A review of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins

The desire for learning came late to Winston Churchill. In his twenties, while stationed in India with the 4th Hussars, with the sudden conviction of his ignorance strong upon him, Churchill resolved to make up for his misspent school days, when he had languished at the bottom of the class. As he relates in My Early Life, the breeze for his own "second sailing" was a friend's remark that "Christ's gospel was the last word in Ethics." Churchill's curiosity was stirred:

This sounded good; but what were Ethics?…Judging from the context I thought they must mean ‘the public school spirit,' ‘playing the game,' ‘esprit de corps,' ‘honourable behavior,' ‘patriotism,' and the like. Then someone told me that Ethics were concerned not merely with the things you ought to do, but with why you ought to do them, and that there were whole books written on the subject.


Being book-shy (or maybe what is today termed an auditory learner), Churchill lamented: "I would have paid some scholar £2 at least to give me a lecture of an hour or an hour and a half about Ethics…. But here in Bangalore there was no one to tell me about Ethics for love or money."

And so Churchill's two-year bout of book-learning began. In his four or five hours of self-directed daily reading in history and philosophy (with the requested books sent by his delighted mother), he managed to encounter Aristotle's Politics but not his Nicomachean Ethics. Churchill's longing for "a concise compendious outline of Ethics" was not satisfied until a quarter-century later when he finally plowed through the companion volume to the Politics—by which point his verdict was along the lines of "it's just as I thought."

That clipped endorsement of Aristotle's philosophy of human affairs should not be taken as a sign of Churchill's indifference. Rather, it bespeaks the mature Churchill's lived familiarity with the ethical-political matters that are Aristotle's subject. Churchill was a man of character who bodied forth the virtues, especially courage, greatness of soul, and practical judgment. The fact that he recognized himself (and others from his rich store of historical and contemporary acquaintance) in Aristotle's sketches of the virtues (and vices) shows something about the enduring attraction and accuracy of Aristotle's framework, despite the subsequent revolutions in morality associated with Christianity, Machiavelli, Kant, and Nietzsche.

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At some point in the years between Bangalore and the prime ministership, Churchill did become aware of the distance between the counsel of the gospel and the code of the gentleman. In The Gathering Storm (the first of his six-volume history of the Second World War), he redrafts and redeploys the line from his friend that initiated his self-education, now with the aim of dissenting from it: "The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics. Everyone respects the Quakers. Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding states." Churchill goes on to make the case for the prudent and flexible use of force (without descending into out-and-out Machiavellianism). These reflections—which he calls "some principles of morals and action which may be a guide in the future"—are presented at the close of the devastating chapter devoted to "The Tragedy of Munich." I think it's fair to say that Churchill gave "the last word in Ethics" to Aristotle not Jesus—which is in a certain sense to say he gave the last word to himself, the man on the spot who discerns and chooses well. As Aristotle explains shortly before beginning his description of each of the virtues, the ethical standard is not supplied by fixed rules (no Ten Commandments, no categorical imperative) but rather by the morally serious individual (the spoudaios) who

judges each case correctly, and in each case what is true appears to him. For with respect to each characteristic, there are noble and pleasant things peculiar to it; and the serious person is distinguished perhaps most of all by his seeing what is true in each case, just as if he were a rule and measure of them (1113a30-35).


Of course, Churchill might not have picked up on all the nuances and puzzles of Aristotle's dialectical treatment of the human good. He was content to leave more abstruse matters to the scholars and theoreticians. But he understood the fundamental choice that had to be made between man understood as divinely contemplative and man understood as supremely composite and thus civic (a grown-togetherness of body and soul living deliberately with others similarly constructed). "After all," as he pithily put it, "a man's Life must be nailed to a cross either of Thought or Action." Aristotle chose Thought; Churchill chose Action. But their respective crosses are within hailing distance of one another since Aristotle thought deeply about action and Churchill acted with forethought (and then, as an afterthought, immortalized it all in writing). The political philosopher and the thoughtful statesman can admire one another.

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I suspect they would both admire the University of Chicago's new translation of the Nicomachean Ethics by Robert C. Bartlett (Boston College) and Susan D. Collins (University of Houston)—Aristotle because it strives for fidelity to his original text and intention, Churchill because of its readable English. Bartlett and Collins have succeeded in the task they set themselves: "to be as literal as sound English usage permits." Translation is never easy; moreover, ancient languages pose unique problems and Aristotle extra problems (his many translators agree in characterizing his style as terse and compressed, and his meaning as often allusive and indeterminate). The English renderings of Bartlett and Collins are better than sound; they come as close to graceful as one can with material that "tastes for all the world like chopped hay" (the verdict of the 18th-century poet and classicist Thomas Gray who, despite that metaphor, appreciated Aristotle).

