BMCR 2009.08.58

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book VII. Symposium Aristotelicum

, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Book VII. Symposium Aristotelicum. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 296. ISBN 9780199558445 $90.00.


Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics [NE] begins (broadly speaking) with a discussion of the chief good ( eudaimonia) (Book ἰ, which is followed by detailed accounts of the ethical virtues (II-V) and the intellectual virtues (VI). Book VII opens by claiming to make “a new (or ‘another’) beginning” ( ἄλλην . . . ἀρχήν, 1145a15), and contains (arguably separate) treatises on ακρασία (lack of control) (chs. 1-10) and pleasure (chs. 11-14).1 The remainder of the NE treats friendship (VIII-IX), and then pleasure and eudaimonia (X).

The XVIIth Symposium Aristotelicum (held in Venice in July 2005) was devoted to NE VII. The volume under review contains the revised papers given on that occasion. As has become standard for the Symposium Aristotelicum, the symposiasts’ essays together amount to a commentary of sorts: each of the ten chapters covers a portion of NE VII (in no case more than two chapters).

Aside from the content of each of the fourteen chapters of NE VII, there are a number of interpretive issues that one must hold in (at least the back of one’s) mind in approaching this material: the relationship of Book VII to the rest of the νε; similarly, since νε Eudemian Ethics [Eε] its relationship to the rest of EE, and whether it is a better fit with NE or εε; and, the relationship between the two parts of NE VII (on akrasia and on pleasure). This collection of essays would have been more useful had it included a chapter or two that addressed these issues, or in lieu of that, an introduction modeled after Michael Frede’s mammoth introduction to the Symposium Aristotelicum volume on Metaphysics Lambda.2 Nevertheless, these issues are occasionally dealt with throughout the book, and they are mentioned by editor Carlo Natali in his fine, if brief, introduction (pp. 1-7).

In what follows, owing to limitations of space, I can merely briefly describe the content of each essay. I have a bit more to say about the first chapter, however—John M. Cooper’s ” Nicomachean Ethics VII.1-2: Introduction, Method, Puzzles” (pp. 9-39)—as it serves in part as an introduction of sorts to all of the essays on NE VII 1-10.

NE VII opens by declaring the need for a new beginning, indicating the three states3 to be avoided: vice, akrasia, and beastliness (their opposites being virtue, self-control, and god-like virtue, respectively). As becomes clear, however, the pair that most interests Aristotle is akrasia and self control; and, as Cooper explains, in contrast to the books on the virtues, the emphasis here is on the worse half of the pair: akrasia, which is the topic of NE VII 1-10. (Vice was covered earlier and at length in the discussions of virtue; beastliness and god-like virtue are discussed briefly in NE VII 1, and again in VII 5.)

Book VII 1 divides into three parts (following Cooper): general introduction to the new topic (1145b15-b2); statement of the method to be used in discussing it (1145b2-7); first stage in the application of this method, namely, collecting or formulating the appearances or things said (1145b8-20). NE VII 2 covers the second stage in the application of this method, namely, setting out the aporiai or puzzles generated by these appearances. (The third stage—the attempt to find solutions to these aporiai —is the work of the remainder of the discussion of akrasia, in VII 3-10.) Cooper thus divides his chapter into three sections: I on the introduction, II on the method and its first stage, and III on the aporiai.

All three sections are superb, but I found II—on methodology—to be especially important. Cooper points out that 1145b2-7 “has been used to support a very ambitious theory of Aristotle’s method in philosophy quite generally—in ethics, physics, metaphysics, etc.—according to which the art of ‘dialectic’ is supposed to provide the ‘first principles’ . . . in any area of inquiry leading to knowledge. . .” (pp. 19-20). Cooper notes that this view “has received severe criticism in recent years” (p. 20),4 but in the present chapter he sidesteps the issue (though he seems quite sympathetic with the criticism of the ambitious reading; see, e.g., p. 28 with n. 43). Instead, he provides a masterful reading of the passage with a view to its actual context in NE VII 1-10. I’ll end my remarks on Cooper’s contribution with this observation of his concerning the aporiai connected to akrasia : “not all the puzzles formulated in chapter 2 receive discussion or solution in the remainder of the treatise” (i.e., VII 3-10), and “not all the puzzles (or questions) that Aristotle does discuss and resolve in the subsequent chapters are included in the ones formally set out here” (p. 38).

In chapter 2, ” Nicomachean Ethics VII.3: Varieties of akrasia” (pp. 41-71), David Charles argues for the following points:

(1) Aristotle allows for at least two types of akratês

(2) One akratês (e.g.) eats this sweet voluntarily without arriving at the conclusion ‘do not eat this sweet’; another arrives at that conclusion . . . but voluntarily eats the sweet nonetheless. The latter is aware, while acting, that a specific action is not to be done but (in some way) fails to know this.

