BMCR 2001.09.24

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics

, , Nicomachean ethics. Cambridge texts in the history of philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 1 online resource (xlii, 213 pages).. ISBN 0511040172. $12.95.

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Sometimes nothing can bring fresh new ideas like a very old book. Given the renewed enthusiasm for the continuing relevance and insight in moral philosophy of the Nicomachean Ethics (henceforth NE), an updated version is especially welcome today. Renewed study of the NE should afford a fresh and critical perspective on modern virtue ethics, much of which has its roots in Aristotle’s treatise. Cambridge University Press’ choice of Roger Crisp for their new translation of the NE —of which excellent versions already exist (especially those of Irwin and Ross)—suggests such a purpose as this. But while Crisp has produced surely the most readable translation of the NE currently available, and one that will appeal to students and specialists alike, he also seems to have diluted the NE at some of the very points where a new look might have afforded real critical distance from its modern offshoot.

Let me begin with what makes Crisp’s edition so reader-friendly. Like Ross’ translation, Crisp’s is intended as a readable, fluent text for a wide variety of readers, and a comparison of the two is favorable to Crisp in many respects.1 The greatest virtue of Crisp’s translation is that it really is a page-turner. Sadly, Ross’ translation—though still my favorite—is becoming rather dated (e.g. words like “nay” betray its original 1925 publication date). The clarity, fluidity, and up-to-date nature of Crisp’s translation set it apart as an especially readable edition; indeed, the reader is often apt to forget that she is reading a translation.

Moreover, some of Aristotle’s especially inelegant passages fare better in Crisp than in Ross. For instance, Crisp’s rendering of the unwieldy sentence (1098a7-18 (!)) in the so-called ” ergon argument” of I.7 is as merciful to the reader as any rendering could be. Another problematic sentence is I.10, 1101a6-8: “And if this is the case, the happy man can never become miserable—though he will not reach blessedness, if he meet with fortunes like those of Priam” (tr. Ross). Ross’ strong separation between these clauses and his italicizing “blessedness” suggest that Aristotle is distinguishing between “mere” happiness and blessedness or “real” happiness; although Aristotle’s text is somewhat indeterminate on the question, Ross offers a definite position (a dubious one, Cicero Fin. V.81) on how the virtuous but unfortunate might be called happy. Crisp’s rendering is better for presuming less: “If this is so, the happy person could never become wretched, though he will not be blessed if he meets with luck like that of Priam.”

A “mechanical” benefit of Crisp’s edition is the use of Bekker page numbers in the margins, making it much easier to cite and more useful for those who wish to use it with the Greek original close to hand. Also welcome are larger pages and a more spacious layout; the absence of topic headings and summaries also suits my tastes, but I do miss a topical table of contents.

Some of Crisp’s renderings are less wise, though, such as the unfortunate use of “feeling”—as opposed to “emotion” or “passion”—as a rendering of the Greek pathos. While there is a way that (say) anger feels, it is quite another matter to say that that feeling is what anger is —something which Aristotle (in the NE, as well as the Rhetoric and Poetics) is never prepared to say, since he identifies emotions instead by their content and cognitive structure. Hence in many passages the use of “feeling” for pathos makes little sense: Aristotle’s claim at II.5, 1105b28-1106a6 that virtues and vices are not pathe is a bit odd if his claim is that virtues and vices are not “feelings” (who could have thought they were?); “shamelessness” (II.6, 1107a11) fits rather awkwardly in a list of “feelings,” as does “appetite” (II.5, 1105b21); and treating pleasure as a “feeling” (II.3, 1105a2-3, II.5, 1105b23) conflicts with Aristotle’s account(s) of pleasure later in the book (i.e. VII.11-14, X.1-5) as activity or mode of activity. “Feeling” is an even worse fit for pathos in its sense of mental event in general, as at III.1, 1111b1, where Aristotle is comparing non-rational pathe with rational pathe : “the non-rational feelings are thought to be no less part of human nature” (tr. Crisp). “Feeling” just will not do here, or for most occurrences of pathos, and Crisp’s insistence on reading the same word for virtually every occurrence of pathos is bad translating, making an otherwise very readable translation surprisingly wooden in many places. Similar problems afflict Crisp’s use of “rational choice” to render prohairesis (usually translated “choice”). The phrase suggests certain modes of economic, means-end reasoning, or perhaps sensible as opposed to poor choices, whereas Aristotle’s discussion is of choice full stop (hence Crisp’s translation becomes particularly distracting in III.2). The phrase also risks portraying prohairesis as a form of calculation, and thus at some remove from action itself, pace Aristotle.2 As with pathos, it is unwise to stick doggedly 3 to a formulaic rendering for prohairesis, and “rational choice” is an especially unfortunate formula.4

