BMCR 2007.05.21

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Books II-IV. Clarendon Aristotle Series

, , Nicomachean ethics. Books II-IV. Clarendon Aristotle series. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006. xxiv, 258 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0198250673 $29.95 (pb).

C. C. W. Taylor (hereafter ‘T.’) provides advanced students of Aristotle with an excellent translation and commentary on Books II-IV of the Nicomachean Ethics (hereafter NE). These books are of course central to Aristotle’s project in the NE since they contain his treatment of virtue as a mean, the detailed discussion of various virtues such as courage, temperance and generosity and the (baffling and brief) treatment of ‘the voluntary’. Thus, readers of Aristotle should be very happy to have this work, since T. is an outstanding guide to this material. I would stress, however, that the book is not for beginners. Advanced undergraduates who are already familiar with Aristotle and ancient ethics could no doubt use the commentary, but graduate students and professors will probably get the most benefit from it. After a brief discussion of the contents, I will say a bit about the translation and then try to give an idea of the style of the commentary and its strengths and weaknesses.

The book contains a brief introduction (14 pages), a one-page note on the translation, a full translation of Books II-IV (55 pages) and a very full commentary on those same books (178 pages). There is also a bibliography of (a) previous editions, translations and commentaries on the NE and (b) works cited, as well as two indices (passages cited and a general index of names and subjects). The ratio suggests what becomes obvious as one reads: the commentary does the real talking here. This only makes sense since almost all readers will already have a good introductory sense of the NE and most will have read the whole work in other translations or the original Greek. (Even more likely, they will have read the NE repeatedly in various translations and in Greek.) Thus, there is no need for a long introduction, and the translation is frankly secondary. This is not a criticism of any of these sections, but I think that it helps to explain certain things about them — especially about the introduction and translator’s preface.

The introduction must be understood as an introduction to this work rather than to Aristotle’s ethics or the NE itself. (Again, this is not a criticism.) T. begins virtually in medias res, and he addresses only two topics in the introduction: how Books II-IV fit into the larger argument of the NE and how Aristotle’s version of virtue ethics compares to modern theories with the same name. The first section will be largely uncontroversial, but the second section briefly and incisively lays out why we should not simply assimilate Aristotle to contemporary philosophers. First, and perhaps most obviously, Aristotle draws up a very different list of virtues than moderns. This may seem minor, but T. argues that Aristotle’s list of virtues reveals the degree to which Aristotle’s whole point of view is far more self-referential than most of us would be comfortable with. Second, T. argues that, however different contemporary virtue ethics may be from deontology or consequentialism, all three share the same goal — they all work at a very abstract level of right and wrong to provide a universal account of ‘the good life for man’. According to Taylor, Aristotle is far too rooted in the specifics of the polis to be interested in such abstractions. Finally, T. claims that Aristotle places much more emphasis and value on intellectual virtue than his modern followers. They are concerned above all with virtues of character. I think that T. makes good, albeit compact, arguments for all his claims in this section, but I suspect that his claims here — both about Aristotle and about contemporary virtue ethics — will meet with disagreement and debate.

As I said above, I think that the translation is not the most important part of this work, but I don’t mean to diminish its success. Aristotle writes crabbed, elliptical Greek, and T. does an admirable job of turning it into reasonably clear and coherent English. As one would expect, T.’s main goals appear to be clarity, precision and consistency, especially in the translation of technical terms such as ἀρετή.1 He succeeds quite well at clearly conveying what Aristotle wrote, but not at the expense of adding quite a lot of paraphrase or additional information. In general, readers will find his translation quite similar in spirit and often in detail to other “philosophical” translations of Aristotle, e.g. those of Irwin or Rowe.2

