on June 19, 2000
I bought this book almost accidentaly, for having nothing better to do one night on a business trip to Pretoria. Being Greek, I have a love-hate relationship with the Ancients: brought up to marvel at their genius, but feeling alienated by an education system that force-fed us with sterile, badly translated texts, which always seemed irrelevant to our lifes. This book opened my eyes to the true meaning of "Philosophy". The translation is in modern English, free from the back-to-front syntax of the Ancient Greek text (which makes it impossible to understand the meaning of a sentence until you reach the end of it!).
The subject matter is "Ethics". However, a modern author may have called it something more akin to "The Meaning of Life" or "The Art of Living". Aristotle proceeds with simple and clear logic, to reveal the objective of human struggle in this life. He demonstrates a deep understanding of the Human Being, what we are and what we are not, what makes us act in one way or another and what makes us feel joy or distress. He addresses anxienties of the modern human, such as the question of nature or nurture, the moral action versus the practical, violence versus non-violence. His recommendations for living this life in a manner that is meaningfull and rewarding are profound yet simple. I found myself shaking my head in recognition at every example or conclusion. I felt a fresh wind in my chest, as if it was I who was discovering this knowledge, not some 2.5 thousand year old man.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to discover more about how to live this life, but feels foreign to current eastern-derived, philosophical/religious fashions which, even when illuminating, can appear alien to the western way of thinking.
on November 7, 2006
Aristotle's Ethics by Penguin classics looks deceptively like a paperback novel. It is nothing of the kind, being a densely packed philosophical treatise on the nature of humankind and our relationships with others.
The book, a translation of the Nichomachean Ethics and not Aristotle's earlier Eudemian Ethics, may seem slightly mistitled to a modern audience. It deals primarily with analysis of character and what good character is and is not. Discussion of ethical issues and moral judgements of right and wrong are largely missing. The reader is expected to develop their behaviour towards others by perfecting their own character. For example, courage in its various forms is discussed but the practical application of courage is not. Much of Aristotle's thesis appears obvious to our modern minds but it is important to remember that Aristotle was systemetizing his description of human nature in an effort to understand it. Unfortunately this makes for a rather dry read.
The book also contains a lengthy introduction by Jonathan Barnes. While it is acessible to the general audience, a background in philosophy would be useful to really understand the issues he addresses. There is also a preface by Hugh Tredennick who explains why this new translation is needed - primarily for readability. Between J.A.K. Thompson (the translator), Barnes and Treddennick we appear to have the crème de la crème of Cambridge and Oxford Aristotaleans involved in this little book. The introduction has a substantial bibliography in its own right and the book includes 10 brief appendices which provide background on the philosophical ideas in the text. These are critical to understanding the book if you aren't widely read in the early Greek philosophers. A glossary of Greek words and an index of names proceeds a general index. Footnotes are brief and unobtrusive but usually helpful.
For couch philosophers and serious students looking for an inexpensive edition of the Nichomachean ethics, this is definitely the version for you. It has surprisingly good scholarly resources for such a slim volume. If, however, you had heard that Aristotle was Alexander the Great's tutor and are trying to conquer the business world this probably won't give you many pointers.
on May 10, 2011
This is a very good edition of the Nicomachean Ethics translated by H. Rackham. The english text (available at Perseus Digital Library) is intended for those who want to read the greek text and use the english as a support, as the english text will often interpret the text and undo many of the obscurities of the original, preserved in more faithful translations as the one of W.D. Ross. For those working with this text I would recomend both Rackham's and Ross's translations.
The greek text is the one of Bekker, revised with the aid of Susemihl (1880), Bywater (1891) and Alpet (1902), and published notes of other scholars (like H.H. Joachim). (The greek text is also available at Perseus.)
Overall, I found this one to be the best edition for scholarly purposes.
As of the book itself - materially - it a is a decent edition. It has a nice binding and a hardcover. The pages are somewhat thin and may get damaged if you just hold the book long enough (especially if you tend to sweat in your hands). The letters are big enough so you can read without difficulty, but you won't have much space in the page to writte comments (unless you can write really small).
