Having tried to look at the origins of what we might recognise as philosophy, I wanted to read some more of the “Big 3”. It was a slightly arbitrary choice to pick Aristotle over Socrates or Plato, but my interest in ethics and morality probably swayed it.
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, in that it is really a series of lecture notes rather than a book that is 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, almost a dewey decimal-like system. 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. I confess that I find the term incontinence to be somewhat lavatorial, so it was not clear what Aristotle was on about.
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. Contrast this with Julian Baggini’s The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten.
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. There are a great many more works of ethics that I have yet to read (those on my radar include those by Spinoza and Bonhoeffer) and it will be interesting to compare the approaches.
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.