As for fidelity, they take it most seriously. In "A Note on the Translation," they point to the astonishing fact that neither Thomas Aquinas nor Averroes, the greatest Christian and Islamic commentators on Aristotle, could read Greek. They were dependent on the labors of medieval translators. With those past accomplishments in view, fidelity requires the careful and consistent selection of English equivalents for key Greek terms. Despite a translator's obligation to subordinate himself to the author, the task is not purely neutral. Translation involves a certain inescapable measure of interpretation. One of the many virtues of this edition is that the translators have tried to make their interpretive choices transparent. While it's fairly standard to include a glossary (explaining the range of meaning of key terms), Bartlett and Collins offer an array of additional helps. There is a one-page outline of the book's argument; a chart illustrating the doctrine of the mean with the 11 virtues and their flanking vices (in English and Greek); a list of 129 key Greek terms with the English equivalents that are used (usually just one per Greek term, but up to five—logos, for example, appears as "account," "speech," "argument," "definition," and "ratio"); an index of proper names; and a general index. This last is really more a concordance, invaluable for tracking key words throughout the text since the references are by Bekker line number rather than page number, including how many times the Greek word appears on that line which may differ from the number of English appearances. And for good measure, there is a short introduction, a note on the translation where their approach is explained, a bibliography, and footnotes (blessedly, they are footnotes, not endnotes, and they don't overwhelm the text, averaging 48 brief elucidations per book). Finally, there is a 65-page interpretive essay that makes explicit Bartlett and Collins' general understanding of the Ethics. This is altogether an impressive package, beautifully designed and produced.

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It might be worth illustrating the pitfalls of the translator's enterprise with a couple of illustrative terms. Let's start with megalopsychia, a term often translated by its exact Latin equivalent: magnanimity. This was the virtue that Aquinas would have encountered in the translation of William of Moerbeke. For us today, however, "magnanimity" is not Latin, but a Latinate borrowing that has undergone marked shifts in meaning. Its older English meaning was strongly assimilated to "fortitude" (or to be more Anglo-Saxon, "doughtiness"). In the last couple of centuries, "magnanimity" has migrated toward "generosity" or "forgiveness" even. You can see how powerful words cut new channels as the current of the time alters.

This Christianizing shift is apparent in Churchill's use of the term in his famous epigraph to The Second World War: "In War: Resolution; In Defeat: Defiance; In Victory: Magnanimity; In Peace: Good Will." Abraham Lincoln's version of this same reparative stance was couched in explicitly Christian language when at the close of the Second Inaugural he called for "charity toward all." I'm quite ready to believe Churchill and Lincoln were right about how one ought to behave in these situations (and that Aristotle wouldn't in fact disagree), but to the extent that "magnanimity" is now carried in this more particular direction, it doesn't serve well as a translation of the comprehensive virtue of megalopsychia—a crowning characteristic that would be displayed not only in victory but in all the doings of life. Thus, Aristotle's sketch in book IV, chapter 3, describes how such an individual comports himself with respect to money, political power, good and bad fortune, danger, friends, and even how he moves his body and pitches his voice.

And so the search continues. F.H. Peters (1893) went with "high-mindedness" as does Martin Ostwald (1962); W. D. Ross (1925) with "pride." Both have serious deficiencies. "High-mindedness" captures the loftiness of megalopsychia but "mind" is narrower than "psyche." The overall impression given by "high-mindedness" is too anemic or ethereal. "Pride" strikes me as the worst of all choices, since pride carries heavy Christian baggage. It is, of course, important to think about the relationship and likely tension between Aristotle's megalopsychia and Christian humility (especially since the person characterized by megalopsychia can be perceived by others as haughty). Aquinas takes up this question. Nonetheless, one shouldn't prejudice the outcome one way or the other by exaggerating the contest through giving the name of the sin of sins to Aristotle's virtue of virtues.

