Classics and the Western Canon discussion

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message 1: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Someone who knew nothing about ethics might think, upon reading the first book of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, that ethics is intimately related to happiness. Aristotle suggests that happiness is ultimately what people want -- it's what we want for its own sake and not in order to achieve something else. (1095a20, 1097b.) Is this a good way of describing happiness? Is happiness what you think of when you think about "ethics"?

The way that Aristotle unveils his argument is a little bit digressive at times, but he seems to think that human actions conform to a kind of system or hierarchy of desires. In the first sentence he states, "Every art and every investigation, and similarly every practical act and choice, seems to aim at some good." He then goes on to explain what he means by "aiming," the kinds of targets or ends that we aim for, and what "some good" might possibly mean. This is a loaded subject. Aristotle was a student of Plato, who had quite a few things to say about the Good. Aristotle acknowledges his friend and teacher, and then respectfully begs to differ with him.

Does Aristotle's argument seem systematic to you? How would you describe his method or approach to his subject?

I think Aristotle is building a system here, or at least making distinctions and differentiations that appear to fall into a natural hierarchy. But his presentation is not exactly simple and straightforward, as I would expect from someone who has a system to demonstrate. So I will leave you with a few questions that I have from Book 1 in no particular order, since I'm not sure how to present them systematically.

How does happiness relate to politics, which Aristotle describes as the "master art" (1094b)? For that matter, what do the arts have to do with happiness?

What is the "work" or activity of a human being? How does the soul "work" in accordance with reason, and how does this lead to happiness? (1098a)

It's puzzling to me that he says there is no such thing as a "common good" in a practical sense (1096a). He avoids the Socratic debate over this and says that goodness exists in differing ways, depending on how the thing that is good exists. But how are we to identify goodness in any given situation? Isn't it necessary to have knowledge of goodness in order to make good decisions?

Is it really true that the virtuous person beset by misfortune is happier than the worthless person who is lucky? Is a virtuous and innocent man in prison happier than the criminal who got away with his crime?

Just a few questions to get started.... I have more, and I bet you do too. Let's hear 'em!


message 2: by Thomas (last edited Jan 02, 2018 09:38PM) (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Patrice wrote: "Some time ago i read an essay by Charles krautheimer that really impressed me. He described a country that was the most cultured in the world. The greatest scientists, the most beautiful music, gre..."

How does Aristotle think of right or wrong politics? This is one of the sticking points of Book One -- Aristotle skirts the idea of the Good. How do we get to right or wrong politics without an understanding of the good? How do we know that we are "right" and not simply following a persuasive leader?

Eudaimonia is sometimes translated as "flourishing." I think this is closer to what Aristotle means than "happiness." We'll see as we go on that active living, work, is crucial for human excellence, which is required for eudaemonia. It is more than mere contentment, I think.


message 3: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1648 comments Thomas wrote: "How does Aristotle think of right or wrong politics? This is one of the sticking points of Book One -- Aristotle skirts the idea of the Good. How do we get to right or wrong politics without an understanding of the good? How do we know that we are "right" and not simply following a persuasive leader?.."

And isn't our understanding of the "right" politics contingent upon time and place? For example, in England there was a time when a monarchy was considered the "right" politics with the monarch being viewed as God's representative. To challenge the monarchy at that time was not only viewed as treasonous, it was also viewed as sacrilegious.


message 4: by Tamara (last edited Jan 03, 2018 08:55AM) (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1648 comments I read Book One but I have to admit I am struggling with this. His arguments seems so convoluted. I no sooner think I understand what he's saying than he inserts a subordinate clause or opposing argument or digresses and he throws me completely off kilter.

I'm reading the Ross translation since that's the one I have at home. I don't know if it's a problem with the translation. I suspect it's a problem with me since it's been years since I read Aristotle and then it was his Poetics.

I intend to keep reading, but it's going to be a challenge for me.


message 5: by Christopher (new)

Christopher (Donut) | 532 comments Tamara wrote: "I read Book One but I have to admit I am struggling with this. ,,, I intend to keep reading, but it's going to be a challenge for me. ."

I agree, it is difficult.

Dang, who wishes we were reading The Odyssey right now?

That said, it is the kind of book that if you had to read on your own, with no teacher, no group, you never would.


message 6: by Ian (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 619 comments Tamara wrote: "I read Book One but I have to admit I am struggling with this. His arguments seems so convoluted. I no sooner think I understand what he's saying than he inserts a subordinate clause or opposing ar..."

"I don't know if it's a problem with the translation ... [or] with me."

I suspect it is not you, but Aristotle, and the structure (if any) of the first book (not Aristotle's division, after all).

Book One seems to set up a number of topics he will address in more detail later -- that "later" including a sort of sequel to the "Ethics," his "Politics." The later books don't seem (at least to me), to jump around nearly so much, although some themes appear and re-appear.

And in the "Nicomachean Ethics," Aristotle seems to reconsider some of his positions as he progresses. This gives the whole book a little "work-in-progress" feel.

Indeed, it has been speculated that pretty much all of Aristotle's surviving books are based on notes for lectures, some of which he delivered more than once, and that the NE in particular includes reconsiderations, without just deleting the previous discussions.

