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The Nicomachean Ethics (Penguin Classics) Paperback – 29 Jan 2004

4.1 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (29 Jan. 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140449493
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140449495
  • Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 2.3 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 90,861 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

About the Author

Aristotle was born in 384 BC, and studied in Athens under Plato. His writings were of extraordinary range, and many of them have survived. He died in 323 BC.


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Format: Paperback
Aristotle was a philosopher in search of the chief good for human beings. This chief good is eudaimonia, which is often translated as 'happiness' (but can also be translated as 'thriving' or 'flourishing'). Aristotle sees pleasure, honour and virtue as significant 'wants' for people, and then argues that virtue is the most important of these.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes the claim that happiness is something which is both precious and final. This seems to be so because it is a first principle or ultimate starting point. For, it is for the sake of happiness that we do everything else, and we regard the cause of all good things to be precious and divine. Moreover, since happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with complete and perfect virtue, it is necessary to consider virtue, as this will be the best way of studying happiness.
How many of us today speak of happiness and virtue in the same breath? Aristotle's work in the Nicomachean Ethics is considered one of his greatest achievements, and by extension, one of the greatest pieces of philosophy from the ancient world. When the framers of the American Declaration of Independence were thinking of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, there is little doubt they had an acquaintance with Aristotle's work connecting happiness, virtue, and ethics together.
When one thinks of ethical ideas such as an avoidance of extremes, of taking the tolerant or middle ground, or of taking all things in moderation, one is tapping into Aristotle's ideas. It is in the Nicomachean Ethics that Aristotle proposes the Doctrine of the Mean - he states that virtue is a 'mean state', that is, it aims for the mean or middle ground.
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Format: Paperback
The book begins with a very long introduction by Jonathan Barnes. I also ought to note that this particular version was translated by J.A.K. Thomson.

The introduction makes clear what others have told me about the book, that is not really meant to be read cover to cover. There is also a lot of background on Aristotle, placing the work within his surviving corpus of work. One of the frustrations is that the introduction contains lots of seemingly random references. Only at the end is it stated what these are; but they refer to a different edition, so are very little use to the reader of this Penguin Classics edition.

What might one expect from an early book on ethics? Well, I wasn’t expecting a vast amount of deliberation or references to earlier writers. I thought this was just going to be a straight-from-the-hip exposition. That is more or less what we get.

Aristotle’s aim is that this is not a work to be merely studied. Rather, the aim is that it is a transformative work that should make one a better man. The fact that it comes to us in book form might be something of an oddity as there is some suggestion in the notes (as well as hints in the text) that this is really a set of lecture notes. I also use the term ‘man’ in the masculonormative sense that Aristotle himself uses, so I shall stick that form for the purposes of this review.

The fact that it was lecture notes didn’t really strike me at first, as the work (made up of some 12 short books) is really rather gripping to begin with. I could faintly see how this could be in terms of the history of thought, though reading a modern translation made it just seem like a treatise on common sense.
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Format: Paperback
This is a review of the Penguin Classics edition of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, translated by JAK Thompson in 1953, revised by Hugh Tredinnick in 1976, and with an introduction by Jonathan Barnes. The book was purchased by me in 1985 as part of my degree course, but, having now re-read it, I find I did not get beyond the fifth of the work's ten chapters - my page mark was still there.

Aristotle's work has pervaded philosophical studies so much down the ages that Barnes writes in the opening paragraphs of his introduction that, "The modern reader who takes up the `Ethics' for the first time will find himself already familiar ... with several of its leading notions." And yet, "any but the most shallow reading ... soon strikes on shoals and reefs." Hence the value of his introductory words, in which he expounds on Aristotle's life, his writings, his literary style, but mostly (of course) on his philosophy.

Barnes points out "the general truth that philosophy must be read slowly and patiently, with frequent pause for intellectual breath", and that this applies particularly to Aristotle's works, so "sip the `Ethics' slowly: the vintage is old and strong; it is not for quaffing." Barnes sets Aristotle's philosophical system in context, drawing a fundamental distinction between ethics - the prescription of moral norms - and meta-ethics - the logic behind moral discourse; and acknowledges that Aristotle never expressly acknowledged the distinction. Barnes goes on to comment on a variety of issues raised by Aristotle; some I found dubious but Barnes at least admits that his own are often "tentative suggestions" that "should be read with an appropriate charity and scepticism."

But what of Aristotle's work itself?
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