The Return of Aristotle

In the mail last week, while I was in Charleston, I received The Eudemian Ethics of Aristotle, edited and translated with a commentary by Peter L. P. Simpson. It was an exceedingly welcome arrival.

I read the work ages ago when Simpson and I were tutorial partners at Wadham College, Oxford; and I have occasionally consulted it since. But I have not worked my way through it with care in something like 40 years. When I do so, I will take that effort as an opportunity to re-read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in the fine, recent translation of Robert C. Bartlett and Susan Collins, and this effort may occasion my reading of Claudia Baracchi’s Aristotle’s Ethics as First Philosophy and Ronna Burger’s Aristotle’s Dialogue with Socrates: On the Nicomachean Ethics.

I teach Aristotle’s Politics with some frequency, and I normally use Peter Simpson’s fine, highly readable translation The Politics of Aristotle. If I really go on an Aristotle binge, I will have to re-read Simpson’s Philosophical Commentary on the Politics of Aristotle and Bernard Yack’s The Problems of a Political Animal: Community, Justice, and Conflict in Aristotelian Political Thought before tackling Michael Davis’s The Politics of Philosophy: A Commentary on Aristotle’s Politics and Thomas Pangle’s brand new book Aristotle’s Teaching in the Politics.

To put it mildly, there is a great Aristotelian revival underway, and it has been going on now for something like 30 years. In mentioning these books, I am merely pointing to the tip of a large iceberg. I could have mentioned works I own by Carnes Lord, Richard Kraut, Mary Nichols, Richard Janko, Aristide Tessitore, Clifford Bates, Stephen Salkever, Arlene Saxonhouse, Sarah Broadie, C. D. C. Reeve, John M. Cooper, Anthony Kenny, Terence Irwin, Brendan Nagle, Fred Miller, and William James Booth; and, even as an indication of my own holdings, this list is far from complete.

The reason for Aristotle’s return, gentle reader, is simple and straightforward. There is something missing from modern political thought, and nearly every thinker of any depth has been aware of this fact at least since John Locke’s pupil the third Earl of Shaftesbury began criticizing his instructor and initiated an Aristotelian revival early in the eighteenth century with the publication of his Characteristicks.

I have long thought that Montesquieu, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson should all be treated as neo-Aristotelians. In more recent times — whenever it has become obvious that we have lost our moral bearings and whenever it has become clear that no form of social contract theory can fully explain how we aspire to live as a people — women and men have turned back to the Peripatetic. In this time of moral and political confusion, if you have the time and the inclination, you might want to do so yourself. You will not regret the effort required.

  1. David Williamson
    Paul A. Rahe: 

    The reason for Aristotle’s return, gentle reader, is simple and straightforward. There is something missing from modern political thought, 

    Yes, but we have Mr Obama (who is cooling the planet as we speak) and Mr Biden (who wants to fire shotguns through doors).

  2. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    David Williamson

    Paul A. Rahe: 

    The reason for Aristotle’s return, gentle reader, is simple and straightforward. There is something missing from modern political thought, 

    Yes, but we have Mr Obama (who is cooling the planet as we speak) and Mr Biden (who wants to fire shotguns through doors). · 18 minutes ago

    Damn! I forgot about them.

  3. Robert Lux

    I’d be curious what the good professor’s take is on his colleague’s (Tom West’s) ingenious defense of “Lockerstotle.”  Me likes how he kinda’ threw down the gauntlet here: 

    Locke explains more forcefully than almost any other philosopher, ancient or modern, why “[a]dultery, incest, and sodomy” are viewed as “sins”: [ . . . ] To that end, there is a need for “the distinction of families, with the security of the marriage bed” (Tr. 1, §59). Does your revered Aristotle say anything as strong as this on this topic?

  4. Fred Williams

    Professor, I would be interested in your thoughts on Mortimer Adler.  Years ago, his books helped make Aristotle accessible to me.  I still read Adler from time to time.

  5. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Fred Williams: Professor, I would be interested in your thoughts on Mortimer Adler.  Years ago, his books helped make Aristotle accessible to me.  I still read Adler from time to time. · 40 minutes ago

    Adler was a very capable popularizer. His one shortcoming was that the translations he used were not careful and precise.

  6. tabula rasa

    Professor Rahe:  I’ve read a fair amount of Plato, but very little Aristotle (I have a vague recollection of reading some of the Politics forty years ago in college). I recently download the Bartlett/Collins Nicomachean Ethics to my Kindle, but haven’t started it.

    My question:  Would the Nicomachean Ethics be a good place to begin Aristotle?  If not, what should I use as gateway drugs?

    Aside from the Ethics, what other works of Aristotle would you suggest to a a guy in his early sixties who wishes to taste his best, but will unlikely read very broadly.  [My reading list will require me to live to about 125 to get through as it is].