Some think a scribe (or even an ancient bookseller) was responsible for stitching some of it together as one work, and didn't do a very good job. Others see the book as very complex, but coherent.

Another work, the known as the "Eudemian Ethics," is traditionally considered an earlier work. Aristotle seems more consistent there, perhaps because he hadn't thought things over, but perhaps because he had.

There are those who have argued that "Eudemian Ethics" is in fact Aristotle's final word on the subject. But the "Nicomachean Ethics" is the one that is historically important (and which has a rich tradition of commentaries to draw on..). Just to confuse things, the two works have three books in common, so there is clearly some close relationship between the two.

Then, too, I'm not fond of the Ross translation (and I've read several over the years).


message 7: by Ian (last edited Jan 05, 2018 09:02AM) (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 619 comments Patrice wrote: "True.
i first read it in a great books class at u of chicago. the prof asked someone to read the first paragraph aloud. someone did. the entire class burst out laughing. No one understood a word. t..."


There is a view, now traditional, that the originals of the surviving works of Aristotle, very much including the "Ethics," were not his own manuscripts, but assembled from the lecture notes made by assiduous students.

Another view is that they do go back to Aristotle's manuscripts for his lectures, some of which he used (and reworked) more than once.

In any case, there is a traditional story (found in Cicero, and probably elsewhere) of how the books had to be recovered from the eventual owner's cellar -- which tale may have been a way to promote sales.

There *was* a rich tradition of Aristotle studies, completely from translations (apparently very well done), in the medieval Islamic world: after a period of translating him into Arabic, however, no one seems to have even bothered with Greek texts.

The Muslim Aristotelians, quite accidentally, restored a good knowledge of Aristotle to the West (he was still being read in Byzantium), by way of Latin translations of the Arabic translations, and translations of the Arabic commentaries -- the last a vital factor in making him intelligible to novice readers.

Some of the medieval translations directly from Greek into Latin, including the version of the "Ethics" known to Thomas Aquinas. For the major figure in this endeavor, see the Wikipedia article on William of Moerbeke (various spellings)

There is also a complicated story of how some of Aristotle re-entered the Latin world by way of Latin versions of Hebrew translations of Arabic texts -- Thomas Aquinas, at least, was familiar with how Maimonides tried to fit Aristotle's physics into a Biblical world view.

Eventually, the Greek texts, rather than their translations, did find their way into Western Europe, where people were actually beginning to read Greek again, and over time these displaced the Latin translations which had been vital for the Scholastics (among others).

(My apologies for condensing a long, complicated story -- feel free to correct any part of my condensed version which is wrong or misleading.)


message 8: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1648 comments Ian wrote: "There is a view, now traditional, that the originals of the surviving works of Aristotle, very much including the "Ethics," were not his own manuscripts, but assembled from the lecture notes made by assiduous students..."

Wow! Thank you for that background, Ian. It's impressive.


message 9: by Ian (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 619 comments Patrice wrote: "no wonder i was not sure of my memories! thanks for clarifying. so, if Aristotle was still read in Greek, in Byzantium, why was there any need for translation? was there no contact between east and..."

Actually, intellectual contact between Byzantium and "the Franks" of western Europe was difficult -- Greek eventually fell out of use in the West, and knowledge of Latin declined in the East. This on top of Orthodox vs. Catholic tensions.

The general renewal of Greek studies in the West (rather than the odd determined monk like William) was part of what we call the Renaissance. And it was fueled in part by Greek scholars actually living in Italy, in flight after the fall of Byzantium to the Turks.

So this was a second transmission, one which produced modern studies of Aristotle, instead of Scholastic interpretations, and their reconciliations with Christianity.

A lot of credit is given to the Muslim scholars partly because their work underpinned the whole Scholastic enterprise of the High Middle Ages, and the Western interest in Aristotle to begin with. Without that episode, no one might have bothered with Aristotle, but stuck to the newly-introduced Greek Plato, instead.

Maimonides was indeed a master of both Arabic and Hebrew, writing books in both -- but his "Guide to the Perplexed" was in Arabic, and addressed in part to somewhat "secularized" Jews impressed by Arabic science and philosophy. Also, Hebrew then lacked the technical vocabulary available in Arabic.

So the book had to be translated into Hebrew, by the Tibbonides, a family which specialized in turning Arabic texts into Hebrew for the benefit of Jews in Christian countries. They invented Hebrew philosophical terms to do it, which Maimonides hadn't seen as necessary. (In his intellectual world, anyone who knew anything important already knew Arabic, after all).

Aquinas apparently read a Latinized version of the Hebrew version of the Arabic of the "Guide". Or so I gather -- I've never seen mention of a translation into Latin directly from the Arabic. (See what I mean by a long story? And I won't even go into the Jewish controversies the Hebrew version helped fuel.)


message 10: by Christopher (new)

Christopher (Donut) | 532 comments My bird's eye view, or thumbnail sketch of the Renaissance is that it was anti-Aristotle- who, after all, was the darling of the 'schoolmen,' and was philosophically at least, a revival of Christian Platonism with Augustine as the great forebear.

Aquinas's work on Aristotle was something of a clean-up job, meant to counter the Arab influence- the Latin Averroism which had gained a foothold in Aquinas's time.

But I was reading something recently which said The Book of the Courtier was based on Aristotle's Ethics.

