An Epicurean Study of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics

  • There is some well known characterization I which readinf Aristotle is like eating straw, right? Excellent dramatization Godfrey ... and now to read what Don wrote!

  • There is some well known characterization I which readinf Aristotle is like eating straw, right

    "Reading Aristotle is a bit like eating dried hay."

    Thomas Gray (1716 – 1771)


    At least you could lie down in a pile of hay and take a nap.

  • THE Thomas Gray!?

    Thomas Gray Archive : Texts : Letters : Letter ID letters.0139


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    for my Part I read Aristotle; his Poeticks, Politicks, and Morals, tho' I don't well know, wch is which. in the first Place he is the hardest Author by far I ever meddled with. then he has a dry Conciseness, that makes one imagine one is perusing a Table of Contents rather than a Book: it tasts for all the World like chop'd Hay, or rather like chop'd Logick; for he has a violent Affection to that Art, being in some Sort his own Invention; so that he often loses himself in little trifleing Distinctions & verbal Niceties, & what is worse leaves you to extricate yourself as you can. thirdly he has suffer'd vastly by the Transcribblers, as all Authors of great Brevity necessarily must.

  • I have to agree with Gray that Aristotle "often loses himself in little trifleing Distinctions & verbal Niceties, & what is worse leaves you to extricate yourself as you can."

    I expected to be overwhelmed and intimidated by Nichomachean Ethics, but I've just been disappointed. Aristotle has been this all-powerful bugaboo of Western Civilization, I expected to be in awe or something. I'm not getting that vibe. It's just a slog sometimes to work through his verbage.

    Oh, and Socrates is still a jerk in my opinion. Just saying.

  • Aristotle has been this all-powerful bugaboo of Western Civilization, I expected to be in awe or something.

    Which is exactly the message that is drummed into the minds of anyone who reads the work of Ayn Rand and her supporters. "Underwhelming" is the best way to describe my reaction to the Aristotle I have read. I presume (or hope) that in context and in the original he was better. And he seems to have pushed back against Plato and deserves a lot of credit for that. But is he worth being held up as the paragon of Western thought? I can't see that at all.


    My opinion of Socrates is a ditto as well. Many of the other philosophers listed by Diogenes Laertius seem to have been just as sharp, and much more helpful, than this Socrates-Plato-Aristotle axis that we are supposed to worship as the best the west has to offer.

  • Commentary for Part 1 of Book 3 is now available:

    Epicurean Sage - Book 3 Part 1 Nichomachean Ethics
    < Back to Book 2, Part 2, Commentary Book 3 begins with more categorizing by Aristotle. The first importance categories he identifies are actions and emotions…
    sites.google.com

    I found some of Aristotle's observations interesting in this section, but still aggravated about his being obstinate with respect to the role of pleasure in decision-making. I don't expect that to change.

  • At first I was thinking that hekousion and akiusion might have become what the Stoics call giving assent and not giving assent (I can't remember if those are the exact terms) but, reading on, maybe not. Any thoughts on that?

  • At first I was thinking that hekousion and akiusion might have become what the Stoics call giving assent and not giving assent (I can't remember if those are the exact terms) but, reading on, maybe not. Any thoughts on that?

    Excellent observation. I think both your initial thought and subsequent rethinking are on the right track. I'll admit that I was unfamiliar with Stoic "assent." I think there is something in Stoicism similar to voluntary/involuntary but assent doesn't seem to be it. I found the excerpt from Stanford below helpful on assent.

    Stoic assent appears to be connected with accepting sense impressions or not (from my 15 minutes poking around the Internet!). Voluntary/involuntary would seem more about taking responsibility - or being held responsible - for our actions. Virtue - in Aristotle - seems like it will be bound up with this idea.

    And thanks for reading my notes, Godfrey !! :)

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    Though a person may have no choice about whether she has a particular rational impression, there is another power of the commanding faculty which the Stoics call ‘assent’ and whether one assents to a rational impression is a matter of volition. To assent to an impression is to take its content as true. To withhold assent is to suspend judgement about whether it is true. Because both impression and assent are part of one and the same commanding faculty, there can be no conflict between separate and distinct rational and nonrational elements within oneself – a fight which reason might lose. Compare this situation with Plato’s description of the conflict between the inferior soul within us which is taken in by sensory illusions and the calculating part which is not (Rep. X, 602e). There is no reason to think that the calculating part can always win the epistemological civil war which Plato imagines to take place within us. But because the impression and assent are both aspects of one and the same commanding faculty according to the Stoics, they think that we can always avoid falling into error if only our reason is sufficiently disciplined. In a similar fashion, impulses or desires are movements of the soul toward something. In a rational creature, these are exercises of the rational faculty which do not arise without assent. Thus, a movement of the soul toward X is not automatically consequent upon the impression that X is desirable. This is what the Stoics’ opponents, the Academic Skeptics, argue against them is possible (Plutarch, 69A.) The Stoics, however, claim that there will be no impulse toward X – much less an action – unless one assents to the impression (Plutarch, 53S). The upshot of this is that all desires are not only (at least potentially) under the control of reason, they are acts of reason. Thus there could be no gap between forming the decisive judgement that one ought to do X and an effective impulse to do X.