One interesting difference, however, did emerge from comparison — paragraphing. The Greek text of Aristotle, like so many Greek and Latin texts, is short on paragraphs, to the modern eye at least.3 T.’s edition offers a mean between the two extremes of Irwin and Rowe. Irwin offers countless paragraphs that are not in the standard Greek text, always with the goal of making the argumentative structure more clear. Rowe on the other hand offers almost no paragraphs; for the most part his only divisions are those of the chapters in the OCT. What this means is that paragraphs in Rowe’s edition frequently go on for pages. T. provides more paragraphs than the Greek, but in general not many more and nowhere near the number in Irwin. To take one randomly chosen example from Book IV: IV 3 in the OCT is one (hideously long) paragraph that begins mid-way down page 74 and ends mid-way down page 79. Rowe’s translation makes this into two paragraphs over three and a half pages (the pages are easily twice the size of the OCT: the book is unusually tall). T. needs six paragraphs for the chapter. Irwin has twenty-nine paragraphs for the same chunk of Greek. Perhaps this seems a very small thing to notice or care about, but, for me at least, it makes a huge practical difference while reading. I far prefer Irwin’s choice, T.’s approach is tolerable and I find it difficult to read the Rowe for long stretches.4

In the commentary, T.’s main goal seems to be absolute precision. Above all, he strives to make clear exactly what Aristotle argues, implies and presupposes. Each claim is carefully weighed, and in the case (frequent, it turns out) that Aristotle is less precise than T. would like, T. painstakingly considers the options, both in light of other things Aristotle says and in light of the overall strength of the philosophical position at issue. I think that T. strikes a good middle ground between interpretations that dismiss Aristotle quickly when charity might be required and readers who interpret Aristotle so charitably that he ends up sounding like a contemporary professor of ethics.5 One feature of the commentary that I especially appreciate is that T. is willing to leave difficult matters undecided when there is evidence on either side. This may frustrate some readers who expect to find “the answers” in a commentary, but it strikes me as the only reasonable approach to an author like Aristotle.

Let me give one example of this. There is a well-known problem concerning Aristotle’s attitude toward the motivation of virtuous agents. In a nutshell, the qustion is this: What role do virtue properties (e.g. fine, brave, kind, generous) play in the motivation of virtuous people? Aristotle frequently appears to say that the virtuous person chooses actions insofar as she perceives them to be virtuous. To understand what this involves, imagine a case of a mother stepping between her child and an attacking animal. Stipulate that her actions are brave, and focus on this question: Afterwards, how might she describe her actions?6 Does she need to say, for example, “I did the brave thing” or “I did what was right”? Or is it both more likely and more reasonable to think that she might simply say, “He needed to be protected” or even more directly “I had to do it”? Another way around on this same problem is to ask how self-interested the motivation of Aristotle’s virtuous person is? Can she act entirely for the sake of another person’s need or must her motivation be self-regarding?

T. lays out this problem with clarity and patience (86-92) and he seriously considers one solution, but in the end he leaves the problem unsettled. After he makes clear exactly where the problem lies, T. suggests an answer that relies on a post-Aristotelian distinction between “acting for the sake of the fine” de re and de dicto. The de dicto interpretation has the problems I discussed above. The de re position would solve these difficulties, and T. is clearly sympathetic to this construal of Aristotle’s argument. At the same time he admits “an uneasy feeling that perhaps Aristotle’s theory is self-regarding to a degree bordering (to the modern eye) on narcissism, and that the total selflessness of the saint or hero is something foreign to his ethical outlook” (92, his emphasis). His conclusion in the following sentence is carefully qualified (“may”, “perhaps”), and in the end, T. does not firmly come down on one side or the other. I suspect that most readers who use this volume will find this carefulness a positive feature, but some may wish that T. had been more decisive at times.

My only real complaint about the commentary is that at times, T. simply moves too quickly or assumes too much. Occasionally he assumes a degree of familiarity with issues that not every reader may have, even advanced readers. More importantly, T. sometimes advances positions of his own without sufficient explication or defense. I will give one example.

At III 4 Aristotle takes up the question of whether “everyone pursues the good” means “everyone pursues what seems good to them” or “everyone pursues what is actually, without qualification good.” As T. explains (161 ff.), Aristotle’s answer is a complex compromise. Aristotle relies on the idea that some observations about what is good have particular authority, so that in those cases what appears to be good and what is good come together in a way. T. compares this to the case of secondary qualities including taste and color. As he says, “we say that honey really is sweet, understanding by that that it tastes sweet to someone whose tastebuds are functioning properly and who uses them…in normal conditions” (161). So far, so good. But T. then argues that when “we” say such a thing, we mean that this condition constitutes sweetness rather than that it leads us to see some independent feature of how things are.7 That is, he assumes that we take a non-realist approach to such qualities as sweetness or redness.