Nonetheless, for many readers the overall readability of Crisp’s translation will outweigh these problems. But more serious problems arise in Crisp’s portrayal of Aristotle’s ethics as a serious and distinctive philosophical contender. Strangely, in concluding a discussion of the differences “between Aristotle and modern theorists of the virtues” Crisp tells us:

It is also important to remember the context in which Aristotle composed his lectures. He was writing two and a half millennia ago, for noblemen in a city-state of tens of thousands. He believed such a city to be the best form of human society, and might well have thought it absurd even to attempt carrying across his conclusions about happiness in such a polity to what he would have seen as highly degenerate nation-states. It is not, in other words, a good idea to claim Aristotle as an ally in a modern debate the very assumptions of which he might have questioned. Rather, he should be read, carefully and sensitively, with an understanding of historical, social, and political context, as one of the best sources of insight into the human ethical condition available to us (pp. xviii-xix).

This is perplexing: on the one hand, it suggests an antiquarian approach to the NE 5; on the other, it calls the NE“one of the best sources of insight into the human ethical condition available to us.” Perhaps for Crisp the NE‘s insight can be “available” only if we change it in a host of ways to fit our needs.

This speculation seems to be borne out in other parts of Crisp’s introductory essay which, given this edition’s apparent purpose, is of greater significance than such essays often are. It is in this essay—despite its many merits—that problems begin to appear, some of which reappear in the translation. “Virtues,” writes Crisp, “are dispositions engendered in us through practice or habituation” (p. xv). The virtues are that, but notice what Crisp leaves out. For Aristotle, the skills of virtue so acquired are just that— skills, and as such they have a crucial intellectual component. Of course, Crisp is aware that for Aristotle the virtues are importantly intellectual (part of acting as the virtuous agent acts, he notes, is “knowing what [one] is doing,” p. xv), but in Crisp the moral virtues and practical wisdom seem like separate faculties, which only work in tandem, whereas for Aristotle practical wisdom is the part of a virtue that makes it a virtue.

Aristotle says the soul has a rational and a non-rational part ( NE I.13), and, while moral virtues concern practical and affective matters rather than theoretical ones, they belong not to the non-rational part of the soul full stop, but supervene on certain relationships between the rational and non-rational parts. For in Aristotle’s psychology the affective parts of the soul are capable of accepting rational direction, but they are incapable of generating such direction on their own. “Spirit,” Aristotle says, “seems to listen to reason to some extent, but to hear it incorrectly; it is like hasty servants who rush off before they have heard everything that is being asked of them and then fail to do it, and dogs that bark at a mere noise, before looking to see whether it is a friend” (VII.6, 1149a25-29, tr. Crisp). It is thus misleading to claim that “The virtues of this [non-rational part] are the virtues of character: courage, generosity, and so on” (p. xiv).6 Surely Crisp means that the moral virtues express themselves not in theoretical reasoning but in the ways that we desire, enjoy, fear, etc. True, but Crisp’s claim that “practical wisdom and the habituated dispositions of the virtues of character work together” (p. xxv) depicts the moral virtues as belonging to the non-rational part of the soul and constituting their own forms of rational self-direction. If we think of the virtues as habituated dispositions of desires and passions, then we can see the virtues as autonomous sources of direction, but this is not how Aristotle sees them. It is through practical wisdom that the affective parts of the soul are given rational direction, and so practical wisdom is a part of virtue, not merely its consort.

Crisp may be thinking of Aristotle’s claim that virtue sets the end, while practical wisdom determines “the things toward” the end (VI.12, 1144a), concluding that they are not two sides of one coin (see pp. xxv-xxvi). It is more likely, however, that Aristotle’s point is like his claim that we do not deliberate about ends (III.3, 1112b11 ff): it’s not that one doesn’t deliberate about whether to become a doctor, say, but that healing is given as one’s end qua doctor, and the deliberation of a doctor qua doctor is about what constitutes healing in the case at hand. Likewise, to say that virtue sets the end towards which practical wisdom deliberates is only to say that practical wisdom deliberates not about whether to act virtuously—that end is already given in a virtuous agent—but about what constitutes acting virtuously in the case at hand. Defining the goal and realizing it in a sensible way are two aspects of the same thing, virtue. In any event, the sort of interpretation of this passage that Crisp’s view would require simply embraces the (apparent) problem in this passage.

