Competing ways of life and ring-composition in NE x 6-8

In Ronald Polansky (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge, UK: pp. 350-369 (2014)
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The closing chapters of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics x are regularly described as “puzzling,” “extremely abrupt,” “awkward,” or “surprising” to readers. Whereas the previous nine books described—sometimes in lavish detail—the multifold ethical virtues of an embodied person situated within communities of family, friends, and fellow-citizens, NE x 6-8 extol the rarified, god-like and solitary existence of a sophos or sage (1179a32). The ethical virtues that take up approximately the first half of the Ethics describe moral exempla who experience fear fighting for their communities, are sensitive to the esteem and recognition of others, and feel love for a desire to live together with a wide variety of kinds of friends. Such good people take pleasure in prudently expending sums to improve their communities—communities in which they exchange goods and participate in ruling and being ruled in a cooperative fashion. The exemplum of x 7-8, by contrast, is a person whose activity consists almost entirely in exercising his or her mind (nous)—a part of one’s soul that Aristotle explicitly notes is disconnected from human emotions and that can be exercised, insofar as one as wise, in a wholly solitary fashion (1178a15-16, a19-20; 1177a33-34). Although Aristotle’s claim that a “life in accord with the mind” is best and most pleasant (1178a6-7) may jar the intuitions of many people—he himself endorses Anaxagoras’ claim that the happy person will appear as “someone who is absurd” (atopos, 1179a15) to most people—it is false to claim that his conclusions in NE x 6-8 are unexpected or unanticipated, or that the text is in any way discontinuous with what precedes it. The Nicomachean Ethics exhibits aspects of ring-composition both within the work as a whole and within book 10. In NE i 5 Aristotle introduces his rendition of a trope that he inherits (most immediately) from Plato, viz. that the problem of the good can be considered like a contest between three different kinds of life—the life of enjoyment (apolaustikos), the life of politics (politikos), and the life of contemplation (theôrêtikos). NE x 6-8 returns to that contest, rendering a verdict about which life takes first, second, and third place. As the opening lines of NE x 6 note, that verdict presupposes central claims articulated between the first and last books of the Ethics, specifically about the nature of the virtues, the nature of friendship, and the nature of pleasure. NE i 5 and x 6-8 thus serve as “bookends” which encase arguments and proposition located between them. Book 10 exhibits a similar ring-composition. NE x opens with methodological reflection on the gap between the theoretical positions that thinkers articulate and the way they live their lives (especially in the case of scolds who simultaneously criticize pleasure on a scientific level but seek it on a practical level [1172a33-b8]). Chapter 8 concludes with an explicit reiteration of the methodological point, a reiteration that underscores how Aristotle’s treatment of the contest of lives incorporates central aspects of the discussion of pleasure in NE x 1-5. Aristotle’s reiteration of the problem of a gap between theory and practice also draws attention to the centrality of his treatment of pleasure in his adjudication of the three lives. Although the life of pleasure takes a distant third in the contest of lives, the contemplative life wins the contest in part because it itself is the most pleasant form of life. The central philosophical problem looming behind Aristotle’s treatment of the contest of lives concerns the relationship between the notion of activity (energeia) and the notion of a way of life (bios). In the last four decades, much of the scholarship on NE x 6-8 has sought to address the question of what activities a certain way of life includes or excludes. “Monistic” or “dominant” end interpretations of the best life have viewed it as including only contemplative activities whereas “inclusivist” end interpretations of the best life have viewed it as including non-contemplative activities. Although this chapter largely side-steps this debate—partially because there are ample recent first-rate introductory treatments of the debate, partially because I have addressed the question elsewhere in my own writing —I argue that focusing solely on the contest between the two best ways of life overshadows the way that Aristotle incorporates insights from the third way of life into the best way of life. Although the notion of a contest among different kinds of lives presupposes that the lives are mutually exclusive, Aristotle has no problem saying that the contemplative life trumps the life of pleasure because the contemplative life is more pleasant. I proceed in two parts. In the first part I examine what I will call the “outer” ring of the Ethics, namely the relationship between the contest of lives proposed in NE i 5 and its overall resolution in x 6-8. I show how i 5 and x 6 establish the framework for the contest, how x 7 adjudicates that contest in large part by relying upon premises articulated in the interim between books 1 and 10, and how x 6 and x 8 determine the second and third place positions in the contest. In the second part I focus on what I will call the “inner” ring of NE x. More than half of NE x struggles with the nature of pleasure, its role in a happy life, and the methodological problems of examining pleasure within a practical science. I show how x 1 and x 8 are “bookends” that underscore the methodological problem of examining pleasure and how the contest of lives draws upon the proximate conclusions concerning the nature of pleasure in NE x 1-5.
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