Aristotle's Ethics

A web page by Alan Nicoll

Response to February's Readings

by Alan Nicoll, February 18, 2005

February's assigned readings were:
Aristotle Ethics, Book I; Politics, Book I
Plutarch Lycurgus, Numa Pompilius, Lycurgus and Numa Compared

The following is the response to the readings of February, 2005, that I posted to the Great Conversation Yahoo group. I've put it on the Ethics page because that is mostly all I talk about.

In reading the summary provided in GBWW vol. 9 (copied below), it looks like Aristotle is "all over the map" in Book I. Here I'm only going to consider his positive conclusions.

First, a bit of summary. He discusses the meaning of "good," considers the "universal good," and "the Form of the good." He starts with facts--what is considered good by most men. The "universal good" then is what these good things have in common. He decides that there are several subtypes of good, including things good in themselves and things that are useful towards obtaining "things good in themselves."

He concludes that things good in themselves are not "in one Idea" or Form. He also concludes that knowing "the Form of the good" will not help us achieve attainable goods.

Chapter 7 is the important argument of Book I. It starts with: the good is that for whose sake everything else is done, the end of every action and pursuit; in other words, the good or goods achievable by action. But we choose some ends for the sake of other ends, so not all ends are final ends. But the chief good(s)--what we are seeking--is something final. And that chief good is happiness.

Further, the final (="chief"?) good is thought to be self-sufficient. That is, "when isolated" (which I take to mean "by itself") it makes life desirable and lacking in nothing. And Aristotle again concludes that the chief good is happiness.

He recognizes this conclusion as a platitude and says that we could go further if we were to determine the "function of man." When Aristotle goes beyond the "platitude," however, his reasoning gets weaker. He wants to tie "the good" to "the function of man," but offers no argument for this. Presumably this is done elsewhere in his writings, perhaps not explicitly or I would expect a cross-reference. His writings are full of what I might call teleological thinking, that is, focusing on the ultimate purpose of things, and the "nature" of things. It's a form of thought I find uncongenial, since I'm an existentialist at heart.

As for this "function of man," much is obscure but he wants the function to be unique to man (i.e., not shared with other life forms), and what he sees as unique to man is the "rational element." So he says that the unique function of man is an "activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle" (p. 343b [1098a 5]). This is followed by a very difficult bit which I'm not going to try to clarify, but he concludes by saying that "human good" is an "activity of soul in accordance with virtue," and in the next paragraph adds "in a complete life." The "rational element" is not mentioned at this point. Then he concludes, "Let this serve as an outline of the good..."

Equating "the good" with "happiness" may indeed be a platitude, but it is questionable. Mill asks whether it is better to be a happy pig or an unhappy man, which strikes at the heart of Aristotle's conclusions.

Ethics Book I presents a lot of abstract reasoning about goodness and happiness, and says a little about many different things. His arguments seem vague and unpersuasive, and his conclusions are doubtful. Is there an underlying method or metaphysics that needs to be understood for the selection to be fully understood? Perhaps so; perhaps reading more of Aristotle will clarify Book I. But I doubt it will make it more persuasive.

In the Politics it's even worse because of the subject matter. In chapter 5 he says, "some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right." (p. 448c) He doesn't say whether he asked any slaves about this conclusion. Women are also subjected to subservient roles because this is "natural."

And, by the way, what does it have to do with my life? Abstract reasoning can be useful or interesting, but it lacks the relevance and the liveliness that we experienced in Apology and Crito. Whitehead describes philosophy as the "critique of abstractions"—the endless effort to drag the balloon of the mind back to the earth of actual experience. Aristotle (at least in the current selections) looks like a collection of balloons.

Aristotle's Ethics

Book I: The Good for Man

Summary from the Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 9
Typed by Alan Nicoll

A. Subject of our inquiry
Ch. 1 All human activities aim at some good; some goods subordinate to others. [1094a 1]
Ch. 2 The science of the good for man is politics. [1094a 18]

B. Nature of the science
Ch. 3 We must not expect more precision than the subject-matter admits. The student should have reached years of discretion. [1094b 11]

C. What is the good for man?
Ch. 4 It is generally agreed to be happiness, but there are various views as to what happiness is. What is required at the start is an unreasoned conviction about the facts, such as is produced by a good upbringing. [1095a 14]
Ch. 5 Discussion of the popular views that the good is pleasure, honour, wealth; a fourth kind of life, that of contemplation, deferred for future discussion. [1095b 13]
Ch. 6 Discussion of the philosophical view that there is an Idea of good. [1096a 11]
Ch. 7 The good must be something final and self-sufficient. Definition of happiness reached by considering the characteristic function of man. [1097a 15]
Ch. 8 This definition is confirmed by current beliefs about happiness. [1098b 9]
Ch. 9 Is happiness acquired by learning or habituation, or sent by God or by chance? [1099b 9]
Ch. 10 Should no man be called happy while he lives? [1100a 10]
Ch. 11 Do the fortunes of the living affect the dead? [1101a 21]
Ch. 12 Virtue is praiseworthy, but happiness is above praise. [1101b 10]

D. Kinds of virtue
Ch. 13 Division of the faculties, and resultant division of virtue into intellectual and moral. [1102a 5]

Page references are to Great Books of the Western World, vol. 9: Aristotle, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952
Links to web pages specific to Aristotle's Ethics: For links to online texts of Aristotle's works, go to my page on Aristotle.

My Great Books of the Western World home page.

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