The Nicomachean Ethics
by Aristotle

Review by Edward Tanguay
December 29, 1996

I say that habit's but long practice, friend,
And this becomes men's nature in the end.

Aristotle's project with this book is to discover, through reason, what happiness is. The answer is many-sided:

. . . happiness is an activity; and activity plainly comes into being and is not present at the start like a piece of property . . . happiness is good activity, not amusement . . . for, in a word, everything that we choose we choose for the sake of something else--except happiness, which is an end . . . for happiness does not lie in such occupations, but, as we have said before, in virtuous activities . . . Happiness extends, then, just so far as contemplation does, and those to whom contemplation more fully belongs are more truly happy, not as a mere concomitant but in virtue of the contemplation; for this is in itself precious. Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation.

It is towards a multi-faceted definition of happiness that Aristotle rationally busies himself in this somewhat loose collections of essays collected by his son.

I noticed a duality of pragmatism and fatalism in this book. First, Aristotle allows you the freedom of becoming virtuous simply by performing virtuous acts and thereby forming a virtuous character. Yet at the same time, he has a certain Greek acceptance of the way things are which makes him say, for instance, that an ugly man cannot be happy, or that if you have not been raised well, you have little chance of being a good man. His ethical philosophy differs from Christianity on this point. Christianity will take anybody: no Hell's Angel has fallen so far as to not be able to perform a spiritual 180 and become a goodChristian. But Aristotle has a sober reasoning which considers the weight of physical facts:  for instance, if you are an ugly, then you are not going to have many friends and will not be surrounded by good, virtuous people and therefore will probably not be happy. That's just the way it is. There is no inside/outside to Aristotle as there is in Christianity: people who are physically beautiful and have good parents are going to be better people than less attrative people with incontinent parents. This is a characteristic of Greek thinking that has always fascinated me--it's so sober and honest.

Also, religions usually start with an exterior set of points that must believed before one can begin arguing within the bounds of the religion. Aristotle, on the other hand, tries to begin with "facts," with experience that everyone can draw on:

Presumably, then, we must begin with things evident to us. Hence any one who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble, and just and, generally, about the subjects of political science must have been brought up in good habits. For the fact is a starting-point, and if this is sufficiently plain to him, he will not need the reason as well; and the man who has been well brought up has or can easily get starting-points.

At points he seems to talk himself in circles with his syllogisms and generalities with sentences such as "it seems that all good men desire virtue, and since virtue is a desirable thing, we can say that all good men aim toward that which is desirable." After awhile of reading it though, you feel that he's making so much sense that you can't possibly doubt what he's saying. You feel you have read something of substance, but have a lingering feeling that if the mathematics and logic would be fully worked out, his arguments would all cancel themselves out in their circularity.

But Aristotle talks in structures that begin to change your way of thinking. For instance, he stresses ends and means: there are things which we desire as ends in themselves (happiness) and things that we desire as means towards these ends (money). I have the feeling that many large problems that we have could be solved by simply defining the things we do as either ends or means. It's an important distinction.

Aristotle also stresses action. He recognizes that one does not become virtuous by thinking about virtue in an ivory tower:

But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philsophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy.

Another theme that permeates the book is temperance, the middle ground, and not going to extremes. In terms of appetite for example, we should avoid being "belly-gods, this implying that they fill their belly beyond what is right." Your appetite should harmonize with your rational principle. One impression you carry from this book is that life should be something that you constantly analyze and ponder in order to live aesthetically, poetically:

. . . anyone can get angry--that is easy--or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

Here is an example of not going to extremes, here concerning humor:

Those who carry humour to excess are thought to be vulgar buffoons, striving after humour at all costs, and aiming rather at raising a laugh than at saying what is becoming and at avoiding pain to the object of their fun; while those who can neither make a joke themselves nor put up with those who do are thought to be boorish and unpolished. But those who joke in a tasteful way are called ready-witted.

This middle ground is the target of all of our actions:  don't spend too much money, but don't spend too little money--instead spend just the right amount of money. But how do you know how much and when and to whom? Aristotle suggests a life full of contemplation: it's life as art form.

A welcomed section of the book was that on friends. Here Aristotle makes a distinction between friends of utility and friends of virtue. Utility friends are those who you have as friends because they offer you something:

. . . it is not for their character that men love ready-witted people, but because they find them pleasant.

Virtue friends, on the other hand, have similar interests and provide you with an example of a virtuous, good person. For Aristotle it is not wrong to have utility friends but it is simply important to make the distinction:

. . . most differences arise between friends when they are not friends in the spirit in which they think they are.

I liked the point that to be a good friend you have to be a "lover of self." You have to love being a good and virtuous person before you can be a good, virtuous friend. Aristotle recognizes that while utility friends are very easy to find, virtuous friends are rare:

. . . but one cannot have with many people the friendship based on virtue and on the character of our friends themselves, and we must be content if we find even a few such.

. . . for a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.

I found that Aristotle's arguments, his "mathematics of the soul," sometimes got to be a bit much for a 20th century mind to swallow, especially for someone who does not trust language as a foolproof tool for getting at the truth. His syllogisms just don't seem that convincing in the light of Wittgenstein's pulling of the rug out from under language. In addition, I think a religion with easy-to-understand-and-emulate parables and simple visions to follow is going to affect the ethical lives of more people than Aristotle's ethical algebra. It seems as though he is missing a large part of the human being, namely the part that needs stories and examples and models.

I would say 20 percent of this book contains good ideas worth contemplating. 40 percent of it is common sense that everyone knows anyway, and another 40 percent of is pure obfuscation, logical smoke and mirrors. Here's an example of a nice, confusing sentence of Aristotle's: 

Is the man continent who abides by any and every rule and any and every choice, or the man who abides by the right choice, and is he incontinent who abandons any and every choice and any and every rule, or he who abandons the rule that is not false and the choice that is right; this is how we put it before in our statement of the problem. (?)

Aristotle doesn't satisfy your whole soul, just the logical side, but here he is quite thorough. Happiness is the contemplation of the good and the carrying out of virtue with solid acts, and the gathering of good, virtuous friends around us. In the end, Aristotle is motivating in his flat, intellectual way:

. . . we must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us . . .

Edward Tanguay

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