Common Frustrations in Studying Aristotle

A Common Initial Response

As you engage with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, you may find yourself puzzled, confused, or even irritated with what we might call his general approach in doing philosophy. There are a number of peculiarities to his text, particularly when looked at through the lens of late modern perspectives. In many respects, it's not at all like other works of philosophy one might have encountered. And it raises many questions for readers, not all of which are explicitly answered.

If you have had this sort of initial reaction - or if you haven't read Aristotle yet, and are now anticipating having it - that's quite all right. In fact, going by my own experience, it's a pretty common reaction. When I myself was an undergraduate, wading my way through his Categories, Nicomachean Ethics, and bits of other works of Aristotle's, I considered him among the dullest of reads, conveying almost nothing useful, well-thought-out, or even interesting. In my years of teaching Aristotle, I've seen similar reactions from some of my own students.

You might well wonder then - why is this text a classic? Why have intelligent and interesting people been reading, commenting on, or even arguing about the Nicomachean Ethics, or Aristotle's texts more broadly? The simple answer is that there turns out to be quite a lot of insight and wisdom, thought-provoking ideas, and even a rich systematic perspective within the work. But, that's not something necessarily evident upon a first read of the text. Sometimes it takes being in the proper frame of mind, having attained the right state of preparation, or even the help of a guide.

All of those reflections have motivated me to write this particular lesson page, with the hopes of clearing up some common and likely initial assumptions and reactions to Aristotle's text - the goal being to clear away some of the impediments to more fully understanding and appreciating the text. In philosophy, there's a technical term for this sort of activity - it's often called Hermeneutics.

The Nicomachean Ethics in Context

The Nicomachean Ethics is one of several works by Aristotle developing portions of his practical philosophy, i.e. the side of philosophy that deals with human affairs, matters of action, choice, production, and so on. As such, it exists in a kind of continuity with a number of Aristotle's other works - in particular, the Eudemian Ethics, the Politics, the Rhetoric, and the Poetics. Portions of certain other works - for example, the Metaphysics, the Topics, and the De Anima - are also connected with subjects that the Nicomachean Ethics discusses.

The reason that I bring up these other works at this point is not to suggest that, in order to study the Nicomachean Ethics - particularly in the course of this rather short class - you ought to go off and also study these other texts. That would be rather overwhelming, and likely wouldn't turn out to be of much help in grappling with the one text we're focusing upon. That said, as your learning continues beyond the short duration of this class, if you decide that you want to go further with Aristotle, you'll want to explore those texts as well - and as you do, your grasp of his overall perspective will expand, consolidate, and improve.

What you'll find is that there are some topics in the Nicomachean Ethics about which, as he works through them, Aristotle is not giving you his entire position in a self-contained section. Throughout his texts, he sometimes makes references to his other works (a few of which we have actually lost), and goes over issues and subject-matters from multiple perspectives. You might say that, at least on some topics, the full perspective - or at least as full a perspective as he offers - is spread out over multiple texts.

This is particularly the case when we are considering matters that have multiple aspects that are treated by different disciplines. To take one example, Aristotle's discussions of the phenomenon of anger are spread out over several of his works. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is less interested in the emotion considered as an emotion, and much more interested in its moral implications. If you want to see his discussions of the psychology of anger, it is to the Rhetoric that you'll need to turn. He also considers the bodily aspects of anger as well, but to find those discussions, you'll have to dig around in his biological works (among other places!).

Ethics, understood in a wide sense, so that it also encompasses or overlaps with what Aristotle calls "Political Science", is one main discipline within philosophy. For Aristotle, the subject-matter, the kinds of things being studied and about which knowledge is being provided, distinguishes disciplines from each other. The upshot of this for Ethics is that while acknowledging its connections with other disciplines, Aristotle is not going to try to base Ethics on those - for example, on Logic, Metaphysics, Physics, or Biology.