That habituated passions and the working of practical wisdom are two sides of a single coin 7 is central to Aristotle’s discussion of the reciprocity of the moral virtues; hence Aristotle’s accounts of reciprocity do not fit Crisp’s treatment of practical wisdom equally well. One is that practical wisdom would malfunction if one lacked any of the virtues; since, presumably, that malfunctioning cannot be compartmentalized, no virtue—at least, no virtue understood as a stable and fixed disposition—can exist in a soul lacking any other virtue:

…as we have said and as is clear, virtue is involved in this eye of the soul’s [i.e. practical wisdom’s] reaching its developed state. For practical syllogisms have a first principle: ‘Since such-and-such is the end of chief good’, whatever it is (let it be anything you like for the sake of argument). And this is evident to the good person alone, since wickedness distorts our vision and thoroughly deceives us about the first principles of actions (VI.12, 1144a28-36, tr. Crisp).

Aristotle’s second argument is that for any virtue, practical wisdom is the intellectual component of that virtue; so to have any virtue is to have practical wisdom, and thus the other virtues:

It is clear, then, from what has been said, that it is not possible to be good in the strict sense without practical wisdom, or practically wise without moral virtue. But in this way we may also refute the dialectical argument whereby it might be contended that the virtues exist in separation from each other; the same man, it might be said, is not best equipped by nature for all the virtues, so that he will have already acquired one when he has not yet acquired another. This is possible in respect of the natural virtues, but not in respect of those in respect of which a man is called without qualification good; for with the presence of the one quality, practical wisdom, will be given all the virtues (VI.13, 1144b30-1145a2, tr. Ross).

Crisp offers a good discussion of the first argument (pp. xxv-xxvi), yet this argument does not require that practical wisdom be a part of moral virtue but only that neither can exist without the other. The other argument for reciprocity, however, does require that practical wisdom is part of moral virtue. “For,” Aristotle says, “once the one—viz. practical wisdom—obtains, all [of the virtues] shall obtain” (1145a1-2, my tr.) As Richard Sorabji notes, this means that practical wisdom brings together the moral virtues because it is their intellectual component: “…the virtues are not separate, for courage is not a matter of facing any danger for any reason but of facing the right danger for the right reason (e.g., 3.7. 1115b15-20). And what is right here depends partly on the claims of other virtues, such as justice…”8

So too David Bostock:

No doubt, children can be trained to tell the truth without much intellectual appreciation of the various exceptions to this general rule. But, it may be suggested, the exceptions come only where some other virtue demands something else. Consequently, they cannot recognize the exceptions unless they do have the other virtue too. Generalizing this line of thought, one cannot fully possess any one of the virtues unless one does have all the others too, for this is required in order to be in a position to recognize where an exception may be appropriate.


That the virtues are reciprocal because each of them has the same practical wisdom as its intellectual component is a stronger claim than that virtue and practical wisdom are inseparable. It claims that having any virtue in the first place requires understanding what that virtue and what every other virtue requires. Practical wisdom, then, is the intellectual part of the moral virtues, and the moral virtues belong to both parts of the soul in a particular relationship.

This second argument for the reciprocity of the virtues—which most scholars take to be Aristotle’s “main” argument for reciprocity—is less at home in Crisp’s analysis of practical wisdom (pp. xxiv-xvi), and Crisp handles the relevant passage at VI.13, 1144b30-1145a2 in two different ways. In his introductory essay he simply assimilates this argument to the first (VI.12):

In VI.13, 1144b-1145a, we also find that practical wisdom comes only in a package along with all the virtues of character. One cannot be, say, courageous but stingy, or even-tempered but unjust. The reason for this is that practical wisdom is the capacity to succeed in action through giving oneself the correct orders. If you have a vice, this will damage your capacity to see situations correctly, and you will not be ‘good without qualification’…(p. xxvi)

Crisp leaves out the further idea that practical wisdom is the intellectual part of every virtue; moral virtues and vices seem mere habituated dispositions—an idea far more familiar in modern than ancient virtue ethics.

This omission is regrettable, but his approach to this passage in his translation is nothing less than shocking—Crisp simply places the text in parentheses :

(Moreover, on these lines one might also meet the dialectical argument that could be used to suggest that the virtues exist in isolation from one another. The same person, it might be argued, is not best suited by nature for all the virtues, so that he will already have acquired one before he has acquired another. This is possible in respect of the natural virtues, but not in respect of those on the basis of which a person is said to be really good; for he will possess all of them as soon as he acquires the one, practical wisdom.)

For Crisp moral virtue is merely inseparable from practical wisdom, and so the passage in which Aristotle suggests a closer connection between them—the seminal passage for Aristotle’s argument for the reciprocity of the moral virtues—becomes an afterthought.

