Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.03.06

Christopher Shields, Aristotle.   London and New York:  Routledge, 2007.  Pp. xvi, 456.  ISBN 0-415-28331-0.  $100.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-415-28332-9.  $27.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ian Halim, Columbia University (
Word count: 2499 words

This volume would serve as an excellent survey for undergraduate or graduate students, presenting an accessible and clear overview of Aristotle's major philosophical projects. As Shields explains in his introduction to the volume, he aimed to write a text that would prepare the uninitiated to approach Aristotle's philosophy independently, and in this task he succeeds admirably. Shields' volume is also highly readable. Perhaps the greatest strength of the text is Shields' clear exposition of Aristotle's arguments--and possible objections to those arguments. And when two ideas in different parts of Aristotle's corpus seem inconsistent with one another, Shields helpfully outlines both those interpretations that explain apparent inconsistencies through a supposed deeper unity and also those interpretations that acknowledge inconsistencies as genuine. The introduction is also broad, even though not completely comprehensive. Unlike Jonathan Lear's 1988 introduction to Aristotle, Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, Shields includes discussions of the Rhetoric and the Poetics, attempting to situate them in the context of Aristotle's philosophical system. But the Meteorology, the Eudemian Ethics, and the possibly spurious Magna Moralia are not discussed, and Aristotle as an empirical researcher also does not make much of an appearance here. The editing of the volume is good--there are few typographical errors--and the text is available in paperback.

One particularly useful aspect of the book is that Shields often presents in a numbered list the premises and conclusions of a formal argument that he has extracted from Aristotle. Each such formalized argument is introduced by a boldfaced and capitalized acronym (e.g. at p. 253, IPNC = the indirect proof for the principle of non-contradiction), which Shields uses thereafter to refer back to the argument. By making Aristotle's premises, reasoning, and conclusions clear and explicit, Shields invites the reader to scrutinize each argument and judge whether or not she finds it plausible. These numbered lists and the boldfaced acronyms that introduce them are also easy to pick out while scanning the text, making it possible to flip back quickly to clarify one's understanding of an argument.

A small complaint is that Shields could have made it easier for the reader to follow along with the relevant texts of Aristotle. Although citations to Aristotle's works are given throughout the book, when Shields presents an argument summary, he does not always accompany it with a citation of Aristotle to indicate from where exactly he is drawing the argument (e.g. Perpetuity of Motion at p. 226). This is important, because constructing formal arguments from Aristotle's texts is very often an interpretive process. A list of the suggested primary readings comes at the end of each main section of the book, but it is not always obvious which parts of Aristotle go with which parts of the discussion--or whether some suggested readings are simply important, but have not been discussed by Shields (for example, the whole of the Poetics is included in the suggested readings for Chapter 10, though Shields discusses in detail only a few specific concepts). In Lear's introduction to Aristotle, footnotes at the beginning of each subsection indicate the appropriate reading. Something like this would have been helpful. Shields' footnotes and his glossary of terms also tend to refer to sections of his own volume rather than to Aristotle directly. These cross-references do, however, make the volume itself very easy to navigate.

Shields' book is divided into main chapters and subsections. I shall summarize some chapters and comment on others. Chapter 1, "Aristotle: Life and Works," discusses the basic facts known about Aristotle's life, the major extant works of Aristotle, and what the tradition says about the philosopher's personality. In section 1.4, "Reading Aristotle," Shields' discussion of Aristotle's method is helpful, but his comment on Aristotle's style might deter the student who is coming to Aristotle for the first time. Shields draws an example from the Prior Analytics to show just how difficult Aristotle's prose can be, and the example certainly supports his point, but another passage might just as easily have been cited to show how even at his sparest Aristotle can achieve real beauty in his logical clarity. While it must be admitted that Shields' comments reflect a widely held view about Aristotle's style, I agree with Jonathan Barnes' observation that "if you love Aristotle's thought, you will come to love his style."1

Chapter 2, "Explaining Nature and the Nature of Explanation," follows the general progression of Metaphysics A by starting with a section entitled "beginning in wonder," before turning to Aristotle's hylomorphism and his theory of the four causes. As Shields states in the introduction, he considers the theory of the causes to be of fundamental importance for understanding Aristotle's entire philosophical project, and accordingly his account of them comes at the beginning of the book. Chapter 3, "Thinking," discusses logic, definition, and the nature of science. Chapter 4, "Aristotle's Early Ontology," deals entirely with Aristotle's Categories, and section 4.5 clearly presents different proposals for explaining Aristotle's process of generating the categories. Chapter 5, "Puzzles of Nature," describes Aristotle's attempt to explain time, his response to Zeno's paradoxes of motion, and his argument for the existence of an unmoved mover. Chapter 6, "Substance and the Science of Being qua Being," deals with some selected topics from the Metaphysics, including the principle of non-contradiction, and the question raised but deferred in the Physics of whether form or matter counts as substance. Shields' treatment of the principle of non-contradiction--and of Aristotle's indirect proof for it--is particularly good, and shows the relevance of Aristotle's thought to everyday matters. Chapter 7, "Living Beings," focuses on Aristotle's application of hylomorphism to living beings in De Anima, one of the topics of Shields' own research. Despite the broad-sounding title of the chapter, Aristotle's observation of animals is not dealt with here.