Structure and Style of Aristotle's Work

One aspect of Aristotle's texts that students - and some of us professors as well! - sometimes find challenging stems from the way the texts themselves are written. Although there have been many theories advanced over the years, nobody actually knows precisely what kind of documents his texts were intended to be. Were they preserved notes from his lectures? Were they intended to be something more like traditional philosophical treatises? Something else, or something in-between?

What we can be certain about is what we see going on in his works, how they are structured, and what kind of style they are written in. In general, Aristotle structures his works by focusing upon what he takes to be the central topics or problems involved in the subject matter the work is about. So, in the Nicomachean Ethics, you see him devoting considerable attention and space to broad issues like the nature of happiness as the final good, the essential nature of the virtues, different moral states, or the role and value of pleasure.

As he examines these broad issues, you'll see him bringing in considerations of other issues. In the course of discussing happiness, he goes into some very interesting discussions about the parts or faculties of the human soul, doing that precisely in order to shed additional light on the nature of human happiness. He also examines existing positions of other thinkers on the matter, sometimes qualifiedly endorsing them, sometimes criticizing them, and typically incorporating what he deems correct in their positions into his own.

It will perhaps appear to you that Aristotle is overly prone to digressions, lapsing occasionally into what seem like separate topics, and then (usually, but not always) coming back to the central matter of investigation. Sometimes he signals that he is shifting topics, and sometimes not. Generally though, the new topic he introduces has some direct relevance to the larger matter under discussion.

It might be helpful to think of Aristotle's style as being one that allows him to take a subject matter and to examine it from multiple perspectives, circling around it, focusing in on particular aspects, ideally developing a composite picture that provides a fuller understanding of the matter. Imagine him as carrying out a conversation with an intelligent, well-informed audience, providing some straightforward exposition and argumentation, but within a more dialogical (or dialectical) framework, in which Aristotle himself is still thinking through some of these matters.

Practical Philosophy and Adequacy.

You are likely at some point to become frustrated with another aspect of Aristotle's work as well. When you first work your way through the Nicomachean Ethics, given the sheer amount of material that he is covering, you may not notice that while he does discuss some matters in considerable detail, often Aristotle seems content to provide us with what he takes to be satisfactory outlines of the key features or the essential points of the matters he is examining.

You'll encounter multiple points at which you're finding Aristotle's treatment insightful and useful as he develops it, and as you progressively understand it, and then he brings it to a close, suggesting that he's examined the topic sufficiently, and that you can take over from there. This is a common feature to many of his discussions, not only in the Nicomachean Ethics, but in his works as a whole.

Sometimes, as pointed out earlier, you'll find very useful supplementary discussions of matters that he discusses in the Nicomachean Ethics contained in his other works (and I'll actually be suggesting some of these other passages to you as optional additional readings here in this class). Often those discussions are marked by the same character of being in some sense unfinished, or in outline.

It simply has to be admitted that while Aristotle does cover a lot of ground, and does provide us with a fairly comprehensive, coherent, and systematic approach to the pretty vast range of everything falling into the field of Ethics - enough of a structure that we can definitely say what the Aristotelian perspective is - he leaves a significant amount of work for us readers and interpreters of his text. That places in our hands not a completely finished practical philosophy, but rather an opportunity both to understand Aristotle's philosophy and to fill in the missing parts ourselves - an exciting (but also, admittedly perhaps frustrating!) opportunity to engage our own faculties in building out an Aristotelian (or neo-Aristotelian) account based within but going beyond the text itself.

Aristotle clearly realizes that this is the case for his text. In 1.7, he suggests that he has worked through the topic of "the good" sufficiently in providing a rough outline (hupotuposai), which then can be filled in more fully afterwards. He adds:

If a work has been well laid down in outline, to carry it on and complete it in general may be supposed to be within the capacity of anybody; and in this working out of details, Time seems to b a good inventor or at all events co-adjutor. This indeed is how advances in all the arts have actually come about. . .

This needing to be filled out in application to specific situations and circumstances is an inevitable feature of practical matters. So at least from Aristotle's own perspective, if his work is to be adequate, he can't actually provide all of the answers. We need to be ready to think through what those might be, working from the bases that he does provide us.

Complete and Continue