(3) The precise nature of the latter’s knowledge failure is not fully spelled out. (pp. 41-42)

In chapter 3, ” Nicomachean Ethics VII.4: Plain and qualified akrasia” (pp. 72-101), Hendrik Lorenz (following Cook Wilson) argues that (aside from a brief introduction at 1147b20-23), VII consists of two versions of Aristotle’s account of unqualified akrasia, and qualified akrasia (e.g., lack of control over wine). Version A has three parts (1147b23-31, 1147b31-1148a4, and 1148a4-13), and Version B has three corresponding parts (1148a22-28, 1148a28-b9, and 1148b9-14, respectively). Lorenz claims that 1148a13-22 contains “two supplementary remarks about lack of control and self-indulgence” (p. 99 n. 70), and belongs with Version A. Version B, he argues, was not meant to add to Version A, but to replace it. (For brief but interesting discussions of why Version A was retained by the mss. tradition, see pp. 96-97 n. 62 and 99 n. 71.)

In chapter 4, ” Nicomachean Ethics VII.5-6: Beastliness, Irascibility, akrasia” (pp. 103-29), Carlo Natali provides detailed discussion of three topics: beastliness and beastly akrasia (5.1148b15-1149a24); akrasia over thumos or anger (6.1149a25-b26); and, the evaluation of the kinds of akrasia (6.1149b26-1150a8). Noteworthy is his useful discussion of 1148b24-34—a passage important (among other things) for being one of the few texts that shed some light on Aristotle’s views on homosexuality.

In chapter 5, ” Nicomachean Ethics VII.7: Akrasia and Self-Control” (pp. 130-56), Christopher Bobonich tackles one of the more neglected chapters in NE VII: a loosely connected set of discussions on akrasia and its connection to related dispositions or states. Bobonich divides the chapter into six parts (the parenthetical descriptions are my own): 1. 1150a9-16 (description of different states between virtue and vice: akrasia and self-control concern pleasure, softness and endurance concern pain); 2. 1150a16-25 (two kinds of self-indulgence, the vice corresponding to moderation or temperance); 3. 1150a25-32 (self-indulgence as worse than akrasia); 4. 1150a32-b1 ( akrasia and self-control, and softness and endurance); 5. 1150b1-19 (softness and daintiness, akrasia, and self-indulgence); 6. 1150b19-28 (two kinds of akrasia : impetuosity and weakness). Bobonich’s careful exegesis of these passages includes a number of excursions into the EE to discuss parallel passages, and certainly shows that NE VII 7 (as he puts it) “has more interest than is often supposed” (p. 130).

In chapter 6, ” Nicomachean Ethics VII.8-9 (1151b22): Akrasia, enkrateia, and Look-Alikes” (pp. 157-72), Sarah Broadie studies (in her own words) “the boundaries between akrasia and enkrateia” (p. 157). She divides her text into three sections (unequal in size), based on the aporiai (from NE VII 2) with which they deal. Section 1 (1150b29-1151a28, i.e., the whole of VII 8) answers the aporia at 1146a31-b2 (quoting Broadie): “The vicious person would seem to be superior to the akratês because more curable”. Section 2 (9.1151a29-b17) answers the aporia at 1146a16-18: “If enkrateia makes one stick to just any decision, it is a bad quality”. Section 3 (9.1151b17-22) answers the aporia at 1146a16-18: “If akrasia makes one abandon every decision, there will be an admirable kind of akrasia“. Broadie’s excellent analysis of VII 8-9.1151b22 includes important discussions of the constancy and mutability of ethical character.

In chapter 7, ” Nicomachean Ethics VII.9 (1151b23)-10: (In)Continence in Context” (pp. 173-82), Teun Tielman discusses a stretch of text (ch. 11, according to the other chapter division of VII) that is in a sense a conclusion to the book VII discussion of akrasia and its connection to the earlier books of NE, though it takes the form of a collection of scattered remarks. I can do no better than Tielman in describing the six parts of this conclusion and their subject matter:

1. 1151b23-32: the linking of the theory of (in)continence to the doctrine of the mean
2. 1151b32-1152a6: the relation of (in)continence to (in)temperance
3. 1152a6-15: the relation of (in)continence to practical wisdom as distinct from cleverness
4. 1152a15-24: the relation of (in)continence to wickedness and injustice
5. 1152a25-33: practical note: the actual condition of people and the possibility of curing their (in)continence
6. 1152a34-36: concluding statement

The chapters of Bobonich, Broadie, and Tielman together demonstrate that there is much of value in the (relatively neglected) VII 7-10, and that they merit a fresh look.

The last three chapters of the volume are on the second part of (or treatise in) NE VII, on pleasure.

In chapter 8, ” Nicomachean Ethics VII.11-12: Pleasure” (pp. 183-207), Dorothea Frede begins by claiming that it was natural for Aristotle, after discussing akrasia and self-control, to turn to an investigation of pleasure and pain. But “it takes no more than a perfunctory look to see that the discussion of pleasure and pain in chapters 11-14 is not a continuation of what went before”; rather, “Aristotle makes a fresh start” (p. 183). NE VII 11-14, Frede believes, does not present Aristotle’s views on pleasure and pain generally, but instead reflects his contribution to a debate within the Academy on pleasure and the good.