So take this whole post with a grain of salt.


message 11: by Ian (last edited Jan 05, 2018 09:05AM) (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 619 comments The Renaissance was indeed on some levels anti-Aristotelian -- or at least against the Aristotelianism of the schools.

However, he was still important enough that the first complete printing in Greek was published in 1494-1497. (The Aldine Edition, exact dates courtesy of Wikipedia: this included some works which are no longer considered Aristotle's, and lacked the "Constitution of Athens," which was only rediscovered in the late nineteenth century.)

Latin editions had already been published, too -- so it seems there was a demand for them.

Of course, getting back to the "real" Aristotle could also an be an anti-Scholastic attitude in itself.

Yes, Castiglione ("The Courtier") does seem to have used Aristotle, specifically the "Nicomachean Ethics." So did Spenser in "The Faerie Queene." It appears to have been treated quite apart from, say, the works on logic, or the "Metaphysics," perhaps because his concept of the virtues had become deeply embedded in the intellectual culture. Or just because they were a recognizable point of reference. On other things, both seem more Platonic, or at least under the influence of a "popularized" Platonism.


message 12: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Thomas wrote: "In the first sentence he states, "Every art and every investigation, and similarly every practical act and choice, seems to aim at some good.""

I was thinking of this statement in the context of some of the recent acts of terrorism we have seen in this country. Suicide bombers. Running a truck down a busy bike/pedestrian path. Are these choices really aiming at some good? And if they are, what can we say about the good?

In the mind of these people are they pursuing some good? if so, it is not a good that society in general regards as a good.

But in terms of techne, of the arts, I suppose they are seeking to perform their acts well. The suicide bomber wants to make the best suicide bomb he or she can. The truck driver wants to drive his truck in such a way as to perform the maximum result he desires. Can we call these arts that these men and women are pursuing good, even if civilized society finds them abhorrent?


message 13: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Thomas wrote: "Eudaimonia is sometimes translated as "flourishing." I think this is closer to what Aristotle means than "happiness." We'll see as we go on that active living, work, is crucial for human excellence, which is required for eudaemonia. It is more than mere contentment, I think. "

I think that here Aristotle is both influenced by and somewhat in opposition to Plato, his teacher. Plato presents Socrates, for example, as pursuing eudaemonia even though it led to his death. This suggests to me that happiness or flourishing or whatever term we want to use is very much in the eye of the beholder. I suggest that perhaps it is a fools errand to try to come up with a definition or common agreement on a general understanding of the good.

I have been re-reading the Palliser series and happened today to come across the passages where Palliser is accepting the post of Prime Minister even though he very much doesn't want the post, and is made very unhappy by his felt need to accept the responsibility. He feels that his duty to the country supersedes his personal desire to live his life as he wishes. He seems to me to be recognizing that what is good for him personally is different from what is good for his country, and is willing to sacrifice his personal happiness for the sake of the broader good of the country. How would Aristotle view this choice he is making?


message 14: by Christopher (new)

Christopher (Donut) | 532 comments Now, it is too long to post here, but any discussion of the Greek conception of 'happiness' has to start with Solon's meeting with Croesus in Book One of Herodotus.

Basically, Solon goes to see Croesus, who is the richest man in Asia Minor, and Croesus asks him who he thinks is the happiest man.

I think Solon gives three examples of happiness, all of them men who died. "Look to the end" is what he says.

Now, I forget whether Aristotle says it's possible for the dead to be happy, or says the dead cannot be happy.


message 15: by Christopher (new)

Christopher (Donut) | 532 comments It is long, but I found the clipping (David Grene translation):

Solon answered: “Croesus, you asked me, who know that the Divine is altogether jealous and prone to trouble us, and you asked me about human matters. In the whole length of time there is much to see that one would rather not see—and much to suffer likewise. I put the boundary of human life at seventy years. These seventy years have twenty-five thousand two hundred days, not counting the intercalary month;18 but if every other year be lengthened by a month so that the seasons come out right, these intercalary months in seventy years will be thirty-five, and the days for these months ten hundred and fifty. So that all the days of a man's life are twenty-six thousand two hundred and fifty; of all those days not one brings to him anything exactly the same as another. So, Croesus, man is entirely what befalls him. To me it is clear that you are very rich, and clear that you are the king of many men; but the thing that you asked me I cannot say of you yet, until I hear that you have brought your life to an end well. For he that is greatly rich is not more blessed than he that has enough for the day unless fortune so attend upon him that he ends his life well, having all those fine things still with him. Moreover, many very rich men are unblessed, and many who have a moderate competence are fortunate. Now he that is greatly rich but is unblessed has an advantage over the lucky man in two respects only; but the latter has an advantage over the rich and unblessed in many. The rich and unblessed man is better able to accomplish his every desire and to support such great visitation of evil as shall befall him. But the moderately rich and lucky man wins over the other in these ways: true, he is not equally able to support both the visitation of evil and and his own desire, but his good fortune turns these aside from him; he is uncrippled and healthy, without evils to afflict him, and with good children and good looks. If, in addition to all this, he shall end his life well, he is the man you seek, the one who is worthy to be called blessed; but wait till he is dead to call him so, and till then call him not blessed but lucky.


message 16: by Lily (last edited Jan 03, 2018 08:29PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5062 comments Cphe wrote: ""..........the use of the word evil is interesting because i think many don't believe in the concept anymore"

It's perhaps blasé of me but maybe there are different levels of evil. (what you percei..."