Thus, our translators have adopted a more literal term, or in this case a phrase: "greatness of soul." This is not their coinage. Others before them had discovered its suitability; H. Rackham, the translator of the Loeb edition in 1926, more recently Roger Crisp in the 2000 Cambridge edition, Sarah Broadie and Christopher Rowe in the 2002 Oxford edition, and Joe Sachs in a 2002 edition by Focus Publishing all made the same choice. It's just that in almost every case Bartlett and Collins sort through the possibilities with a sure touch, always with the aim of allowing Aristotle to engage the modern reader directly.

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Of the dozens of available translations, probably their only serious rival on the score of literalness is that by Joe Sachs of St. John's College. Sachs, in fact, pushes much further toward the literal, sometimes rejecting the whole panoply of conventional choices in favor of fresh formulations that try to capture Aristotle's philosophic originality. Pointing out that even 4th-century Greeks would have felt surprise at the way terms such as energeia and hexis are used in the Ethics, Sachs crafts neologisms ("being-at-work" for energeia, rather than the usual "activity," as in the definition of the human good as "a being-at-work of the soul in accordance with virtue") designed not for a smooth ride but for an off-road experience of all the curves and bumps.

For classroom use, I would adopt Bartlett and Collins. However, it would be beneficial to keep Sachs on hand for occasional consultation, perhaps especially since there is a significant interpretive disagreement between them that affects the tone of the translations. This is most visible in how they translate to kalon. Bartlett and Collins follow standard practice in asserting that the term "requires at least three English words to capture its sense: that which is physically ‘beautiful,' in the first place, that which is beautiful in a moral sense, i.e., ‘noble,' and that which is in a more general sense ‘fine.'" From the first, they also more than hint that the paths of the noble and the true may diverge. By contrast, Sachs never strays from "the beautiful." The fact that we now tend to divide the aesthetic from the moral is no reason to obscure the fact that Aristotle did not. In truth, we don't always either; as Sachs explains, "the Greek uses the word in exactly the way we might say ‘that was a beautiful thing you did,' and Aristotle is emphatic that such a thing can be recognized only by sense-perception."

As Sachs reads Aristotle, the beautiful is the telos (the end) of moral virtue; it is prominent in Aristotle's extensive treatment of friendship (where the less-than-pretty aspects of justice, such as punishment, are themselves corrected or transcended); finally, the beautiful becomes the primary sense of the good, not just for human action but for the cosmos as well. The beautiful thus serves as a link (or a ladder) between the life devoted to ethical action and the contemplative life. Sachs finds harmonies more than dissonances in Aristotle's polyphonic layers of argument.

The possibility of such linkage can be glimpsed in a story that Winston Churchill tells of his own moment of openness to the purest forms of beauty. Although he struggled to pass the math exam for entry into England's military academy, he offers the following testimonial:

I had a feeling once about Mathematics, that I saw it all—Depth beyond depth was revealed to me—the Byss and the Abyss. I saw, as one might see the transit of Venus—or even the Lord Mayor's Show, a quantity passing through infinity and changing its sign from plus to minus. I saw exactly how it happened and why the tergiversation was inevitable: and how the one step involved all the others. It was like politics.


Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this passage is not that Churchill once experienced theoria, but rather the assertion that politics—that messy business filled with uncertainties—had for him a mathematical clarity and order.

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Whether Sachs is right or not about the identity of the good, the true, and the beautiful, translating to kalon as "the beautiful" does, I think, place readers in the best position to make their own judgment about its meaning and status. There is perhaps a touch of parti pris in the insistence of Bartlett and Collins on the limitations of the moral horizon (as seen from the twin, and rival, peaks of greatness of soul and justice in books 2-5). Despite their attention to language, they occasionally make claims that don't seem well supported by the text. For instance, in their presentation of the two books on friendship, they assert that "happiness reenters the scene" and that the "noble" departs (inasmuch as "strikingly absent here [in the opening definition of the lovable] is what is ‘noble'"). Their detailed index indicates otherwise. Book 8 is one of two books in which the word "happiness" never appears. A quick glance at the index suggests it never appears in book 9 either; however, a check of the line numbers reveals that it does appear a handful of times in 9.9—unfortunately, the index mistakenly lists these under book 7. Although the explicit considerations of happiness in books 1 and 10 are dense with the word (52 and 36 times to be exact), in the intervening books, "happiness" rarely or never appears. However, since at the end of Book 1 happiness was said to be "a certain activity of soul in accord with complete virtue," to which subject the inquiry turned, it is misleading to say that "the question of happiness as our end all but disappears" from Books 2-5 or that "happiness" reappears in Books 8-9. We may be more ready to "better contemplate happiness" (as the last chapter of Book 1 anticipated) as our understanding of virtue is rounded out (and remember, friendship is said to be either a virtue or "accompanied by virtue"), but the concern for happiness has throughout driven the examination of virtue. Whether in Book 2 or Book 8, happiness is as much there as not there.

