The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, translated by Sir David Ross, 3/5
It took several attempts over a span of many months for me to get through this short book, in which Aristotle addresses topics of timeless interest, such as happiness, virtue, and friendship. The difficulty of this book lies, for me, not so much in the complexity of the ideas but in the general lack of reasoning provided to support them. A few moments of profundity are obscured by mundane observations, personal opinions (unsupported by fact) and attempts to force nebulous concepts into various organizational schemes. At first, I felt frustrated and disappointed that the Nicomachean Ethics, similar to Plato’s Phaedo, did not meet my expectations. However, after reading the Wikipedia article and a helpful lecture on the topic, it became clearer to me that this book’s value is more in the framework it provides for discussion and thought than for any definitive claims it makes. To me, it represents just the beginnings of thought on a complicated topic, made more remarkable by its age and practical, community-centered perspective on morality. Though its broader themes are difficult to grasp, it does reward a casual reading with the always-fascinating insight that human nature has not changed over thousands of years, and occasional gems like this:
But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything (265).
Why I read it: C.S. Lewis referenced it in The Abolition of Man so I recognized the title while book shopping in Wales.
This dialogue presents Plato’s account of the philosophical discussions that occurred amongst Socrates and his friends on the night of the former’s death. Never having read the classical philosophers but awed by a vague awareness of their reputation, I expected the main topic of discussion—the controversial idea of the immortal soul—to be proved by the rigorous application of flawless logic, secular rationality and esoteric thinking.
This assumption caused me some problems as I read through the first 3/4 of the book and found many of the arguments it contains to be…well…unsatisfactory. Questionable assumptions were frequently made and used as the basis for further arguments. Often, issues of linguistics and philosophy seemed muddled up together, with shifting definitions leading to unconvincing conclusions. Some lines of reasoning seemed frankly circular and many explanations seemed to create more questions than they answered.
At first, I was very frustrated with myself, thinking my stupidity surpassed lack of understanding to reach actual disagreement! But as I read on, it became more and more apparent that Plato and Socrates must be famous for something other than infallible reasoning about philosophical issues. In his complex “myth of the afterlife” near the end of the dialogue, Socrates finally gives up all pretense of logic, weaving a strange and wonderful tale of rivers and regions of the earth where souls travel after bodily death.
When I finally reached the following quote, I realized that what I had expected to be a grand testament to human intellectualism was in fact something much more touching and powerful: a dying man’s hopeful affirmation of faith that death is not the end.
Now to insist that those things are just as I’ve related them would not be fitting for a man of intelligence; but that either that or something like it is true about our souls and their dwellings, given that the soul evidently is immortal, that, I think, is fitting and worth risking, for one who believes that it is so—for a noble risk it is—so one should repeat such things to oneself like a spell; which is just why I’ve so prolonged the tale (114d).
[Why I read it: my knowledge of Greek literature is lacking, so when I saw this short book encompassing two famous philosophers at the thrift store, I thought it might be a good place to start.]