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Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics V.1-11


There's something unsatisfying, almost clinical, about Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics (which also happens to be Book IV of the Eudemian Ethics - more on that some other time). Whereas in Books II through IV his exploration of various character traits repeatedly emphasized the importance of action and feeling for the sake of what's beautifully right, that quasi-aesthetic perspective gives way here to dry discussions of proportionality, reciprocity, compensation, and the like. To me this indicates the severe limitations of justice as a virtue, not its centrality to ethics and the good life.

In V.1, Aristotle begins by observing that, in one sense, justice is complete virtue: for justice is doing what the law enjoins, and the law disallows the most extreme vices (cowardice in the form of military desertion, immoderation in the form of adultery, anger in the form of assault, etc.). Yet in practice this isn't all that helpful, because few of us go so far astray that we do what's repulsively wrong; it's in the great middle ground where we need more specific guidance to identify and enact what's beautifully right - yet here the law is silent.

Eventually, in V.10, Aristotle points in a more beautiful direction: yes, justice is good, but even better is ἐπιείκεια, which I would translate as humaneness. Because the law needs to keep things simple and can't cover all situations, it addresses only what is true universally or for the most part; but as Aristotle has said repeatedly, the truest judgment always resides in the particulars. Humaneness sets things straight [ἐπανόρθωμα] and speaks correctly [ὀρθῶς], making what is ill-defined under the law well-defined in action; thus it is more just than justice, as it were - it is the best form of justice, because it honors not the letter but the spirit of the law.

Stepping back from the often-boring details of Book V, as I've done here, enables us to see the dialectical trajectory that Aristotle takes in the Nicomachean Ethics. Looking backward, in IV.7 Aristotle had remarked that certain people are truthful in their words and deeds even when there's no advantage to be gained, since they act that way from an acquired character trait and take inherent pleasure in doing what's beautifully right (just as deceitful people take a perverse pleasure in lying, cf. NE 1127b16). And, as noted last time, in IV.8 he had said that "a free and gracious person will conduct his life this way, since he is like a law unto himself". The ethical person who takes life seriously doesn't consider mere legislation to be the ultimate guidance, but instead follows a higher law.

Looking forward, Aristotle's brief consideration of humaneness will lead in two separate but complementary directions. First, in Book VI he will delve deeply into deliberation, practical wisdom, and what makes for a correct account [ὀρθός λόγος] of our actions and feelings. Then, in Books VII and VIII he will thoroughly explore the even more complete humaneness present within love-and-friendship [φιλία] in all its forms. Glancing even further ahead, by the end of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle will weave these two strands of wisdom and love back together when he shows that the love of wisdom (i.e., φιλο-σοφία) is absolutely essential to human fulfillment.

Having briefly previewed the rest of our walk through the Nicomachean Ethics, next time we'll pick up with Book VI on the so-called "intellectual virtues", with a special focus on practical wisdom.

(Cross-posted at


Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics IV.5-9


Following the intellectual drama of Aristotle's chapter on greatness of soul, the rest of Book IV covers gentleness (of which the contraries are an angry or docile disposition) and a few social excellences like benevolence, modesty, and wit. It might not be coincidental that all of these act as counterweights to the haughty arrogance we just witnessed in the great-souled man.

The discussion of gentleness and anger (IV.5) has several interesting wrinkles. For one, Aristotle observes that the gentle-minded person is undisturbed (atarachos) and not led by passions, using the same root word that Epicurus will later emphasize in his ethics of ataraxia. Here Aristotle also graphically illustrates the many ways that a person can go astray emotionally: the irritable person gets angry quickly and at the wrong kinds of people, but just as quickly cools off; the hot-head is sharp-tempered toward everyone; the bitter person doesn't let go of angry feelings; the harsh person gets angry for the wrong reasons; and so forth.

The social excellences that Aristotle considers in IV.6-8 are traditionally thought of as minor virtues, yet they set the stage for his exploration of justice in Book V and friendship/love (philia) in Books VII and VIII. All of them lend authenticity/truth (aletheia), decency/humaneness (epikeia), and grace/civility (charis) to social relations, living harmoniously, and sharing words and deeds with the other people in our daily life and community. They are not matters for legislation, but "a free and gracious person will conduct his life this way, since he is like a law unto himself" (NE 1128a31-32). Especially as he grows older, this kind of decent person won't experience feelings of shame because he won't engage in shameful acts in the first place - instead, in all the many and various situations of life he will deviate as little as possible from what is admirably appropriate and beautifully right.

At this point, having sketched out a number of character traits outside the traditional "big four" of ancient Greek culture, Aristotle will devote the entirety of Book V to an examination of justice. That's a large topic, so I'll probably split it into several different posts.