If you want to have fun with the concept of evil, I'll suggest the Great Courses series of lectures on the topic. I haven't finished them, but return to them from time to time. (I'd be interested in learning of resources others have found particularly interesting on the topic.)


message 17: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5062 comments Cphe wrote: "At the moment I like to think that I'm just staying afloat with Aristotle."

That is a lot more than I'll claim at this point. I think I shall have to go back to Patrice's professor and do some "one phrase at a time" stuff. Listening repeatedly to small chunks and then comparing with a version or commentary or two visually isn't doing it. Hopefully Ian and some of our St. John's grads will provide us some ideas for cracking a work like this.


message 18: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Tamara wrote: "And isn't our understanding of the "right" politics contingent upon time and place? For example, in England there was a time when a monarchy was considered the "right" politics with the monarch being viewed as God's representative."

Yes, I think so, though I have some Socratic reservations about the good being an evolving thing.

But as for Aristotle, I think he would say that the "right" politics depends on what makes the city flourish. The good is not a universal that applies to every city in every situation; the good is what we call the target that citizens aim for so that their city functions most beautifully. And this may very well change over time... what makes a young person thrive is often very different from what makes an elderly person thrive.


message 19: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5062 comments Patrice wrote: "i have that course too, lily. for some reason i have yet to open it. its been sitting there for years! 😜"

Do you have Roku or equivalent set up so you can just stream it to your screen? A marvelous way of being able to jump in and out of what is of interest in one's collection at the moment. (Sorry for the usurping Aristotle discussion. I'll try to drop the diversions.)


message 20: by Thomas (last edited Jan 03, 2018 09:25PM) (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Everyman wrote: "But in terms of techne, of the arts, I suppose they are seeking to perform their acts well. The suicide bomber wants to make the best suicide bomb he or she can. The truck driver wants to drive his truck in such a way as to perform the maximum result he desires. Can we call these arts that these men and women are pursuing good, even if civilized society finds them abhorrent? "

I guess if blowing themselves up is what is best for the city, they can be said to be doing "good." But what kind of city is that? It sounds like a very diseased one to me, one that Aristotle would certainly reject as a model of excellence.

One of the interesting things about Aristotle's ethics is that he seems to be looking at a paradigm of sorts, a finished product, a city that functions in its highest capacity with citizens who work together in an excellent way. And with that ideal in mind, he examines the beautiful city and its excellent citizens to see what makes them tick. His ethics is almost a scientific treatise, as if he were dissecting a frog or something. How do happy humans live? (What is their "energeia"?) How do they make things (techne) and investigate problems and make decisions? How do they achieve their ends? How do they do these things well, and how do they get tripped up?

So far I haven't heard anything that sounds like an "ought" in the book, which is a little weird for a book about ethics... though we might take the goal of excellence as an implicit "ought."


message 21: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Patrice wrote: "gosh, how do you define flourish? So many barbaric cultures flourish for a time. I am thinking of Aztecs. They flourished and then were wiped out. Athens until Sparta beat them. Would Sparta be a f..."

Excellent question. And I'm sure you know this, but the term "barbaric" comes from the Greek for "non-Greek." Maybe the fact that the culture was wiped out is a good indication that they weren't flourishing. IN that case we might ask how they fell away from excellence.

Or it could be that they were flourishing and were destroyed by forces beyond their control -- this would be similar to the virtuous person beset by misfortune that Aristotle discusses in chapter 10.


message 22: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Cphe wrote: "So would Aristotle view the "right" politics as a time of peace versus war? ."

I don't think so, or at least not necessarily so. Don't some societies function very efficiently in times of war? Sparta, for example? Keep in mind that happiness for Aristotle is not the same as pleasure. (Chapter 5) Certainly war is unpleasant, but I would think a successful warrior operating at the peak of his or her skills is very happy in the Aristotelian sense. (This assumes that killing the enemy is not something that makes a warrior uneasy, of course. That it does make many people uncomfortable shows something about how our ethics differs from Aristotle's... maybe for the better?)


message 23: by Thomas (last edited Jan 04, 2018 07:42AM) (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Cphe wrote: ""So what "works" for one society/circumstance/time wouldn't/doesn't necessarily work for another. "

I guess it depends on the nature of the society. Herodotus wrote a lot about different types of societies... I wonder if Aristotle was familiar with Herodotus. (I'm not sure how he could not have been, now that I think about it. Isn't that where the story of Solon originates?)

One of the big questions looming over all this is what is the "work" of a human being? And are there different types of human beings, just like there are different types of societies? Or is there just one way of being excellent/virtuous for all people?


message 24: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1648 comments Thomas wrote: "One of the big questions looming over all this is what is the "work" of a human being? And are there different types of human beings, just like there are different types of societies? Or is there just one way of being excellent/virtuous for all people?..."

I don't see how you can separate the two--the human being from the society he/she inhabits.

