“Nicomachean Ethics” by Aristotle

The Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle vs. Plato

Having just finished and enjoyed Plato’s complete works, I find this book a bit annoying and uninspiring in comparison. Aristotle seems to take every opportunity to “correct” Plato, when in fact he is only attacking a strawman. His arguments, sometimes self-contradictory, often support and clarify Plato’s ideas, albeit using his own terminology.

Aristotle seems to have great difficulty appreciating or understanding Plato’s abstractions (from species to genus, from the individual instances to the common patterns, i.e. Idea or Form). This is the cause of the majority of his attacks against Plato, as “piety requires us to honour truth above our friends.” How very noble of him!

I don’t know whether the Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum charged their students fees. If not, there were no financial incentives in disparaging their rival. If it was purely intellectual rivalry, using straw man is often a sign of an inferior intellect or character. Since both Plato and Aristotle believed that the intellect was the best part of man or the true man, to attack and destroy another’s ideas would be equivalent to murder (or Freudian parricide).

It is possible that Aristotle was developing his own philosophy by engaging Plato’s ideas, and intellectual competitions and debates facilitate such development. Since this is the first book by Aristotle that I’ve read, it’s very likely that I’m not giving him his due here. It may take some time to switch from Plato to Aristotle’s way of thinking.

A Champion of Mediocrity

Aristotle’s definitions of good, virtue and happiness are unsatisfactory to me. Good is “that at which all things aim”. All people aim at happiness (or pleasure), therefore happiness is the supreme good. But, what exactly is happiness or pleasure? How can one hit his aim if he can’t discern what he is aiming at?

He defines virtue as “the mean between deficiency and excess”. Without a clear definition of “mean”, his “virtue” is meaningless, and yet he doesn’t say what constitutes “mean”, whether or how it is different from mediocrity. One can think of mean in numerical or physical terms, e.g., an intermediate value among a group of values, a point in the middle of a line, or a colour in a spectrum. The mean is not qualitatively different from the others in the same group. What makes it a virtue?

“Pleasure perfects activity not as the formed state that issues in that activity perfects it, by being immanent in it, but as a sort of supervening [culminating] perfection, like the bloom that graces the flower of youth.” How can a fleeting thing that lacks permanence be the object of a lifelong pursuit?

In the end, Aristotle agrees with Plato, perhaps begrudgingly as it was dictated by reason, that happiness is contemplation of the divine, which is pleasant, self-sufficient and continuous. He insists on making a distinction between activity and state, but in this instance the distinction is unclear to me.

An Acute Observer of Human Nature

There are a few things I do appreciate in this book. Aristotle’s joie de vivre (his delight in learning, being alive and active), his insights into human nature, his clear and penetrating psychological portrayal of various character traits and the dynamic relationships between human beings. He also introduced me to Pythagorean’s fascinating mathematical representation of equality, A:B = B:C and A-M = M -C.

Philosophy of Science

It’s not surprising that Aristotle denies there are common patterns among the many sciences that, if understood, would benefit the study of the individual science.

“Even if there is some one good which is universally predicable of goods or is capable of separate and independent existence, clearly it could not be achieved or attained by man; but we are now seeking something attainable. Perhaps, however, some one might think it worth while to recognize this with a view to the goods that are attainable and achievable; for having this as a sort of pattern we shall know better the goods that are good for us, and if we know them shall attain them. This argument has some plausibility, but seems to clash with the procedure of the sciences;”

The history of scientific discovery has proven Aristotle wrong. Many important breakthroughs in science are made when scientists apply principles of one discipline to another. For instance, a physicist’s insights inspired a breakthrough in molecular biology and the discovery of the structure of DNA.

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