Monday, November 22, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

David Ross, Lesley Brown (trans.), Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics (New edition, revised with an introduction and notes by Lesley Brown). Oxford World's Classics. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xliii, 277. ISBN 9780199213610. $14.95 (pb).

Reviewed by J. J. Mulhern, University of Pennsylvania

Sir David Ross's translation of the Nicomachean Ethics, having given good service for 85 years since the Oxford Translation version first appeared, and with successive modest revisions by Ross himself (for the World's Classics in 1954), Ackrill and Urmson, Urmson separately,1 and now Brown, hardly calls for a review today. Because Brown's volume contains a new and longer introduction, a new note on the text and translation, and a long section of "explanatory notes" (pp. 204-268) which make it a new book, however, a selective review still may be in order.

There are some questions to be asked about the new sections as well as about the revisions to the translation. The introduction, for example, attributes to Aristotle the view that ethics is a branch of politics (pp. viii, xvii), though Aristotle never says that it is and does not use the Greek for branch in this metaphorical way; in fact, the expression 'branch' (klados) does not occur at all in the Nicomachean Ethics or in the Politics or in Eudemus. Aristotle does suggest what the connection of ethics to politics is in scattered remarks which show that acts, habits, character, custom, and institutions, which are the subjects treated in these two works, are related to one another in causal ways; and the relation is not that of a branch.

Again: Is ethics, for Aristotle, "a study of the human good (p. ix)?" For Aristotle, at any rate, the ethics are the things related in some way to character or ēthos, and the human good is only one among these things for Aristotle. If the Nicomachean Ethics were a treatise on the Sidgwickian study of the human good rather than the Nicomachean edition of the books on the things related to character, the work might well be much shorter than it is, and it probably would have a different title, such as 'On the Study of the Human Good'. Ethics, though, seems to have been Aristotle's own title for the work, since it is used four times in backward references in his Politics, at 1261a31, 1280a18, 1295a36, and 1332a8, where he seems to have referred to passages in the Nicomachean Ethics which scholars think they have been able to identify.2

Despite these questions, the introduction shows good sense where, for example, Brown points out that Aristotle seems to think that one can have right and wrong without holding that what is right or wrong is the same under every circumstance (p. xxiii; see below on 1135a5). Also, her attention to Books VIII-IX is welcome here; Ross omitted them from discussion in his World's Classics introduction.

In her note on the text and translation, Brown indicates that "a very few further changes have been made (p. xxx)" in the translation, including a few words which she considers "almost obsolete" and a few technical expressions. Most notably, as she writes, "logos, which Ross usually translated as 'rational principle' or 'rule', I have rendered with 'reason' at almost all points; and I have translated orthos logos as 'correct reason'." Ross's practice is a bit more complicated than Brown's observation suggests, as is Brown's own practice. Ross considered the translation of logos in his footnote on I.3 in his World's Classics edition. Ross explained that "normally logos in Aristotle does not stand for the faculty of reason, but for something grasped by reason, or perhaps sometimes for an operation of reason . . . for logos I have used, according to the shade of meaning uppermost in each context, such renderings as 'rational principle', 'rational ground', 'rule' (orthos logos I always render 'right rule'), 'argument', 'reasoning', 'course of reasoning'." He went on to cite papers by Stocks and Cook Wilson, with Cook Wilson in favor of 'reason' and Stocks opposed.3 Ross's note still is worth reading in full. As he wrote in his translator's preface: "in my treatment of such words as logos or archē I cannot hope to please everybody. Any attempt to render such a term always by a single English equivalent would produce the most uncouth result, and would be in principle wrong. I have tried, however, to limit my renderings of such terms to a reasonably small number of alternatives, so that the thread of identical significance may not be entirely lost." An explanatory note from Brown which responds more fully to Ross's note and to the older scholarship, which is valuable because so often it tries to explain what the author thinks Aristotle had in mind and why, would be helpful here, perhaps with a reference to Taylor's recent note on 1103b32-34 in his Clarendon Aristotle translation of Books II-IV, which explores a way to accommodate both 'rule' and 'reason' and perhaps more.4 Again, Ross in 1102b30 and following used 'rational principle' along with 'account' and explained himself in a footnote. Brown reproduces Ross's translation exactly here except for giving 'reason' in the first occurrence, without explanation. This text provides another opportunity for Brown to explain her use of 'reason' in an expanded explanatory note; perhaps she will take this opportunity in a future printing. In any case, some further explanation as to why Brown thinks 'reason' usually is more appropriate than the range of translations Ross employed seems to be called for.

On the explanatory notes: It would not be out of place for Brown to suggest why she added these notes, to what sort of readership they are addressed, their relation to Ross's content footnotes and to Ackrill-Urmson (for continuity's sake), and so on, in a future printing. Sometimes these notes leave the reader hanging. At 1135a5, for example, where Brown reproduces Ross's translation that "there is but one [constitution] which is everywhere by nature the best," she undercuts the established interpretation of this line in her explanatory note by referring to Politics IV.7-8, where, she says, the position taken is that "rule by those possessing virtue is best" (p. 233). Rule by those possessing virtue might occur under any constitution, if a constitution is thought of as an arrangement of archai (1278b9). But then there is the note on 1160a, where Brown refers to "what he [Aristotle] regards as the best kind of constitution, a limited democracy based on a property qualification (p. 255)," which seems to reinforce the established interpretation. There is no mention of virtue here. And there is the further note on 1161a, where, referring to Politics III.6, Brown gives a different picture of "Aristotle's ideal constitutional arrangement, one where suitably qualified persons rule and are ruled in turn (p. 256)." Her notes might do more to explain the issues here.