For example, a person may be excellent/virtuous but if he/she lives in a society that oppresses a group of people, discriminates against them, deprives them of their rights, that excellent/virtuous person may be driven to do all sorts of unexcellent/unvirtuous things in order to seek justice, especially if he/she is a victim of the oppression and/or is sensitive to the oppression of others.


message 25: by Ignacio (new)

Ignacio | 139 comments Wow this book 1 is difficult. I'm quite new to Aristotle, I only read the Poetics years ago. His writing style is sometimes eloquent and seems to make a lot of sense, then becomes obscure and has intractable grammar. Even with the notes and introduction, some passages still don't make sense to me. On a second reading, I feel that I understand LESS ... that is, I THOUGHT I understood before, now I'm not so sure ...

I think it's because in this first book he's laying out the scope and questions of this inquiry into ethics, but is constantly asking questions he either will answer later or that maybe can't be answered. He's also constantly saying things like "and thus we say this" or "this is what we are investigating" but it's not clear if other authors say that (Platonists, sophists?) or if he is provisionally saying something, only to refute it a few paragraphs later ....

Still, I think it's great to engage with him through the questions Thomas, Patrice, and others are asking: how is ethics related to happiness? What does happiness/flourishing mean for a city or a state? How "ethnocentric" is this "ethics"? Is it valid outside of a very specific type of classical society?

What I'm getting from this first book is that for Aristotle, "happiness" or more precisely "the good life" (or "blessedness") is inseparable from humans' nature as political animals. Ethics is conceivable only in relation to others and to living within a society and a political community. The good is not abstract: it has to do with living well with others and within (political) society.

Our modern notion of "politics" and "the political" are mostly negative: power, domination, corruption. But for Aristotle, the political appears to connote society and community: living well, flourishing. Thus he can say startling (for us) things like "the politician in the true sense . . . wishes to make the citizens good and obedient to the laws" (1102a) or that "political art is more honorable and better than medicine" (ibid).

Also, keep in mind that when he says "the city" he means the city-state (polis), the political community. We don't have this organic view of the city anymore, nor is our sense of political community as bounded and straightforward (usually).


message 26: by Ignacio (new)

Ignacio | 139 comments On another note: I'm sure you guys are familiar with the Partially Examined Life philsophy podcast? I'm an avid listener, and those guys have some connections with St. John's College so I thought maybe some of you would know it. I like their relaxed, informal (and funny) yet purposeful style of discussion of classics of philosophy, and downloaded the episode on Nicomachean Ethics books 1-2 to listen to again.

They did a few episodes on Aristotle's Ethics: Episode #5: http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2009...

That one is on books 1-2. They later did episodes on books 6-7 (Ep. #147) and 8-10 (Ep. #148) of the Nicomachean Ethics.


message 27: by Christopher (new)

Christopher (Donut) | 532 comments Ignacio wrote: "Wow this book 1 is difficult. I'm quite new to Aristotle, I only read the Poetics years ago. His writing style is sometimes eloquent and seems to make a lot of sense, then becomes obscure and has i..."

Yeah, that feeling of going backwards- I can relate to that.

At any rate, I finished Book One in B/C, and then took up Aquinas. I notice that very early on (first lecture) he mentions something which only comes in at the end of Book One:

Accordingly it is proper to moral philosophy, to which our attention is at present directed, to consider human operations insofar as they are ordered one [to] another and to an end.

Dico autem operationes humanas, quae procedunt a voluntate hominis secundum ordinem rationis. {I'm guessing no one will regret my deleting most of the Latin...} 3. I am talking about human operations, those springing from man’s will following the order of reason. But if some operations are found in man that are not subject to the will and reason, they are not properly called human but natural, as, clearly appears in operations of the vegetative soul. These in no way fall under the consideration of moral philosophy. As the subject of natural philosophy is motion, or mobile being, so the subject of moral philosophy is human action ordered to an end, or even man, as he is an agent voluntarily acting for an end.

[end quote]

Ethics is about choices. Making choices is about using reason

This is one more 'big money' Aquinas quote:

(from Lecture 2)

27. But political science dictates to a speculative science only as to activity, but not concerning the specification of its proper activity. Political science orders that some teach or learn geometry, and actions of this kind insofar as they are voluntary belong to the matter of ethics and can be ordered to the goal of human living. But the political ruler does not dictate to geometry what conclusions it should draw about a triangle, for this is not subject to the human will nor can it be ordered to human living but it depends on the very nature of things. Therefore, he says that political science ordains which sciences, both practical and speculative, should be studied in a state, who should study them, and for how long.

[end quote]

Politics is boss, but the truth is actually higher. I think we all know that triangles are the least of it.. And so, despite his awarding political science the crown for the most 'architectonic' *practical* science, he reserves pure theoretical science an even higher place. But, almost, he says it without saying it.


message 28: by Ian (new)

Ian Slater (yohanan) | 619 comments Ignacio wrote: "Wow this book 1 is difficult. I'm quite new to Aristotle, I only read the Poetics years ago. His writing style is sometimes eloquent and seems to make a lot of sense, then becomes obscure and has i..."

Aristotle has a reputation among scholars of Greek for tangled sentences, and difficult grammar, and for being concise well beyond what was necessary. There was a flourishing commentarial literature in the Middle Ages, partly to explain -- or explain away -- such passages. Some passages clearly need emendation (impossible grammar, missing subject or verb, wrong words, etc.), and plenty of them have been offered (as noted in some translations).