  7. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Robert Lux: I’d be curious what the good professor’s take is on his colleague’s (Tom West’s) ingenious defense of “Lockerstotle.”  Me likes how he kinda’ threw down the gauntlet here: 

    Locke explains more forcefully than almost any other philosopher, ancient or modern, why “[a]dultery, incest, and sodomy” are viewed as “sins”: [ . . . ] To that end, there is a need for “the distinction of families, with the security of the marriage bed” (Tr. 1, §59). Does your revered Aristotle say anything as strong as this on this topic?

    Edited 42 minutes ago46 minutes ago

    Sin is not part of Aristotle’s vocabulary. Marriage he views, as did all of the Greeks and the Romans, as an institution designed for the procreation and rearing of children. The marriage ceremony takes this form. The father of the prospective bride meets with the prospective groom and says, “I give you this woman for the procreation of legitimate children.” Marriage he otherwise treats as a special case of friendship — i.e., as a friendship of virtue aimed at a certain common good (procreation and rearing).

    I am not (yet) persuaded by the attempt to assimilate Locke and Aristotle.

  8. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    tabula rasa: Professor Rahe:  I’ve read a fair amount of Plato, but very little Aristotle (I have a vague recollection of reading some of thePolitics forty years ago in college). I recently download the Bartlett/Collins Nicomachean Ethics to my Kindle, but haven’t started it.

    My question:  Would theNicomachean Ethicsbe a good place to begin Aristotle?  If not, what should I use as gateway drugs?

    Aside from the Ethics, what other works of Aristotle would you suggest to a a guy in his early sixties who wishes to taste his best, but will unlikely read very broadly.  [My reading list will require me to live to about 125 to get through as it is]. · 12 hours ago

    Edited 12 hours ago

    Read the Nicomachean Ethics first, then the Politics. I recommend Simpson’s translation. Then, Aristotle’s Rhetoric (perhaps in the Loeb Classical Library version) and his Poetics.

  9. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Neolibertarian: Wasn’t it inThe Politicsthat Aristotle suggested “all men do, in fact, aim at what they think good”?

    This always seems an important key to me when arguing/persuading the left. With this in mind, it’s always easier to trace their arguments back to the root.

    I’ve also found it’s a statement which proves very, very difficult for many of my conservative friends to wrap their heads around.

    Dr. Rahe, what do youthink Aristotle meant by that? · 10 hours ago

    Edited 10 hours ago

    At the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, he writes, “People have nobly declared that the good is that at which all things aim.” At the beginning of the Politics, he writes, “Every community gets established with some good in view (for everyone does everything for the sake of what they think good).” This seems self-evident to me, and it puts a premium on right opinion — for we can easily err in what we think good.

  10. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Aurelius: Prof. Rahe: I’d be interested in hearing how you think Hume is a Neo-Aristotelian. · 6 hours ago

    What I have in mind is this. Hume rejects what he calls “the selfish system of Hobbes and Locke.” That is, he rejects the project of refounding the moral virtues on calculation (cf. Machiavelli, The Prince Chapter 15 with Hobbes, Leviathan Chapter 15). Montesquieu and Adam Smith are, I believe, on the same page. So what they want to do is to restore to our understanding of morality (and politics) something like the dignity, the subtlety, and the prudence one finds in Aristotle’s analysis. Of course, in their metaphysics and epistemology, they do not return to Aristotle. There is, in fact, a great gulf between them and the Peripatetic. It is this which makes them neo-Aristotelians, not Aristotelians.

    This can be put in another way. They try to do justice to the third early of Shaftesbury’s trenchant critique of his former teacher without following him in fully returning to the Aristotelian fold. Hume, at times, looks to the more generous passions as a foundation. Montesquieu is similarly interested in the passions. Smith’s account is more complicated.

  11. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Pseudodionysius: So, Locke explains more forcefully than Aquinas why adultery, incest or sodomy are sins? That’s an interesting point of view. · 9 hours ago

    . . . and highly improbable.

  12. Crow
    Paul A. Rahe

    Pseudodionysius: So, Locke explains more forcefully than Aquinas why adultery, incest or sodomy are sins? That’s an interesting point of view. · 9 hours ago

    . . . and highly improbable. · in 0 minutes

    As is the claim that Locke provides a better and sturdier foundation for family life on the whole than Aristotle does. 

  13. Crow
    Paul A. Rahe

    tabula rasa: Professor Rahe:  I’ve read a fair amount of Plato, but very little Aristotle (I have a vague recollection of reading some of thePolitics forty years ago in college). I recently download the Bartlett/Collins Nicomachean Ethics to my Kindle, but haven’t started it.

    My question:  Would theNicomachean Ethicsbe a good place to begin Aristotle?  If not, what should I use as gateway drugs?

