BMCR 2021.04.04

Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics

, Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin, 2020. lvii, 469 pages. ISBN 9780140455472 $17.00.


This new edition of the Nicomachean Ethics for Penguin Classics replaces the long-in-print translation by J. A. K. Thomson (1953), later revised by Hugh Tredennick (1976) and introduced by Jonathan Barnes (1976; updated 2004). To a fresh translation and introduction, Beresford adds 150 pages of endnotes and a twenty-page guide to further reading, organizing major Anglophone scholarship through 2017.[1] It may seem a crowded market, with at least eight other standalone English translations of the NE available in paperback. But only two of those editions, Terence Irwin’s and C. D. C. Reeve’s (both published by Hackett), compare with the new Penguin in both affordability and wealth of apparatus.[2] While each has its specific virtues, Beresford has produced a translation that is uniquely fluid and lively, with commentary that is no less rigorous for its novel perspective on perhaps the most studied of Greek ethical works.

The original purpose of Penguin Classics, as stated by founding editor E. V. Rieu, was to “present the general reader with readable and attractive versions of the great writers’ books in modern English, shorn of the unnecessary difficulties and erudition, the archaic flavour and the foreign idiom that renders so many existing translations repellent to modern taste.”[3] True to that aim, Beresford studiously avoids what he calls the “scholars’ dialect”, referring to the stock of traditional terms and phrases, often inherited from medieval Latin, that are sometimes assumed to have a special tie to Aristotle’s thought, even if their meaning has changed in contemporary English (e.g., “temperance” for sôphrosunê or “prudence” for phronêsis).[4] So the topic of IV.2, megaloprepeia, is no longer “magnificence”—as nearly all translations have it—but “being lavish”; the megalopsuchos of IV.3 is not the “magnanimous” or “great-souled” man, but someone with a “sense of pride”. Book V’s analysis of dikaiosunê is not about “justice”; it’s about the virtue of “being righteous, being fair” (more on this below). Accessibility is not the only point: Beresford finds that the scholars’ dialect tends to obscure the meaning of the Greek, while creating a false sense of distance between ancient and modern values. Citing advances in evolutionary psychology, he argues that standard English is fully adequate to express Greek ethical ideas (lvi–lvii). So he is happy to have Aristotle talk about “obligations”, “right and wrong”, and “morally significant” character traits.

Beresford’s NE also looks very different on the page, due to his liberal use of supplements (in square brackets) and double translations of single Greek words (in curly brackets). A fair amount of exegetical work one might expect to appear as commentary is thus included in the translation itself, often with an accompanying note. For Beresford, the supplements—which occasionally amount to a whole sentence—are licensed by the extremely terse and elliptical character of the text (xlix). The Introduction sets out his view that the Êthika Nicomacheia transmit hupomnêmata—“records of a lecture”—taken down by an attendee at Aristotle’s talks (maybe Theophrastus), and later edited by his son Nicomachus.[5] To a far greater degree than any other version, Beresford’s has the quality of live speech, with frequent paragraph changes, parenthetical asides, rhetorical questions, and addresses to the audience (“you” is typical in impersonal constructions). His Aristotle is spontaneous and casual, sometimes playful or even flippant. Here is how he responds to the Academic view that knowing the Good itself will help us know and attain what is good for us:

All right, sure, that argument has a certain plausibility to it. But it seems to be at odds with actual forms of knowledge {and expertise}. I mean, all of those are aiming at some kind of good, and all of them are on the lookout for ways to improve themselves, but none of them show any interest in knowing about [the Form of the Good]. So here’s this huge resource, and yet craftsmen are all unaware of it, and never even think to look into it! Doesn’t sound very plausible. (I.6, 1097a3–8)

It’s hard for me to imagine Aristotle operating in such a register, but this is an extreme case: only rarely did I find the conversational tone jarring. In a few places, Beresford inserts a question from an audience member, italicized and in square brackets, where he suspects Aristotle to be addressing an objection or a request for clarification on the fly. While this helps bring out the dialectical nature of his lectures, I’m not sure it’s justified: a good teacher can tell when a point hasn’t gotten across or needs elaboration, and we don’t know if students at the Lyceum were free to interject.

