Aristotle’s Ethics Book I

More people are comfortable discussing, hell expounding on, the works of philosophers than have actually read them. That said, readers, and I am guilty of this, will take away, twist away, tear out of context anything they want from a book.

Writers know this, and have developed techniques for convincing, or in the case of Socrates, just getting across a desired idea, knowing full well there is no convincing your audience.

Perhaps someone might say, “Socrates, can you not go away from us and live quietly, without talking?” Now this is the hardest thing to make some of you believe. For if I say that such conduct would be disobedience to the god and that therefore I cannot keep quiet, you will think I am jesting and will not believe me; and if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less. This is as I say, gentlemen, but it is not easy to convince you.

Aristotle late in book ten, shows an awareness of the difficulty in convincing an audience of anything (how do those conspiracy theorists do it?). But knowing the difficulty of communication is to understand a need for clarity. Aristotle (I need to reread from Plato to Prozac) is also fairly clear about the nature of happiness. Happiness is the good we are pursuing. Of this good Aristotle says:

For even if the good of the community coincides with that of the individual, it is clearly a greater and more perfect thing to achieve and preserve that of the community; for while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime.

Such, then is the aim of our investigation; and it is a kind of political science. (p.64)

You could pull a quote like this:

it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual

to maintain your philosophy of individualism, but to then call your individualism Aristotelian would be a complete misappropriation of authority. For Aristotle, the aim of “our investigation” is clearly the good of the community.

I put “our investigation” in quotes to emphasize the communal quality of Aristotle’s thinking.

When the outline has been satisfactorily drawn, it may be supposed that anybody can carry on the work and fill in the detail; and that in such a case time is a good source of invention and cooperation. (p.76)

There is a communal quality, but to read this correctly, it must be understood that for Aristotle only a master can satisfactorily draw an outline. Aristotle is not a democrat. He argued for a government by the best, but this best, which might be difficult for moderns to understand, also had a communal quality, they were the best for everyone. This is not an isolated class of the best, but a best in communication with everyone. They provide the outlines that we fill in, and in this filling in, we develop. By living with and learning from the best we become the best we can be. We are all in pursuit of happiness, “the best, the finest, most pleasurable thing of all.” (p.79)

That the most important and finest thing of all should be left to chance would be a gross disharmony. (p.81)

I pulled this quote for the obvious reason. Aristotle sees happiness as something not left to chance.

Also on this view [that happiness is acquired by moral goodness and by some kind of study or training] happiness will be something widely shared; for it can attach, through some form of study or application, to anyone who is not handicapped by some incapacity for goodness. (p.80)

“Moral goodness” has nothing to do with Christian morality. The notion of personal salvation may have been understood by Aristotle, but he did dismiss the idea of an individual pursuit of happiness.

People do in fact seek their own good, and think they are right to act in this way. It is from this belief that the notion has arisen that such people are prudent. Presumably, however, it is impossible to secure one’s own good independently of domestic and political science. (p.214)

For Aristotle happiness was the end of a communal effort. Domestic and political science are essentially inquiries toward living well together. Aristotle also very clearly removes the sphere of divinity from our area of inquiry.

The goodness that we have to consider is a human goodness, obviously; for it was the good for man or happiness for man that we set out to discover. (p.87)


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