Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.08.45 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.45

C. D. C. Reeve, Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics.   Indianapolis; Cambridge:  Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2014.  Pp. lvi, 447.  ISBN 9781624661174.  $19.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by David J. Riesbeck, Rice University (


Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is one of the most widely studied works in the history of philosophy, and it is therefore no surprise that readers have an ample variety of translations from which to choose. Philosophers of an analytic disposition have fruitful resources in the excellent editions by Terence Irwin1 and by Sarah Broadie and Christopher Rowe,2 while those with more continental or Straussian sympathies may turn to the translations of Joe Sachs3 or of Robert Bartlett and Susan Collins.4 Numerous other versions likewise remain serviceable for many purposes, and readers now have another outstanding option with the publication of C. D. C. Reeve's translation, supplemented with an interpretive introduction, copious notes, and an exhaustive index.

With so many translations of the Nicomachean Ethics already available, one could reasonably wonder whether there is need for yet another. A narrow approach to this question might focus on the relative merits of the translations in terms of accuracy and readability. A more comprehensive assessment, however, will account for the diverse needs of different sorts of reader. Teachers introducing undergraduates to Aristotle for the first time, advanced students engaging independently with the text, and professional scholars reasonably look for different things in a translation. It would be difficult for a single edition to satisfy all these audiences equally, and Reeve's will likely not. Yet while it is least suitable for beginners, advanced students and non-specialists will find it a useful guide, and no serious scholar of Aristotle will want to be without it. The translation itself compares favorably to Irwin's and Rowe's, but Reeve's notes and index are the volume's most impressive contribution. Few, I suspect, will be inspired to abandon their copies of Broadie and Rowe or Irwin, but equally few will fail to find Reeve's edition a source of insight and a distinctively useful reference.

Reeve's translation of Aristotle's Greek achieves an admirable balance of readability and accuracy. It presents fewer supplements than Irwin's, is often clearer than Rowe's, and is typically smoother and more idiomatic than either. Specialists will want to quibble about certain of Reeve's choices in rendering key technical terms, but these rarely risk misunderstanding, and Reeve consistently minimizes that risk in his explanatory notes. Nonetheless, a few of these choices remain problematic. For example, Reeve's use of “unconditionally” for the Greek ἁπλῶς, often rendered “simply” or “without qualification,” is apt to create confusion for Greekless readers who take the word at face value. When Reeve's Aristotle says, for instance, that goods that depend on luck “are always good, unconditionally, but for this or that person, not always so” (V.1, 1129b3-4), he seems to be making the paradoxical claim that these things are good in all conditions except for the conditions in which they are not. As usual, a note clarifies the translation, but when it tells us that “sometimes, as here [at I.1, 1095a1], to be F haplōs means to be F in a way that allows for no 'ifs,' 'ands,' or 'buts'” (206, n. 24), the problem remains; we can hardly say that wealth is good in a way that allows for no 'ifs,' 'ands,' or 'buts,' but bad for some people if they are not virtuous and sometimes no good even for people who are. The note enables the reader to grasp Aristotle's meaning when it tells us that “to speak haplōs sometimes means to put things simply or in simple terms, so that qualifications and conditions will need to be added later,” but the frequent recurrence of the term seems likely to generate puzzlement where Rowe's “generally good” and Irwin's “[considered] without qualification, always good” avoid the problem altogether.

Only rarely does Reeve's translation seem to misconstrue the Greek in a way that affects Aristotle's argument. For instance, in IV.9, Aristotle argues that shame is not a virtue on the grounds that it is characteristic of a base person rather than an excellent one to do disgraceful things. He then adds, in Greek: τὸ δ᾽οὕτως ἔχειν ὥστ᾽εἰ πράξαι τι τῶν τοιούτων αἰσχύνεσθαι, καὶ διὰ τοῦτ᾽οἴεσθαι ἐπιεικῆ εἶναι, ἄτοπον, ἐπὶ τοῖς ἑκουσίοις γὰρ αἰδώς, ἑκὼν δ᾽ὁ ἐπιεικὴς οὐδέποτε πράξει τὰ φαῦλα (1128b26-9). Reeve translates: “But to be the sort of person who feels ashamed once he has done an action like that and then thinks himself to be decent because of it is strange. For shame is felt toward voluntary actions, and a decent person will never voluntarily do base actions” (emphasis mine). But the aorist optative πράξαι marks the protasis of a future condition; the more accurate translation is Irwin's “if he were to do a disgraceful action” (Rowe offers the ambiguous “if one did any such thing”). This difference is not trivial. On Reeve's translation, Aristotle is simply repeating the point that if one must already have acted disgracefully in order to feel shame, it cannot be a virtue, because virtuous people do not do disgraceful things. On the more accurate translation, Aristotle can be understood as arguing against the further suggestion that shame could be a virtue by inhibiting disgraceful actions. The virtuous person is not one who successfully resists impulses to act disgracefully because he would feel shame if he were to do such a thing. Rather, a virtuous person is not motivated to act disgracefully in the first place. Reeve's Aristotle could fairly be accused of overlooking the possibility that prospective, as opposed to retrospective, shame is a virtue; a Greekless reader will have no means to consider that he is addressing precisely that possibility.

