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HALL OF FAMEon 4 January 2006
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. However, Aristotle is often misquoted and misinterpreted here, for he very quickly in the text disallows the idea of the mean to be applied in all cases. There are things, actions and emotions, that do not allow the mean state. Thus, Aristotle tends to view virtue as a relative state, making the analogy with food - for some, two pounds of meat might be too much food, but for others, it might be too little. The mean exists between the state of deficiency, too little, and excessiveness, too much.
Aristotle proposes many different examples of virtues and vices, together with their mean states. With regard to money, being stingy and being illiberal with generosity are the extremes, the one deficient and the other excessive. The mean state here would be liberality and generosity, a willingness to buy and to give, but not to extremes. Anger, too, is highlighted as having a deficient state (too much passivity), an excessive state (too much passion) and a mean state (a gentleness but firmness with regard to emotions).
Aristotle states that one of the difficulties with leading a virtuous life is that it takes a person of science to find the mean between the extremes (or, in some cases, Aristotle uses the image of a circle, the scientist finding the centre). Many of us, being imperfect humans, err on one side or the other, choosing in Aristotle's words, the lesser of two evils. Aristotle's wording here, that a scientist is the only one fully capable of virtue, has a different meaning for scientist - this is a pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment view; for Aristotle, the person of science is one who is capable of observation and calculation, and this can take many different forms.
Aristotle uses different kinds of argumentation in the Nicomachean Ethics. He uses a dialectical method, as well as a functional method. In the dialectical method, there are opposing ideas held in tension, whose interactions against each other yield a result - this is often how the mean between extremes is derived. However, there are other times that Aristotle seems to prefer a more direct, functional approach. Both of these methods lead to the same understanding for Aristotle's sense of the rational - that humanity's highest or final good is happiness.
There is a discussion of the human soul (for this is where virtue and happiness reside). Aristotle argues that virtue is not a natural state; we are not born with nor do we acquire through any natural processes virtue, but rather through 'habitation', an embedding process or enculturation that makes these a part of our soul. However, it is not sufficient for Aristotle's virtue that one merely function as a virtuous person or that virtuous things be done. This is not a skill, but rather an art, and to be virtuous, one must live virtuously and act virtuously with intention as well as form.
Of course, one of the implications here is that virtue is a quantifiable thing, that periodically resurfaces in later philosophies. How do we calculate virtue?
This is a difficult question, and not one that Aristotle answers in any definitive way. However, more important than this is the key difference that Aristotle displayed setting himself apart from his tutor Plato; rather than seeing the possession of 'the good' or 'virtue' as the highest ideal, Aristotle is concerned with the practical aspects, the ethics of this. Based on Aristotle's lectures in Athens in the fourth century BCE, this remains one of the most important works on ethical and moral philosophy in history.
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on 27 July 2015
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. If anything, the fact that it was so unscandalous is testimony to the influence that Aristotle has upon western culture. It is only when we get to a question of ‘continence and incontinence’ that the book slows somewhat.

Up until then, the whole tenor of the book had been about moderation. The ideal man, in Aristotle’s view, was not a person of extremes, but who took everything in their stride with due consideration, who could be allowed to be passionate, but who was not quick to be inflamed. That’s the overarching message. What we don’t get, which many modern readers may come with, are questions over particular moral dilemmas.

Having laid out this vision of the moderate man, the remainder of the book is a little bit turgid to get through. I think I rather lost track in book 7 entitled ‘continence and incontinence’. Through my own ignorance, my immediate thought on reading that header regards the ability of a person to maintain control of their bladder. So what does Aristotle (or the translator) mean by these terms? Well, I was no more enlightened after reading it. There was no clear definition given and without that I couldn’t get a grip on the topic.

Thereafter, I rather struggled to maintain interest and the remainder of the book became more of a chore than a joy to read.

With that said, I would still recommend it as a reading in the history of thought. Not having formal training in philosophy, I probably skimmed over many of the finer points and failed to appreciate it to its full, but it remains (mainly in the first half) an interesting work.

In the end, though, I cannot say it has made me a better man for having read it. In the culture I’ve grown up in, moderation has always been instilled as a good thing. Yet here is where we may well find the origin of that idea. In a world that has its fair share of extremism, moderation is clearly a tempting alternative. Though as I sometimes hear, extremism is only bad is it directed in a bad direction. Can there be anything bad about an extremist for love? Or someone who has extreme generosity? Aristotle would argue that while those things are virtues, an extreme bias towards one of them will detract from a person being capable in another.

