Monday, June 1, 2009

Great Books: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics Book One (part 1 of 2)

Nicomachean Ethics, Book One
Composed by Aristotle presumably between 336-323 BCE
Place: Athens, Greece

The complete text for the W.D. Ross translation of Nicomachean Ethics used in this essay can be read online at though page citations listed correspond to the 2nd edition of the Great Books of the Western World set.

“When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge Of one of many circles.”- Wallace Stevens

The title for this collection of essays, Nicomachean Ethics, is often shortened to just Ethics. Nicomachus was Aristotle’s son and it is assumed that his inclusion in the title is due to the fact that the work was either dictated to or dedicated to him. How ever one prefers to spin it, these are the words of a father to his son on the ethics of being a good human being. Book One (the subject of our response here) focuses entirely on the chief good, happiness, and sets out in a meticulous way to define its parameters and defend its position as the chief good.

The first thing that one notices when reading Aristotle after Plato is the shift in approach between them. Plato endeavors to be invisible in his own work; placing his ideas in the mouths of the dead through formally constructed dialogues that give voice to both argument and rebuttal. Aristotle, in contrast, is a one man band. There is no dialogue; only discourse. He argues with ideas, not people. Where Plato’s Socrates is at once probing and conciliatory, Aristotle is methodical and unyielding. If Plato’s dialogues are a record of ideas in the process of formulation, Aristotle’s essays are a snapshot of those same ideas codifying and becoming something more permanent than speculation.

Aristotle begins the essay by suggesting that the good “has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim” [339]. Good, in this sense, does not mean well-behaved or helpful, but is an abstract idea that encompasses a right outcome, a successful action or the achievement of virtue. Thus, even if invaders enter your homeland, burn down your house, and kill you, there is a good that is achieved; namely, good warfare. The idea is that no one sets out in earnest to do anything badly and, whatever moral or ethical shortcomings may be attached to a particular action, a successful implementation is a good one.

All goods, according to Aristotle, are not born equal. He segregates the good into two separate camps; those goods which are sought for their own sake and those which are sought for the end that they produce. In the latter case, the ends always trump the goods themselves. Health is better than medicine. Sex is better than seduction and pizza, one would assume, is better than cooking. Those goods that are sought for their own merits are then identifiably better than their ends-based counterparts because they have no ends to which they are eventually subordinate.

He goes on to suggest that Politics is highest good which is sought for a particular end. It subsumes all other kinds of knowledge in its quest to seek out that which is best for humanity. In order to justify a statement like this, one must accept Aristotle’s definition of politics as studying “what we are to do and what we are to abstain from [as] the end of this science…must be for the good of all man” [339] as a description of the virtue of Politics while also accepting that the more cynical and common view of Politics as that which is not “good for all man” would represent its complementary aspect of Vice.

The end of political science, then, “aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action” [342] or, as Aristotle deems it, happiness. In an earlier passage, he warns that abstract ideas like Virtue and Good are derived from human behavior rather than from nature and, as such, must be considered in context with the ambiguity that is presupposed by the plastic nature of the subjects in question. Happiness exhibits the same kind of elusiveness as Aristotle concedes that the “general run of men…think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth or honor” (bound to that which they suppose they lack most) while “people of superior refinement…proclaim some great ideal” [340].

In an interesting twist, Aristotle bases his assertion that happiness is the highest good upon his disagreement with a fundamental tenet of Platonic thought, namely that everything exists in at least two modes of being, one Ideal and the other, Actual. While it is clear to him that there is good in many things, it is difficult (if not impossible), using only the tools of reason, to identify the one Good that unifies all others. A traditional Platonist would argue that the Ideal of Good is sought for its own sake and those which seek to somehow to store up that good or prevent its lack from occurring are in service not to an Ideal but to a secondary form of Good. Aristotle notes that even those goods thought to be Good in themselves, many (honor, intelligence) still seek a particular end and, among the more vaguely conceived in the remainder, little accord is to be found as to why they are good.

The good, therefore, is not some common element answering to one idea…and if there is some one good which is universally predicable of goods or is capable of separate and independent existence, clearly it could not be achieved or attained by man. [342]

The good, then, that is sought for its own end is more final than that those sought for their outcomes and that good which is sought only for its own sake and never for another purpose is the most final and therefore, the best.

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