Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics

Hey, look. I've finally gotten around to doing what I said I'd do all the way back in this post. All of these posts on ethical works are one part introduction and two parts subjective (but not arbitrary) reflection and interpretation.

Obviously, Aristotle's stuff is insanely rich. It has to be, or it wouldn't be some of the guiding source material for western civilization. So what I'm saying here isn't even the tip of an iceberg; it's a tiny chip from a tiny corner of the iceberg that is Aristotle. It's just what I was thinking about when I decided I needed to get cracking on an ethics series. This theme will re-appear when I write about other ethical works.

There's a common story floating around the philosophy orientated bits of the internet about the history of western philosophy. It's a standard view that Plato began a rational tradition, focussed on describing the world in terms of concepts and ideal forms. Aristotle, on the other hand, began an empirical tradition. As the story goes, he was focussed on observing the world and then commenting upon it. This story will also claim that Plato was a "collectivist," and Aristotle was an "individualist." Plato thought the person was subordinated to the state in all things, and Aristotle the opposite.

I'm not sure that I buy this story, partly for the same reason I don't buy the rationalist/empiricist distinction that supposedly ran through the modern period. This kind of reductionism, that lumps multiple thinkers together, is kind of lazy. It reduces all things to the same. If you ever do read Aristotle or Plato, or anyone else, try not to read them through someone elses' eyes. This being said, I do think Aristotle is worth reading in terms of a particular binary pair, but it isn't individualism vs. collectivism or rationalism vs. empiricism, but immanance vs. transcendance.

In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle is concerned with ends and goods. Final Ends and supreme Goods, to be more exact. Immanance and transcendance are possible locations for these Ends and Goods: either they exist within human life (immanance), or human life must go beyond itself to find these things (transcendance). Aristotle seems to be very much concerned with immanance.

Every activity aims at a good; an ideal end is the good. Everything man does is an attempt to reach this end, this good. As such, our lives are determined by our activities. Our lives are a series of activities dedicated to ends, ends that are more or less related to finding happiness.

The supreme good, then, is happiness. As Aristotle defines it, happiness is the virtuous activity of the soul. Happiness is not simply a state of mind, but rather continuous activity - what I'd want to call a way of being. It is attained through effort, through training. Happiness is not something that falls into your lap - it is a result of activities and being a certain way.

As such, and this is my own take on it, happiness for Aristotle has nothing to do with conforming to an external image. It has nothing to do with following Natural Law or paying attention to a list of rules. What the Ethics does is describe a life that is happy; it says "if you want to be happy, you will be this kind of person." It does not say, "if you want to be moral, you will follow these rules." For myself, I'd take that as the basic distinction between an ethics and a morality.

Aristotle does speak of moral rules, of course. But it is never morality in a legal sense, which is what morality commonly is. Moral virtues are not inscribed by or against nature; they are more guides to a certain way of being, or a permanant disposition. Again, right conduct - which for Aristotle is avoiding both excess and deficiency - is how one becomes good and therefore happy. Right conduct is not something handed over by a rule giver or an outside source - it is something immanant to the human as such.

It is that avoidance of excess and deficiency - aka the golden mean - that one is to strive for. The idea is to feel fear, confidence, and all other feelings at the right time and in the right way. Because this is not a list of transcendant laws or rules, what the right times and ways are will differ for every individual. This isn't math, as Aristotle insists on at least twice. Expecting exact rules from ethics or politics is like expecting "mere plausibility" from math.

For example, the mean of fear and rashness is courage. Not taking unnecessary risks and not avoiding risks that are necessary is courage. Know when you have to risk your life, and know when you retreat. One of the oddities of the mean is that it often seems closer to one extreme - a brave man will appear rash next to a brave one. This means that the mean is not the "middle" - courage really is closer to rashness than to cowardice. It is one of Aristotle's practical rules that one should, when aiming for the mean, keep further from the extreme that seems further from the mean. In other words, it is better to be closer to rashness than to cowardice.

In Book IV, there is a passage that exemplifies what the Ethics is in my reading. It is a section called "A Portrait of the Magnanimous Man," and it is a description of a man that knows exactly what his own worth is, and acts accordingly. It is a description of what a person will be like if they have a certain disposition, a disposition that can be attained by anyone through the practice of ethics.

This is a portion of that passage:

He does not run into trifling dangers, nor is he fond of danger, because he honours few things; but he will face great dangers, and when he is in danger he is unsparing of his life, knowing that there are conditions on which life is not worth having. And he is the sort of man to confer benefits, but he is ashamed of receiving them; for the one is the mark of a superior, the other of an inferior. And he is apt to confer greater benefits in return; for thus the original benefactor besides being paid will incur a debt to him, and will be the gainer by the transaction. They seem also to remember any service they have done, but not those they have received (for he who receives a service is inferior to him who has done it, but the proud man wishes to be superior), and to hear of the former with pleasure, of the latter with displeasure; this, it seems, is why Thetis did not mention to Zeus the services she had done him, and why the Spartans did not recount their services to the Athenians, but those they had received. It is a mark of the proud man also to ask for nothing or scarcely anything, but to give help readily, and to be dignified towards people who enjoy high position and good fortune, but unassuming towards those of the middle class; for it is a difficult and lofty thing to be superior to the former, but easy to be so to the latter, and a lofty bearing over the former is no mark of ill-breeding, but among humble people it is as vulgar as a display of strength against the weak.

Again, it is characteristic of the proud man not to aim at the things commonly held in honour, or the things in which others excel; to be sluggish and to hold back except where great honour or a great work is at stake, and to be a man of few deeds, but of great and notable ones. He must also be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one's feelings, i.e. to care less for truth than for what people will think, is a coward's part), and must speak and act openly; for he is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar.

He must be unable to make his life revolve round another, unless it be a friend; for this is slavish, and for this reason all flatterers are servile and people lacking in self-respect are flatterers. Nor is he given to admiration; for nothing to him is great. Nor is he mindful of wrongs; for it is not the part of a proud man to have a long memory, especially for wrongs, but rather to overlook them. Nor is he a gossip; for he will speak neither about himself nor about another, since he cares not to be praised nor for others to be blamed; nor again is he given to praise; and for the same reason he is not an evil-speaker, even about his enemies, except from haughtiness. With regard to necessary or small matters he is least of all me given to lamentation or the asking of favours; for it is the part of one who takes such matters seriously to behave so with respect to them. He is one who will possess beautiful and profitless things rather than profitable and useful ones; for this is more proper to a character that suffices to itself.

The translation I have is more readable, but this is the best one I could find to copy from the 'net.

I don't have much to add to that passage. I was also going to copy in my other favourite passege, from Book VIII "The Kinds of Friendship," but the translations I can find on the internet are so dissappointing as to not make it worth it. Find the most modern translation you can if you care to read this great book.

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