Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.19

Thomas W. Smith, Revaluing Ethics: Aristotle's Dialectical Pedagogy.   Albany:  State University of New York Press, 2001.  Pp. xiv, 325.  ISBN 0-7914-5142-9.  $26.96.  

Reviewed by H. Stephen Brown, St. Francis College (

Thomas Smith's Revaluing Ethics is a masterful review of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (NE). In this book, the author both challenges some current conclusions concerning the usefulness of the Ethics and begins to build a new hermeneutic framework upon which we may reconsider both Aristotle himself and his influence on both the ancient and modern worlds. He does this by considering the NE as a dialectical discourse rather than an abstract and/or didactic treatise on ethics, which opens a dynamic new possibility for reading the text. Smith also does something that that I feel is perhaps the most important thing a scholar can do, he has attempted not only to understand the meaning of the NE for current academia, but also (and quite successfully, I think) to understand what the NE meant for Aristotle's own time and for the people for whom he wrote it. Smith begins his re-reading of the NE by providing a précis of the current reception of Aristotle, and an overview of the terms by which he reads the text, their meaning and application. First, Smith discusses the general problem he sees in Aristotle scholarship (which he sees as generated by Aristotle's stated goal in the NE, that he wants to teach us to be good), which is that many current readers of Aristotle's work have seemingly re-created Aristotle in their own image, that is, made Aristotle their defender of particular political, economic, and philosophic ideological positions. Smith thinks this is the case because, as he sees it, Aristotle's works in general (and the NE in particular) are often thought to be didactic treatises, meaning that they teach his ideas in a generally applicable manner. Smith thinks that this is an inadequate way to read Aristotle, because the result is so plastic. In other words, if many different answers result from readings of the NE, how can anyone know what Aristotle actually meant? Smith proposes that the way to understand this is to treat the text not as a didactic treatise but as a "dialectical pedagogy." By this, Smith means that, while the NE is universally applicable in its final goal (that it contains a means by which one may be good and live the good life), it is not abstract or universally applicable in its methodology, meaning that what the NE says about ethics in its particular exempla is specific to Aristotle's own time and place. Smith then discusses briefly what it is that he means by "dialectic" and why this tool is most important in reading the NE. Following this, Smith re-reads the NE by examining how the dialectic methodology he proposes can unlock new understanding about the audience, the ethics proposed and friendship and society as they are set forth in the NE.

In the first part of his book Smith introduces us to what he believes is the crux of the problem in dealing with ancient writers: of what were they speaking when they use terms such as polis and politeia? Our modern understanding is that these terms refer to the organization of individuals working under an implicit "social contract" within municipal communities, and all the political, economic and cultural arenas that pertain to them. According to Smith, for Aristotle, these terms relate to the web of relationships that governed the behavior of citizens of the polis in his own time. While Aristotle never explicitly states such, Smith contends that his discussion of the audience of the NE reveals that this is the case. Smith shows how, by means of dialectical discourse, Aristotle does this by discussing what a proper ethic was for those who might listen to his work, not that he is, yet, describing what a proper ethic should be more universally. In brief, Smith shows that what Aristotle saw as current ethics was a zero-sum game of honor and shame defined by the individual's pursuit of material and civic goods. The audience of the NE was not every person in every time. Rather, Aristotle's original audience consisted of the aristocratic men of Athens who aspired to political power and who also eschewed the notions of equity and philosophy as an ethic, considering them weak, unmanly and able to leave the practitioner of equity in the vulnerable position of losing what honor he had so far accrued in the game of municipal politics. By understanding this person to be the actual audience of Aristotle's NE, Smith contends that we may then be better able to understand exactly what Aristotle was talking about, without modern accretions.

In the second part of his book, Smith begins his analysis in earnest. Here he shows that Aristotle, far from defining ethics in terms of the schematic so laboriously set forth in the NE, shows that his audiences conception of what is virtue is defective. By means of Aristotle's defining each virtue as the mean between an excess and a defect, his audience, who previously believed that either the excess or the defect was proper behavior, discovers that the actual virtue operating in each case is defined by the mechanism behind the mean, that is "greatness of soul." Throughout this section, Smith shows how Aristotle criticizes his audience's conception of virtue (virtue-as-virility) and shows that what actually leads to the good life is greatness of soul, which itself is exhibited by practical wisdom, which is a function of virtue-as-equity, the very thing Aristotle's audience denigrated as weak and feminine. In the end, Aristotle's dialectical pedagogy shows the men of Athens that an in-depth examination of their own perceptions of ethics, their own "reputable opinion" is flawed. He shows them that their relentless greed for honor, power, possessions and good opinion will lead either to tyranny or utter inaction. He shows them that their purported desire for freedom, democracy and equity can only come about through friendship and a life spent with philosophy, the exact opposite of what they had supposed was the highest virtue.

In the third and final section Smith explores what Aristotle meant by friendship both at the personal level and at the macro-world of the polis as well as the meaning of pleasure both in itself and as a definition of happiness and its source in contemplation. When dealing with friendship, Smith shows that how Aristotle leads his reader (the virile, honor-pursuing Athenian of his own time) to understand that friendship is not yet another source by which one might acquire personal gain but is a state of being based on the giving of affection. Indeed, Aristotle's most important lesson to his readers might have been that friendship was not a zero-sum game but that one could still have friendship and love, even after one had given it away. Following this, Smith shows how Aristotle then discusses the pleasure of friendship and how this is different from the somatic pleasure that he denigrated at the beginning of the NE and how he presents a definition of pleasure that is generated by thinking and philosophizing. Finally, Smith shows how this highest of pleasures is a product of theoria or contemplation, the means by which the philosopher does philosophy.

All together, Smith has done a great service both for scholars of Aristotle and his times and for people who have only a limited exposure to Aristotle and his works. Further, Smith has done a service to the historical study of philosophy by applying what is a relatively recent literary critical approach. Namely, Smith has tapped into a dynamic means of examining the ancient world, namely, trying to understand social dynamics not in terms of modern, post-enlightenment considerations of identity and relationships, but in terms of the social construction of the ancient Mediterranean world exemplified by the social universe of Athens.

In sum, this approach reveals an Aristotle who is not the Aristotle adopted by the Christian west, but a person dynamically different both from modern peoples and from people of his own time. For modern scholars, Smith "re-presents" Aristotle in a manner similar to that in which Plato's Socrates has been re-presented in recent decades. In terms of the ancient world, Smith's work enables the re-conceptualization not only of Aristotle, but the other philosophers throughout Antiquity. Finally, Smith's work may allow us to trace the threads of textual reception between the classical philosophers of Greece and the world of Late Antiquity, and such groups as, for example, the early Christians, or the early rabbis.

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