Well, perhaps, but I’m not so sure that we do believe this or that it is true, and T. offers no argument in defense of his position. First, it is unclear to me who T. means when he says throughout this paragraph ‘we’. He might mean ‘contemporary philosophers’, but I suspect he means ‘people in general’. Certainly some of the rhetorical force of the pronoun is to assume that ‘we’ already agree with him. However, the claim is not uncontroversial on either understanding of ‘us’. To begin with, my experience is that many people begin any discussion of such issues as realists – even if they have not ever explicitly thought about the problem. That is, they assume that when they say “This drink is too sweet” they are saying something directly about the drink and not just their perception of it. Second, many philosophers today are willing to argue for some form of realism about secondary qualities and some even argue for realism about moral qualities. (Many though not all of the moral realists explicitly use the analogy with secondary qualities. On the other side, obviously, many who reject moral realism do so precisely because of the same analogy.)

My point here is not that T. is wrong about any of his specific claims here but rather that his commentary often packs too much into too little space. As a result, some of his claims are left underdescribed and some are left underdefended. In some cases (as here I think) T.’s position is both a bit unclear and insufficiently argued for.

That said, I want to end as I began by saying that the book is on the whole outstanding. T. helps to illuminate Aristotle, and even when he leaves matters undecided he contributes by making clear what the available alternatives are, why each one is appealing and where each one has difficulty. Serious readers of the NE will certainly want to own this book.


1. The very brief translator’s preface gives T.’s reasons for translating ἀρετή as ‘virtue’ rather than, say, ‘excellence’. The commentary frequently raises issues of translation (and less frequently textual matters), and these notes presuppose either at least a basic knowledge of Greek or a lot of patience. The commentary also contains occasional bits of untranslated German, French, Italian and Latin. I mention this only to emphasize again that the book is not primarily aimed at undergraduates.

2. T. Irwin, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics (Second edition) (Indianapolis, 1999). S. Brodie (commentator) and C. Rowe (translator), Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics (New, York, 2002).

3. K. W. Grandsen, in a different context, puts the point well, “V[ergil]’s narrative structure would be clearer if editors printed more paragraphs” (K. W. Grandsen, Aeneid: Book VIII (New York, 1988), 47 n. 4). The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for Aristotle. Since Aristotle is presenting, ideally, a linear argument, the paragraphing is even more important.

4. Both Rowe and Irwin discuss their choices in this matter. See Irwin xxv ff. and Rowe 5-6. (I cannot understand Rowe’s claim that Aristotle’s long paragraphs are “a major feature of Aristotle’s style, at least in the Nicomachean Ethics : its habit, as it were, of flowing” (6). Given what we know about ancient book production and the works of Aristotle, I find it impossible to believe that the paragraphs in any modern edition reflect stylistic choices on Aristotle’s part.)

5. My one complaint in this regard is that when T. points out obscurities or difficulties in the NE, he frequently scolds Aristotle in a manner I find jarring. Although I don’t think that we should worship the words of Aristotle, he is — and this matters somehow — Aristotle. There is no place for talking about him like he turned in a sloppy paper to his tutor. (Especially considering that the NE as we have it is unlikely to be anything like a book which Aristotle edited for publication.)

6. Notice that the problem is not about her conscious motivation before she acts. This may be a problem for Aristotle and for ethics, but it is a different problem. The problem here is simply whether the virtue terms (courageous, brave, fine, good) must appear in the agent’s understanding of the action, even if that understanding only becomes fully conscious later.

7. So T. concludes: “We think that being really sweet just is tasting sweet to the normal person in normal conditions, not that sweetness is an intrinsic feature of certain things which normal people in normal conditions are good at detecting” (161).