  • This is a little of track but I had to share this while I was poking around:

    CHANCE (τύχη), FATE (εἱµαρµένη), 'WHATDEPENDS ON US' (τὸ ἐφ' ἡµῖν) AND PROVIDENCE (πρόνοια) IN PLUTARCH'S QUAESTIONES CONVIVALES
    ABSTRACT One of the many philosophical issues discussed throughout Plutarch's Quaestiones...
    www.scielo.br

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    When, during a discussion on the use of flowers during the symposium, it is argued that their only natural purpose is to produce visual and olfactory pleasure, it is not implied the Epicurean doctrine of ἡδονή as τέλος.17 According to Erato (a friend of Plutarch), flowers produce pleasure only because they were created with that particular purpose:


    [...] ἕν γὰρ αὐτὸ δοκεῖ τοὐναντίον, εἰ µηδὲν ἡ φύσις, ὡς ὑµεῖς φατε, µάτην πεποίηκε, ταῦτα τῆς ἡδονῆς πεποιῆσθαι χάριν, ἃ µηδὲν ἄλλο χρήσιµον ἔχοντα µόνον εὐφραίνειν πέφυκεν. (646C3-5)


    [...] for I think, on the contrary, that if nature has made nothing in vain (as you claim, I believe), it is for pleasure’s sake that she has made what by their nature only serve to delight us and possess no other useful quality.

    That is a VERY narrow view of the natural world from Plutarch.

  • I am sorry I am slow in reading the commentary but I will eventually get there. As to the Stoic assent issue, it seems to me that either in DeWitt or one of the commentaries I've read in the past, an analogy is made (by someone, can't remember who) between the "assent" issue and the Epicurean discussion of "phantastic" impressions. I know that DeWitt has a section on this but I don't think that's the only place I have read this.


    I seem to also recall that the parallels or similarities are wrapped up in something else that we've not discussed very much, that the Stoics were in a way "materialists" too (perhaps in relation to sensation that is what I am remembering). There's a lot of confusing discussion in the commentaries about thought processes and how the mind "grasps" things, but I don't have any impression as to where Aristotle was on grasping /assent.

  • Maybe no need but I will anyway. I think you're on the track of what quite possibly is the very most important aspect of Epicurus which as always impressed me as not so much the conclusion ("pleasure" as the highest good) but the method of establishing confidence that the conclusion is correct.


    We will never be omnipotent or omniscient and therefore to hold "confidence" to that standard or proof is nonsensical. But that's what 2000 years has told us to do.


    Aristotle was apparently in the process of breaking free from Plato but did not go nearly far enough. Artificial rules and categories are just as misleading as platonic absolutes. (That's the critique of "essentialism" that Dawkins makes.) Epicurus finished the job, but that aspect has been buried.


    There is a lot to be uncovered in the final step from Aristotle to Epicurus (some of it is in Philodemus on Signs) but I am convinced if we uncover and expose to a wider audience the insufficiency if Aristotle then we not only blow a hole in Objectivism (desirable in itself) but we show the way to a common sense method of thinking that also finally kicks the supports out from supernatural religion.


    And going through Nichomachean ethics is a good place to start

  • Just a couple of comments from the far bleachers:


    First, while we might agree on the failings of Aristotle (and certainly Plato), I think we are well-served to remember that Epicurus did owe them an intellectual debt – and that his project was of a different order, even as it required him to jettison errors of his predecessors and, in the interest of therapeía, to simplify (at least in the limited Epicurean corpus available to us).