Whatever your view here, there’s certainly plenty to think about here.
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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? His opening paragraph is fraught with problems but the man yet appears supremely nonchalant about the issues he will face. He concludes his opening considerations saying that his investigations are a kind of political science, to which the editor appends a footnote saying that Aristotle "seems to regard ethics not as a species of politics but as a sort of introduction to it."

Space precludes any detailed review here of Aristotle's arguments, but, summing up chapter two, he proposes that moral virtue is the mean between the two vices of excess and deficiency: "For this reason it is a difficult business to be good; because in any given case it is difficult to find the midpoint", "... to feel or act towards the right person to the right extent at the right time for the right reason in the right way." This has a practical rather than theoretical basis.

Aristotle is thus not deriving his study of ethic from first principles, but rather to explain what is and why it is so. And in many ways, what was so in ancient Athens is so today. By praising the mean in society, his argument by definition recognises whatever ethical qualities are present in that society. Of course, when Aristotle writes that people's character results from doing wrong things (or right ones), he is writing before knowledge of genetic predispositions.

Having now read the whole of the book, I can understand why, aged twenty, I gave up after Book Five, because here Aristotle seems to shift up a gear and a plethora of conclusions is reached on the nature of justice over the first few pages that are not - to me - soundly argued. Also a certain degree of apparent contradiction appears: for example, on can act unjustly and yet not be an unjust man. The explanations (in this instance, the acting unjustly may be involuntary) can be hard-going.

Book Six is also heavy going, and one wonders if this is down to Aristotle or his translator. Much is due to definitions of what are everyday words but which had a more precise and nuanced meaning to Aristotle. As a prime example, Aristotle himself states, "We often say `understand' instead of `learn'", but, as the editor's accompanying footnote points out, "This is true of Greek but not of English."

Book Seven perpetuates the burden, but the translator's persistent use of the word `incontinence' might, in a schoolboy-humouredly way, lighten the drudgery of Aristotle's attempts to prove whether the incontinent man is superior to the licentious one. (Indeed, the words used in the translation are a little outdated here and there -
`ponce' anyone?). The reading all becomes heavy going, and again one ponders whether the poor style, the lack of clarity, and the resulting lack of inspiration is down to philosopher or translator.

The last book - on pleasure - leads to a kind of summary of all that has gone before. Aristotle famously concludes with his definition of happiness: friendship and, more importantly, contemplation are life's chief pleasures.

This edition comes with a bibliography (revised to 1983) lists 108 works. There are also ten useful appendices, covering more than twenty pages. The subjects covered include Pythagoreanism, the Sophists, Plato's theory of forms, the practical syllogism, and Aristotle's impact on medieval thought. There is also a glossary of Greek words (though not all, e.g. `phule', are present), and indices of names and subjects.

These all, of course, add to the value of this Penguin Classics edition, but I cannot vouch for whether other editions by other publishers are just as detailed and generous - or just as outdated.
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on 3 April 2001
The main contents of this book, Aristotle's "Nichomachean Ethics", is for most people, I should imagine, in that revered category of "books I really should read... when I get time...", and unless you are going to be examined on it, there is little incentive to plough through its entirety. It is worth noting that this book is essentially a collection of lecture notes, so perhaps the repetition and incessant recapitulations can be forgiven.
Undoubtably the best thing about this edition is the introduction, which takes the form of an illuminating and thourough essay, incorporating a historical backdrop and a perspective on Aristotle's motivations, as well as explanations of and thoughts on the book.
The impact Aristotle has had on western thought is striking; within this volume you can find the origins of much subsequent philosophy. I shall not, however, be following Aristotle's guidelines on how to live a life of virtue, but I'm prepared to contemplate them, and, as he points out, quite logically, contemplation is the highest activity available to man.
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on 15 March 2014
I am very pleased with this book it is in great condition and it was very reasonably priced. Thank you
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on 11 January 2016
As wanted for a gift
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on 26 December 2014
very good
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on 1 August 2012
Penguin is by far my most trusted source for cheap and yet good quality versions of any classic books I need to find copies of!
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on 15 March 2009
An appropriate read for our times. This new edit is easier than the old version.
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