One Small Voice

The Journal of Peter Saint-Andre

Aristotle Research Report #6: A Second Look at the Eudemian Ethics


Aristotle wrote two treatises on ethics, which have come down to us as the Nicomachean Ethics or NE (in ten books) and the Eudemian Ethics or EE (in eight books). Confusingly, for reasons lost in the mists of time three of the books appear in both treatises (NE 5-7 = EE 4-6). Although until the commentary of Aspasius in the second century AD the EE was apparently considered to be the definitive statement of Aristotle's views, since then the NE has taken priority (so much so that many scholarly treatments of Aristotelian ethics completely ignore the EE). Yet detailed stylometric and textual analyses conducted by Anthony Kenny from the 1960s to the 1990s indicate that the three "common books" go with the EE, not the NE. It also seems likely (though so far not yet proven) that the EE was written after the NE, during the last eight years of Aristotle's life.

If that's true, there are significant implications for Aristotelian interpretation. Although the differences between the NE and EE are not wide-ranging, on the question of the τέλος or goal of human living the differences are fairly stark: in book ten of the NE Aristotle argues that the highest goal is life of philosophical contemplation (which sounds rather Platonic), whereas in book eight of the EE he argues that the highest goal is a more balanced existence that includes family, friendships, social engagement, and excellence of character as well as theoretical inquiry.

This topic interests me along several dimensions, from the statistical analysis of Aristotle's works to the philosophical conclusions he settled on. I'm not sure I'll fully explore these matters while writing Complete Yourself, but I'm thinking about delving into them deeply later in life. I might even attempt to translate the Eudemian Ethics, since the NE has been translated plenty of times, most ably by Joe Sachs (yet even he missed some opportunities to get as close to the pagan Greek original as possible). This would be a big mountain to climb, but it's good to have high ambitions. :-)


Investing in Life


Recently I got to talking with my friend Dave Jilk about happiness, flourishing, and my future book The Art of Living. While relating my ideas about the goals of life (as captured in a recent blog post), I described the importance of taking a balanced approach and including all or most of these goals in one's life pursuits. He likened this to portfolio management in investing, which is a great analogy. This spurred me to thinking further about the value that each area of life brings to one's overall success in life. Consider a few somewhat fanciful extensions of this analogy:

As I mentioned a few years ago, the approach to financial investing I have adopted (the Permanent Portfolio) involve equal weighting of four asset classes: cash, stocks, long-term bonds, and gold. Supposedly, the ultra-rich (who often think of maintaining wealth across generations) typically invest in real estate, gold, and art. Putting these together yields six asset classes, similar to those I'm exploring for investing in life. Although these analogies might be merely suggestive, I find them intriguing nonetheless.




Impasses along the path toward the goals of life can occur in three dimensions:

  1. From beginning to end: immaturity, getting stuck on earlier phases of life, inability to let go of upbringing issues, unrealistic / fantastical goals for the future, living too much in the past or the future, inability to translate goals into specific plans and practices.
  2. From below to above: materialism, consumerism, hedonism, over focus on preconditions for eudaimonia like health and wealth, guilt over natural needs and drives, (less commonly) otherworldliness.
  3. From without to within: envy and anger and resentment, over concern with how others perceive you (reputation, desire for fame), over acceptance of external standards, submerging your identity in a movement or ideology, self-absorption, lack of friendships, inability to form healthy relationships, lack of self-knowledge.

Along all three dimensions a healthy balance is needed and enables a truly human kind of flourishing.


Goals of Life


There are many ways to categorize and divide up the various areas and activities of life. Here is a six-fold scheme I'm exploring:

  1. Health, diet, exercise, etc., focused on the goal of vitality
  2. Family, friendship, marriage, belonging, etc., focused on the goal of love
  3. Work, creating value, finance, security, etc., focused on the goal of achievement
  4. Creativity, art, appreciation, nature, etc., focused on the goal of beauty
  5. Inquiry, learning, understanding, spirituality, etc., focused on the goal of wisdom
  6. Self discipline, self mastery, self improvement, etc., focused on the goal of character

In this scheme, life consists of striving for vitality, love, achievement, beauty, wisdom, character. I understand all of these as stable states or ongoing activities, i.e., as ends in themselves. In turn, these goals are fulfilled through projects, relationships, and experiences. The hardest part, as always, is implementation: translating your goals into actionable plans and sustainable practices. Philosophy as a way of life is, then, a matter of making sense of life and guiding your plans and practices by that understanding. (Note: many people make a mess of at least one area of life!)

This is the merest sketch, and will need to be refined and revised based on evidence from psychology, philosophy, happiness studies, etc.


Understanding Others


In my recent philosophy talk, I mentioned that thinking philosophically has helped me better understand people. This might seem counterintuitive - after all, don't big thinkers believe they have all the answers? Yes, I used to have that kind of arrogance, too. Yet over time I started to wonder: why do people have so many different opinions about things? Why have these various philosophies of life persisted for so long (Stoicism, Platonism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc.)? Why do I think what I think? Is it really in my control? At some level can you really "blame" people for the contents of their minds?

And then I started to put myself in the other person's shoes: to them, I'm the crazy one! This opened my mind to trying to understand other people. How does the world look to them? What ideas and premises motivate their statements and actions? What evidence is there for those ideas or what experiences could lead them to believe those things? The more I do this, the more I realize that usually there is evidence and experience behind other people's beliefs. I don't always agree with those beliefs, but at least I can see that there's something valid there. For instance, take the beliefs of someone who is deeply skeptical about business. Well, even arch-capitalist Ayn Rand recognized the reality of the mixed economy. So often, big businesses use big government as a weapon against smaller companies. They use their money and power to intimidate competitors, stifle criticism, curry favor with politicians and regulators, send their lawyers after companies who hire away their employees or develop similar products, etc. Not all companies do this, of course, but it's common enough that skepticism about business isn't without foundation in reality.

Sure, many people take things too far, form an ideology around one insight, don't see other sides to the argument, etc. But that doesn't invalidate the core insight that might drive such a belief in the first place. Thinking this way has made me much more tolerant and understanding of other people, not just on the big questions of philosophy and ideology but on smaller issues of the kind that arise every day in organizations and communities.


Philosophy Video


Video of my talk on philosophy as a foundation for success is now available, in two parts: the talk itself and the question-and-answer session. Thanks to Prof. Mitzi Lee for making the recording and posting it to YouTube!

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