If one were to be asked how Brown's book compares to other recent books which contain translation, front matter, and back matter for the Nicomachean Ethics, such as those of Irwin and Crisp,5 a reasonable answer would be that it depends in part on the intended readership and in part on other considerations. Brown and Crisp both appear to be intended for general readers and Greekless undergraduate students, despite Crisp's inclusion of a short list of instances in which he departs from Bywater's text. For a comparison of Crisp's translation with Ross's and a critique of the supporting matter, see Russell's separate review in BMCR 2001.09.24.6 Russell draws some comparisons with Irwin's book, which has not been reviewed separately in BMCR. Irwin's stated intent was to address "readers who want to understand the EN in detail, and not merely to acquire a general impression of it."7 His book thus is intended to serve a different readership, perhaps especially his graduate students in classical philosophy at Cornell and similar students elsewhere. Crisp's book offers the advantage of having the glossary arranged in alphabetical order under the Greek terms rather than under their translations. Arranging the glossary under the translations, as in the case of 'reason' rather than logos in Irwin and Brown, for example, is likely to influence the less informed reader in favor of the English translation under which the word is classified, no matter how many alternatives and explanations are given.

Many readers who are familiar with Ross's translation as it was in 1925 and beyond are likely to be pleased that it is being kept in print here in a separate inexpensive edition as well as in the first version by Random House and in Urmson's revision in the Revised Oxford Translation.8 Ross had certain advantages in dealing with this work because he was, like Aristotle, a person of wide experience which demanded heightened concern for character and for the things related to it. Ross's version continues to aid interpretation because of this experience and because of his broad grip on Aristotle's ways of thinking across the corpus.

Ross's translation brought to the World's Classics a sophistication from which readers might benefit greatly even without being able to appreciate the base of scholarship on which it stood. Brown's volume perpetuates the supererogatory character of Ross's contribution, though there is further work to be done on the front matter and back matter, which could explain a great deal more than they do. Undergraduate teachers and others can assign this volume with some measure of confidence while looking forward to a future printing in which, it is to be hoped, Brown will address issues such as those raised here and the Press's reader will correct errors which include 'b' for '6' in the introduction on p. xiv, a missing numeral in the cross reference to what should be 1111b26 on p. 45, an extra 'x' in the reference to Od. xvii.420 on p. 65, a missing numeral in the cross reference to what should be 1156b7 on p. 148, a missing 'r' in what should be Phronesis on p. 215, a missing 'by' in the note on 1130a[2] on p. 228, a superfluous 'as' in the note on 1135a[31] on p. 233, and an intrusive 'e' before the second 'a' in what should be sunaisthanesthai in the note on 1170b[10] on p. 260.


1.   The Works of Aristotle, translated into English under the editorship of W.D. Ross, v.9 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925); The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, translated and introduced by Sir David Ross (World's Classics; London: Oxford University Press, 1954); The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, translated with an introduction by David Ross; revised by J.L. Ackrill and J.O. Urmson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980); Nicomachean Ethics, W.D. Ross revised by J.O. Urmson, in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, revised by Jonathan Barnes, v. 2 (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1984).
2.   Newman, it is true, was of a mixed mind about these references, based on his comparison of the doctrine of the two works. W.L. Newman, The Politics of Aristotle, I (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1887), p. 576. Ross indicated his view that these were references to the Nicomachean Ethics by capitalizing Ēthikois at these points in his text, Aristotelis Politica, recognovit W.D. Ross (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957). Cross references from the Politics to the Nicomachean Ethics are given in Aristotle: The Politics, translated by T.A. Sinclair, revised and re-presented by Trevor J. Saunders (London: Penguin Books, 1981), pp. 104, 195, 266, and 428, among others. Hardie has reminded us that, "in his [Cicero's] time the work already had its present title . . .," adducing the De Finibus. W. F. R. Hardie, Aristotle's Ethical Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 6. Hardie did not argue the point, presumably because he didn't think that he had to. If he had, his argument might have been that Cicero not only was aware of works of the Peripatetic school but also may have been aware of the Aristotelian materials which Sulla had brought to Rome from Athens in 86 when he, Cicero, was a young man. The letters to Atticus suggest that Tyrannion was in charge of Cicero's library over an extended period. If this was the Tyrannion who was engaged in the editing of the Aristotelian materials which Sulla had brought to Rome and who, according to Plutarch's life of Sulla (xxvi), gave antigraphs or copies to Andronicus, who published them, or even if he was his namesake and student, it is possible that Cicero's witness rests on sources which antedate the edition of Aristotle by Andronicus and reflect the title of the work in the antigraphs or even the autographs, which may have been corroborated by the first two centuries of Peripatetic handbooks. On this issue it is useful to consult the essays in William W. Fortenbaugh and Peter Steinmetz, edd., Cicero's Knowledge of the Peripatos (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1989), not reviewed in the BMCR.
3.   J.L. Stocks, "Logos and Mesotēs in the De Anima of Aristotle," Journal of Philology 33 (1914), pp. 182-194; "On the Aristotelian Use of Logos: A Reply," Classical Quarterly 8, 1 (January 1914), pp. 9-12; J. Cook Wilson, "On the Meaning of Logos in Certain Passages of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics," Classical Review 27, (4 June 1913), pp. 113-117.
4.   Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics: Books II-IV, translated with a commentary by C.C.W. Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), p. 65-66.
5.   Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated with introduction, notes, and glossary by Terence Irwin. Second edition. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated and edited by Roger Crisp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
6.   2001.09.24.
7.   Irwin, p. xxvi.
8.   In Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941 and continuously in print since then; paperback reprint 2001); see note 1 for Revised Oxford Translation.

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