Tim's Reviews > Nichomachean Ethics

Nichomachean Ethics by Aristotle
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Jan 22, 11

This book’s a difficult case. On one hand there’s the infamous defense of slavery and the statements on the inferiority of women, and parts of the book seem downright pedestrian. But a closer reading of Aristotle on slavery suggests he supported a rather different and probably far more limited form than was his society’s practice. (If this is correct, implementing this version would have likely caused a revolution in the ancient Greek socieo-economic system, quite possibly eliminating the class which had the leisure to philosophize, but Aristotle doesn’t follow up on these implications here or in the Politics.) Perhaps a closer reading of Aristotle on women might suggest something less unenlightened than at first blush, and we should be careful about keeping historical and cultural context in mind and not unreflectively applying 21st c. views to the 4th c. BC. If nothing else, he writes of women with more sympathy and humanity than is typical of ancient Greeks (notable atypicals being Euripides and of course Sappho). And when you’ve been wading through some of the seemingly pedestrian material to the point that you’re losing faith in “the master of those who know,” suddenly the penetrating, profound, nuanced, and original mind reappears, notably in his discussion of “intellectual virtue.”

I won’t try to synopsize or critique this work other than to point out, as others have, that the Christian conception of the individual’s struggle with sin (and the “post-Christian” derivatives of this concept) significantly illumines a blind spot in ancient Greek psychology (or so I believe). However, Aristotle doesn’t try to prove the Socratic/Platonic notion that people never willingly choose to do wrong. Rather, he makes a compelling case that only a virtuous life is truly satisfying and that any rational and critically-thinking person should see this and live accordingly. It might be the most effective argument for ethical living that doesn’t rely on divinity (although there is a non-causal [at least in the modern sense] tie to divinity). It doesn’t try to say we ought to live a certain way; just that nothing else truly satisfies the most fundamental natural needs of man. Aristotle neither has to make an exclusive claim nor does he need to prove his claim: experience demonstrates it conclusively (he believes). (I probably wouldn’t have grasped this without reading Jonathan Lear’s thoroughly excellent Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, which has also helped me better understand Aristotle on slavery and on many other things.)

This is an argument which seems to have been forgotten in our “post-Christian” West as it’s been searching for a way to re-ground its inherited ethics (some of which are quite different from Aristotle’s, but that’s a comparison and critique I said I wouldn’t get into). Whether it’s a strong enough argument and whether it could succeed widely are open questions; Aristotle believed most people are neither inclined to virtue nor susceptible to rational argument, so he probably wouldn’t expect this argument to have much influence. But for the few, it seems possibly more sound than any ethical theory from Kant to Rawls. Perhaps Kant, Rawls and other moderns have hoped for something that could be convincingly translated for the masses. Like Aristotle, I’m skeptical that that could be done successfully. I also think Aristotle’s probably right that most people are motivated largely by animal desires and only effectively constrained by the threat of force, primarily through law (Aristotle’s almost starting to sound like a Calvinist). Which leaves a larger open question about ethics and contemporary society that I won’t try to address. Suffice it to say that Aristotle’s consciously preaching to a choir – explaining virtue to the already virtuous – not trying to convert heathens.
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