Monday, June 18, 2012


Jon Miller (ed.), Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: a Critical Guide. Cambridge Critical Guides. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. x, 290. ISBN 9780521514484. $85.00.

Reviewed by Thornton C. Lockwood, Quinnipiac University (

Version at BMCR home site


The nature of the edited scholarly collection has undergone a sea-change. Whereas once upon a time edited collections brought together conference papers or previously-published landmark studies—whose mark of excellence is scholarly rigor—more recently libraries have been inundated by Guides, Companions, and Handbooks. The Guide/Companion/Handbook model has its uses, perhaps especially for introductory essays or overviews of topics in which clarity, rather than cutting-edge scholarship, is the mark of excellence. Between these two models falls a new and somewhat unprecedented (at least in Aristotle scholarship) genre of collection, what Cambridge University Press is characterizing as a Critical Guide. The volume's self-description claims that it is a "collection of newly commissioned essays . . . present[ing] a thorough and close examination of the work" which will "challenge and advance the scholarship on the Ethics, establishing new ways of viewing and appreciating the work for all scholars of Aristotle". Clearly, one is no longer looking at introductory essays.

The volume as a whole is divided into four sections of unequal length preceded by the editor's introduction. The first section ("textual issues") consists of an essay on the editorial unity of the Ethics. The second section ("happiness") consists of three essays on Aristotle's notion of eudaimonia. The third section (on "philosophical psychology") consists of five essays touching upon the notions of non-rational desire, habituation, pleasure, and envy. The fourth section ("virtues") consists of two essays, one on Aristotle's notion of kalon and the other on general justice. Although there are important contributions to scholarship in the Critical Guide to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the volume as a whole does not present a thorough examination of the Ethics. Let me speak to the relative strengths of individual essays.

Jon Miller's introduction surveys major ethical philosophers writing between approximately 1870 and 1960 such as Henry Sidgwick, G. E. Moore, and R. M. Hare to show what Miller calls a surprising episode in the reception of Aristotle's Ethics: "the time—not too long ago—when he did not matter much" (2). Miller's account seems correct as far as it goes, and yet on another level his claim is deeply misleading. To say that Aristotle "did not matter much" during the period is correct only insofar as his reception study is limited to Anglophone moral philosophy. The period Miller chronicles includes a golden age of classical scholarship on the Nicomachean Ethics (EN) during which were published book-length commentaries by Jackson (1879), Grant (1885), Stewart (1892), Burnet (1900), Greenwood (1909) and Bywater's OCT Greek edition (1894).1 The Critical Guide's contents are exegetical studies of the Ethics in the tradition of Grant, Stewart, and Burnet rather than Sidgwick, Moore, and Hare.

Jonathan Barnes infamously has written that the Ethics "is an absurdity, surely put together by a desperate scribe or an unscrupulous bookseller and not united by an author or an editor".2 In the first section of the volume, Michael Pakaluk presents an alternative view. Drawing upon textual signposts such as Aristotle's use of peri (to mark sub-topics) and back references within the text, Pakaluk persuasively argues that the Ethics presents a general unity organized around the partite psychology outlined in EN I.13. More briefly, Pakaluk tries to defuse the three main objections against the unity of the Ethics, viz. the apparent incongruity of EN I and X, the existence of two accounts of pleasure within the same treatise (EN VII.10-14 and X.1-5), and the proper location for the "common books" (EN V, VI, VII, which are also shared with the Eudemian Ethics).

The second—and I think strongest—section of the volume, concerning happiness, consists of three overlapping essays, each concerned with the problem of the interpretation of the highest good. Scholars have wondered whether the highest good—or happiness—consists in a single end, such as contemplation (the "dominant end" interpretation) or a plurality of goods (the "inclusive end" interpretation). Susan Sauv√© Meyer and Norman Dahl end up in a similar place, namely a position in which one preserves Aristotle's elevation of contemplation over other activities but nonetheless retains a central place for ethical virtue. Meyer gets there by close consideration of the "for the sake of" (hou heneka) relation and Dahl gets there by close consideration of the criteria of finality, self-sufficiency, and human ergon in EN I.7 and X.7-8. Both criticize the "inclusive end" interpretation, but I had trouble distinguishing in general their interpretations from other inclusivists. Both pieces present nuanced interpretations that will repay careful study.

In contrast to Meyer and Dahl, A.A. Long repudiates the inclusivist/dominant end framework (which he characterizes as a "disjunction dividing interpreters [which] has largely outlived whatever value it initially had": 94) and considers instead the ways in which Aristotle characterizes all kinds of activity promoting happiness—including, but not limited to contemplation—as divine. He writes that "if this is correct, it will not have the effect of making contemplative excellence the standard for judging the lesser value of morally virtuous activity or for seeing the latter as an approximation or instrument thereto" (95). Long finds evidence outside EN X (especially in EN I) to support the claim that all human eudaimonia is godlike—whether in the form of primary happiness of contemplation or in the form of secondary happiness which consists in the activity of ethical virtue. Long's dismissal of the language of "approximation" is part of his critique of Gabriel Richardson Lear's "dominant end" interpretation of the highest good which explains secondary happiness as an approximation or likeness of primary happiness.3 Lear and Long agree that both primary and secondary forms of happiness are truly happiness, but Lear explains the value of secondary happiness in terms of its likeness to primary happiness; Long, by contrast, wants two routes to happiness, neither reducible to the other. Although there is much merit to Long's analysis, the problem text which he fails to address adequately is EN X.7, 1178b10-18, where Aristotle parodies the notion that the gods would exhibit morally excellent activities: Aristotle writes that the gods would appear "ridiculous" to be thought of as acting justly and that if we go through the whole list of moral actions "we shall see that a concern with actions is petty and unworthy of the gods" (1178b17-18). Long claims that "it does not follow from the gods' exclusively intellectual existence that the happiness human beings achieve by morally virtuous activities has nothing god-like about it" (98), but that doesn't seem to capture the force of 1178b10-18. Although X.8 warrants the claim that the life of ethical activity is truly a happy form of activity, it seems decidedly "non-godlike".

