Books That Rocked My World: Aristotle's “Nicomachean Ethics”
The world of books is as deep as it is wonderous. It's amazing how books written centuries ago can still start a spark in our modern minds. C.S. Lewis once said, "It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between." We recently asked our writing team to consider what book, not published in the last century, has most impacted their life. This is the first post of a continuing series.
Today, Fr. Damian Ference considers how Aristotle made a lasting impression on how he views virtue, friendship, and his own priesthood.
When I first received the request from the folks at Word On Fire to write an essay on a book that is over one hundred years old that has made a profound impact on my life, my initial thought was of Augustine’s Confessions. However, I figured that Confessions would be at the top of most people’s lists, so I spent some time really thinking about my life and the books that have influenced it. Most of the fiction that has marked my life has been written in the last century, so Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, and John Kennedy Toole were all out. So I started thinking about the classes I teach here at the seminary and about the books I most enjoy reading with my seminarians. I also started thinking about the way that I view the world, the human person, and human action in general. Then it became obvious. The book that is over one hundred years old that has most influenced me is Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle.
Now before you run out and buy a copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics there are a few things that you need to know. First, it’s not a well-written book. Scholars believe that Nicomachean Ethics is basically a compilation of class notes from Aristotle’s students, now divided into ten short books, so, stylistically speaking, Plato’s Republic, which is written in dialogue form, is much more fun to read than Nicomachean Ethics. Second, reading and studying Nicomachean Ethics (named after Nicomachus, the name of Aristotle’s father and his son) cannot make you good or ethical all by itself. According to Aristotle, and unlike his teacher Plato, simply knowing the good is not enough to make us good; we have to act. Third, it’s best to read Nicomachean Ethics with a friend, or a group of friends, especially if one of them has made his or her way through the book before. In other words, the content is rich, but it always helps to have a good guide to take you through it, which, as we’ll soon see, is a very Aristotelian principle.
Aristotle begins his treatise by stating that all people act for what they think will make them happy. It’s hard to argue this point. No matter what choices we make in life, we all want to be happy, and we all make choices according to this principle. The saint will choose a life of charity, self-sacrifice, service to the poor, purity, and generosity because she wants to be happy and believes such actions will bring about happiness. (Talking about saints when discussing a book written four hundred years before Christ is tricky because one has to stay on the natural level, but hopefully you get my point.) The heroin addict, on the other hand, may choose to steal, lie, cheat, and repeatedly stick himself in the arm with a needle, because, on some level, he believes that such action will make him happy. So, although we all act for what we think will make us happy, Aristotle argues that there is only one kind of life that will actually bring about happiness. And that life is the virtuous life.
So what is virtue, according to Aristotle? Virtue is an acquired habit of excellence at something. Think of any human activity and think of someone who is excellent at that activity and you are thinking of virtue, at least in terms of that particular craft. For example, I live in Cleveland. LeBron James is arguably the best basketball player in the world. He is a model of virtue in terms of basketball. You want to see what basketball looks like played at its highest level? Watch LeBron James. A good basketball player plays basketball well, a good farmer farms well, a good painter paints well, a good singer sings well, etc. Too, note that when it comes to learning what it means to be good at a particular craft, Aristotle wants us to experience real examples; he’s not satisfied with abstract theories. One does not best learn to swim or ride a bike by reading books about swimming or bike riding; one learns best by actually getting in the water or hopping on a bike and actually doing the activity. Books and some classroom instruction can help, but the best learning always comes from doing. Think for a moment about how children learn. They watch and then they act. Sometimes they don’t even realize all the influences around them, which is why it’s the job of parents to make sure their children are surrounded by good examples and protected from bad ones.
