A review of Aristotle's Dialogue with Socrates: On the "Nicomachean Ethics", by Ronna Burger

Ronna Burger's impressive new work, Aristotle's Dialogue with Socrates, is the fruit of a meticulous study of the Nicomachean Ethics. Itself a nuanced dialogue with Aristotle, Burger's book proposes that we read the Ethics as Aristotle's response to the ironic wisdom of Plato's Socrates. It thus brings out a dimension of the Ethics that no other treatment has: Aristotle's conversation with his teacher and his teacher's teacher.

Burger approaches this conversation with persistence, curiosity, and humility. From the introduction of the question of the human good and happiness in Book I of the Ethics through the final discussion of happiness and the turn to the Politics in Book X, she probes the corners of this complex work, chapter by chapter, line by line, sometimes word by word. In the course of her reflections, she considers Aristotle's seven explicit references to Socrates, three explicit references to Plato, and his several statements about philosophy, contemplation, and the theoretical life (all usefully collated in an appendix). She also draws out implicit references to Platonic dialogues to show how "in the treatment of almost every topic covered in the course of the Ethics, one can hear the echo of a discussion in the Platonic dialogues." As she interprets these echoes, Burger illuminates such vexed questions as Aristotle's various audiences; the meaning of function (ergon) and activity (energeia); the limits of the virtues, especially justice; prudence and the relation between ethical and intellectual virtue; the significance of the "new beginning" and "discovery of nature" in Book VII; the two treatments of pleasure and the lengthy investigation of friendship; and the concluding elevation of the theoretical life as best for a human being. In each of these discussions, she offers thought-provoking insights. Even the reader who disagrees with Burger will appreciate the freshness of her approach to the text.

Burger, a professor of philosophy at Tulane University, seeks to show how the Ethics can and must be read as a dialogue between Aristotle and Socrates, and as a kind of deed. The animating question of her study is "[H]ow is the teaching of the Ethics about human happiness to be understood when its speeches are interpreted in light of the deed that we can call the action of the Ethics?" As we come to see, this action is "the sharing of speeches and thoughts," and 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." As such, the action of the Ethics reveals itself to be a dialogue not only with the Platonic Socrates or the Socratic Plato, but also with its readers. By engaging interlocutors past and present, the work shows how the sharing of speeches and thoughts constitutes the highest form of friendship and "a realization at once of our political and our rational nature."

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The Ethics begins from opinions about happiness, and particularly the opinions that are the subject matter of politics: those that concern "the beautiful and just things" and identify ethical virtue with the human good and the best life. This beginning point is crucial. Highlighting the Socratic claim that virtue is knowledge, Aristotle in effect stages a debate with Socrates, whose claim would destroy the common understanding of virtue—for example, courage—as something moral, not intellectual. In his first explicit reference to Socrates, Aristotle attributes to him and then rejects the claim that courage is knowledge. That this representation is a caricature is indicated by the second reference in the Ethics to Socrates and his infamous irony; yet, Burger argues, Aristotle will ultimately concede a version of the Socratic position at the end of Book VI "with the acknowledgment of the truth in the Socratic claim that phronÄ“sis [prudence] makes all the virtues a whole." But by deferring this conclusion, Aristotle is able to show the inadequacies of an overly theoretical or "intellectualist" view of virtue, associated with the "pre-Socratic cosmologist," and to illuminate and investigate from the "inside" the opinions about the beautiful and the just that constitute the principles of ethical virtue.

Aristotle's examination of the first five virtues highlights the beautiful (to kalon) as the end or goal of ethical virtue. The beautiful as an end provides the motivation of ethical action and prevents the reduction of virtue to knowledge, which is the tendency of the Socratic claim. At its peak in the first complete virtue, "greatness of soul," or magnanimity, the beautiful seeks to be an "independent principle" of ethical virtue. The limits of this seeking point in the direction of the second complete virtue and principle, namely, justice: "Greatness of soul appears in the ethical world as the beautiful incarnate; but at its core is a demand for justice—for the unequal honor that superior worth deserves—which cannot be satisfied." Yet Aristotle's investigation of ethical virtue, and its two complete virtues, also shows how neither principle on its own or in conjunction with the other can provide an independent basis for ethical virtue; indeed, the beautiful and the just are sometimes in tension with each other.

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Burger's presentation of the argument of the Ethics in Books I through V prepares for the continued investigation of these limitations and their consequences in Books VI through X. I note only a couple of central themes of her rich study of these books. In addition to deferring the Socratic view that virtue is knowledge, Burger argues, Aristotle indicates that the beautiful is a "common principle that ethical virtue shares with love of wisdom." As this common principle, which is at the core of "philosophical eros," the beautiful "arouses a paradoxically disinterested longing," which strives to transcend "self-interest" and to possess that which cannot be possessed. But what, then, is the implication for a pursuit of wisdom motivated by the love of the beautiful? On the one hand, this pursuit leads to "pure theōria" as the "solitary or disinterested contemplation of the cosmic whole"; on the other hand, it leads to the highest form of friendship and theōriaunderstood as the sharing of speeches and thoughts about the just, the beautiful, and the good. In the first case, the love of the beautiful offers a kind of illusion: to be led by this illusion is to seek that which cannot be possessed and to lack awareness of how one's theoretical activity is in the service of one's own good. In the second case, however, the love of the beautiful leads to the sharing of speeches and thoughts about the human things, the activity that is the core of philosophy, the ground of true friendship, and the highest human good.

Aristotle thus refines the view of the "serious" (spoudaios) human being, who is the source of correct opinions about the just, the beautiful, and the good, and he overturns the intellectualist views of pre-Socratics or misguided Socratics who err in understanding the philosophic life as the solitary or disinterested contemplation of the cosmos. Like the Platonic Socrates, then, Aristotle brings philosophy down from the heavens into the cities and helps us to see how political philosophy is its "eccentric core."

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Since Burger's study of the Ethics is itself dialogic, it leaves its readers with important questions, three of which I mention in conclusion. First, even if, "in the treatment of almost every topic covered in the course of the Ethics, one can hear the echo of a discussion in the Platonic dialogues," is it necessary to read the work through the Platonic-Socratic lens that Burger provides? Even if the Ethics can be read through this lens—a claim for which Burger's work provides powerful evidence—must it be read in this way? A consideration of this question is important because the way in which the Ethicsis read is connected to, among other things, Burger's central conclusions that the text must be understood in light of its action (the sharing of speeches and thoughts regarding the human things), and that this action constitutes theōria and the philosophic life properly understood.

This question points to a second: if Aristotle is intent on correcting the intellectualist picture of the philosophic life, why would his explicit depictions of this life, both in Book VI and in Book X, preserve and even emphasize the picture of philosophy as a contemplative activity whose focus is not the human things per se but those "more divine in their nature"—for example, "the things of which the cosmos is composed?" Indeed, in light of the true picture of the philosophic life, what are we to make of Aristotle's own scientific and metaphysical works—where do they and the activity they reflect belong in the life of philosophy that Burger's Aristotle points to?

Finally, is love of the beautiful rightly said to be the motivation of the philosophic life? As Burger acknowledges, even the apparently disinterested contemplation of the pre-Socratic cosmologist proves to be in the service of his good, and it would seem that any inquiry into the cosmic whole, whether by the pre-Socratic or the modern natural philosopher, is profoundly connected with the human good. By Burger's own account, moreover, the good proves so fundamental in the pursuit of wisdom about the human things that it may be asked whether, for the Platonic Socrates and Socratic Aristotle, it is the good—and not the beautiful—that is the motivation of this pursuit.

To raise these questions is only to acknowledge the excellence of Burger's study of the Ethics. She invites her readers to reflect on the deepest ethical and theoretical questions, and to consider the alternatives Aristotle presents. Her impressive work is clearly the fruit of much solitary labor as well as friendly conversation, and it demonstrates Burger's grasp not only of Aristotle's thought but of the many Platonic dialogues she places in conversation with it. Above all, it is a book that testifies to the author's philosophic sensibility and humanity, and especially to her deeply humane view of the character and goodness of the philosophic life.