Aristotle's Dialectical Pedagogy: A Review of Revaluing Ethics by Thomas W. Smith

2020-11-12

In my research toward writing Complete Yourself: Aristotle on Human Fulfillment, I have read dozens and dozens of books about Aristotle's ethics and his philosophy in general. A small number of those books stand out in the crowded field of Aristotelian studies, but only one of them has been a revelation to me: Revaluing Ethics: Aristotle's Dialectical Pedagogy by Thomas W. Smith.

Smith uncovers and elucidates the conceptual and (dare I say) literary flow of the Nicomachean Ethics by revealing how Aristotle leads his likely audience of young, virile, aristocratic young men from unquestioning adherence to conventional values toward a radical questioning and revaluing of everything they thought they knew was true and right (that is: toward the examined life). We are not accustomed to treating an Aristotelian treatise like the Ethics as a work of literature, but Smith demonstrates convincingly that this is the exactly right way to treat it (in the process showing that it's not a traditional treatise at all, but a living, breathing exploration of the foundations of human life). He upends so many of the assumptions of academic scholarship regarding Aristotle (from the so-called Doctrine of the Mean to the so-called great-souled man, from the relation between justice and equity to the meaning and role of love in human life, from the bifurcation between moral virtue and intellectual virtue to the desire to understand the world around us through contemplation) that by the end of his book my head was spinning.

Furthermore, the new vistas he opens up are tremendously exciting. Can we apply his dialetical methodology to, say, the Politics or the Metaphysics? Would a similar analysis of the Eudemian Ethics yield complementary fruit? If so much that we thought we knew about Aristotle's ethics simply isn't true, what are Aristotle's deepest insights into living a successful human life? If Aristotle were presented with an audience of present-day Westerners, how would he lead them toward the examined life and what assumptions would he drive them to question along the way? These are fascinating questions, which I hope to explore as I continue to dig deeper and deeper into Aristotle's philosophy.

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