One thus wonders whether Crisp is less interested in seeing modern virtue ethics anew through the lens of the NE, than in seeing the NE through the lens of modern virtue ethics. It is a good thing that Aristotle should be updated. But I am most disappointed to find that at the very points where Aristotle seems to have the most to contribute to current debates in ethics, Aristotle is not simply being updated. He is being virtually rewritten.


1. I shall concentrate mainly on Ross’ translation, as opposed to (say) Irwin’s, which, while excellent, is designed more as a study tool than as a page-turner.

2. Consequently, Aristotle is able to ask in III.2 whether prohairesis is a form of appetite, spirit, wish, or belief; the question makes less sense, however, if prohairesis is a form of calculation.

3. And it is dogged; e.g. I was floored to see that at V.9, 1136b15 the rather bland use of “choose”—”it still remains to discuss two of the things we chose to discuss”—is rendered “things we rationally chose”! Some other distracting translation choices, which seem to betray a similarly simplistic approach, are “first principle” for archL at IX.5, 1167a3, where it clearly seems to be used in the non-technical sense of “beginning”; and “the masses” for hoi polloi in many places (esp. IX.7, 8) where it seems to mean simply “most people.”

4. A smaller issue of vocabulary is Crisp’s use of “science” to render episteme at II.6, 1106b5, Aristotle clearly has in mind some sort of productive and/or practical knowledge, which is not how we think of science, nor indeed how Aristotle thought of science in the strict sense (as in Posterior Analytics; see also the distinction between practical and theoretical reasoning in NE VI.1-2). Also, in VII.1-10 I prefer Ross’ “self-indulgence” to Crisp’s “intemperance” for akolasia (the former is more specific, and so better suited here), and Ross’ “continence” to Crisp’s “self-control” for enkrateia (although there really is no good English word for this, the latter sounds too much like a candidate for one of the virtues). Ross’ sentence that virtuous activities “are what determine happiness” (I.10, 1100b9-10) I find preferable to Crisp’s “What really matter for happiness are activities in accordance with virtue”; that something “determines” happiness seems to be a more rigorous notion than what “really matters” for happiness. I also find the sentence that among ends “some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them” (I.1, 1094a4-5) in Ross preferable to Crisp’s “some ends are activities, while others are products which are additional to the activities”; the relation of product to activity seems to me clearer in the former than in the latter.

5. Crisp does not tell us why we should be antiquarian beyond pointing out certain obvious cultural differences between ancient Athens and modern societies. A clue might come in his chastising Aristotle for having too short a list of virtuous character traits: “There are differences,” Crisp writes, “between Aristotle and modern writers on the virtues. The virtue of kindness or beneficence, for example, is almost entirely absent from Aristotle’s account” (p. xvii). Whether that is really true to Aristotle or not, in contemporary virtue ethics such chastisement is all too easy, since the list of virtues is typically regarded as open-ended as the list of moral concerns, for each of which there is a different virtue. But Aristotle and other ancient ethicists would have found this “grocery list” approach rather startling, since their project is to bring the diversity and plurality of good character traits into an ever more unified list. The Stoics, for instance, say there are but four virtues (wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage), not to deny the plurality of virtues—indeed, we also find surprisingly long and fine-grained lists of the Stoic virtues (see esp. Stobaeus, Anthology 2, 5b-5b2)—but to find rational order and unity among that plurality. So too for Aristotle. Thus it may be an interesting fact that certain virtues are absent from Aristotle’s list, but it is hard to know what to infer from that. Sadly, Crisp infers that Aristotle is just not as interested in kindness as we moderns are. To miss the point of ancient lists of virtues in this way is to misunderstand their relevance for their modern counterparts.

6. It is worth pointing out, however, that Ross makes a similar claim in his introductory essay, p. viii.

7. Cp. Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford, 1994) pp. 73f, who also treats the intellectual and emotional/reactive as two “sides” of moral virtue in the NE (cf. 143f).

8. Richard Sorabji, “Aristotle on the Role of Intellect in Virtue,” in A. O. Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics (University of California, 1980), p. 207. See also p. 216 (and Myles Burnyeat, “Aristotle on Learning to be Good,” in Rorty, pp. 73f) for the view that in the NE habituation itself includes training of practical reasoning; as Nancy Sherman puts it, “The affective element of virtue itself embeds practical reason….Properly habituated emotions come to embed or internalize the judgments of mature practical reason” ( Making a Necessity of Virtue (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 242f; see also Sherman, “The Habituation of Character,” in Sherman, ed., Aristotle’s Ethics: Critical Essays (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999)); and Annas (1994), pp. 368f.

9. David Bostock, Aristotle’s Ethics (Oxford, 2000), pp. 87f. Cf. Annas (1994), pp. 75-77.