Chapter 8, "Living Well," focuses exclusively on the Nicomachean Ethics. In the opening section, Shields presents a very accessible account of Aristotle's view of the human good, which is particularly helpful for the student who is still coming to grips with Aristotle's teleological framework. With characteristic clarity, Shields explains two possible alternatives to interpreting Aristotle as arguing invalidly that if everything aims at some good, the good is that at which all things aim. A discussion of the textual problems in the NE would have been helpful, particularly since some of the interpretive questions of the NE cannot be separated from the question of the text's unity. Later in the chapter an endnote quotes Jonathan Barnes' comment that the NE is a scribe's creation, so badly patched together as to be unworthy even of an editor (p. 342, n. 26). This might discourage students from further study of the work, since Shields does not clearly present the basic evidence needed to assess unitarian and non-unitarian views of the NE: that the NE shares 3 books with the Eudemian Ethics, contains two accounts of pleasure (VII.11-14 & X.1-5), and presents possibly inconsistent accounts of happiness in books I and X.2 Shields might have briefly addressed these issues in an introductory section, much as he deals very effectively with the problems of unity presented by the Categories in section 4.2. There Shields explains that scholars differ on whether Aristotle or a later editor joined the so-called pre-categories and post-categories, giving the reader a context for evaluating a unitarian reading of the work that he presents later in the chapter (pp. 165-7).

Chapter 9, "Political Association," discusses the relationship between the NE and the Politics, the priority of the city to the individual, the best constitution, and Aristotle's theory of natural slavery. In 9.2, Shields raises the interesting problem of how the city can be prior to the man in the same way that a man is prior to his hand--if, as Aristotle says, a hand separated from the body is only homonymously a hand (a hand in name only, but not in function). The problem is that it seems possibly absurd to say that a man is only homonymously a man if he lives apart from a city. Shields reasonably suggests that we might be able to make better sense of this claim if we think of Aristotle as talking about a more complete isolation, rather than temporary isolation at a mature age. What would a man be like who was more fully separated from a city state or a similar association--as, for example, a child isolated for the key developmental years of his life? If this is what Aristotle has in mind, his suggestion that such a man is a man only homonymously becomes more convincing. Then, in section 9.4, Shields criticizes Aristotle's theory of natural slavery as inconsistent with some of his other views. Most of Shields' points are convincing. For example, Aristotle's advice that men should free their own slaves does seem to conflict with his claim that natural slaves are justly enslaved for their own benefit. If a slave benefits from enslavement, why free him? It is less clear, however, that Shields is correct in claiming that the function argument of the NE conflicts with the theory of natural slavery (pp. 372-3). If Aristotle meant for the function argument to apply to all people equally, then there would be a clear contradiction. But Aristotle is quite clear that the function argument applies to human beings with the capacity for active reason (Arist. NE 1098a3-5), so presumably Aristotle would also hold that those who fail to meet this requirement fully cannot perform the human function or be, strictly speaking, happy. Accordingly, Aristotle says that children, at least, are not candidates for happiness, but are called happy only in the expectation that they might one day be such (Arist. NE 1100a1-3). Likewise Aristotle consistently denies that women and slaves fully possess reason, and so presumably they would also not be able to perform the human function fully. In one instance in the NE, Aristotle even uses the adjectives "beast-like" and "slave-like" together as synonyms or near synonyms (Arist. NE 1118a23-25), reinforcing the impression that even in the NE he believes slaves to lack active reason and is not concerned with their good. So, however disturbing Aristotle's ideas about the inferior reasoning capacity of women and slaves may be to us, I am not sure that they are best criticized on the grounds of inconsistency with the function argument.

