kept quiet about them for the sake of fairness,” said Don Quixote, “because the actions that do not change or alter the truth of the history do not need to be written if they belittle the hero. By my faith, Aeneas was not as pious as Virgil depicts him, or Ulysses as prudent as Homer describes him.”

“That is true,” replied Sansón, “but it is one thing to write as a poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.”

The debate that these three men are having centers on an Aristotelian question, treated heavily by 16th and 17th century humanists. In chapter 9 of his Poetics, Aristotle writes:

But it is evident from what has been said that it is not the province of a poet to relate things which have happened, but such as might have happened, and such things as are possible according to probability, or which would necessarily have happened. For a historian and a poet do not differ from each other because the one writes in verse and the other in prose; for the history of Herodotus might be written in verse, and yet it would be no less a history with meter than without meter. But they differ in this, that the one speaks of things which have happened, and the other of such as might have happened.

The poet’s job is to relate what might have happened while the historian’s job is to give an account of what actually happened. But what does Aristotle mean? During the Renaissance, writers try to systematically describe a verisimilitudinous play (i.e. a play that presents events as they might have happened). The 17th century humanist Nicolas Boileau even applies Aristotle to non-theatrical poetry in his Art Poétique (Art of Poetry). The debate concerning the difference between a poet and a historian is also a debate about the role of the public. What does the public expect from a poet vs. from a historian?

Don Quixote, as part meta-fiction, is not only a satire on courtly romance but also a commentary on Renaissance values such as verisimilitude. What does the public expect from a history of Don Quixote? If the story is about a knight errant, should it follow tropes found in the courtly romances that Don Quixote‘s audience know so well? How should Don Quxote act? Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are at once ignorant and self-aware. They behave irrationally, but they know what readers of courtly romance expect. They try to realize in their own lives what a knight or a squire never did historically but might have done poetically. What is ironic about the above conversation is that Don Quixote seems to know that the heroes in his favorite stories were idealized and mythologized, yet he attempts to imitate them anyway. Sancho Panza definitely knows what the public (i.e. Don Quixote) expects because he frequently lies about events to fool and please his master.