Ethics With Aristotle

2009.09.37
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His secular thinking, and interest in reason and logic, were the reasons why the scholastics originally loved him so much. Aristotle became the philosophical underwriter for all kinds of moral conservatism.

Aristotle, Ethics and the ‘Art’ of Leadership

This is something which would have absolutely appalled him. There are many who see Aristotle as providing a promise of balance in the sorts of debates we conduct in the secular age of the 21st century. Among the first to start doing trying to making him conform to dogmatic Christianity was Tertullian, one of the early Christian Fathers. They said that Aristotle had, in fact, accepted faith and that he committed suicide—which he never would have done: he disapproved strongly of suicide.

1. Preliminaries

They said he committed suicide because he could not understand the tides of the Euripus. This is a strait between mainland Greece and the island called Euboea. Aristotle did die there. He fled Athens because he was accused, just like Socrates, of impiety. He died, probably of stomach cancer, not long after getting there, a disappointed man, at the age of sixty-two. But the early Christians had said that he had in fact thrown himself into the Euripus, which has these tides that no scientist has fully explained even today.

The Church Fathers said he had accepted as he died that there must be a deity and that the human mind could not explain everything, as he had previously maintained. But this was a Christian fiction. They desperately needed him to renounce his attitude to God. People realised that it posed a problem to religion that this great brain had lived and died, but had been absolutely clear all along that: a there was no interventionist deity; and b there was no afterlife.

It was just too much. This is a long, highly engaged critical reading.

Philosophy in Practice

Could you give us a flavour of this Aristotle book? Is it quite an academic book?

2. The Human Good and the Function Argument

"An ideal balance: philosophical substance and scholarly apparatus for advanced undergraduates; comprehensive plan (and Aristotle!) for introductory level. Sarah Broadie. This book turns a philosophical lens on to the main themes of Aristotle's Ethics, offering detailed discussions of happiness as an end, virtue, character development, voluntary agency, prohairesis (rational choice), practical wisdom, incontinence, pleasure, and the.

It is. I think it would be much better to read through some of the historical background to Aristotle first. But it is exceptionally lucid.

Nicomachean Ethics - Book 1 - Summary

It is very solid—over four hundred pages long. She quarrels with Aristotle every inch of the way, which means that, by the end of it, whether you agree with her or with Aristotle, you have been on an Aristotelian journey. Relative to other philosophers, Broadie writes beautifully short sentences which Aristotle recommends in his Rhetoric. The recension of his texts from antiquity is another whole story.

He realised how important they were. He managed to get them back to Rome. We are told this by several authors including an ancient geographer called Strabo who much loved Aristotle. Plato was carefully copied out from day one and was preserved beautifully in the manuscript tradition of Byzantium. Do you think this is because of the different styles of their writing? Exactly, in what survives. It is so sad that they have not survived for us to read.

Aristotle’s Ethics

This does not apply to what has survived, which is mostly advanced writing for trainee philosophers. If I need to use a neologism or new language or shorthand or specialist, technical terminology, then I will. But I would never dream of publishing prose like that for the general public.

You as a public philosopher will completely get what I mean. It will say choose the middle way or do what a virtuous person would do. Yes, absolutely. Aristotle does present some radical views, though, that do have clear practical implications. In Britain we have a legal system that is far worse than almost any in the world in terms of not calling people to account for failures to act, and this notion of wrongdoing by omission radically changed my life. We only ask that they keep their noses clean and manage not to say anything racist or sexist, rather than what they have done, or failed to do, with their power, wealth, status and influence.

I know, but he invented it.

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He watched some of the worst behaviour in the Greek world. If you have a wonderful instrument, who should end up with it? Aristotle comes across as having a much stronger meritocratic tendency, that the people who make the best use of something should get it, not the people who necessarily have the most money. Everything has potential. Even bits of wood and stone have the potential to become statues or parts of a temple. But in the case of the human being, fulfilling your full physical, intellectual, and creative potential and doing that as an activity all the time, not just getting to that state and stopping, is inseparable from eudaimonia.

In a sense, you and I are in a state of eudaimonia right now because we are doing what we enjoy most and have therefore become reasonably good at—talking about ideas. But there is a downside to that. There are many other things that you could have done. I had a socialist-Aristotelian mentor, an admirable woman called Margot Heinemann, a professor of English. I was really at a loss in my mid-twenties. I said: well, how do I do that?

I was lucky because I had someone who was capable of good mentoring and cared. She did that for me and I think we should be doing that for all our young. My second chapter is all about dynamis.

But the real dynamite is in every human on the planet. Yes, here we move seamlessly from the Ethics to the Politics.

Richard Kraut has written several books about Aristotle and Plato. He told me to stop worrying about not being a recognised philosopher yet and just do it. I was terrified about the backlash from academic peers. The terror, judging from the reviews by academics, was completely justified.

  1. Further Reading.
  2. Introductions!
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Support Five Books. Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount. Richard Kraut has written several excellent books. I could have chosen his Aristotle on the Human Good but my favourite of all his books is Aristotle: Political Philosophy Kraut is personally committed to public engagement, so he writes with unusual clarity. He says that he wants to write for newcomers to Aristotle. Aristotle was more pro-democracy. This is where Kraut comes in. He lived far more of his adult life in Athens, in the democracy, than anywhere else, even though he was only a resident alien.

He could never even have the full citizen rights. People talk about this as though he had a range or alternatives.

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People who did not do what they were told by Philip of Macedon—the dreadful one-eyed tyrant and autocrat—were killed. Poisonings and feuds were the stuff of everyday life in Pella. He is very relevant right now. I just love this Aristotle book. He discovered early on in his career, as anyone who studies zoology must, that Aristotle is the founding father of zoology. His two great treatises On the Reproduction of Animals and the History of Animals are a great place to start reading Aristotle because they are written in easy, flowing prose.

I often recommend them as a good way in to Aristotle for young people. Leroi decided to examine these works of Aristotle in detail. Aristotle often mentions specific places where he has seen creatures—in particular, the island of Lesbos. We know that he spent about 18 months there at a crucial point in his career when he was about 40, with Theophrastus, who was his successor as head of the Lyceum.

Leroi visited Lesbos. Aristotle was remarkable: he seems even to have invented the spreadsheet, to be able to compile dozens and dozens of parallel cases, collate them, and then infer the general scientific principles from them. So, this book is a love song to Aristotle by a scientist who writes far better prose than most humanities scholars.

Leroi also shows, often, how those ideas cannot be separated from the ethics. The physical pleasures that all animals enjoy are not goals in themselves for us. They are not intrinsic goods, but they are guides to the good. Because, unlike pigs or deer or molluscs, or whatever, we have the capacity to have a reflective interaction with somebody we respect beyond the physical interaction?

He says that delicious food is important because delicious food is usually healthier and better for you and will result in your body being in better condition which is conducive to thinking better and more seriously. So, the science is crucial for Aristotle. I would suggest that the complete beginner just goes and reads the History of Animals.

He collected a vast library, but he also collaborated with other thinkers. At the Lyceum they rotated leadership roles, as proper colleges and universities once used to: the intellectuals when I began my academic career still rotated the deanship rather than importing business managers and accountants to come in and tell us how to do our job. What would you say is his continuing importance?