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, translated by J. A. K. Thomson (London, Penguin Classics, 2003) or
Aristotle XIX, Nichomachean Ethics, translated by H. Rackham (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, 1934)
I offer references to both a very modern, inexpensive, easily available edition, and to a scholarly edition with Greek and the English translation on facing pages. This is a testament to the importance of this ancient work. Among Greco-Roman philosophy, it is probably in the same league as Plato's Republic, since they arrive at the same main conclusion, albeit from very different routes.
After I left the study of professional philosophy and went off to earn a living, something very odd happened back in academia. The philosophical theories dominated by Kant's Categorical Imperative, Hobbes' social contract', and John Stuart Mill's `greatest good for the greatest number' all seemed to be reawakened to the value of `virtue ethics', of which Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is the earliest, and still one of the best presentations. These theories from the first half of the 20th century all seemed to forget about the individual and concentrate on rules operating between people and `collective good'. There was some, but not much, talk of personal goods and virtues. The apotheosis of the 'modern' ethics, Kurt Baier's book The Moral Point of View, published in 1958 says nothing about virtues and only the thinnest section on 'Duties to Oneself'. But the tide started shifting in that very same year with the publication of G.E.M. Anscombe's journal article, `Modern Moral Philosophy', which questioned how well we really knew the meaning of psychological terms thrown around in the debates on moral theories.
I also have a suspicion that virtues staged a comeback with the great interest in modern biomedical ethics, where the relative roles of patients and health care professionals are so dramatically skewed, that normal rules of behavior between equals simply don't work. And if you consult modern texts on Biomedical Ethics, it is precisely the Nicomachean Ethics which they cite as their inspiration.
The less encouraging picture is that virtue ethics may be experiencing a comeback as a theory one can justify without any reference to the Judeo-Christian God. Aristotle may or may not have been devoted to the Olympian gods of Homer, Hesiod, and the playwrights, but I suspect he didn't take them too, too seriously, and he certainly did not even know of the Hebrew god. Thus, his ethical theories contain no divine underpinning, such as you find in Kant's ethics. The irony is that virtue ethics actually fits Christian theology better than an ethics based on moral rules (See this week's readings on Romans (Monday) and John (Wednesday).
Aristotle's theory, on the face of it, seems very similar to recent Utilitarianism (greatest good for the greatest number), but Aristotle is far more concerned with the kind of happiness which develops out of intellectual pleasures. In fact, an important statement of Christian virtue, the sixth beatitude (Matthew 5:8, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.") is very close to Aristotle's highest ideal of contemplation: "...if happiness consists in activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be activity in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be the virtue of the best part of us....it is the activity of this part of us in accordance with the virtue proper to it that will constitute perfect happiness, and it has been stated already that the activity is the activity of contemplation, because the intellect is the highest faculty in us..."
One of Aristotle's great contributions was in the addition of `intellectual' virtues such as prudence to the traditional `moral' virtues. While those who dwell on moral rules may be inclined to push them a bit too far, Aristotle calls on prudence to attend to the details of the situation.
In reading Aristotle, I'm constantly impressed by the level of `common sense' he exhibits, as when he says that morality is all about doing and not purely an `intellectual exercise'. Just as one gets good at evaluating wines by tasting them and good at appreciating graphic art by looking at a lot of pictures, one improves one's virtue by consistently exercising your moral sensibilities. Intellectual virtues are developed by instruction, but moral virtues are the product of habit and practice, they are not `natural' abilities, present at birth, like the ability to see. The aim of legislation is to train citizens in right action.
Just as the aim of the church is to train our young in the best virtues.
on May 12, 2014
Aristotle was for a long time difficult to understand, but I later learned that it was because I had the wrong teachers. Most people I talked to from when I was very young never completely understood it, but they pretended to as a way of justifying certain actions. Among my official professors in university, it turned out that the first only gave me a basic understanding of it, the second had mostly studied new age interpretations, the third gave a repeat of the first, but she had less understanding. When I was finally learning the truth of it from decent university professors, I still wasn't completely certain of what I was learning because of the past confusion, and I wasn't sure where to look for a good translation, as a French translation of Aristotle's works had some bad translation. A former professor who had good knowledge of it recommended this. And now it is all much clearer.
I do not agree with everything that Aristotle wrote and taught, and I have found flaws. But this is a good book to read in order to better understand what he really did say. When a person has problems understanding a professor, others often say to read it yourself, but they often do not give good suggestions of specifically what to read. This is one of the better versions.