It may help a bit to know that a number of scholars have held that what we have of Aristotle are the notes of students, taken down from his lectures, and later grouped by topics. Some students did a better job than others, hence the abrupt changes of style as they were pieced together.

Others think that the extant works do derive from Aristotle's own manuscripts, but sometimes represent sections from different stages of revision, and of Aristotle's own development as an independent thinker.

As you have noticed, he sometimes wrote carefully, even eloquently (he was also the author of treatise on Rhetoric), and sometimes just put down key points of arguments he probably intended to expand on.

If he did use the manuscripts to prepare his lectures, probably delivered several times over the years, well, he knew what he intended to say about a subject, and could skip passages that no longer represented his thoughts on the subject at hand, without deleting them. Hence a lot of jumping around, and repetitions that don't quite agree with each other.

There is also some controversy over how well the Nicomachean Ethics in particular is put together. It has been claimed that it was assembled by later scribes, from independent papyrus rolls, and may not represent the sequence Aristotle intended, assuming he had one.

And some think that whoever assembled it botched the job.

Again, others think that it is mostly well-organized, just subtle.

To add to the controversy, there is another "Ethics" by Aristotle, known as the "Eudemian Ethics." It actually shares three books with the Nicomachean Ethics. Traditionally, this has been considered the earlier work, a large part of which was carried over by Aristotle to his new exposition, perhaps still in progress at the time of his death.

There is, again, another argument, that the "Eudemian Ethics" is in fact the later work, containing Aristotle's last word on the subject.
This may be true. But the "Nicomachean Ethics" is the one everyone read, and commented on, so it is historically by far the more influential.

Oh yes. Even the title is controversial -- no one knows when or how it was attached, or what it meant when it was. Aristotle's father was named Nicomachus, and so was his son, who died young.

Cicero thought the name referred to the authorship of the younger Nicomachus. Given his early death, this is thought unlikely. Another suggestion is that it indicates that the book was *for* his son. Or maybe a compliment to his father. Or it may be someone's bright idea, unconnected to the early history of the work.


message 29: by Lily (last edited Jan 04, 2018 05:44PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5062 comments Patrice wrote: "lily, don't know what happened to my reply button much less my Roku. i have the audio version of the course. but my problem with opening it up isn't time. Rather its my aversion to evil. With all t..."

The lecturer makes the point in his concluding lecture that avoidance of evil by individuals is often dependent on their environment. I'm not sure but what that isn't related to what Aristotle says about political science being the crown jewel or what you were implying about Chicago and its various communities. How do we create and sustain relationships (and institutions) that support "good"? (He gives several examples and even controlled studies of the opposite, suggesting the burden and challenge of creating "good". How much do we "know" about creating and sustaining "good" versus the opposite?)


message 30: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5062 comments Ignacio wrote: "On another note: I'm sure you guys are familiar with the Partially Examined Life philosophy podcast? I'm an avid listener, and those guys have some connections with St. John's College so I thought m..."

Ignacio -- would you try posting that link again? I got an error trying to reach it. (Interesting looking site that I did eventually reach, looking for it. But didn't find it.)


message 31: by Ignacio (last edited Jan 04, 2018 05:59PM) (new)

Ignacio | 139 comments Hi Lily--it got cut off somehow: I'll try copying the whole thing again: [http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2009...]

If that doesn't work, the main page is: http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/ and you can search by "Aristotle."


message 32: by Lily (last edited Jan 08, 2018 08:52AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5062 comments Ian wrote: "Ignacio wrote: "Wow this book 1 is difficult. I'm quite new to Aristotle, I only read the Poetics years ago. His writing style is sometimes eloquent and seems to make a lot of sense, then becomes o..."

Ian, thanks for all of this background on the history of Aristotle's texts. Am I correct in my understanding that the early Islamic commentaries were made against Arabic translations and that many of the early Scholastics worked with Latin translations of the Arabic; that it was only later that Greek "originals" were recovered?

(Sorry -- you explained that @10 and @14. It was even more convoluted. Latin translations of Hebrew translations of Arabic??)


message 33: by Ignacio (new)

Ignacio | 139 comments Ian wrote: "Ignacio wrote: "Wow this book 1 is difficult. I'm quite new to Aristotle, I only read the Poetics years ago. His writing style is sometimes eloquent and seems to make a lot of sense, then becomes o..."

This makes a lot of sense with the disagreement about whether it's his notes, his students' notes, some combination ... it does seem that Bartlett and Collins believe that his argument, as you say, well organized and subtle (I haven't finished reading their interpretive essay)


message 34: by Ignacio (new)

Ignacio | 139 comments Christopher wrote: "Politics is boss, but the truth is actually higher"

Maybe that's why it looks like he will rank the contemplative life higher than political life? But I need to read on ...


message 35: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5062 comments Ignacio wrote: "Christopher wrote: "Politics is boss, but the truth is actually higher"

Maybe that's why it looks like he will rank the contemplative life higher than political life? But I need to read on ..."