Yet Beresford’s flexibility generally pays off, for instance in his readiness to vary the translation of a recurring Greek word as context demands (e.g., prohairesis is usually “choice”, but becomes “aim” at 1102a13). Consider also his handling of the unwieldy definition of aretê in II.6: Ἔστιν ἄρα ἡ ἀρετὴ ἕξις προαιρετική, ἐν μεσότητι οὐσα τῇ πρὸς ἡμᾶς, ὡρισμένῃ λόγῳ καὶ ᾧ ἂν ὁ φρόνιμος ὁρίσειεν (1106b36–1107a2). Here is Irwin:

Virtue, then, is a state that decides, consisting in a mean, the mean relative to us, which is defined by reference to reason, that is to say, to the reason by reference to which the prudent person would define it.

And Reeve:

Virtue, then, is a deliberately choosing state, which is in a medial condition in relation to us, one defined by a reason and the one by which a practically-wise person would define it.

Now Beresford:

So a virtue is a disposition to choose certain things; it lies in a middle state (middle relative to us) as determined by reason, or as a wise person would define it.

The indefinite article in “a virtue” seems unwarranted, but “disposition to choose certain things” for the difficult phrase ἕξις προαιρετική is smoother, and in my view more accurate, than the other two renderings, which make it sound as though the virtue rather than the person makes decisions. Beresford deals with the final clause efficiently, while losing none of the sense. The choice of “wise” for φρόνιμος is also apt, since “wisdom” already suggests practical knowledge.

The main text is followed by an eight-page discussion of three terms Beresford translates unconventionally: eudaimonia, aretê, and dikaiosunê. Although eudaimonia—the goal of human activity according to Aristotle—is traditionally rendered “happiness”, it is a commonplace that the Greek notion of eudaimonia isn’t really what we mean by “being happy”. As Beresford puts it, eudaimonia “refers to a state of well-being, not to a sense of well-being” (269). The result is that “happiness” is something of a term of art in the study of ancient ethics. Rather than defer to tradition, he opts for “flourishing” (sometimes glossed as “prospering” or “being blessed”), citing this term’s expanding usage in non-scholarly contexts (270). Aretê is traditionally “virtue”, sometimes “excellence”.[6] Beresford rejects both. He insists that aretê does not mean “excellence” in general, as often supposed, such that a Greek could refer as naturally to the aretê of a horse or of a wine as to the aretê of a person. Instead, aretê unqualified means “being a good person” (or “moral goodness”), just as agathos unqualified means “a good person”. Both terms have to be qualified to lose their ethical sense, and when aretê is so used it presumably sounds strange (cf. 1102b3, with 324 n. 81). Beresford tends to translate aretê as “goodness” but goes with “virtues” for the plural aretai (occasionally “a virtue” for the singular, as in the definition in II.6). I did not see a good reason to avoid “virtue” for aretê: in modern English, “virtue” on its own has strong moral connotations and seems no less archaic than “goodness” to refer to a person’s character.

More controversial is Beresford’s discarding of the firmly traditional “justice” for dikaiosunê, in favor of two alternatives: “fairness” (or “being a fair person”) for the specific virtue and “righteousness” (or “being a righteous person”) for the general virtue (to dikaion is sometimes “right and wrong”). Beresford points out that “justice” in standard English simply does not pick out a character trait (274); it applies instead to judicial rulings, political institutions, and the distribution of wealth. “Fairness” is a reasonable choice for the specific sense, if maybe not aspirational enough to serve as a virtue term. But “righteousness” for the general sense—the broad disposition to do what’s right—is far from ideal, and an exception to Beresford’s avoidance of archaisms. A better choice might have been “morality”, as dikaiosunê is translated throughout Robin Waterfield’s version of Plato’s Republic.[7] In any event, the pedagogical advantages of Beresford’s approach are perhaps clearest in Book V: the double translations (often keeping Greek in the main text), supporting diagrams, paragraph headings (tracking the book’s patchwork nature), and ample commentary make the notoriously vexed treatment of dikaiosunê surprisingly lucid.

