18 November 2009

The concluding sections of book seven of The Nicomachean Ethics concern pleasure, and whether it is something good, bad, or it-depends. Pleasure is also the subject of book ten.

These sections also appear in The Eudemean Ethics, which seems to be considered a less-mature treatment of the subject by Aristotle. For this reason, some of our panel of translators and commentators omit them in favor of book ten (Browne, Gillies, Lewes, Vincent), include them as an appendix (Chase), or include them but label them “superfluous” (Grant); others are content to include them on equal footing with the rest of The Nicomachean Ethics.

I think what I’ll do is go through these sections through to the end of book seven, then skip ahead to book ten before circling back and finishing off with books eight and nine (both of which concern friendship).

But first, a quick review of what Aristotle has already said about pleasure and pain:

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics


After the March on the Pentagon — that madcap combination of somber protest and bizarre street theater (the Yippies announced their intention to surround the building and induce it to levitate) — Norman Mailer wrote a book about himself to commemorate the occasion: The Armies of the Night.

In that book is a brief mention of the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” that was brewing, in which more than 500 signatories vowed to illegally resist the 10% surtax the federal government was enacting to fund the Vietnam War:

The program for the day was presented in a leaflet which Mailer had brought with him to Washington. In a typical anxiety at his essential lack of orientation to the protean forms of these protests he had put a folder of mailings, leaflets, programs, reprints, and associated letters for money in his attaché case — each morning he whipped through the folder selecting what seemed appropriate for the occasion. Even a protest against the 10 percent increase in income tax had gotten into this — Mailer had to put it aside each morning. Since he had taken the oath not to pay the 10 percent increase in the event it was passed (for the increase had been announced as a surtax to meet the costs of the war in Vietnam) he anticipated with no particular joy that the Department of Internal Revenue would examine his returns in the years ahead with no ordinary tolerance. (In fact he fully expected his financial tidbits to be fried.) Stating this supposition with his own variety of gallows humor had been the most direct pleasure in a letter he had written to James Baldwin, Bruce Jay Friedman, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Jack Richardson, James Jones, Gore Vidal, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, Lillian Ross, Vance Bourjaily, Mary McCarthy, and Jules Feiffer, asking them to join this protest.

Actually, he had hated the thought of signing the protest, he had piped up every variety of the extraordinarily sound argument that his work was the real answer to Vietnam, and these mass demonstrations, sideshows, and bloody income tax protests just took energy and money away from the real thing — getting the work out. But for such an argument to succeed, it was necessary to have work which absorbed all one’s effort, and a sense of happy status with oneself. Mailer had had neither for the last year or two. His work had been good — there were some who thought Why Are We In Vietnam? was the best book he had ever written, but no project had seemed to cost him enough, and he had been suffering more and more in the past few years from the private conviction that he was getting a little soft, a hint curdled, perhaps an almost invisible rim of corruption was growing around the edges. His career, his legend, his idea of himself — were they stale? So he had no real alternative — he was not sufficiently virtuous to eschew the income tax protest, and had signed, and to his surprise had been repaid immediately by the abrupt departure of a measurable quantity of moral congestion, a noticeable lowering of his spiritual flatulence and a reduction in his New York fever, that ferocious inflammation which New York seemed always to encourage: envy, greed, claustrophobia, excitement, bourbon, broads, action, ego, jousts, cruelty and too-rich food in expensive hateful restaurants. Yes, signing the protest had been good for him. (He hoped he remembered in future years when the penalty might have to be paid.) But now, going through his attaché case, he could grin in the mirror, for if he had only known in September that shortly, so shortly, he was going to be an incometaxnik, he could have told Mitch Goodman where to shove his RESISTANCE. (Or was it called RESIST? — even with the pamphlets Mailer could not get the names right, there were so many and they changed so rapidly.) “Yes, Mitch,” he could have said, “I think your RESISTANCE is first rate! first rate! but I’m putting my energy these days into the income tax drive. You have your going-to-jail bag — now I have mine.” Of course, on the other hand, if he had only joined RESIST? RESISTANCE? with a little good grace he could have told the tax protest people.…

This was vast humor perhaps to no one else, but in the middle of his hangover, Mailer was still remotely delighted by the mock dialogue of all this: yessir, boss, we’se gonna get in all the jail bags before day is done.

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