So too, the claim about the disappearance of the noble is odd. It is true that Aristotle divides the lovable into three categories: the good, the pleasant, and the useful, matched with three types of friendship. However, those categories then serve to challenge and refine the ordinary view of friendship, such that soon enough only the friendship of the good is true friendship and, of course, what guides those true friends is to kalon. (Indeed, Aristotle recommends that decent folks act beautifully even towards false friends.) Thus, the two books on friendship are drenched in the noble/beautiful. The index reveals that the books most replete with references to the noble/beautiful are Book 3 (37 times, including the first indication that "the end of virtue" is "for the sake of the noble") and Book 9 (34 times).

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After Bartlett and Collins summarize the conclusion of Book 9, where "the noble" figures prominently, they express doubts about the perfect equality and sustainability of the friendship of the good, on the grounds that even rivals in well-doing are still rivals, seeking the larger share of the noble for themselves rather than for their friends, even if the friend is a sort of second self. Admittedly, there is something to this "after you, my dear Alphonse" problem; however, their certainty that they have seen through "the noble" seems to leave them less attentive to the troubles in Aristotle's treatment of the alternative: namely, the contemplative life as exemplified by the pre-Socratic cosmologists. This life of pure theoria suddenly emerges in Book 10 as the superior, happier alternative to the political life. Ronna Burger, however, in her very fine book, Aristotle's Dialogue with Socrates: On the "Nicomachean Ethics," (2008) argues that there are parallel inadequacies—failures of self-knowledge—in these two widely divergent lives. One sign of the problem is that this version of wisdom has no place for political philosophy, for the very activity that Aristotle has been engaged in throughout the Ethics and which he enlarges and extends when he invites us to pursue the inquiry into the regime in his Politics. Burger finds a resolution (and the peak of happiness) not so much in Aristotle's words as in his (and our) deeds:

The energeia of theōria in which we have participated is not solitary or disinterested contemplation of the cosmic whole. Its subject matter is the human things—which means, above all, those conceptions of the just, the beautiful, and the good that play a determinative role in political life—and its way of proceeding, in the absence of perfect wisdom, is an ascent from opinion through the examination of opinion. This is an energeia of theōria that takes place through the activity of sharing speeches and thoughts, which is, as the discussion of friendship established, what living together means for human beings; it is in that way a realization at once of our political and our rational nature, which the dichotomy of political action and contemplation hold apart.

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This dispute does not need to be settled here, especially since all these commentators agree on the essential point: our need of Aristotle. Bartlett and Collins trenchantly summarize the main objection to the project of recovery: "Everybody now knows that nobody knows what the good life is!" In response, they simply note that Aristotle undertook his investigations into the human good undeterred by either the radical relativists of his own day or the then reigning moral orthodoxy. The fact that relativism is now the politically correct position should not be an insuperable obstacle to appreciating Aristotle. They hold out the hope that modern readers, like readers throughout the ages and across civilizations (Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic), will find the work "both compelling and liberating." Perhaps more than ever, individuals cut adrift seek answers to the questions raised in the Nicomachean Ethics: What is a happy life? How much of happiness is within my power? What characteristics would make me a better person? Do those characteristics work together or are they sometimes at odds? Do I need knowledge to be virtuous—if so, what kind of knowledge? How should I bring up my children? What can the laws do to help? Is self-love a good thing or not? What about pleasure—how does it figure in? What are friends for? How should I live my life?

In September 1902, W.E.B. Du Bois published an essay in The Atlantic Monthly entitled "Of the Training of Black Men." This essay, which appeared the following year in hisThe Souls of Black Folk, closed with a wonderful evocation of the great good of great books. Although Du Bois's embrace of liberal learning was made with special reference to the needs of African Americans, what he said of the "boon and guerdon" of entering a timeless conversation is universal: "I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil." This new translation of the Nicomachean Ethics by Bartlett and Collins makes the summoning of Aristotle that much easier. A wedding with truth, as with other weddings, is just the beginning of a long and fruitful, occasionally contentious, dialogue between the best of friends.

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For Correspondence on this review, click here.