Archive for the ‘Aristotle's Ethics’ Category

Aristotle’s Ethics Book I

October 29, 2009

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)

an introduction to Aristotle’s Ethics

October 18, 2009

How close to a self-help book is Aristotle’s Ethics? Imagine Aristotle as the Oprah of his day… Yesterday I picked up a book from the Thrift Shop on Main to pass the time in a coffee shop while my son was at a nearby birthday party. Bradshaw On: The Family, a 1988 self help book, a follow-up of a PBS television series, a preface by Carol Burnett, starts with the thesis that the family is dysfunctional, and well, here are the ways to get it functional. Hitler came from a family. I’m not just making this up. This is just one of the pieces of evidence Bradshaw holds up against the family. I read the first chapter, and a difference between the common self help book and Aristotle’s Ethics, is that Aristotle waits until the last chapter/book before he lets his contemporary society have it. The Ethics was apparently written because pretty much everyone living in A.s time was an asshole. Bradshaw goes on about how shit everything is upfront.

In the introduction to the Penguin edition Barnes gives the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach as A.’s purpose. “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Today still, issues surround the family. Just today I watched Where the wild things are. That Eggers, who came to fame with his autobiography, and collective fantasy, (that’s cold, but consider Atwood’s Handmaid silently inseminated by the husband of her female master while held tight to her masters body, we live in a messed up world of rape fantasies and idealized family relations after death – recall the funeral scene from Heathers when the father cries, “I love my dead gay son.”) of our parents dying in quick succession, has this time, put out the saddest fantasy of collective loneliness I’ve seen since Mister Lonely.

Aristotle’s ethics proposes friendship as the way to a happy life. Friend, is sometimes used as a quality, as in: “He has no friend.” where friend is used in the same sense as say pride, as in: “He has no pride.” I’m mentioning this, because the friendship, the friend that you present to others must be of a certain quality to lead to a happy life. A man must act with virtue. These virtues are fully explained by Aristotle.  He later informs us that these virtues are rare qualities. So while the point of the Ethics, and philosophy for that matter is to change the world, seems the world is resisting.

Aristotle sets us up for an incredible amount of work. This might be the main difference between the ethics and a self-help book. The Ethics, while written more than 2000 years ago, includes in its pages, an opening for the entirety of human knowledge. We, according to Aristotle, are to learn absolutely everything, and then through deliberation, a kind of good and right thinking, act virtuously in accordance with a kind of harmony with this good and right thinking.

The opening, the space left for the sphere of deliberation, the future of knowledge, the openness of the Ethics, might be the key to its longevity. Look at Bradshaws book. Close down the new knowledge, fix it, then fix it. If you believe that we know, then you can believe that you know and feel better about yourself. Aristotle proposed a kind of experimental life, the good life as the experiment of the good man. There are a lot of unknowns in that proposition.

From the Introduction by Jonathan Barnes

October 17, 2009

The Ethics is a work of practical science. What that means is that the characteristic aim of studying ethics is not the acquisition of knowledge about action but action itself – we read the Ethics, according to Aristotle, not in order to know what good men are like, but in order to act as good men do (1095a5; 1103b25).

The student of ethics is unlikely to discover how a good man will act unless he has some knowledge of the general capacities and characteristics of human beings.

Aristotle is impressed by the seemingly infinite variety of human circumstances and situations.

It is worth underlining the fact that Aristotle is here adopting an extreme position, not unlike the one taken up by some existentialist thinkers: morals, he implies, cannot by any means be reduced to a set of universal principles; any principle that may be formulated is liable to exeption, any universal moral judgement (strictly construed) is false.

“the Ethics is expressly practical: its philosophy aims at changing the world, not at interpreting it.”

“the ‘happy’ man will be a lover of men and an admirer of beauty as well as a contemplator of truth – -a friend and an aesthete as well as a thinker.”

Something finer and more sublime

September 26, 2009

“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.” – Aristotle

Far from being taken out of its context, this quote is the context in which The Ethics is placed.