The notes manage to be both inviting to students and challenging to scholars. In keeping with his universalist view of ethics, Beresford draws on a wide range of parallels—from the Hebrew Bible to Shakespeare to Curb Your Enthusiasm—to illuminate Aristotle’s concerns. He does not refrain from criticizing arguments that to his mind betray sloppy thinking or snobbishness (e.g., 306 n. 16; 310 n. 37; 362 n. 55; 414 n. 11; 439 n. 27; 443 n. 45); and he points out where Aristotle’s position may be more nuanced than commonly thought (e.g, 420 n. 30 and 440 n. 32 on slavery). Another distinctive feature of the notes is their frequent engagement with the ancient and Byzantine commentators (along with the Magna Moralia), to help clarify difficult passages, correct longstanding translation errors, and resolve interpretive disputes. Beresford’s readings are almost always convincing; I found just one mistake of any consequence. When Aristotle argues in IV.9 that a sense of shame is not a virtue because a good person would never do anything shameful, Beresford has him add parenthetically: “And it doesn’t make any difference here if we’re talking about things that are actually shameful or things that you regard as shameful [τὰ μὲν κατ’ ἀλήθειαν αἰσχρὰ τὰ δὲ κατὰ δόξαν]. You shouldn’t do either. So you shouldn’t ever feel shame” (1128b22–25). This misconstrues the κατ’ ἀλήθειαν/κατὰ δόξαν contrast, which isn’t about a person’s perception of his own actions, but instead distinguishes between things that are actually shameful and things that are only regarded as such (the second-century ce Anonymous commentator gives the example of eating in the agora).[8]Beresford’s rendering suggests that a virtuous person could be wrong about what’s worthy of shame, whereas Aristotle’s point is that a virtuous person will respect certain social norms even if they are mere conventions.[9]

Nonetheless, Beresford’s NE would be my top recommendation for a first encounter with Aristotle’s ethics, and should be sought out by anyone looking to engage with the work afresh.[10]


[1] Beresford foregoes chapter titles but provides a detailed table of contents. There is no glossary, though the index includes many Greek terms. Some key omissions from the further reading: Brad Inwood and Raphael Woolf, Aristotle: Eudemian Ethics (Cambridge, 2013); Jonathan Barnes and Anthony Kenny, Aristotle’s Ethics (Princeton, 2014), which includes a translation of the Magna Moralia; and several relevant volumes in the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series now published by Bloomsbury Academic.

[2] Terence Irwin, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis, 2019); C. D. C. Reeve, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics (Indianapolis, 2014) (reviewed here BMCR 2014.08.45).

[3] About Penguin Classics.

[4] Beresford took the same approach in his Penguin Classics edition of Plato’s Protagoras and Meno (London, 2005). For a measured defense of the traditional approach, see Irwin’s introduction, xxxii–xxxiii.

[5] Unfortunately, there lacks space to say more about the Introduction, which includes a stimulating discussion of Aristotle’s “humanism”: his conviction “that facts about right and wrong do not depend on facts about the nature of the whole cosmos”—in particular, facts about the gods or God (xxiii). Part of the evidence for his humanism is the NE’s surprising silence about the virtue of piety. (Beresford overlooks a possible reference to piety in X.8, 1179a22–32; see further Joachim Aufderheide, “Aristotelian Piety Reconsidered,” CHS Research Bulletin 5, no. 1 (2016).)

[6] E.g., in Sarah Broadie and Christopher Rowe, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford, 2002).

[7] Robin Waterfield, Plato: Republic (Oxford, 1993). In his recent version of the New Testament (New Haven, 2017), David Bentley Hart translates the seven occurrences of dikaiosunê in Matthew five different ways (“requirement”, “what is right”, “uprightness”, “righteousness”, “justice”).

[8] So Reeve and most other translators; Irwin construes it Beresford’s way.

[9] A few other translation issues: “there aren’t any such people” for οὐ πάνυ γίνονται at 1119a6 is too absolute (cp. “because they basically don’t exist” (correctly) for διὰ τὸ μὴ πάνυ γίνεσθαι at 1119a11); “piece of knowledge” for ἐπιστημῶν at 1129a12 doesn’t capture the way in which an epistêmê could be like a hexis (“expertise”?); “But it’s a very distinct form of it” is probably wrong for ἀλλ’ ἔχει διαφορὰν πολλήν at 1141b34, though the passage is admittedly obscure. I found remarkably few typos.

[10] Many thanks to Christopher Moore for helpful comments and discussion.