Thoughts on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

Image result for the nicomachean ethics oxford

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.


Historical Fiction and Ethics (Discussion)

Related imageRecently, I tried reading Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. It is historical fiction told from the perspective of an SS officer who is living in hiding post-Holocaust. It is, as you can imagine, an incredibly disturbing book. Reviewers claim that it is the most disturbing book they’ve ever read. That’s as it should be. The SS officer narrating the story lives without remorse. Littell does not make him a sympathetic character. Kindly Ones does not in any way romanticize the Holocaust. Still, despite all the awards it has won in France (it was written originally in French as Les Bienveillantes), I could not get past page 50. I put it aside for ethical reasons.

In general, I avoid historical fiction set during the Holocaust (or any genocide for that matter). It’s only while reading Kindly Ones did I realize that I have ethical issues with reading certain kinds of historical fiction. I have no problem reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel or Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (because those events happened so many hundreds of years ago), but The Titanic rubbed me in the wrong way and I have no interest in reading The Boy in the Striped Pajama.

I am aware that not everyone feels the same about historical fiction. I went to a high school that had a fairly large Jewish student body. Many of my Jewish friends loved reading historical fiction set during the Holocaust. In fact, Holocaust survivors such as Elie Wiesel have written Holocaust novels. I saw two in the library today. For many Jews, Holocaust fiction is one of the ways in which they keep alive the memory of this atrocity. It helps them tell their story.

But I’m not Jewish. I feel uncomfortable reading Holocaust fiction (or consuming any fiction based on a tragedy) because it’s not my story. I feel like I’m profiting from someone else’s suffering. It feels even more problematic when the fiction is about an evil person. I was enraged when Zero Dark Thirty came out about a mission to kill Osama bin Laden. But even the most respectfully-produced historical fiction written by a person associated with the tragic event under consideration feels wrong to me because I am not of that group. If I want to understand the Holocaust, I read non-fiction/autobiographies, watch documentaries and/or visit Holocaust museums. As a person who is not Jewish I worry that in reading fiction (which is made up) I’m finding entertainment in an event that caused so many people suffering. The Holocaust does unfortunately tell us something about humanity, but should the Holocaust be fodder for exploring human nature? Historical fiction makes a tragedy or an atrocity in a way necessary. There would have been no Titanic movie (the highest grossing film of all time) if 1,517 people had not died on the Titanic. It’s the fictional elements that bother me. I’m sure there were romances during the Holocaust, but reading a Holocaust novel with a romance feels wrong.

I’ve put off reading so many excellent books because of my ethical concerns about certain types of historical fiction. Even “own voices” historical fiction makes me uncomfortable. I don’t ever want to “enjoy” Holocaust fiction.

But I know that not everyone feels the same way. Some feel that Holocaust fiction has an important educational value. But I wonder what you all think. Especially those of you who do not belong to groups that have historically been marginalized and/or who are not survivors of a tragedy.

What are your thoughts? Are there types of historical fiction that you won’t read? Do you avoid historical fiction altogether?

To be clear, this is not about censorship. I am not concerned with what is being produced but whether or not I personally want to consume it.