Nicomachean Ethics - Self-Mastery


[This is a live-read meetup.  Rather than reading on our own before meeting, we read the text together, and discuss during the reading. ]

Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle's robust examination of the art of living well.  His approach, which sees this art as distinct from any theoretical science, is both novel in comparison to Plato (who did not treat ethics separately this way or have a treatise on it) and is influential for the concept of "practical reason" which shapes modern philosophy many centuries after it.  Probably edited by his son, Nicomachus, the work is Aristotle's most detailed and accessible effort to explain the unification of our moral thinking with the emotions and appetites.

Last time, we examined the rational half of the soul and distinguished the two forms of wisdom which take different sorts of knowledge as their ultimate object.  Sophia is nourished by insight of first principles, the highest beings and what is eternal.  Phronesis judges and guides us to use all things, including our theoretical knowledge, according to our own flourishing or happiness.   As a state of the soul it is similar to health: just as to be healthy means to be actively warding off disease and illness (through immune response, thermic regulation, metabolism, etc.), to have phronesis means to be disposed and actively engaged in the good life by exercising immunity to what would corrupt our virtue. 

This week, we read Book 7, which more closely examines the dispositions we must avoid to become virtuous.  We can fail at virtue by succumbing to passivity where we ought to be deliberate, by engaging vice (which is always an excess of some kind) or by taking ourselves as beast-like or god-like ("theorites"--literally, to have excluded ourselves from practical reason).  On the heels of our recent discussions of stoicism, the book closes with an interesting enquiry into pleasure and pain.

Feel free to bring any or no translation of the text, as we should be reading it aloud clearly enough for everyone to follow.  Familiarity with the content is of course encouraged but not required.


For the relation of this text to Socratic thought, I recommend Ronna Burger's book.  

The major political philosopher Leo Strauss' lecture course on NE (h/t Brian) is also worth mentioning. 

The great Saint Thomas Aquinas has written the authoritative commentary on the work.

A note on translations: Most of us are using the Revised Oxford translation by Ross which is in the public domain. This is good and I want us to continue using it.  It is widely regarded as the standard English translation.  In my opinion, it's the strongest conceptually and the least clumsy to read aloud.  However, it is heavily crafted by Ross' own fluency with the subject matter and can stray in precision from the original text.  For those of us who are, or will be, more concerned about translation issues at home (especially when arguments become longer in the later books) I am linking a couple of more translations to cross-reference. 

The Bartlett and Collins translation is the most modern and tries to be as literal as sound English allows when translating.  It notes Greek words that need special attention.

The Crisp translation is intended to be readable by a nonspecialist audience, while also being faithful to the Greek.  It's free of some of the more dated English usage in Ross and handles the later syllogistic arguments more clearly.

Both books include introductions and footnotes that some may find valuable to read as supplements.

I've also linked the Ross translation in a format that includes Bekker (original Greek text) notation to make cross-referencing easier.

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  • Brian

    1 · June 1

    • Imran M.

      I suspect this was staged, but it captures something true about how far human nature is from conformity with a stable orientation toward happiness.

      June 1

    • Brian

      Yah, looks staged. I'll be late tonight, 630, can start w/o me

      June 2

  • Brian

    The idea of the vicious person is interesting. They are principally blinded in character. It seems they are quaranteed to reason improperly, no matter how smart they might otherwise be.. or even how hard they try.

    June 1

    • Imran M.

      An analogy to this is learned helplessness in depressed people, where cognitive distort ions accompany learned depressed responses. In the animal experiments, after dogs were trained by random shocks not to jump over a barrier, even when It would let them avoid the shock. The dogs literally needed to be dragged over the barrier several times to trigger the shock avoiding responses again.

      June 1

  • Maeta

    Can't make it, got prior commitments. :(

    May 28

    • Imran M.

      We have three Mondays left after this. Hope to see you another time.

      June 1

  • Imran M.

    [socrates to protagoras]: The opinion of the many concerning knowledge is something like this, that it isn’t a strong thing characterized by either leadership or rule. They don’t think about it as though it were any such thing at all, but often when knowledge is present in a human being, they think that it is not the knowledge that rules him but something else—now spirited anger, now pleasure, now pain, sometimes erotic love, many times fear. They simply think about knowledge as they do about a slave, that it is dragged around by all else. So is your opinion about it something like this as well, or is it that knowledge is both noble and capable of ruling a human being, and that if in fact someone knows the good things and the bad, he won’t be overpowered by anything so as to do anything other than what knowledge bids him to do, but rather prudence is competent to come to the person’s aid?

    June 1

  • Derwin

    I HOPE to be able to make this. Mondays are usually kinda awkward for me. But I've been in need of some philosophical discussion :)

    May 27

  • Brian

    Can t make it, I'm afraid. I need to work, but maybe Ill pull it off

    May 25

    • Imran M.

      No worries. We can reschedule. I'll schedule it tentatively for the following Monday while we see if a sooner date works. How's Thursday, Friday or Sunday look?

      May 25

    • Brian

      Monday June 2nd is perfect. I am jam packed this coming week

      May 25

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