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Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle's Student, Alexander the Great, Conquered the World.
It was Better than Listening to Another Damn Lecture.

Last week at the library, I selected a series of audio lectures on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle.  Nancy, who was with me, gave me a look like, "suit yourself," and checked out a murder mystery and an historical novel about Henry Tudor.

Let me make this clear, when your wife gives you a "suit yourself" look when you've just selected an audio version of the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, you're damn well going to listen to the whole thing.  There's no way you can just say, "Well, I don't really care for it," and not finish it.  So every day driving to and from work, I've been listening to these lectures.

Aristotle is a bona-fide giant of intellectual achievement.  Virtually every field of knowledge in Western Civilization, from science to the arts, can trace its roots back to Aristotle.  The man is profound.  Truly, truly profound.

And godamighty, is he dull.

I should've known.  I read a much shorter work, The Poetics, in a class with Sheri Joseph, and it was genuinely fascinating, and has shaped my understanding of narrative structure from that day to this.  Nevertheless, even in The Poetics, Aristotle has a penchant for pointing out the stunningly obvious.  He's the man who pointed out a story must have a beginning, middle, and and an end.  Then, so help me, he goes on painstakingly to tell us what these terms mean: "The beginning is that part that has nothing before it but something after it; the middle is that part that has both something before it and something after it; and the end is that part that has something before it but nothing after it."  Thanks, Aristotle, for clearing that up.

Well, the Nicomachean Ethics is like that, only a lot longer.  After a long disquisition about the purpose of life, closely reasoned from such startling revelations as the purpose of a hand is to pick things up, and the purpose of a foot is to walk around on, Aristotle proceeds to examine the virtues.  

For the virtue of Temperance, which took about thirty minutes to thoroughly explore, it turns out the best way is between two extremes: we must neither be attracted to physical pleasures too much, nor must we be attracted too little,  Another thirty minutes were devoted to the virtue of Industry.  After careful analysis, Aristotle decides we must work neither too much nor too little.  On the virtue of Courage, the trick turns out to be that we must be neither too foolhardy nor too timid; somewhere in the middle is best.  It took about thirty minutes to settle this point.

The next thirty-minute lecture will be on the virtue of Prudence, and whether it is better to make up our minds hastily or to deliberate a point so long we never make them up at all.

I can hardly wait to hear what Aristotle will have to say about that.

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