Saturday, May 15, 2010

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2

In the next few posts, I'm going to put down some thoughts on book 2 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. This will be a sort of commentary, though I am no specialist, and so there are bound to be all sorts of things here that specialists could take up. But this is really just an attempt to put some thoughts of my own down and try to understand the text.

Before I dig in to book 2, I should say a little about what Aristotle says in Book 1. There, Aristotle argues that we can develop certain skills that help us live successfully --- i.e., live the best kind of life. (I sometimes call these skills 'life skills', though I'm still looking for a better term.)

Now, older translations use the word 'virtues' for these life skills, and they use the word 'happiness' for living successfully. I do not particularly like these labels. On the one hand, the word 'virtue' (in my mind anyway) seems to bring along with it some sense of morality. But that is not quite right. Aristotle is suggesting something much closer to 'skill' than 'morality'. These skills involve doing things well, in the way that a master calligrapher can make a very precise pen stroke. It is not simply following rules of right and wrong.

On the other hand, the term 'happiness' suggests a state of mind, something like 'contentment' or 'bliss'. One could be 'happy' in that sense and not do anything, e.g., by sitting on a mountain top meditating. But that is not what Aristotle has in mind either. Aristotle is thinking of doing things well. This is about activity, not sitting there contentedly. 

So the point Aristotle is making is this: living successfully involves certain skills. More precisely, by developing and using these skills, we can live a successful life. Or, to put it the other way around, the most successful life is one that is lived by exercising the skills in question.

But what exactly is the nature of these skills? That is the topic of Book 2 in the Nicomachean Ethics.

3 comments:

Mike said...

One might also suggest that in this context it's best to pronounce Aristotle like Chipotle.

JT Paasch said...

Is that the pronunciation that rhymes with 'hotly', or the one that is pronounced 'tote-lay'?

Mike said...

definitely tote-lay.