(Cross-posted at


Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics IV.3-4


As hinted last time, Book IV, Chapter 3 of the Nicomachean Ethics has its oddities. Aristotle's discussion of greatness of soul (traditionally translated as "pride") has, I suspect, turned many people away from the valuable insights to be found throughout his writings because his "great-souled man" comes across as a haughty, arrogant prig that few of us would want as a friend.

What's going on here? Based on my reading of the scholarly literature, I see a few possibilities...

In Chapter 2, Aristotle talked about a virtue (magnificence or μεγαλοπρεπεία) that applies only to exceptionally wealthy people, so it might make sense that he would then talk about a virtue (greatness of soul or μεγαλοψυχία) that applies only to exceptionally powerful or high-status people. The "μεγα" in both words means "big", and only the "big man" has the wealth or status to demonstrate these excellences. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that Aristotle included magnificence and greatness of soul as a sop to the Macedonian kings and princes and generals he interacted with, such as King Philip, Alexander the Great, and Antipater.

That strikes me as going too far, because the great-souled man (along with the man of more moderate status described in IV.4) has some things going for him. In particular, he has a true, accurate grasp of his own worth and thus avoids both the boasting attitude of the vain person and the shrinking self-deprecation of the small-souled person.

In his brilliant book Revaluing Ethics: Aristotle's Dialectical Pedagogy, Thomas W. Smith contends that Aristotle comes not to praise μεγαλοψυχία but to bury it. As we saw in the ergon argument of NE I.7, the essence of human fulfillment is activity (ἐνέργεια) in accordance with the underlying task (ἔργον) of being human; straying from that path makes your life not flourishing but languishing, inactive, inert (ἀργόν = not-ἔργον). Yet the great-souled man is so obsessed with status / honor (τιμή) and self-sufficiency (αὐταρκεία) that he ends up being inactive in precisely this way (cf. ἀργόν at NE 1124b24).

If the "great-souled man" is not the ideal but is actually deficient in his way of life, how and why has he gone astray? The problem seems to be an excessive focus on honor; yes, τιμή is the highest of the external goods, but external goods are second-class citizens, ethically speaking: the first-class citizens are internal qualities and attainments like knowledge/understanding, wisdom, craft/skill, and character (each of these is what Aristotle calls a ἕξις or acquired trait), which find their highest application in our close, loving relationships (φιλία) with other people.

Smith argues that Aristotle's intent in the Nicomachean Ethics is to lead his audience of aristocratic Greek men away from their unreflective attachment to traditional virtues like manliness/courage, love of honor, and greatness of soul, instead leading them toward a more examined life. Observe how Aristotle says that the great-souled man is "not much given to wonder, for nothing is great (μεγα) to him" (NE 1125a2-3); but the love and practice of wisdom (i.e., philosophy) begins in wonder, especially wonder about the highest, grandest, most beautiful aspects of existence: personal relationships, human societies, artistic creation, aesthetic experience, scientific investigation, contemplation of the divine, and the like.

So which is it? Is greatness of soul the crown/adornment (κόσμος) of the virtues, or an ultimately inert dead end that prevents us from finding fulfillment in life? Only by walking further along with the path with Aristotle will we get closer to the answer...

(Cross-posted at


Iambic Observations


If I do decide to write an epic poem about Pyrrho and Alexander the Great, I would do so in blank verse, i.e., in unrhymed iambic pentameter. Toward that end, recently I found myself re-reading All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification by Timothy Steele, one of my favorite living poets. This is an extremely helpful book for anyone who wants to write - or gain a greater appreciation for - metrical poetry in English, from Chaucer to the present day. Here are some of the lessons I learned this time around...

One of the challenges with iambic pentameter is avoiding a sing-song effect (da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM, endlessly repeated); this is especially important in long poems, where such sameness becomes cloying after a while. There are a number of ways to avoid this problem: substituting trochaic for iambic feet here and there (most commonly in the first foot of the line, but sometimes in the second, third, or fourth foot, e.g., if there is a grammatical transition at that juncture); occasionally using the so-called feminine ending, where instead of having ten syllables the line tacks on a weak eleventh syllable; artfully including lines of iambic hexameter here and there (e.g., as the third line of a triplet); breaking grammatical units across line endings ("enjambment") so that not every line ending also finishes off a sentence or a clause; relatedly, varying the length of sentences and clauses; and so on.

Contrariwise, using enjambment too often can cause the reader or listener to lose track of the overriding rhythm of the verse, so that the poem starts to sound like prose. This is less of a danger in poems that feature end-rhyme - which comprise about 98% of metrical poetry in English - but can loom large in long stretches of blank verse; for instance, this is not infrequently my experience when reading Milton's Paradise Lost - something noted long ago, apparently, by Samuel Johnson. One mitigation I'm considering is ending every small section of 10-20 lines with a rhyming couplet, as well as not overdoing the use of enjambment.

