22 March, 2000
Author: George Irbe
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ARISTOTLE'S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS
This is a layman's effort to get at the essence of Aristotle's description of the nature of man -- as he found him in his own times -- from his great work on ethics and sociology: The Nicomachean Ethics. I must thank a very good-natured and cheerful philosopher of our own time -- Mortimer J. Adler -- for enticing me to look into the Ethics. Adler has written several books on the subject of morals, virtue, and happiness and Aristotle's definition of these terms. Unlike the typical 20th-century philosophers who write prose unintelligible to ordinary mortals, Adler writes in a plain language. Adler is also fun to read because he projects ideas with optimism and warmth, making the reader feel good for having read his words.
Adler offers Aristotle in a fresh and exciting way in two of his books that I have read: "Desires, Right and Wrong", and "The Time of Our Lives". In reading them I was struck by the fact that I had missed out on knowing something very important for most of my life. Having been thus enticed by Mortimer Adler to learn more from Aristotle himself, I resolved then to make my best effort to become familiar with the contents of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Adler also showed me how to approach Aristotelian thought in a natural rather than the customary pedantical way. Most ordinary humans enter the hallowed domain of philosophers, if they dare to enter it at all, with trepidation. There is the belief that an untutored, unsophisticated individual should not enter it without expert supervision, and that the individual should be guided by the expert along a designated tour path. For his own protection from intellectual dementia, the individual should never attempt to wander off into the domain on his own. There is much truth to that belief. Philosophers, particularly most of the modern ones (Adler and Karl Popper are notable exceptions), make a point of expressing themselves in as complex a language as possible. Hardly anyone who has not had years of higher education in Philosophy can make his way through even a few pages of their texts without an interpreter close by.
In my opinion at least, Mortimer Adler uses ordinary common sense and the elegance of plain language to make the reader feel that he is being communicated with like a friend. So, Adler dispelled my fears and lifted that awesome dread of being unfit to delve into Aristotle on my own. However, I can not say I did so without preparation. Mortimer Adler had certainly suggested why I should look for certain interesting passages in the Ethics and how to interpret them. But my walk through the Nicomachean Ethics, the stops along the way, the picking of a few thoughts and putting them in my tote bag -- that was all done by me alone with the attitude of "just an ordinary guy." After completing my walk through the Ethics I came to a general conclusion and one important question. The conclusion is that Aristotle -- like Adler -- wants to be understood and appreciated by all people, not just the select few. The question is -- why is there not a regular, systematic, and mandatory course in Aristotelian ethics taught to youngsters in our schools, from the age of, say, twelve onward? I certainly regret not having been so instructed in my teenage years.
Aristotle wrote some 2500 years ago, but much of his thought seems eternal, retaining freshness and pertinence even for our age. His work, in particular the Ethics, has been the cornerstone, albeit concealed under a coating of religious stucco, of Western philosophy and ethics. That is why Adler can state confidently in his book "Aristotle For Everybody": 'No idea in this book is less than 2,400 years old; all the ideas in this book are relevant to contemporary life and thought.'
Aristotle (384-322 BCE) is a contemporary of Plato (427-347 BCE). They were the latecomers in that era which Karl R. Popper calls (in the Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol.1) the 'Great Generation' which 'marks a turning point in the history of mankind'. Aristotle was one of several exceptional Greek philosophers of this era. They all tried to put meaning to man's existence. In the Prologue of "Desires, Right & Wrong", Adler states his conviction that 'Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics was the only eminently practical, philosophically sound, and thoroughly undogmatic treatise in moral philosophy that had been written in the twenty-five centuries of Western thought.' Adler is right. The impression I get from the Ethics is that Aristotle really wanted to reach ordinary men. He has succeeded in doing that precisely because of the qualities ascribed to the Ethics by Adler. I feel that Aristotle speaks better than any of the others to what can be called the "average man." The average man of Aristotle's time certainly lived in different circumstances than the average man of today. But if we consider the basic questions of what do we humans live for and how we evaluate a person's character traits, there is no difference between then and now.
Aristotle observed that what differentiates us humans from the other animals is that we think and reason. A human being of sound mind is forever choosing or creating something -- either physical or mental -- in order to get to an object or a state that would leave him better off in some way than he is at present. That is why Aristotle opens the first book in the Nicomachean Ethics with ' Every art and every investigation, and similarly every action and pursuit, is considered to aim at some good. Hence the Good has been rightly defined as 'that at which all things aim'. Aristotle used the word "things" instead of "humans" because there are many bodily goods that other animals seek as much as men do, for instance nourishment.
The next important thing Aristotle observed, which is also stated in the opening part of the Ethics, is that there seems to be an ultimate end, an ultimate good, which is hard to define with exactness, which men seek, often unawares themselves that they indeed are doing so. It is this compelling quest that makes us human. It lies within our souls. We pursue all the other goods for some reason -- usually so that we are in position to pursue the next good after that, and so on. But where does this quest for goods end? It ends with the final good which is almost divine, one that we struggle to define. Aristotle states that 'we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else. Happiness more than anything else seems unconditionally complete, since we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else.'
Having posited the two basic facts concerning human nature, Aristotle then proceeds to analyze the goods and the virtues that lead human beings towards happiness; and the evils and vices that lead the other way to perdition. One can say that in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle offers us a useful road-map to happiness.
In Book 1 Aristotle also says that happiness is achieved only by living a virtuous life: 'Now our definition is in harmony with those who say that happiness is virtue, or a particular virtue; because an activity in accordance with virtue implies virtue. Indeed, we may go further and assert that anyone who does not delight in fine actions is not even a good man.' But Aristotle had no illusions about the nature of men. He knew that only a few could be persuaded to live a virtuous life that leads to real happiness. Most people cannot rise above the primitive level. In Aristotle's words, towards the end of the Ethics: 'For the many naturally obey fear, not shame; they avoid what is base because of penalties, not because it is disgraceful. Living by passion they pursue their own pleasures and the means to them, and avoid the opposite pains, and have not even a conception of what is noble and truly pleasant, since they have never tasted it. We must be content if, when all the influences by which we are thought to become good are present, we get some tincture of virtue. . . . Most people obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than the sense of what is noble.'
However, just because relatively few people reach the state of happiness should not discourage any of us from at least trying to follow, as much as we can, Aristotle's road-markers to happiness. A perfectly happy, virtuous life is very hard to achieve, but we should always try to practice the virtues, even if we may succumb to our vices from time to time. Aristotle, too, lowers, but does not abandon, his expectations of us when he says, in Book 10: 'We should probably be content if all the means that are supposed to make us good enables us to attain some portion of goodness.'
Translating ancient language into a modern one is always a great challenge. Disputes arise over the modern-day meaning of words and expressions. Most often, the successful translator is one who can best convey the intent of the original language. Therefore, translations of ancient works vary a great deal. Here I decided to continue with the "average guy" approach and selected bits of translations from three different authors so that the result would be the clearest and easiest to understand. The translations used are by 1) Terence Irwin, Hackett Publishing Co. 1985, 2) David Ross, Oxford University Press 1980, and 3) J.A.K. Thomson, Penguin Books 1955.
The Nicomachean Ethics comes in ten sections, called Books. Here I have arranged the pages so that the reader can go to successive Books, or step back, or refer to a Table of Virtues and Vices which is found in the J.A.K. Thomson translation.
Go to Virtues and Vices Table
Go to BOOK 1
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