Plot: A discussion of the virtues and vices in the character of man.
My copy is still from the 2 volumes of the works of Aristotle which form part of the series Great Books of the Western World, published by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1952. I would prefer a more approachable and perhaps more true translation, but needs must.
First things first, the term Nicomachean is not mentioned by Aristotle in the work itself, but seems to have been a dedication to either his father or son (both were named Nicomachus).
The lecture starts with the question “What is happiness?” Aristotle admits that most men equate happiness with pleasure, some others with honour, wealth or a life of contemplation. But happiness is bigger and more final than any of these ; it is the ultimate good for which the others are simply a means to achieve. (Admittedly happiness also requires a degree of luck or prosperity along the way!)
Not content with this definition, Aristotle pushes further to suggest that happiness must be entwined with the function of man, and results in the view that happiness requires the “virtuous activity of the soul”. I started to disagree here, as he points out that animals and small children cannot feel happiness as they are incapable of this virtuosity. Perhaps he would distinguish joy from happiness, but you cannot tell me a small boy playing with his dog are not both capable of feeling and demonstrating obvious happiness.
He classifies virtues as either intellectual (such as philosophical wisdom and practical wisdom) or moral (liberality, temperance, courage, etc.) Moral virtues are a result of the nature of the individual reinforced by habit, with the ideal being an intermediate point between extreme vices of excess and defect
To someone at the extreme end of one of these states, an intermediate person may seem to be at the opposite extreme, (i.e. a miser would see a liberal person as much a spendthrift as a carefree squanderer). Sometimes one extreme is more acceptable than the other, or closer to the intermediate (e.g. a rash and confident person will be more admired than a coward, and deemed not so far removed from the courageous ideal)
Thankfully Aristotle recognises that the intermediate state (virtue) is an ideal for which we must strive but cannot always reach.
“Any one 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 every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble” page 354.
But virtues (and vices) are voluntary choices : it is in the individual’s power to act (or not act) in their belief of what is good to achieve the end they desire. (Acts may also be involuntary for which no blame ensues e.g. things done under compulsion or through ignorance – although drunkeness, carelessness or ignorance of the law is not considered involuntary). This is a more realistic approach to the foundation of criminal law than Plato’s (Socrates’?) statement that no person knowingly does wrong, and approaches the basis of our modern criminal law – I wonder if legal philosophy in modern law courses includes the Nicomachean Ethics?
Aristotle then goes on to discuss moral virtues and vices individually. Much of this was straightforward and reminded me of an old snakes and ladders game I had as a child where shameful characteristics such as pride, profligacy and envy sent you down a snake, while the corresponding virtues led you up ladders.
I skimmed over the chapters on justice and intellectual virtues, and settled down to read about friendship. Aristotle classifies friendships in three types (excluding friendships of association such as fellow-travellers) : (i) friendships of utility, where one person gains an advantage from the relationship, and these only last as long as the usefulness continues, (ii) friendships of pleasure, where a person is amused by the company of another and (iii) ‘true’ friendship which is based on mutual love and goodwill between the friends, and is long lasting, takes time to develop and is proofed against slander of each party from outside. This discussion wanders around to comment on political constitutions and family relationships as well, but was easy to follow.
“Those who are called by such names as ‘miserly’, ‘close’, ‘stingy’, all fall short in giving … to this class belong the cheeseparer and every one of the sort” page 368
“For his friend is another self” page 419
Diversions/digressions: After Aristotle left Athens, his School was taken over by one of his students Theophrastus, who also wrote on many topics. Although better known for his contributions to botany, one of his surviving works Characters is a series of brief character sketches of different moral types, and may be a sort of descendant of this work. I’ll get to it once Aristotle is done.
Personal rating: Difficult to stick at – some parts were obvious and easy to follow, while others become convoluted and required more concentration than I admittedly gave them. Settle for a 4.
The sanity in between: Desperation by Stephen King. Had been taking up space on my shelves. Similar ground covered as his classic The Stand (which was much better and deserves a re-read itself) but this still kept me intrigued to the end.
Next : More Aristotle. Perhaps The Art of Rhetoric.