    For example, I posted before (in a different context) this paper: https://www.academia.edu/34402…mail_work_card=view-paper, which examines Epicurus’ debt to Plato – as well as some of what Epicurus rejected or corrected, e.g.:


    “Appropriating Plato’s premise of the immediacy of apprehension and the affinity of knower to known, Epicurus declares the real immediacy and affinity to be physical.42 He has even pirated Plato’s argument, that mere re[1]presentations cannot be knowledge.43 Hence the odd sounding, now physicalist, Epicurean claim that what we know is reality. What Plato said of sense perception, that it cannot be knowledge since it does not capture the being (ousias) of things but must remain irredeemably subjective, reflecting only the way things seem to an individual (ta idia) has been turned against Plato by Epicurus: Our perceptions are what is real; ideas are the mere representations.”


    And Aristotle (as I recall in my thickly mist-shrouded memory), did at least define telos in terms of a fully lived life. But Cassius’ comment – “Aristotle was apparently in the process of breaking free from Plato but did not go nearly far enough. Artificial rules and categories are just as misleading as platonic absolutes. (That's the critique of "essentialism" that Dawkins makes.) Epicurus finished the job, but that aspect has been buried.” – seems surely on the mark.


    Second, with regard to telos and the summum bonum, DeWitt (under the heading “The Summum Bonum Fallacy in Chapter XII “The New Hedonism,” beginning on. P. 219) thought it was an error to conflate the two: “To Epicurus pleasure was the telos and life itself was the greatest good. … The belief that life itself is the greatest good conditions the whole ethical doctrine of Epicurus.”


    DeWitt goes on to unpack how he thought the error of conflation came about.


    Now, back to the beer and popcorn bleachers … and Philodemus’ poetry … ;)

  • comments from the far bleachers

    All comments always welcome! We're all learning. :)


    First, while we might agree on the failings of Aristotle (and certainly Plato), I think we are well-served to remember that Epicurus did owe them an intellectual debt – and that his project was of a different order, even as it required him to jettison errors of his predecessors and, in the interest of therapeía, to simplify (at least in the limited Epicurean corpus available to us).

    I'll admit that my impatience with Aristotle is sometimes - let's say - overly enthusiastic. I need to remind myself that he's basically making things up as he goes along - *literally*! His is some of the - if not *the* - first attempts to systematically examine these ideas. For all my, pooh-poohing in my notes, I do have respect (but not unquestioning awe!) for his place in Western intellectual history.

    I also need to read that paper you referenced again (I've skimmed it in the past), but - at this time - I'm not sure I would phrase it that Epicurus owed Plato and Aristotle "an intellectual debt." It seems to me that Epicurus owed much, much more to the Democritean strain of Greek philosophy than he did to Plato & Aristotle. However, all the schools - and there were a myriad of them - all knew of each other, sparred with each other, responded to each other. Several of Epicurus's and Metrodorus's works were responses to other schools.

    We I write this post, I see Epicurus as more of a reactionary against the Socratic lineage than owing a debt to it, other than the debt a knife owes a whetstone.

    So, one of my goals for this reading of Nichomachean Ethics (NE) is to get an idea of what Epicurus would have had access to, what was the intellectual background like in which he was formulating his own ideas. Epicurus claimed he was "self-taught" but that's never, of course, entirely true.

    Aristotle (as I recall in my thickly mist-shrouded memory), did at least define telos in terms of a fully lived life.

    That's one of the areas I'd say Epicurus disagreed with Aristotle. My reading of NE is that Aristotle didn't think you could call anyone "happy" - no one could be said to have "well-being" (eudaimonia) - until they had lived their entire life and were dead. "Oh, she lived a happy life." Epicurus taught that we can have eudaimonia here and now.

    Second, with regard to telos and the summum bonum, DeWitt (under the heading “The Summum Bonum Fallacy in Chapter XII “The New Hedonism,” beginning on. P. 219) thought it was an error to conflate the two: “To Epicurus pleasure was the telos and life itself was the greatest good. … The belief that life itself is the greatest good conditions the whole ethical doctrine of Epicurus.”


    DeWitt goes on to unpack how he thought the error of conflation came about.

    I've posted elsewhere on this forum that I reject Dewitt's "Epicurus said life is the greatest good" assertion. I see no evidence for this in the extant texts, and, to me, DeWitt's evidence doesn't hold up to scrutiny.


    Now, pass me that popcorn and hand me a beer ^^

  • other than the debt a knife owes a whetstone.


    Well put!


    That's one of the areas I'd say Epicurus disagreed with Aristotle. My reading of NE is that Aristotle didn't think you could call anyone "happy" - no one could be said to have "well-being" (eudaimonia) - until they had lived their entire life and were dead. "Oh, she lived a happy life." Epicurus taught that we can have eudaimonia here and now.