I struggle with the differentiation between "truth" and "the truth."


message 36: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Thomas wrote: "One of the big questions looming over all this is what is the "work" of a human being? "

That, of course, is, as you say, one of the big questions. I think Aristotle would say that the work of a human being is to advance the quality of life of the city-state even at the expense of personal benefit. Whereas I think most people in this country today would say that the work of a human being is to enhance personal comfort and advancement.

Major difference.


message 37: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments Patrice wrote: "True.
i first read it in a great books class at u of chicago. the prof asked someone to read the first paragraph aloud. someone did. the entire class burst out laughing. No one understood a word. t..."


Hi Patrice,

Ian has so thoroughly answered your question, but I thought I would add this little aside. I read recently that Cicero said, "If Plato's prose was silver, Aristotle's was a flowing river of gold." That is something coming from a master rhetorician, no? It makes this student think that the traditional view of his extant works being lecture notes is true....


message 38: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5062 comments Everyman wrote: "That, of course, is, as you say, one of the big questions. I think Aristotle would say that the work of a human being is to advance the quality of life of the city-state even at the expense of personal benefit. Whereas I think most people in this country today would say that the work of a human being is to enhance personal comfort and advancement...."

Doesn't that belittle a lot of people and the work they do each day? And sidestep Aristotle's view of the primacy of "happiness." But, it does seem you do touch on that distance between individual and family, family and community, community and ....


message 39: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments Lily wrote: "Everyman wrote: "That, of course, is, as you say, one of the big questions. I think Aristotle would say that the work of a human being is to advance the quality of life of the city-state even at the expense of personal benefit. Whereas I think most people in this country today would say that the work of a human being is to enhance personal comfort and advancement...."

Doesn't that belittle a lot of people and the work they do each day?"


It may be belittling, but it seems to me that this is the view Aristotle takes? Although he follows his remark by giving them "ground". And I quote: Now the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts, but they get some ground for their view from the fact that many of those in high places share the tastes of Sardanapallus."


message 40: by Genni (new)

Genni | 837 comments Everyman wrote: "I have been re-reading the Palliser series and happened today to come across the passages where Palliser is accepting the post of Prime Minister even though he very much doesn't want the post, and is made very unhappy by his felt need to accept the responsibility. He feels that his duty to the country supersedes his personal desire to live his life as he wishes. He seems to me to be recognizing that what is good for him personally is different from what is good for his country, and is willing to sacrifice his personal happiness for the sake of the broader good of the country. How would Aristotle view this choice he is making? "

The following quote stuck out to me:
"For besides what we have said, the man who does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good; since no one would call a man just who did not enjoy acting justly....."

I was honestly confused by this because at the end of the book, he seems to be acknowledging the natural tension between the rational and irrational parts of the soul. According to the above quote, I don't know anyone who would make the cut one hundred percent of the time. In comparison, the apostle Paul's words from Romans 7 came to mind. He had the desire to do good, but did what he thought was wrong anyway. I wonder what Aristotle would have made of that?


message 41: by Lily (last edited Jan 04, 2018 09:18PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5062 comments Genni wrote: "Now the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts, but they get some ground for their view from the fact that many of those in high places share the tastes of Sardanapallus."..."

Well, Genni, I'm cynical in another direction that also doesn't fit with Aristotle's supposed sense of the value of the mean. Perhaps I feel too besieged by the end of the year requests to support Alzeimer's, cancer, diabetes, ... research as well as abused pets, children with cleft palates, disaster victims, ... Perhaps reading today the description of Peter Unger's views (#46) here influences my stance tonight: https://thebestschools.org/features/m...

And yet I am moved by the story of Michelle Kuo in Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship. I know those in my community who deliver meals, visit the sick, attend town council meetings on land usage, .... Soldiers, police, firemen save -- and destroy. CNN and its sponsor honored a set of "heroes" at its annual event; we obviously realize the many not so recognized doing sometimes small, sometimes impressive works in their communities. http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/02/world/t...

Oh, yes, Sardanapallus: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sard...


message 42: by Kerstin (new)

Kerstin | 596 comments "For one swallow does not make a summer"

I had no idea this common saying goes back to Aristotle :)

...And I do agree with Tamara (#6), Aristotle's style makes for difficult reading.


message 43: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Tamara wrote: ""I don't see how you can separate the two--the human being from the society he/she inhabits.

For example, a person may be excellent/virtuous but if he/she lives in a society that oppresses a group of people, discriminates against them, deprives them of their rights, that excellent/virtuous person may be driven to do all sorts of unexcellent/unvirtuous things...


I think Aristotle would agree with you -- citizens and the city must be in some kind of harmony, or the city does not function well. And this would be the natural condition of a healthy city. That does not mean there wouldn't be discrimination and oppression in the case of a sick city, or in a sick city trying to heal itself. Unhealthy or irrational or imprudent citizens might be isolated somehow, and either ostracized or reformed. But in a good and healthy city, virtuous citizens would not be treated this way...

Which leads to the question of virtue or excellence. (The Greek term arete is usually translated "virtue," but "excellence" is probably better. Joe Sachs writes that arete is "the excellence that makes anything an outstanding specimen of its kind, especially well fitted to its ends." What goes into making an excellent citizen? Which is to say, an outstanding specimen of the human race. Whom should we emulate in this regard, and why?

