Um, so. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. The translation I have is from Bartlett and Collins, and it prides itself on being literal.
As I mentioned in the blog post with some final quotations from Damascius’ Lecture Notes on the Philebus, I had a dream I was in a philosophy class (the details are in that post), and at the end of it, we were assigned Aristotle, starting with p. 1-163 of the Nicomachean Ethics. After waking up, I decided to read it now because I’ve already hit my Goodreads challenge for 2019 and know I’m starting 2020 with reading Plato’s Republic, Laws, and Timaeus with Sarah Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse thrown in for good measure. Follow your dreams, am I right?
So. The introduction was interesting, and I am sort of getting used to the way Aristotle uses the word soul.
For even if this is the same thing for an individual and a city, to secure and preserve the good of the city appears to be something greater and more complete: the good of the individual by himself is certainly desirable enough, but that of a nation and of cities is nobler and more divine.Aristotle, NA 1094b, Book 1, Chapter 3, ~ln. 6-10
This quotation instantly made me think of Star Trek IV — the beginning of it. Previously, at the end of The Wrath of Khan, Spock had sacrificed himself for the entire crew. In Star Trek IV, someone on Vulcan paraphrased this when discussing Spock’s decision to make that sacrifice. That was so Aristotelean, and when I was a toddler and young kid watching it, I never even knew.
At 1095a-b, though, Book 1, Chapter 4 happens. I made a marginal comment on, “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” (~ln. 25-30). In the margins, I wrote, Is this a reference to the Platonists, or am I being anachronistic? Footnote 29 on p. 7, commenting on 1096a, ln. 10-ish, says that Aristotle will argue against access to a universal good based on human experiences, so maybe I am right. Who knows. This is a quotation liveblog, after all.
Aristotle distinguishes among the way of pleasure, the way of politics, and the way of contemplation at the beginning of Book 1, Chapter 5.
Something interesting happens at 1097a. Aristotle seems to be pointing out that knowledge of a universal Good would greatly aid anyone in any field, and yet nobody seeks out that universal; they instead become proficient and excellent at what they have to do in-field. He uses the focus on particular crafts, objects, and the like as a reason the universal Good cannot exist.
Now, the argument [of the universal good] has a certain persuasiveness, but it seems to be inconsistent with the sciences. For although all sciences aim at some good and seek out what is lacking, they pass over knowledge of the good itself. And yet it is not reasonable for all craftsmen to be ignorant of so great an aid and not even to seek it out.
A further perplexity too is what benefit the weaver or carpenter might gain, in relation to his own art, by knowing this same good, or how he who has contemplated the idea itself will be a more skilled physician or general. For it appears that the physician does not examine even health this way, but inquires rather into the health of a human being and even more, perhaps, into that of this particular human being. For he treats patients individually.Aristotle, NA 1097a, Book 1, Chapter 6, ~ln. 5-15
This reminds me of the comments discussion that Edward Butler and I had on a section within Damascius about modern sciences and observation, where I said that examining speciation within evolutionary contexts requires observation and is the most useful way to go about learning that kind of thing. Diairesis is not the best protocol for creating something like a phylogenic tree — the closer one gets to applied science/matter, the more the specifics impact things. I’m sure that someone today would bring up DNA and personalized medicine in an example like the physician one Aristotle used. Anyway, I thought that was uncannily topical.
[B]y nature a human being is political.Aristotle, NA 1097b, Book 1, Chapter 6, ~ln. 10
I have an uncanny feeling that I have seen this line quoted out-of-context on social media, like, a lot.
[I]t would be strange too if nothing of the affairs of the descendants should reach the ancestors, not even for a certain time.Aristotle, NA 1100a, Book 1, Chapter 10, ~ln. 25-30
I was not expecting ancestors to come up in a discussion about what could happen if someone dies happily and then has descendants who have a reversal of fortune.
Hence we must make our activities be of a certain quality, for the characteristics correspond to the differences among those activities. It makes no small difference, then, whether one is habituated in this or that way straight from childhood but a very great difference — or rather the whole difference.Aristotle, NA 1103b, Book 2, Chapter 1, ~ln. 20-25
Every time I see a philosopher say something like this, I think about how hard I am on myself. (When I was reading Proclus’ Parmenides commentary, his brief interludes about the required characteristics of students and similar topics were absolutely fascinating, yet terrifying.) At work yesterday, New Year’s resolutions came up, and words came out of my mouth about my technique — a bulleted list of action items that looks like a personal development plan — and if I fail in a resolution, it means I haven’t made it actionable enough. I realized after saying this that I probably sounded alarmingly weird, and it was embarrassing. However, one of the big reasons I push myself so hard is that growing up in a toxic environment led to bad places and habits, so I need to work twice as hard to make up for it. I wonder if statements like this give me an excuse to maintain that harshness or if it’s a good idea that I am. Maybe I could back off by 25%, you know? Or not.
He who abstains form bodily pleasures and enjoys this very abstention is moderate, but he who is vexed in doing so is licentious.Aristotle, NA 1104b, Book 2, Chapter 3, ~ln. 5-10
Cal Newport in Digital Minimalism referred to replacing pleasurable online activities with a 30-day fast; key to that was the replacement of things like social media with high-quality social and creative efforts. I think the people who abstain from things without help or guidance just have the cognitive tools already at capacity to redirect their desires.
But not every action or every passion admits of the mean, for some have names that are immediately associated with baseness — for example, spitefulness, shamelessness, envy, and, when it comes to actions, adultery, theft, and murder. For all these things, and those like them, are spoken of as being themselves base, rather than just their excesses or deficiencies. It is never possible, then, to be correct as regards them, but one is always in error; and it is not possible to do what concerns such things well or not well — by committing adultery with the woman one ought and when as one ought. Rather, doing any of these things whatever is simply in error.Aristotle, NA 1107a, Book 2, Chapter 6, ~ln. 5-20
I got to thinking about — and wrote a few notes in the margins about — that if we have an inclusive definition of murder for all life forms (and are not just thinking about killing people, which is definitely wrong — I think Aristotle is talking about human-on-human violence here and breaches of social contracts, but I might as well say what I want to say), there is actually a correct amount of murder, so there is a mean. We need to eat other living things to survive, regardless of whether or not we are capable of feeling empathy for them. The book I am reading is made from killed trees, trees scream when they are injured, and I was traumatized by a clear-cut forest as a toddler. The climate crisis and many things about modern civilization are a perversion because we are overconsuming, and overconsumption is good for no one.
Anyway, that’s a weird and pessimistic place to end, but I didn’t get that far over the weekend. My mom, my lilsis, and my lilsis’s eleven-month-old baby were visiting right after I got done running an internal conference. It was fun, although I’m still a bit tired. We visited Scandinavian Butik, and I have never seen so many tomte plushies in my life.