At the heart of the Nicomachean Ethics is the question about what it means to be an excellent (or virtuous) human being. We know what it means to be an excellent teacher, or an excellent volleyball player, or an excellent photographer, but what about being an excellent human being? Aristotle argues that an excellent human being is one who is virtuous, which is a person who knows the good, wants the good, and acts for the good. The virtuous person acts in the right way, at the right time, in the right place, for the right reason, and with the right people. The virtuous person is what Aristotle called the spoudaios, or excellent person, who becomes a model for the rest of us.
What does the excellent person do that is so exemplary? The excellent person knows what is good and right and chooses it on a consistent basis, avoiding activity that is not in line with virtue, and enjoys acting virtuously. The tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is actually a nice little narrative about moral virtue, which is always found in the middle, between a deficiency and an excess. Goldilocks (the golden mean) is one who avoids what is too hot or too cold, too big or too small, too soft or too hard, for what is “just right” or virtuous. In other words, Goldilocks is able to know what is good and chooses it. (Yes, I realize entering the house in the first place without permission was not virtuous, but that’s not the point.) The virtuous person, then, won’t eat too much or too little, won’t sleep too much or too little, won’t talk too much or too little, won’t exercise too much or too little. The virtuous person knows what to do every situation and does it. Aristotle also gets into very specific analysis of the cardinal virtues – courage, temperance, justice, and prudence – but space doesn’t afford me the time to get into all that here.
Perhaps one of the best parts of Nicomachean Ethics is the way in which Aristotle breaks down the four basic types of human character in Book VII: virtuous, continent, incontinent, and vicious. The way I teach my seminarians about these character types is with the following example: The virtuous man knows that porn is bad, he does not desire to view it, and doesn’t view it. The continent man knows that porn is bad, he does have a desire to view it, but he doesn’t view at it. (Note the conflict between knowing and desiring in the continent person.) The incontinent man knows that porn is bad, has a desire to view it, and views it. Finally, the vicious man thinks porn is good, desires to view it, and views it. What Aristotle presents here is true. Most of us are either continent or incontinent, but deep down we desire to be virtuous.
My favorite two books of Nicomachean Ethics are the ones in which Aristotle addresses friendship, Books VIII and IX. Aristotle believes that your friends reveal your character. Show me your friends and I’ll show you the type of person that you are. Again, he’s right. When I interview men for our seminary I spend a lot of time asking about their friends, because I can learn a lot about a potential seminarian by what he tells me about his friends. Aristotle thinks that there are three basic types of friendship: friendships of pleasure, friendships of utility, and true friendships. He argues that the true friend loves the other not for what the other can do or the kind of pleasures that come from spending time with the other, but the true friend loves the other as other for the sake of the other. According to Aristotle, true friendship is hard to find. Forget the hundreds or thousand of Facebook friends or Instagram followers you have; if you have three or four real friends, consider yourself blessed. Finally, Aristotle makes some timely observations in his treatise on friendship. He notes that truly good people enjoy time with their friends but also enjoy time in solitude, whereas people who can’t stand to be alone with themselves do not make for good friends, because they don’t even like themselves.
At the end of Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle argues that the best life, the most virtuous life is the contemplative life, the life of philosophical reflection. Of course, as Christians, we too would say that the best life is the life of contemplation. But we don’t become contemplatives over night. The good life consists of a strong desire to do the good, self-mastery, good role models, and a lot of effort on our part. We also need good examples of virtue in our life to show us what virtue looks like, and we need good friends to support us and keep us company on the journey. (Of course, we all need grace too, as we can’t save ourselves. But Aristotle was a pagan, so he wasn’t privy to that truth, so we can’t blame him.)
Over the years Aristotle has become a good friend of mine, and his Nicomachean Ethics has helped me become a better man, and, I hope, a better disciple and a better priest. If you’ve been reading my essays or you’ve ever heard me preach or teach, you’ve probably picked up his influence on me. (In this regard I’m in very good company with Thomas Aquinas!) Perhaps Aristotle can become your friend too, and reading his most famous philosophical treatise isn’t a bad place to start that friendship. Happy reading!