14 November 2006

Aristotelian Ethics as Civic

I shall end today my consideration of Richard Kraut's recent anthology (The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics) with a brief appreciation of Malcolm Schofield's "Aristotle's Political Ethics", which, as I have said, I regard as one of the finest essays in the collection.

I would not say it is 'the finest', because there are other fine contributions, and to pick out one above the others without reference to some particular purpose or aspect would not be possible. Nor of course would I be prepared to assign this essay the ranking of 1 as the best, and then rank the other 15 essays in decreasing order after that, even though I have studied them thoroughly and (as readers of this blog will know) have exposed the weaknesses and strengths of many of them. (I don't add this entirely in jest, as we can hardly be capable of ranking big and complex things in that way, if we would not thus rank small and relatively homogeneous things, nor could we be good at drawing up or applying rankings for big decisions in our lives, unless we had become practiced at it in relatively unimportant things).

What I particularly like about Schofield's contribution, is that it draws attention--with entirely sound scholarship and good judgment--to the way in which Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, from start to finish, conceives of an individual ethical agent as naturally belonging to a political community, and that it shows how the treatise is throughout an expression of Aristotle's conviction that a human being is a politikon zwon:

...I shall bring together a range of evidence--mostly from the NE, but some from the Politics--confirming that for Aristotle the humanness of the good and the happiness and the virtue with which the NE is preoccupied are things essentially social and political. I shall be concentrating on the way in which he works this out in his treatment of just three topics: self-sufficiency, the general virtue of justice, and practical wisdom. But there are, in fact, a huge number of passages where it comes home to the reader that Aristotle takes it for granted that the city is the major forum in which life, and therefore the good life, is lived. The assumption permeates the books on justice and friendship in particular, but is also operative ... in the treatment of the other virtues. As Ross's (1925) translation puts it with customary Aristotelian pithiness: "man is born for citizenship" (NE I.7.1097b11).
Now many of the felt difficulties in NE, I believe, can be resolved if we approach it in this way, such as the nagging sense many of us have that NE should include, but lacks, something like a moral 'code' or a discussion of 'precepts' to complement its exposition of the virtues (these will be supplied by the laws and practices of the polis); and, furthermore, this approach gives a new coherence to the treatise, since it reveals the 'hierachical structure' of NE, as this perceptive paragraph by Schofield makes clear:
Of course, when the enemy attack, I need courage as well as justice to stand firm in the line. Acting justly in this instance rides on the back of courageous behavior. Justice may explain why on this occasion I am displaying my courage on behalf of the city. But as Aristotle sees it, acting justly is always likely to require the exercise of other more basic virtues, presumably because we are always having to cope with emotions and impulses--on the battlefield, fear and daring--which the ordinary moral virtues enable us to handle appropriately. This indicates why justice is "complete excellence to the highest degree". It is complete in the first instance because--as Aristotle implies in the passage just quoted--there is no basic virtue you may not be required to exercise in acting justly. Hence his endorsement of the saying: "In justice is every virtue gathered." It is complete in the highest degree because its exercise perfects each of the other virtues. Inasmuch as the good of the city is "greater and more complete" (NE I.2.1094b8) than the good of the individual, courage exercised in defense of the city will simply be a more admirable thing--courage at its very best--than courage in coping with life-threatening disease or the perils of seafaring. Book III confirms that death in battle is death in the circumstances of what is described as "the greatest and most admirable danger" (NE III.6.1115a30-31) -- no doubt precisely because it is a sacrifice made for a whole community at risk, and so honored "in cities and by monarchs" (1115a32).
This essay by Schofield, indeed, is one of the very first things I would put in the hands of a student as a guide to understanding the ethics, as it deals with something so fundamental to Aristotle's approach, yet so alien, at least initially so, to us.