Despite these minor problems with the translation, Reeve's edition remains invaluable for its detailed and insightful notes. These are fuller than Broadie's and more closely resemble Irwin's in the sort of help they provide. In addition to illuminating treatments of Aristotle's terminology, Reeve often observes ambiguities in the argument, clears away potential misunderstandings, and points the reader away from what he deems implausible or problematic interpretations. To take an illustrative example, some readers have tripped over Aristotle's claim (at X.2, 1172b36) that “things that seem to be so to everyone, these, we say, are,” reading it as a surrender of critical rationality in the face of universal agreement. Reeve shows how sensible Aristotle really is (341, n. 797):

This could be (1) a general claim to the effect that things that seem to be the case to everyone are (a) presumptively the case, or (b) genuinely the case. Or it could be (2) a specific claim that things that seem to be good to everyone are (a) presumptively good or (b) genuinely good. The fact that something seems so to all or most people leads us 'to trust it as something in accord with experience' (Div. Somn. 1 462b14-16). For “human beings are naturally adequate as regards the truth and for the most part happen upon it” (Rh. I 1 1355a15-17; also EE I 6 1216b30-31). That is why something that seems so to everyone is a reputable belief which can be accepted as presumptively true. If there are other reputable beliefs that conflict with it (Top. I 10 104a11-12), however, that presumption is cancelled, pending further investigation into the puzzle created by the conflict. This may result in the reputable belief being modified or rejected outright (NE VII 1 1145b2-7). (1a) is something Aristotle does claim, then, whereas (1b) is something he rejects. (2a), as a special case of (1a), is something to which he is at least committed, but he also accepts (2b), provided that practically-wise people are included among those to whom the thing in question seems good (see III 4 1113a29-33, X 5 1176a15-19).

This sort of clarification is pervasive in the notes. So too is the ample citation of other texts in the Aristotelian corpus. More helpfully, Reeve does not simply cite these texts, but quotes them in full. This practice has the considerable advantage of illustrating the relevance of a cross-reference instantly, allowing other Aristotelian (and, more selectively, Platonic) texts to shed light on the passage in question without requiring the reader to consult another volume. Scholars will find many of these cross-references familiar, but even experienced Aristotelians are likely to discover new connections. Although at times these are more amusing than profound – as when we learn that Problems XXXV.6, 965a11-12 wonders why no one can tickle himself – they most often prompt further reflection in a way that unquoted references would not.

If there is a problem with Reeve's notes, it is that their intended audience is not always clear. They offer little in the way of summaries or signposts for how individual chapters of the work contribute to Aristotle's broader argument. They typically focus instead on details that are more likely to bewilder than enlighten newcomers to the text. Yet even advanced students may lose the forest for the trees, and for that reason would be well advised to consult the notes in conjunction with guides that offer a more panoramic view. Graduate students and scholars will more readily draw immediate profit from the notes, but even they may find Reeve's coverage of important interpretive issues a bit selective. Many of the notes present Reeve's own controversial views without acknowledgment of the alternatives, and even when alternatives are noted, they are not often discussed. For instance, in a note on the role of reason in akrasia in VII.3, 1147a32-b1, Reeve lays out his own view and then observes simply that “the passage is one of the most vexed in Aristotle, and many other interpretations have been proposed of it” (293, n. 523). Those who want to know more about the other interpretations will have to look elsewhere, and Reeve never refers to any works of Aristotelian scholarship outside of his brief and sparsely annotated “Further Reading.” This selectivity will limit the usefulness of the book somewhat for readers engaged in serious research.

The introduction reflects a similar selectivity. After a brief biography of Aristotle, we are treated to a masterful discussion of how the Nicomachean Ethics fits into the broader framework of Aristotelian sciences and what “political science” attempts to accomplish. This is a first-rate treatment of Aristotle's moral epistemology and as convincing a demonstration of the inadequacies of particularist interpretations as anyone could manage in a mere 20 pages. Yet Reeve gives little indication that he is painting a highly contentious picture, and anyone unacquainted with these and other scholarly controversies will discover little about them here.

The index, however, offsets these limitations and may be worth the price of the book alone. Besides being exhaustive, it offers brief synopses of the cited passages, thereby making it delightfully easy for those of us with less than encyclopedic memories to locate exactly what we are looking for.

In short, Reeve's new edition does not do everything that one might want, but it is a testament to the richness of his work that it so often leaves the reader wanting more. It will not render earlier translations obsolete, but it certainly deserves a place in every Aristotelian scholar's library.

The book contains occasional editorial oversights. I discovered the following: “goodwill” should read “good will” on p. 7 and again on p. 176; “seem be” should read “seem to be” on p. 39; “is what concord is concerned with” should read “are what concord is concerned with” on p. 163; “most all” should read “most of all” on p. 219; “each another” should presumably read “each other” on p. 302; “although . . . but” on p. 316 is redundant; p. 290 should read ἄλλα for ἅλλα; and p. 272 should read ὧν for ὧ.


1.   Terence Irwin, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics. 2nd ed. (Indianapolis, 1999).
2.   Sarah Broadie and Christopher Rowe, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford, 2002).
3.   Joe Sachs, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics (Newburyport, MA, 2002).
4.   Robert D. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (Chicago, 2012).

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