Intelligent use of varying word lengths can add rhythmic interest: monosyllabic words are typically read more slowly and deliberately, whereas polysyllabic words flow along more quickly. On this point, consider these successive lines that Steele adduces from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "Absent thee from felicity awhile / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain."

Although intuitively we might expect that rhymed verse would be more bombastic because the poet needs to continually chime those line endings, Steele observes that, if not handled skillfully, it's blank verse that tends toward "rhetorical excess"; prime causes are the frequent use of enjambment and syntactically complex sentences that flow across multiple lines. I suspect that additional factors might include the subject matter (much blank verse is found in epic poetry) and historical precedent (few poets are more high-flown than the likes of Homer, Virgil, and Dante).

If I get serious about composing a "Pyrrhiad", these are definitely considerations I'll keep in mind.

(Cross-posted at




For some time now I've toyed with the idea of writing a novel (provisionally entitled Gods Among Men) about Alexander the Great and the founder of philosophical skepticism, Pyrrho. Having recently re-read both the Iliad and the Odyssey, I'm wondering if I could structure the story as an epic poem, almost as if it were translated from the work of an ancient Greek poet deeply influenced by Homer. Here's a draft of the standard invocation of the muse to start things off:

Sing me, muse, of two men who lived as gods.
So many were the lands through which they passed,
So many were the minds from which they learned
While, by the one man seeking to rule all
And by the other reaching out to know,
They travelled far from Greece to India.
First Alexander, King of Makedōn,
Whose fame will last as long as men shall live:
Just as a huge wave crashes on the shore
And smashes all before it when the earth
Afar is shaken by Poseidon's rage,
So Alexander broke upon the East,
Forever changing all within his wake.
Then second, sing me, too, of one who lived
Unknown, yet rivalled Zeus for happiness:
Although he conquered nothing in his path,
His path led him to conquering within,
To mastery of no one but himself;
For wisdom brought him deep serenity.
From Elis, the Epeians' land, he came;
Son of Pleistarchos, Pyrrho was his name.

O muse, come be my ally, for I doubt
The texture of the tale I dare to tell:
Its warp and woof are lost within the past,
Beyond recovery, uncertain, dim;
At this late date the details cannot be
Defined with clarity; so, uninclined
To this interpretation or to that,
I flow within the stream of what has been
And joy to tell the story of a world
That had such giants in it, long ago.
Dread goddess, Zeus' daughter, let us start
When Pyrrho in his youth took mind to heart...

(Cross-posted at


Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics IV.1-2


Next Aristotle turns to generosity. A more literal rendering of the Greek word ἐλευθεριότης might be "free-giving", since it is derived from ἐλευθερία, the Greek word for freedom. We'll talk more about freedom farther along in our walk with Aristotle, but for now it's worth noting that Aristotle's conception of freedom is not purely political but also includes personal aspects of character, behavior, and thinking.

The paradigmatic sense of generosity is giving - and, interestingly, earning - money in appropriate ways. (Presumably in an extended sense we could speak of being generous with one's time or attention or other resources, but we'll leave that for another day.) The two opposites of generosity - both falling short and going too far of what's beautifully right in this domain - are stinginess and wastefulness: the stingy person thinks money is a more serious matter than it really is, whereas the wasteful person doesn't take it seriously enough and thus might not have enough to live on, which is self-destructive.

Aristotle introduces two key principles in Chapter I:

A further wrinkle is that for Aristotle, giving is personal (the ancient Greeks didn't have non-profit foundations, so generosity was one-to-one). The character of the recipient matters a great deal. A wasteful person doesn't necessarily give too great an amount, but might give to the wrong kind of person, such as a sycophant or someone who brings pleasure in unwholesome ways.

Similar considerations apply to getting or earning money. Here you are the recipient, and your character matters, too: Aristotle observes that it doesn't befit a free person to engage in shameful lines of work (his examples are pimps and loan sharks). This insight might prove helpful later on when we consider Aristotle's discussion of leisure (σχολή).

In Chapter 2, Aristotle talks about a special flavor of generosity he calls magnificence, which applies only to people of great wealth - the kind of public benefactors who could fittingly fund a dramatic festival, a diplomatic delegation, or a warship (in classical Greece such things were paid for by the rich individually, not through general taxation). The magnificent person knows how to spend money on a grand scale without being gaudy or chintzy; what's beautifully right about this rather specialized excellence of character is its sense of grandeur (μέγεθος).

In this respect, Chapter 2 on magnificence (μεγαλοπρεπεία) serves as a segue to Chapter 3 on greatness of soul (μεγαλοψυχία). That's a topic fraught with controversy, which is why I'll cover it separately in the next stage of our Aristotelian journey.

(Cross-posted at


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