    Aside from the Ethics, what other works of Aristotle would you suggest to a a guy in his early sixties who wishes to taste his best, but will unlikely read very broadly.  [My reading list will require me to live to about 125 to get through as it is]. · 12 hours ago

    Edited 12 hours ago

    Read the Nicomachean Ethics first, then Politics. I recommend Simpson’s translation. Then, Aristotle’s Rhetoric and his Poetics.

    I’ll second this.

    I think you’ll enjoy the way Aristotle proceeds and argues in NE, tabula, and while you can certainly read the Politics and NE separately, the way he understands moral behavior and the psychology that he sketches out  in NE does play an important role in his politics.

  14. Neolibertarian

    Wasn’t it in The Politics that Aristotle suggested “all men do, in fact, aim at what they think good”?

    This always seems an important key to me when arguing/persuading the left. With this in mind, it’s always easier to trace their arguments back to the root.

    I’ve also found it’s a statement which proves very, very difficult for many of my conservative friends to wrap their heads around.

    Dr. Rahe, what do you think Aristotle meant by that?

  15. Pseudodionysius

    So, Locke explains more forcefully than Aquinas why adultery, incest or sodomy are sins? That’s an interesting point of view.

  16. Hegesias

    From my little perch very happily ensconced in a hotbed of the Aristotelian resurgence, I worry some Ricochet readers might make a mistaken assumption based on your post, knowing your political worldview and the nature of Ricochet.  This resurgence is not at all coextensive with any sort of conservative revival.  There are a lot of Marxists in this movement.  Those who approach Aristotle through Smith, Hume, Hutcheson, and Shaftesbury are less common.

  17. Aurelius
    Prof. Rahe: Of course, in their metaphysics and epistemology, they do not return to Aristotle. . . . It is this which makes themneo-Aristotelians, not Aristotelians.

    Hume declares Hobbes’s state of nature to be a fiction (e.g., Treatise 3.2.2, 3.2.22). However, he agrees with Hobbes that morality aims to solve the problems of limited sympathy and scarcity of resources. When Hume calls justice an artificial virtue, he indicates that it lacks normative, transcendent status. He denies that artificial virtues are therefore arbitrary (3.2.1, 3.3.6). For Hume, our moral framework’s validity is grounded in first order issues of internal consistency and utility. For pain and pleasure are fixed and universal.

    Moral antirealists argue persuasively that utility, pleasure, and pain, allow numerous, rival moral frameworks. They underdetermine first order moral issues. To this, Aristotle and the medieval scholastics have a philosophical rebuttal. For unlike Hume, they have robust accounts of ordered goods that are grounded in metaphysics.

    Metaphysics is indispensable to Aristotelian and neo-Aristotelian ethics. So despite Hume’s moral realism and his retention of some Calvinist and scholastic moral language, it is unhelpful to classify him as neo-Aristotelian.

  18. Aurelius

    Prof. Rahe: I’d be interested in hearing how you think Hume is a Neo-Aristotelian. Hume is not an Aristotelian on the subject of moral education. For Aristotle, the appetites and passions need to be educated and transformed so that they align with reason. Pleasure is not necessarily aligned with a given virtue, though in a mature person the exercise of virtuous habits should be pleasurable.

    Hume’s account in his Treatise and Enquiry is quite different. He argues that we know good and evil through pleasure and pain or through our sympathy with the pains and pleasures of other persons. Pains and pleasures are original impressions that are fixed by nature in us and not products of reflection (Treatise 2.1.1, 3.1.2). For this reason, it wouldn’t even make sense to try and educate them. What Humean moral education amounts to is widening of our sympathies and learning to calculate utility correctly.

    That being said, neither Aristotle nor Hume have much place for Christian humility as a virtue. Perhaps some of their conclusions are similar, but this does not entail that their premises and reasoning are similar.

  19. tabula rasa
    Paul A. Rahe

    tabula rasa: Professor Rahe:  I’ve read a fair amount of Plato, but very little Aristotle (I have a vague recollection of reading some of thePolitics forty years ago in college). I recently download the Bartlett/Collins Nicomachean Ethics to my Kindle, but haven’t started it.

    My question:  Would theNicomachean Ethicsbe a good place to begin Aristotle?  If not, what should I use as gateway drugs?

    Aside from the Ethics, what other works of Aristotle would you suggest to a a guy in his early sixties who wishes to taste his best, but will unlikely read very broadly.  [My reading list will require me to live to about 125 to get through as it is]. · 12 hours ago

    Edited 12 hours ago

    Read the Nicomachean Ethicsfirst, then the Politics. I recommend Simpson’s translation. Then, Aristotle’s Rhetoric(perhaps in the Loeb Classical Library version) and his Poetics. · 10 hours ago

    Edited 10 hours ago

    Thanks Professor.  Your posts alone make Ricochet worth the price of admission.

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