The only thing that the picture of the trireme Olympias up above has to do with the Nicomachean Ethics is that it’s Greek, and that for Aristotle ethics precedes Politics
Sunday, October 21, 2007

Nicomachean Ethics


Aristotle starts off in Book I by establishing that happiness is the goal of human life. This happiness resides not in pleasure, or in wealth, but in virtue. For Aristotle happiness is achievable in this life. He does not seem to believe that happiness in the after-life is the reward of virtue. Suffering, martyrdom, and poverty are not something that we endure in order to have an eternal reward in heaven. It is easy, however, to see how Aristotle's system could be Christianized. Aristotle focuses on the virtues as leading to happiness, a happiness which Christianity says is final in the after-life, but which Aristotle emphasizes as being in the present.

In Book II Aristotle begins his discussion of the various virtues. This discussion continues for several books, so I'll try to summarize the main points. Aristotle's description of the virtues is more or less what I was taught in Catholic school back in the early 60s. The virtues exist as a mean between two defective extremes. There are extremes of too much (rashness, prodigality) and extremes of deficiency (cowardice, avarice) with the virtues existing as middle states (courage, liberality).

Aristotle sees courage as involving primarily bravery in battle. It is directed against military foes. So the 9/11 hi-jackers, Bill Maher to the contrary, are not brave. If anything it is more a case of rashness. What Aristotle doesn't go into, and what puzzles me, is that border between rashness and bravery, and what if your bravery leads to the death of those under you? I'm thinking of actions like that of Ernest Evans, commander of the USS Johnston (DD-557), who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Leyte Gulf.

This is the citation for Evans: "For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Johnston in action against major units of the enemy Japanese fleet during the battle off Samar on 25 October 1944. The first to lay a smokescreen and to open fire as an enemy task force, vastly superior in number, firepower and armor, rapidly approached. Comdr. Evans gallantly diverted the powerful blasts of hostile guns from the lightly armed and armored carriers under his protection, launching the first torpedo attack when the Johnston came under straddling Japanese shellfire. Undaunted by damage sustained under the terrific volume of fire, he unhesitatingly joined others of his group to provide fire support during subsequent torpedo attacks against the Japanese and, outshooting and outmaneuvering the enemy as he consistently interposed his vessel between the hostile fleet units and our carriers despite the crippling loss of engine power and communications with steering aft, shifted command to the fantail, shouted steering orders through an open hatch to men turning the rudder by hand and battled furiously until the Johnston, burning and shuddering from a mortal blow, lay dead in the water after 3 hours of fierce combat. Seriously wounded early in the engagement, Comdr. Evans, by his indomitable courage and brilliant professional skill, aided materially in turning back the enemy during a critical phase of the action. His valiant fighting spirit throughout this historic battle will venture as an inspiration to all who served with him."

Aristotle's discussion of liberality is interesting. He contrasts the man who is prodigal, basically an overspender, with the man who spends money so that it will do the most good. The prodigal might seem more genial at first, and he may well be less poisonous, both to himself and to others, but it seems to me that the ultimate result will be that the prodigal man will be asking, at some point, for a hand out. I think of somebody who owns 3 expensive cars, and two pieces of property, and then asks for financial aid to cover their medical expenses because they work part-time and intermittently, as falling under the category of prodigal. They need to reform their character more than they need a bail-out.

My observation of the avaricious people that I've known is that it manages to poison their whole character. Dickens got the avaricious man right in his portrait of Scrooge. The avarice extends to their diet, so that they will harm themselves with a deficient diet to save money rather than spending an extra dollar or two for decent food.

Aristotle considers pride a virtue, whereas Christianity considers it to be one of the seven deadly sins. Aristotle, however, contrasts it with vanity, which is sometimes used instead of pride in the list of the seven deadly. The deficiency is a mock humility.

I'm not going to try to summarize Aristotle's views on justice except to note that in his view Justice summarizes or contains the other virtues.

Aristotle's discussion of friendship is interesting. I remember that in one of my high school religion classes the question of friendship among bad men, i.e., gangsters, came up. The response, which I now recognize as Aristotelian, was that true friendship could not exist if the "friends" were bad people. What exists is a friendship based on utility, which Aristotle classes as inferior to that based on the good. It would seem then that Milton's line "devil with devil damned firm concord holds" (PL II:496-7) is, as with much of Milton, simply not true.

The final section of the Ethics forms a bridge to the Politics. Political science, or legislation, is ethics on a larger scale.

Next up: The Politics. I'm going to try to post on a daily basis so that the day's reading will be fresher in my mind.