Chapter 10, "Rhetoric and the Arts," discusses Aristotle's Rhetoric briefly before giving a more detailed treatment of a few key concepts in the Poetics, such as tragedy, catharsis, and imitation. At one point in the main text, Shields writes that fragments from the second book of the Poetics survive, but this is clarified by an endnote to this remark where Shields states that some scholars take the Tractatus Coislinianus to be a summary of the second book of the Poetics (p. 382). The endnote is important, and this skepticism might have been better placed in the main text, since there are strong reasons for doubting that the TC is a summary of Aristotle's work. To take one example, Aristotle holds that all poetry is mimetic, whereas the opening lines of the TC divide poetry into mimetic and non-mimetic kinds. Richard Janko suggests that Aristotle's often loose use of terminology makes this inconsistency unproblematic, but more than just terminology is at stake here.3 In section 10.5, Shields fairly identifies several "axes" along which disagreement is possible about the meaning of catharsis. But for good reason not all of these disagreements are still active, so his presentation gives the impression that interpreting Aristotle's view of catharsis is more arbitrary than it in fact is. One such axis is what the object of catharsis is--that is, to what exactly παθημάτων refers in the definition of tragedy as "through pity and fear accomplishing a catharsis of such παθημάτων" (Arist. Poet. 1449b27-28). The standard reading is "such emotions," referring back to pity and fear, which Aristotle has just mentioned. But it has been suggested that the phrase might instead refer to events depicted in a drama, with the catharsis of such events meaning plot resolution.4 This is difficult, however, since no plural element other than pity and fear has been introduced here that could accurately be described as παθήματα. Futhermore, when Aristotle does use πάθημα to refer to a plot element, it means an instance of suffering in particular rather than a plot incident of any kind, which also makes it difficult to understand the term παθήματα as referring back to the earlier singular phrase "serious action," which would have to include incidents of other kinds. And Aristotle also later uses the term λύσις rather than catharsis for plot resolution (Arist. Poet.1455b24-26). So on this point, at least, the text seems to support received scholarly wisdom.

In Chapter 11, "Aristotle's Legacy," Shields deals briefly with Aristotle's influence. The opening sentence of the first section repeats the modern claim that Aristotle was forgotten for the two centuries following his death. This view rests on variants of an ancient story recorded by Strabo and Plutarch that Aristotle's library passed from Aristotle to Theophrastus to Neleus to others who then buried the books in a tunnel or trench in Scepsis, a city of the Troad (Strabo, Geography XIII.1.54; Plutarch, Sulla 26). Though this story may be true and the Peripatetic school did decline after Theophrastus' death, it is still likely that members of the school retained copies of some of Aristotle's books, even if editors and commentators of Aristotle's works only came later. In fact, references and testimony show that at least some Hellenistic writers, including the Peripatetics themselves, had access to some of Aristotle's writings during the period when his library was perhaps buried at Scepsis.5 The rest of the chapter is informative. Shields sketches the study of Aristotle in Byzantium and in the Muslim world and Aquinas' attempt to fuse Aristotle's philosophy with Christian theology. And then, turning to Aristotle's contemporary influence, Shields touches on Hilary Putnam's self-avowed concern with intellectual form along similar lines to Aristotle in the De Anima. Shields then notes the rise of Aristotle-inspired virtue ethics. One wishes Shields had written about Aristotle's influence more, since it is such an interesting topic and so valuable for showing why Aristotle still matters today. Shields does, however, helpfully insist on Aristotle's enduring influence throughout his book, pointing out, for example, that Aristotle's system of logic was taken to be definitive up through the time of Kant (p. 118) and that Aristotle's argument for the necessity of grasping some first principles without deduction in order to avoid infinite regress is similar to the line taken by foundationalists such as Laurence BonJour (p. 112, n. 16).

In sum, Shields' volume delivers clear discussions of many of Aristotle's key philosophical ideas, captures much of what is lively and exciting about Aristotle's thought, and serves as an excellent entry point to more serious study of Aristotle's philosophy. While the volume would serve as a good course text, its clarity and accessibility also make it particularly well suited to the needs of the autodidact.


1.   J. Barnes, "Life and Work," in J. Barnes., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, (Cambridge University Press, 1995), 11-12.
2.   Shields does make one of these points in the main text (the possibly inconsistent accounts of happiness) (p. 342), and one is mentioned by Barnes in Shields' footnote to the same section (the two accounts of pleasure) (p. 342, n. 26), but the problem of the unity of the NE would have been clearer if all three points had been discussed together.
3.   R. Janko, Aristotle on Comedy: Towards a Reconstruction of Poetics II, second edition (Duckworth Publishers 2006), 126-133.
4.   See A. Nehamas, "Pity and Fear in the Rhetoric and the Poetics," in Amélie Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle's Poetics (Princeton University Press, 1992), 291-314, esp. pp. 303-308.
5.   See J. Barnes, "Roman Aristotle," in J. Barnes and M. Griffith, eds., Philosophia Togata II (Oxford University Press, 1997), 1-69, esp. pp. 12-16.

Read Latest
Index for 2008
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:32:41, Friday, 03 April 2009