The Nicomachean Ethics, with its perennial and paramount question about human goodness or happiness, has engaged serious readers across many cultures. Moreover, as Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins recognize here, the Ethics is only one half of the more general topic of human affairs that will be completed by politics (x). Accordingly, the authors perform a valuable service in providing this new translation in combination with an interpretative essay.
In their preface, Bartlett and Collins claim that they have attempted to be “as literal as sound English usage permits” (xv). Their approach has been formed by a reflection on Aristotle’s exact and precise manner of composition. The translation follows Ingram Bywater’s edition of the Greek text ( Ethica Nicomachea [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894]); for the other editions of the Greek text and English translations that are consulted, we can refer to the bibliography (xix).
Keeping the stated goals of the translators in mind, we examine the first sentence of the treatise, as part of the three chapters of Book I that serve as Aristotle’s introduction to the text as a whole. Bartlett and Collins offer “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action as well as choice, is held to aim at some good.” This is admirably clear within the context of the first paragraph, but misses the reference to the theoretical, technical and practical disciplines; a more literal rendering, I submit, would be “every art and every inquiry, and simply every practical pursuit,…”. Interestingly, the first translated sentence of the second page, which speaks of “actions, arts, and sciences” confirms that Aristotle means to refer to the three divisions of philosophy using the customary technical terms. For this reason, it would be better to translate dokein as “seems” with reference to theory and art, but “is held” with reference to action and practice. (Here I refer to the very useful first footnote by translators.) In the field of action, we have to consider the beliefs and opinions held by the relevant agents, but in the fields of art and theory we should pay factual attention to what appears. The translation continues, “Hence people have nobly declared that the good is that at which all things aim.” Here I wonder, which “people” we are to assume as the subject of “have declared” (a point not made clear in the Greek): those who are engaged in the three fields just mentioned, those who are outside of these spheres, or a combination of both? Therefore, there are some options and when we decide on one of them, it is possible to translate kalōs accordingly, as “nobly,” “well,” or “finely.” Then there is the third, rather long sentence: Bartlett and Collins present it as part of the first paragraph, but it seems more suitable as part of the second translated paragraph, in that it speaks about the variation of ends and is limited to art in the form of activities ( energeiai) and poesis in the form of product ( ergon).
But no translation takes shape in a void; the present one is dependent on a particular understanding that Bartlett and Collins provide in about 66 pages at the end of their translation. Here their declared intention “is not to provide a comprehensive commentary but to clarify some of the central arguments of this work” (about six items) and their interpretive approach to them (238). In order to select a suitable approach for reading and interpreting the text, we have to know Aristotle’s manner of writing and different groupings of his audiences. In this regard, Bartlett and Collins write that “Aristotle’s manner of writing is usually complex and subtle. That Aristotle ‘s procedure is marked by peculiarities, including everything from apparently needless repetition and digression to outright self- contradiction…” (139). This is correct but is not enough for more understanding. It would have been helpful to speak more extensively about the genre of this text and accordingly, the “kind of argument(s)” that shapes the Nicomachean Ethics as a treatise – although Aristotle in his own text has some brief and scattered clues about the quality of this text and method. For example, according to Aristotle’s conception, speaking and writing about ethics is different from speaking and writing about “pure science in introducing the consideration of values or in studying what ought to be and not merely what is”. More precisely, it deals with contingents; its method is inductive; its procedure is an appeal to common sense; its approach is revision of the chief current opinions and examines their degrees of consistency; and its conclusions have general validity (Rackham, xxiv).1
With regard to this initial knowledge for a better interpretation, we have to consider two stages before and after entering and reading the text. For example, one needs to have a panoramic understanding of Aristotle’s outlook about the problematic of ethics as a practical discipline and the kind of reasoning suited to it; that is, practical logic. As Bartlett and Collins correctly argue (244), the problematic of ethics is happiness, and this is the raison d’être of the treatise as well. Here what is really needed is a more extensive interpretive essay treating the pertinent intellectual ideological context, including some discussion of the other major contenders among Greek conceptions of happiness. For example, in this context, we can say that eudaimonia is a customary and current subject for multiple and different ancient Greek parties and mentalities that are manifested in endoxa. Within this context, it might be better to render Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia by the English word “well-being,” or perhaps “well-living,” for both in form ( eu-daimonia) and content (attention both to activity and virtue) this equivalent does a better job of making manifest the correct interpretation.
1. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, H. Rackham (trans.,), Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.