The third section of the volume is less closely interrelated than the second. Klaus Corcilius presents an exhaustive interpretation of Aristotle's discussion of non-rational pleasure and pain in De Anima III.7 (431a8-14) in order to understand the mechanism by means of which non-rational dispositions are inculcated. But although Corcilius explicates the six lines in De Anima III.7 with occasional reference to the Ethics, the detailed focus on the passage fails to arrive at a formulation about the relevance of the passage for understanding ethical habituation in the Ethics. Iakovos Vasiliou offers a weak link to Corcilius' topic in an essay devoted to the notion of habituation which examines the question of which is metaphysically prior—agents or actions. More precisely, Vasiliou asks, are virtuous agents virtuous because they perform virtuous actions ("act priority") or are virtuous actions virtuous because they are performed by virtuous agents ("agent priority")? Vasiliou argues that Aristotle's endorsement of what he calls the "habituation principle", viz. that people become just by doing just actions (see, e.g., EN II.1, 1103a24-b2), commits him to "act priority". Giles Pearson provides an essay with stronger links to the topic initiated in Corcilius's essay with a close reading of EN VII.6, 1149a25-b3, a passage in which Aristotle likens thumos to hasty servants who rush out before hearing a command or dogs which bark at the sound of a knock at the door before knowing who is doing the knocking. Pearson's essay is far too nuanced to summarize briefly, but it is a model of exegetical care in its consideration of possible readings of one specific passage in the Ethics and its extrapolation from that short passage to more general issues in Aristotle's moral psychology— for instance, concerning the relationship between non-rational desire and reason.

The final two essays in section three are unconnected to the problems of the first three essays. Christopher Shield responds to G.E.M. Anscombe's infamous claim that the topic of pleasure reduced Aristotle to "babble".4 According to Anscombe, Aristotle both identified pleasure with an activity and then denied that pleasure was itself an activity. Shields persuasively shows that Aristotle's account is both intelligible and credible because specific pleasures are ultimately things metaphysically related to specific activities: as he puts it, "we are not subjects who experience pleasure independently of our thinking or perceiving. We are rather subjects who experience pleasure in our thinking and our perceiving" (209-210).

Stephen Leighton examines the baseness of envy (phthonos) and passion more generally. Generally, passions are base when they violate some sense of the mean: either they are inappropriate to a specific context (what Leighton calls the "descriptive" understanding of the mean) or are experienced in an excessive or deficient manner (a "triadic" understanding of the mean). But Aristotle also identifies several passions—spite, shamelessness, envy (EN II.6.1107a815)—whose experience is always base. Envy, Leighton writes "is sensitive to and concerned for things that matter . . . but improperly responds to them. In part, envy is wicked because it fails to show concern, much less proper concern, for the merit or worthiness in peers' well-doing" (220). Such impropriety violates the descriptive notion of the mean.

The fourth and final section of the volume comprises two essays which, although concerned with the topic of virtue, hardly constitute a thorough treatment of the subject in the Ethics. Terrence Irwin surveys the ways in which Aristotle uses the term kalon to see if the term picks out a univocal sense which could be translated by a single English term, for instance "beautiful", "fine", or "morally right". Although one can find aesthetic instances of the term outside the ethical corpus, within the ethical writings the meaning of the term expresses a core notion of what is unselfish or impartial—what Irwin ultimately identifies as "moral rightness" (252). He does not preclude a connection between morality and beauty, but argues that such a connection cannot be established solely through an analysis of the use of the term kalon. In the final essay of the volume, Hallvard Fossheim advances the unconventional claim that what Aristotle in EN V.2 calls "general justice" is not itself an ethical virtue (at least in the sense of being a specific hexis) but rather it is the exercise or activity of virtue. Fossheim has his finger on a more general problem which is how to classify those virtues that unify other virtues—for instance, magnanimity or phron√™sis. But his claim that Aristotle's discussion of general virtue as a hexis at the outset of EN V.1 (1129a11 ff.) is merely an endoxic report which Aristotle himself does not endorse (260) seemed strained.


1.   Following the adoption of the Examination Statute of 1800, the Nicomachean Ethics assumed a central place in the Literae Humaniores program at Oxford. In the words of one historian, by the end of the 19th century "[m]ore Oxford students read the Ethics, or at least its first four books, than any other single ancient treatise, and more tutors had to read it": F. M. Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981), 324.
2.   J. Barnes, "Roman Aristotle" in J. Barnes and M. Griffin, eds., Philosophia Togata ii: Plato and Aristotle at Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1-69 at 58-9.
3.   See Gabriel Richardson Lear, Happy Lives and the Highest Good (Princeton University Press, 2004), especially chapter 7.
4.   For Anscombe's criticism, see her "Modern Moral Philosophy", Philosophy 33 (1958), 1-19.

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