Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Pt. 1

So I’ve been trudging through this piece of Aristotle, looking for material I might be able to use in ethical discourse in the American political climate.

Too often I feel ethical discourse retreats into partisan interests, religious interests, or uncritical opinion. This has probably been the case since time immemorial, but that doesn’t extinguish how much it annoys me.


Aristotle’s big beef in this work is the “mean” between extremes. He also mentions “virtue” a lot. The name that he gives a virtue ends up being the mean between two extremes which often have to do with vice. For example, he assigns courage as the mean between cowardice and rashness.

Though Aristotle holds the mean as the aim of the good life, he also maintains that it is incredibly difficult (one has to aim for the mean actively; it is not a static state [surely there is a better phrase, but I prefer to write in stream-of-consciousness]) to achieve, and so if one has a proclivity to one extreme, one’s own ethical rule should be to swing toward the opposite pole.

Aristotle also holds open the possibility that there are times when opting for one extreme or another will actually achieve the good. For example, in a passage (Book IV, Chapter 5) on “gentleness” (the mean between angry irritability and lack of showing proper anger [numbness maybe?]), he speaks of appropriate anger reserved for certain people/things, for certain times, and for a certain length of time. He doesn’t go into great detail to fill out these categories, so I was left with questions like: “What situations deserve anger in his mind? Considering such situations, when it is appropriate to express anger and for how long? If violence comes into the picture, how much and for how long is it appropriate”?

While I wish for more concrete examples, it’s almost as if the work is an ice breaker for ethical discussion. It’s like, “Aristotle defines justice as such and such. What are some instances with which we can test this assertion?”

Perhaps I have skimmed parts too quickly because I only have so much time as a husband, father, worker, student, and citizen. Perhaps Aristotle will mention more concrete examples. However, the translator/editor of my edition, Joe Sachs, reminds the reader that Aristotle remains abstract/general because to be too specific on some points would have too many exceptions to be useful (Sachs, Nicomachean Ethics, Focus Philosophical Library, 2002, 35n43).

I’ve just started on his section on justice (Book V). This subject intrigues me the most because of the relativity of justice. Whose justice? When is something just? Is it a set of rules? Is it a way/process of judgment with varying outcomes? Most poignantly in my context, who has the market on justice: the Right or the Left? Does justice lie in only one of them, does it shift between them, is it only established by who is in power?

I’m kind of having fun with this work, though some of it is largely irrelevant to me (discussions of the aristocratic station, etc.) and some of his writing isn’t straightforward enough for my American sensibilities. That said, it’s nice to take a step back in time, away from the interests that bombard me in the present, to see how others (who weren’t interested in my interests) thought about things dear to me.

Crap. That was not a straightforward sentence. At times I wax eloquent and other times I forget all I covered in composition. I beg your mercy.


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