Friday, April 30, 2010

Book 14 of 15: Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

I'd forgotten that this was just an introduction to the Politics.

Okay, I take back the "just". :) I was really glad to read this again. I think this should probably be an every-ten-years book for me. I read it in my late teens, and now I've read it in my late twenties. Hopefully I'll be up for it again before I turn forty.

Aristotle's question in the Ethics is "what is the blessedly happy man like?" He asks what happiness is and what virtue is, and follows every objection and question with line after line of distinctions and qualifications and definitions.

I'll admit to much of this being over my head; I'm no scholar of Greek nor a philosopher proper. But I do think that a reading of the Ethics will reward anyone who attempts it just because the questions Aristotle asks are worth asking.

I was once again struck by the similarities between the Ethics and the Biblical book of Proverbs; both are concerned with virtue and wisdom and the good life. I appreciated again Aristotle's careful explanation that the happy man is the virtuous man, that it is our habits that form us into the people we are, that give us the capacity to appreciate beauty or to contemplate truth.

I could see this time why St. Thomas Aquinas was so tempted to apply Aristotle to Christian theology. Aristotle goes absolutely as far as you can in discerning the purpose of man - as far as you can go without divine revelation (and I think you could agree to that statement whether or not you think divine revelation was eventually given). His thought is a tempting foundation that just begs to be built on. His thought is so clear and so far-reaching in its scope.

When I got, towards the end, to his discussion of friendship, I couldn't help but think of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity - that God exists eternally in three Persons, in a unity of being. Because Aristotle addresses the argument that the truly blessed man would not need friends (being self-sufficient due to his complete virtue) and disagrees. He says that since true friendship is based on similarity (similar levels of goodness) and also since true pleasure comes out of action (knowledge must be not just understood, but embodied), the blessed man wants friends because then he can see virtue like his own in action. And I thought, huh, I wonder if that's what being a part of the Trinity is like? Is that part of the glory of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their eternal communion? That they - God in Himself - can see His own goodness in action?

Hopefully that's not a heretical thought. But it made sense to me while I was reading that part of Aristotle.

There's a lot more I wish I could write about this - I was underlining and starring and making notes in the margins all over the place!

There was stuff that applied to my personal life - like Aristotle's observation that we only try to do two things at once when they're two things that aren't much worth doing - like eating nuts at the theatre only when the actors are bad. :) It reminded me of the times when I watch a mediocre TV show while browsing on the Internet. Some parts of human nature don't change.

There was also stuff that I thought applied to our culture. I thought this paragraph might explain some of the ways that evangelical Christian culture has gone wrong in the past:

Now presumably some who say [pleasure] is base say so because they are persuaded it is so. Others, however, say it because they think it is better for the conduct of our lives to present pleasure as base even if it is not. For, they say, since the many lean towards pleasure and are slaves to pleasures, we must lead them in the contrary direction, because that is the way to reach the intermediate condition.*

But, of course, the Ethics is not about my personal life or my culture, and I don't want to make it less than it is by limiting it to specific applications. It can be used that way, and I think anyone reading it is going to have similar insights - moments when you say, "of course! that's just what life is like!" - because no one ever stated the obvious as clearly - or as early - as Aristotle. But it is a great work, and I almost wish I had the ability to appreciate it for all it is worth.

But not quite. In the end, I'm not sure that Aristotle is right about the chief happiness of human life being study. I am going to say, rather, that it is love, in the form of worshiping the One who is love. (Though I think you can get there through study. But, alas, I am not convinced enough that I am going to teach myself ancient Greek.)

However, that gets back to the problem of specific divine revelation, and I am now out of my text (to quote another great author).

Anyway . . . Aristotle. Worth reading, even hundreds of years later (yes, I know, I'm sure he's so relieved to hear me say so). I know I didn't get everything I could out of this, but I'm grateful for what I did get. I feel like Aristotle loaned me his clear thinking for the couple of days I was reading him, and my mind feels like it had a spring cleaning. There are worse ways to spend a day than thinking in the steps of "the master of those who know".

More on the 15/15 project here.

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

*For Aristotle, the intermediate condition is always going to be the correct one, virtue being found between opposite errors.

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