Aristotle was a scientist, a keen observer of nature. The bulk of his surviving writings are on biology, so "an outstanding specimen" might not be as strange as it sounds when applied to a person. It might be worth looking at 1.7, around 1097b20, to see what he thinks a human being actually is. I think we start to see at that point what he thinks the virtue/excellence of a human being is.


message 44: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Everyman wrote: "Thomas wrote: "One of the big questions looming over all this is what is the "work" of a human being? "

I think Aristotle would say that the work of a human being is to advance the quality of life of the city-state even at the expense of personal benefit...."


I agree. It is quite foreign to us today, except perhaps in the case of those who dedicate themselves to public service and do not seek extraordinary compensation. (E.g., soldiers, teachers, social workers., etc.) Could caring for other people be a mark of human excellence?


message 45: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Genni wrote: "In comparison, the apostle Paul's words from Romans 7 came to mind. He had the desire to do good, but did what he thought was wrong anyway. I wonder what Aristotle would have made of that?"

I think he's going to tell you. (No peeking!)


Bryan--The Bee’s Knees (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 304 comments A couple thoughts:

As to the idea of terroristic action, and where Aristotle might stand on that, I think the end of chapter three might address it.

"Each man can judge competently the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge. Accordingly, a good judge in each particular field is one who has been trained in it, and a good judge in general, a man who has received an all-round schooling. For that reason, a young man is not equipped to be a student of politics; for he has no experience in the actions which life demands of him, and these actions form the basis and subject matter of the discussion. Moreover, since he follows his emotions, his study will be pointless and unprofitable, for the end of this kind of study is not knowledge but action. Whether he is young in years or immature in character makes no difference, for his deficiency is not a matter of time but of living and of pursuing all his interests under the influence of his emotions. Knowledge brings no benefit to this kind of person, just as it brings none to the morally weak. But those who regulated their desires and actions by a rational principle (logos is, I think, the original word used) will greatly benefit from a knowledge of this subject."

So to my mind, the terrorist action falls under the idea of 'pursuing all his interests under the influence of his emotions'. A terrorist, as such, may harness all his rational ability to achieve a desired result, but that is still in the service of an emotional drive--most likely fear or hatred. Given the above paragraph, I would look at the terrorist action as not applicable to what Aristotle is talking about here. Even taking into consideration the idea that 'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter', I still think that the action pursued with only its own end as the goal is separate from the manner of living which ethics addresses.

As far as the 'work of a human being' , I would definitely agree that Aristotle saw it as advancing the health of the city-state. I think a lot of people today have transferred that kind of thinking to their community--certainly there are people who are selfless and giving of their time at all levels, but it might be difficult for some to see the good of sacrificing at the national level, whereas it can be easy to see the good of doing it locally. I would suggest that each person has an image of how far their influence can be felt (I do, at any rate). That might end at their family, or their block, or their town. So I translate in my mind the 'work of a human being' as a dignified and dignifying approach to the community that makes up my physical world. Or something like that.


message 47: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5062 comments Thomas wrote: "Everyman wrote: "Thomas wrote: "One of the big questions looming over all this is what is the "work" of a human being? "

I think Aristotle would say that the work of a human being is to advance th..."

I agree. It is quite foreign to us today, except perhaps in the case of those who dedicate themselves to public service and do not seek extraordinary compensation. (E.g., soldiers, teachers, social workers., etc.) Could caring for other people be a mark of human excellence?


How many weeks is it that those posters say we work each year before the wages are "our own"? How do we consider bridges and roads and ....? What do we approve of our taxes doing? Of what do we disapprove?


message 48: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Lily wrote: "How many weeks is it that those posters say we work each year before the wages are "our own"? How do we consider bridges and roads and ....? "

I know what you're saying, but do you think Aristotle would say that paying taxes is "the work of a human being"?


message 49: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Cphe wrote: "I likened this to a herd mentality in that the individual is only as good/strong /protected as the herd.(city, state, society) Those who are weaker are assimilated into the strength of the herd. "

It's a good analogy, especially since it highlights one of the problems we might have later on. The "herd mentality" here is a little different though -- the individuals in the herd are all going in the same direction, toward one end, the final goal of happiness as a society, because they are all independently making a rational choice to do so. They aren't simply following the leader of the herd, or going in one direction because everyone else is.

What I worry about is that people don't all exercise reason in the same way. We all defend our decisions as "rational," and reasonable, rational people frequently disagree with each other. Maybe it's because we start with different principles, or maybe it's because we take a different routes to arrive at the same destination. Or maybe it's not a problem at all, as long as we share the same goal, live well, and make prudent decisions for ourselves and our communities.


message 50: by Lily (last edited Jan 05, 2018 10:22AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5062 comments Thomas wrote: "...but do you think Aristotle would say that paying taxes is "the work of a human being"?..."

I think he might if he were living in our country in our age and time. I, so far, don't see him refuting all Plato and Socrates suggest about the importance of specialization of labor. Currency in today's world is one means of moving resources from one source to another. (view spoiler)

"...as long as we share the same goal, live well, and make prudent decisions for ourselves and our communities. ..

Sometime this past year I've begun to ask myself more vocally, more clearly, how do we NOT share the same goals (values), yet live well, and make prudent decisions for ourselves and our communities. Or, can words/statements always be found where diverse human goals converge?


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