Friday, December 7, 2012

Nicomachean Ethics (Pt. 2)

[Series introduction and table of contents here.]

Book I, Chapter 4

In my comments on Chapter 2, I described Aristotle's "grand goal" as the political art. That wasn't quite right. What he was saying back then and reiterates here in Chapter 4 is that the highest of goods is the same as whatever the political art's goal is. He sees politics as the most encompassing activity in human life, so its goal would be the most encompassing goal. And what is the goal of the political art? Happiness.

All human activities are subordinate to politics and politics is aimed at happiness. Got it. Aristotle doesn't feel the need to argue for the answer of "happiness" because he takes it as universally accepted by both "the many" and "the refined." (Yes, he's just a tad elitist.) He does note that "the many" give a variety of explanations for what constitutes happiness, e.g. health, wealth, pleasure, etc.
"Certain others, in addition, used to suppose that the good is something else, by itself, apart from these many good things, which is also the cause of their all being good."
"Certain others" being Plato and friends, obviously. It's interesting how Aristotle puts some distance between himself and this view. Before he elaborates, however, he goes off on another tangent about arguing from principles vs. arguing to principles. Why does he do this? I think it's because he wants to excuse himself from starting with Plato's principles. He actually names Plato as someone who understood these two different directions of argument. He's tip-toeing around his audience's reverence for his own former teacher. Aristotle is firmly on the side of arguing to principles, which might sound bad until you realize he's trying to be more of a scientist than an ideologue; he wants to use induction to discover what the true principles are from "things known to us" rather than "things known simply."
"Perhaps it is necessary for us, at least, to begin from the things known to us."
See, he's not being arrogant by going his own way from Plato. He's being extra humble.

Book I, Chapter 5

There are three "especially prominent" ways of life:

The life of enjoyment. This is what "the many" choose to pursue, though some rulers do as well. Aristotle calls this "the life of fattened cattle." These people think happiness and pleasure are the same.

The political life. The "refined and active" live the political life by pursuing honor...or maybe virtue. Aristotle considers the possibility that honor is more of a reaction people have when they encounter a person with virtue, which would make virtue the primary goal. He's not quite happy with this result, however, since there are many cases where the exercise of virtue and happiness seem at odds.
"For it seems to be possible for someone to possess virtue even while asleep or while being inactive throughout life and, in addition to these, while suffering badly and undergoing the greatest misfortune. But no one would deem happy somebody living in this way, unless he were defending a thesis."
Funny! But I have to wonder if Aristotle is being overly dismissive of the possibility of being fulfilled and happy despite great suffering, because a person is so overwhelmingly interested in what they're accomplishing.

The contemplative life. A footnote here says that Aristotle doesn't get around to explaining the contemplative life until Book X, Chapters 6-8. I've already seen how easily distracted he is, but this has to be some kind of record! Is "sophistication" a Greek word meaning "disorganized"?

Book I, Chapter 6

Aristotle argues that good can't be a Platonic form (see the "Certain others..." block quote above) because, roughly:
  • For something to have a Platonic form, its expressions must pertain to a "common idea."
  • Good can pertain to both what something is and its relations to other things.
  • What something is is an essential property.
  • How something relates to other things is an accidental property.
  • A common idea can't be both essential and accidental.
  • Therefore good can't be a Platonic form.
He goes on to list other difficulties in understanding good as a single idea. But then he admits that maybe we can divide instances of good into "things good in themselves" and things that "are advantageous" so we can consider whether the multiplicities of good might only be a problem for the latter category (what philosophers today call "instrumental good"). Perhaps there is a single idea common to all things good in themselves. For example, what if the idea of good itself is the only thing that is good in itself? Aristotle calls this "pointless."

In order to avoid pointlessness, it must be the case that all instances of things that are good in themselves outwardly manifest good in a common way, "just as the definition of whiteness is the same in the case of snow and in that of white lead." Aristotle believes that "honor, prudence, and pleasure" are good in themselves because people pursue these things for their own sake (even if they also pursue them in an instrumental sense). He doesn't see how the good of honor and the good of pleasure, for example, manifest in a common way, so good can't be a Platonic form even if we set aside instrumental goodness.

Now Aristotle has a problem. Why the heck do we call all of these disparate things "good" if they don't share a common idea?
"For they are not like things that share the same name by chance. Is it by dint of their stemming from one thing or because they all contribute to one thing? Or is it more that they are such by analogy?"
He doesn't have a ready answer. Instead, he points back at the Platonists and accuses them of having problems explaining how totally abstract forms and concrete human action interact with each other. Reminds me of physicalists in philosophy of mind who defend themselves by pointing out issues with Cartesian dualism.

I wonder what Aristotle would have made of Paul Ziff's book, Semantic Analysis. It seems to me that Ziff answered the question by discovering that things are never good in themselves and it's the other category that can fold neatly into a single idea.

Quotes from: Bartlett, R.C. & Collins, S.D. (2011). Aristotle's nicomachean ethics: A new translation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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