Aristotle’s own conception of the nature of pleasure emerges only now and then in his retorts to his opponents. He does not elaborate on what appears to be his own definition of pleasure as an “unimpeded natural activity.”5 Thus he does not comment on the relationship between the different types of pleasure that are implied in his discussion of the virtues and vices, and of virtuous and vicious actions, found in NE‘s earlier books. This is a serious omission. . . .(p. 185)6

Frede makes a lot of the distinction between what she calls adjectival and adverbial pleasure. In the case of temperance, for example, adjectival pleasure refers to the bodily pleasures that the temperate person abstains from (or experiences appropriately), adverbial pleasure to “the ‘moral’ pleasure he or she takes in acting with temperance” (p. 186). These different types of pleasure, Frede claims, generate a conundrum—one that “is not explicitly addressed” (p. 186) by Aristotle—to which she devotes an entire section (pp. 199-203). I found the two most useful sections of this essay to be the second (“Aristotle’s summary of the arguments against hedonism in chapter 11”, pp. 188-92) and the third (“The rebuttal of arguments against hedonism in chapter 12”, pp. 193-99).

In chapter 9, ” Nicomachean Ethics VII.13-14 (1154a21): Pleasure and eudaimonia” (pp. 209-35), Christof Rapp discusses a stretch of text in which Aristotle continues his debate with Academic anti-hedonism. Rapp divides the text as follows (the descriptions are his): 1. 13.1153b1-7: A Eudoxian argument and its (attempted) Speusippean rebuttal; 2. 13.1153b7-13: Pleasure as the supreme good; 3. 13.1153b14-25: Eudaimonia as unimpeded activity; 4. 13.1153b25-32: All animals pursue pleasure; 5. 13.1153b33-1154a1: Taking bodily pleasures for the only ones; 6. 13.1154a1-7: If pleasure were no good, not even the virtuous would live pleasantly; 7. 14.1154a8-21: The goodness of bodily pleasures. Especially illuminating is Rapp’s short treatment (in 2) of “The shocking thesis”—i.e., the idea that pleasure is the supreme good, which Aristotle appears to accept in some form (pp. 218-20).

In chapter 10, ” Nicomachean Ethics VII.14 (1154a22-b34): The Pain of the Living and Divine Pleasure” (pp. 183-207), Gwenaëlle Aubry completes the collection with an analysis of the bulk of NE VII 14, which is devoted to explaining not the truth about pleasure, Aristotle says, but a major error—i.e. the view that the bodily pleasures are the most choiceworthy—and why this error is so often accepted as true (1154a22-26). A fair amount of attention is given to Aristotle’s claims, at the end (1154b20-31), about the simple pleasure of god (who is immortal and whose activity is unchanging), and by contrast the (relatively) inferior pleasure of human beings, which is not simple, but mixed with pain and conflicted, dependent as it is on human mortality and changeability.

In conclusion, a general comment on the book as a whole. Collections of essays (and especially conference proceedings) often suffer from two major problems: unevenness in the quality of essays, and a lack of integration among the contributions. Neither of these problems afflicts Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book VII. Given the volume’s content and subject matter, there is no lack of integration among the chapters (though of course the contributors do not all see eye to eye on many issues of interpretation). Each essay provides a detailed commentary on the relevant part of Book VII, with careful attention to both the Greek text and to philosophical argumentation. Further, the chapters are uniformly of a high quality, and each has something fresh to say about a text that on the whole has received a great deal of attention—from ancient commentators, during the medieval period, and since the flourishing of modern Aristotle-scholarship in the 19th century.


1. There are two different chapter divisions for NE VII. I follow the one employed by Bywater (OCT) and preferred by most English-speaking scholars, and used for the most part in the present volume.

2. Michael Frede, “Introduction,” Michael Frede and David Charles, eds. Aristotle’s Metaphysics Lambda: Symposium Aristotelicum (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000): 1-52.

3. Although Aristotle does not use the word hexis in the opening to NE VII 1, Cooper is right to emphasize the fact that in VII 1-10, Aristotle regards akrasia and beastliness, along with vice, as states or traits of character, and not simply as kinds of action. See esp. pp. 12-13.

4. He cites Robin Smith, “Dialectic and Method in Aristotle,” in M. Sim, ed., From Puzzles to Principles? (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999): 39-55. See also the recent article by Gregory Salmieri, “Aristotle’s Non-Dialectical Methodology in the Nicomachean Ethics,” Ancient Philosophy 29 (forthcoming 2009).

5.See 1153a14-15 and 1153b9-12. Frede devotes a section of her essay to problems connected to Aristotle’s conception of pleasure as an unimpeded natural activity (see pp. 203-207).

6.One gets the sense throughout this essay (or I did, at any rate) that Frede is disappointed with Aristotle—that his account of pleasure and pain does not live up to her expectations.