    I agree. And I sometimes think the Stoics made that a kind of self-righteous pat on the back.


    I've posted elsewhere on this forum that I reject Dewitt's "Epicurus said life is the greatest good" assertion. I see no evidence for this in the extant texts, and, to me, DeWitt's evidence doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

    Hmmm. I'll have to give DeWitt a more thorough scrutiny on this. Being alive certainly is an existential requirement for any telos -- albeit that is likely a trivial parsing ...


    Now, pass me that popcorn and hand me a beer

    With pleasure, my friend! ^^

  • Hmmm. I'll have to give DeWitt a more thorough scrutiny on this. Being alive certainly is an existential requirement for any telos -- albeit that is likely a trivial parsing ...

    My take on this is that DeWitt is clearly onto something, but might not be framing it exactly as it should be. Not saying I can do better, but as you note, "being alive" *is* a requirement for any telos, or as I think DeWitt put it in a more memorable way, something like "pleasure has no meaning except to the living."


    And I feel sure that Don would agree with that point -- that pleasure has meaning only to the living.


    So the issue of clarity seems to me to come in unwinding what it means to use the phrase "the greatest good." The word "good" has multiple meanings or subtleties, just like the word "true" as Dewitt discusses, more successfully I think, in discussing "all sensations are true." And even "greatest" might be open to shades of meaning.


    In the end my view of this is that DeWitt is making a very important point, but he's not explaining it as well as he does with "all sensations are true," The issue seems to me is to be that we need to attack the shades of meaning and ambiguities in the word "good" -- which we know that Epicurus was challenging given his other statement against walking around uselessly harping on the meaning of "good."


    I give credit to DeWitt for highlighting the issue, even if he doesn't drive it home to an optimum conclusion.

  • Going a little further, I think the way we unwind *all sensations are true" gives us a good pattern. Sounds like Epicurus did say something like that, but if we take it at face value and unthinkingly, then we and he both look like fools. The statement has to be considered and understood at a deeper level - at the level in which we see "true" means "honest" in this context, rather than "fully consistent with the actual and verifiable facts."


    Same goes with considering pleasure to be the highest or greatest good. If we pursue a particular pleasure recklessly and singlemindedly we can easily get ourselves killed and again look like - or be - a fool. Words have to be evaluated in context, and our human context requires us to be alive in order for pleasure to have any meaning to us. Getting ourselves killed is generally not the best way to maximize our future net pleasure. So considering these words ("pursue pleasure!") outside of our human context can get us into big trouble very fast. The penalty for misunderstanding this might not just be more pain than pleasure - the penalty might well be premature death. (And looked at in that way, this ultimate issue is outside the weighing of net pleasure vs pain. If you get yourself killed instantly driving 200 miles an hour you don't in fact experience more pain than pleasure from that choice, you die instantly. So this too is a point that the mind has to understand and isn't revealed purely through the senses.)


    That's what I think Dewitt grasps and is on to, and this is an example of aggressive thinking which I think makes him one of the best interpreters of Epicurus for practical application of the philosophy. Yes pursue pleasure as the end (because virtue and holiness are illusions), but unless you are sure about your choice (dying for a friend might be an example) don't get yourself killed doing it. Life comes first in order that you may have pleasure.


    Its kind of hard to accept it, but it may have taken Dewitt to bring down to earth something that should always have been obvious in the teachings of Epicurus. I don't know any other commentator who has raised this point as well as Dewitt or even thought it significant to talk about. Most commentators are content to let Epicurus sound superficially like a spoiled child without going to bat for a reasonable interpretation of what he was saying.


    In contrast, I suspect this relationship was in fact obvious to Epicurus' followers in the ancient world before the Great Corruption took over.

  • Don 's posts here have inspired me to finally delve into the NE, and I'm finding it quite fascinating. I'm working my way through Book 1, where Aristotle at great length dissects various meanings of good in an attempt to determine the good. Even though I don't expect to come to the conclusion that he does, going through his process (which to my limited knowledge is considered the gold standard for this subject) is a good exercise to refine my own Epicurean ideas.


    Along the way, various phrases pop out which Epicurus must have latched onto either to agree with or to refute. For me, the most prominent so far is the idea early in Book 1 that the greatest good must relate to the polis (politics) as that encompasses so many other endeavors. Of course Epicurus is often said to counsel against getting caught up in politics: this then becomes fundamental to his critique of Aristotle’s analysis of the good. It would appear that rather than requiring his followers to avoid politics, he's telling them how to think about the good.