Reading Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics”

I’ve started reading The Nicomachean Ethics, which is based on lecture notes from Aristotle that were assembled by his son (then translated to English by, in this case, David Ross).

I’ve decided to do this review a little differently: I’ll share my impressions as I read along. The book is divided into short sections of a paragraph or a few paragraphs each, advancing some particular argument or definition, so this lends itself well to stopping and taking a breath and trying to absorb from time-to-time.

Of course, this means that I’ll probably be jumping the gun and speculating about things Aristotle will deal with in due time, or that I’ll be spouting off stupidly about something confusing that will get better explained further on. That and I’m pretty ignorant about Greek philosophy. So be it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Life hits us all a bit by surprise, and though it gives us some leeway — some discretion and opportunity to play our hand in different ways — it doesn’t give us much of a hint on what stakes we’re playing for. There’s no instruction manual, no “boss room” with a magnetic pull drawing you inevitably in over the course of your quest.

You have to decide for yourself what you’re going to do, or perhaps discover somehow what ends are worth aiming for. But what if there were an instruction manual — it just hadn’t been written yet? That’s how I imagine what’s in The Nicomachean Ethics — Aristotle’s attempt to discern and articulate the user’s guide to life.

It’s remarkable to me how many attempts to do this sort of project end up resorting to some sort of myth in order to provide a foundation for the Ultimate Ends advanced by their authors. The myth of a final judgment, Nietzsche’s myth of eternal recurrence, the myth of reincarnation, that sort of thing — they’re all designed to provide the ultimate “why” to support the ultimate aim of man.

I went in for the existentialists for a while because they seemed to be up to the task of conceding that purpose can’t be found in made-up stories like these, but begins and ends with humble creatures like us, and that there is no higher court to appeal to, and yet, acknowledging this, they continued soldiering on to try to develop an ethics compatible with this.

I’m interested to see what Aristotle comes up with.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics