Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.05.15

Michael Pakaluk, Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics Books VIII and IX.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1998.  Pp. xiii + 239.  ISBN 0-19-875103-6 (hb).  ISBN 0-19-875104-4 (pb).  

Reviewed by Scott Carson, Ohio University
Word count: 1704 words

For a variety of reasons, some of them historical, some of them philosophical, Aristotle's treatment of friendship in Books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics has generated less scholarly commentary in English than it might have. The present volume, which is the first (and so far, the only) installment in the Clarendon Aristotle Series treatment of the NE, does an admirable job of continuing the fine tradition of the series by offering an impeccable translation of Books VIII and IX and providing some much needed commentary in English on a neglected aspect of Aristotle's ethical theory.

The translation is crisp and fluid, showing the marked attention to textual detail that has become the hallmark of the Series, and the commentary displays Pakaluk's deep familiarity with the philosophical issues involved in Aristotle's analysis of the types of friendship. Pakaluk's commentary is careful and methodical, emphasizing, as is customary in the series, the analysis of arguments. (There are times when literary notes might have been helpful. For example, at 1155a32-35 Aristotle contrasts different views about the nature of friendship by opposing the saying "Birds of a feather flock together" to "all such men are 'potters' to one another." The first saying is perhaps self-explanatory, but it might be helpful to note, with Rackham and Irwin,1 that the second is an allusion to Hesiod, Works and Days 25. Pakaluk does not explain literary allusions of this sort.) Since the translation does not aim at literary excellence but rather philosophical clarity, I will say little about its merits (which are many) and less about its demerits (which are few), and focus my attention on matters of philosophical importance and the commentary.

With respect to the translation, it will be useful to compare Pakaluk's rendering of 1161b16-27, a passage that also provides an interesting problem of exegesis, with that of Irwin and Ross. Here is Pakaluk's version:

[1161b16] Familial friendship too seems to have many forms, and all seem to hinge upon fatherly (πατρικῆς) friendship. [b18] For parents are fond of their children as something of themselves, whereas children are fond of their parents as something out of them (ἀπ' ἐκείνων τι). But parents [b20] know what is from themselves more than offspring know that they are from [b21] their parents. Moreover, that out of which is more closely bound to its offspring than what is produced is bound to its maker: since what is from something belongs to that [b23] out of which it comes -- just as a tooth, a strand of hair, or anything like that, belongs to the person whose it is -- but that out of which it comes belongs to it either not at all or to a lesser degree. The length of time is a factor as well, since parents [b25] are fond of their offspring as soon as the latter are born, but it is after time has elapsed that offspring are fond of their parents, when they have acquired understanding or perception. (From these considerations [b27] it is also clear why mothers love their children more than fathers do.)

If it is fair to judge faithfulness to the text in terms of literalness, then Pakaluk seems superior both to the gold standard of Ross/Urmson and to the recent (1999) revision of Irwin. To give just a few examples, Ross (followed, apparently, by Rackham) renders πατρικῆς as "parental" rather than "fatherly" or "paternal" (Irwin). Pakaluk emphasizes the typically Aristotelian relational terms (out of which, of which, producer, produced, etc.) with literal renderings where Ross employs periphrasis. On the other hand, Pakaluk (in agreement with Irwin; Rackham is ambiguous) inserts "their children" at b27 where Ross renders more literally ("mothers love more than fathers do"). The context makes it clear that the supplement is correct, but the text itself seems clear enough without it. By and large, though, this selection is representative of the advantages Pakaluk's version has over that of Ross: there is a clarity and directness of style that also manages to capture the philosophical nuances of Aristotle's technical vocabulary. While Ross' version is extremely fluent, its very fluency tends to militate against using it for a close examination of the philosophical problems that might arise from textual issues. (It is also worth noting, sadly, that Ross' admirable prose is often beyond the depth of many undergraduate students these days.) On the other side of the coin, Irwin's translation tends toward the overly-literal, a style that Barnes, in revising his own contribution to the Clarendon Aristotle series, rightly called "a sort of dog English: always inelegant and sometimes barbarous, it appeared here as comic or disgusting and there as merely incomprehensible."2 Pakaluk strikes a nice balance between elegance and literalness.

In his commentary on this passage (pp. 128-9), Pakaluk considers three possible interpretations, one he calls the "psychological thesis," another the "logical thesis," and a third that he rejects outright as "not very interesting", namely the idea that the various sorts of friendship are related to the father's activity in procreation. According to the logical thesis Aristotle here invokes the πρὸς ἕν relation to disambiguate types of familial friendships. Pakaluk notes that the text suggests that for each of the four types of friendship discussed (father for offspring, offspring for father, brother for brother, husband for wife) there is a corresponding reason on account of which the other is loved, but he decides that "this does not even begin to look like a cluster of various relationships to a central case, and no repairs or revisions look promising." As described by Pakaluk, the psychological thesis also seems to have a logical dimension: "a father's affection for his offspring is a kind of necessary condition for the formation of any other sort of affection within the family." On this view, "all affection within the family has to be mediated, in some way, by affection for the father." Pakaluk confesses that "there is little textual support for this reading" but claims that this view is the most consistent with Aristotle's views about civic friendships and the taxonomy of constitutions. In the end Pakaluk says no more about the psychological thesis than that it is "interesting," but of the three interpretations he seems to favor it over the others. Now, one can quibble with this judgment (the use of the verb ἠρτῆσθαι (1161b17), for example, might put one in mind of the πρὸς ἕν relation, and the psychological thesis, as noted, has logical overtones), but one would be merely quibbling (the πρὸς ἕν relation would require that the account of paternal friendship be present in the accounts of the other sorts of friendship, and the logical overtones of the psychological thesis do not display this sort of dependency), engaging in just the sort of thoughtful speculation that a commentary of this sort is designed to evoke in the reader. The commentary is immensely successful in this respect: Pakaluk is so careful and methodical in laying out possibilities and examining them (briefly) in turn, that one is continually stimulated to further consideration of passages that one might otherwise have left behind too quickly.

It should be added that Pakaluk's analytic approach is unencumbered by the technical apparatus all too common in philosophical analysis of this kind: instead the commentary is as fluent and easy to read as the translation, and should be of use to classicists as well as to analytic philosophers. Pakaluk shows a willingness to draw upon other resources (particularly Price's account of love and friendship in Plato and Aristotle,3 but in all about two dozen items from the secondary literature are referred to in one way or another throughout the commentary) but the commentary is primarily his own analysis, and does not engage in extensive polemics with the secondary literature. This is a desirable feature in a commentary on this scale.

It seems to me to be somewhat regrettable, however, that Pakaluk has chosen to say nothing about Aristotle's treatment of friendship in the Eudemian Ethics or to speculate about any concerns relevant to the Politics. The reasons given for the omission of the treatment of friendship in EE VII (preface, p. ix) are plausible enough: the Greek text of EE is difficult and the relation of the one treatise to the other complex, and there is a vague promissory note concerning a future monograph on Eudemian Ethics VII. More importantly, it is easy to agree with Pakaluk that "it is rare that one can, with confidence, simply cite a passage in EE VII, as illuminating something that appears similar in EN VIII and IX, since the EN material is typically less obscure, and the meaning of any particular text in EE VII can hardly be fixed without examining at length its context and alternative views as to its significance" (p. ix). However, it is precisely this examination of other contexts that can help to bring a particular text to life in new and important ways and to stimulate further thinking and research on the part of the user of the commentary. Pakaluk also has expressed doubts about the authenticity of the EE, but that treatise is certainly Aristotelian even if it is not by Aristotle himself, and some treatment of the other ethical writings would help to put the treatment in NE into just this sort of broader context. And inclusion of issues relevant to the Politics would also contribute to this context building, since Aristotle himself regarded ethics as foundational for politics. A number of interesting issues relevant to the Politics are raised by Aristotle's treatment of friendship. For example, his distinction between base and noble self-love in NE IX.9 can be viewed as forming the basis for a moderate individualism of the sort described by Miller4 as a possible interpretation of Aristotle's conception of the common advantage in Politics III.

Further examples could be adduced, but it is worth pointing out that this weakness does not diminish the overall value of this extremely important contribution to the study of Aristotle's ethics. The desire for more does not always mean that what one got was insufficient; it may mean that what one did get was of sufficiently high quality to evoke the desire for more of the same.


1.   In this review I will refer to the following editions and commentaries by the name of the editor or translator: H. Rackham, The Nicomachean Ethics (London, 1926); W. D. Ross, The Nicomachean Ethics (revised by J. Urmson and J. Ackrill, Oxford, 1980); and T. Irwin, Nicomachean Ethics (2nd edition, Indianapolis, 1999).
2.   Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle: Posterior Analytics. Second edition. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1994.
3.   A. W. Price, Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
4.   Fred D. Miller, Jr. Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle's Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995, pp. 200-204.

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