25 November, 2013Issue 23.4ClassicsPhilosophy

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The Holy Oxen of Egypt

Nakul Krishna

Aristotle Brad Inwood and Raphael Woolf
Aristotle: Eudemian Ethics
Cambridge University Press, 2012
£13.99
204 pages
ISBN 978-0521121422


Aristotle wrote two major works on ethics. Of these, the non-specialist is likeliest to have heard of the Nicomachean Ethics, named—no one is entirely sure why—after Aristotle’s son Nicomachus. A staple of liberal arts and “Great Books” curricula from the 19th century onwards, Aristotle’s laconic treatise on happiness, virtue, emotion, friendship, and wisdom has rarely wanted for readers. But rather less famously, Aristotle also wrote a second ethical treatise traditionally titled the Eudemian Ethics after his student Eudemus of Rhodes, perhaps its first editor.

Readers of the Eudemian Ethics will encounter all of the Nicomachean themes but with subtly different emphases and a style even more clipped and compressed. Here too, Aristotle pictures a human psyche constituted by reason on the one hand, and elements drawn to food, drink, sex, and honour on the other. Reason is triumphant only in the virtuous man whose reliable preference for the good over the merely pleasant has him “living well and doing well”, which is for Aristotle the same as being happy. But where the Nicomachean doctrine, for all its emphasis on the active, practical life, seems to come down in favour of the contemplative existence of the philosopher, the Eudemian ends on a less ascetic note. There are few other drastic differences of doctrine, and to read it can be like listening to a familiar carol in a new setting.

It is a wonder that Eudemian Ethics has made it to us at all. Although it was the standard text of Aristotelian ethics for four centuries after Aristotle’s death, it relinquished that status to the Nicomachean Ethics in the second century CE for reasons that remain mysterious. In any case, it was the Nicomachean Ethics—three of whose ten books are shared with the Eudemian—that received the loving attention of generations of scribes and copyists, not all of whom were the Greekless drones of stereotype. Modern scholarship is verging on the consensus that the three shared or “common” books originated in the Eudemian Ethics, but other questions remain unanswered. Which editor introduced them into the Nicomachean text? Did the interpolation have Aristotle’s blessing? Might he even have done it himself? And did he revise the Eudemian original before he did so? If he did, which draft do we have?

The editors of this excellent new translation of the Eudemian Ethics, Brad Inwood and Raphael Woolf, give us a brisk account of this textual history, though they do not offer any new answers to the historical questions. However, the evident coherence of the translation adds more weight to the consensus about the Eudemian Ethics being the original home of the common books. Given that these are the books treating justice, theoretical and practical wisdom, and the ever-puzzling phenomenon of “akrasia”—roughly, doing something bad despite knowing what is good—this translation is likely to redirect the attention of readers to their Eudemian context.

The translators are candid about the difficulties posed by a Greek text which is so full of gaps and uncertainties. Footnotes such as “With hesitation we accept Ross’ emendation poiematon for the MSS pathematon” are rife, an indication of how often philosophical considerations have forced them to question the received text and a pointed hint to textual scholars to give the Eudemian Ethics, at long last, the attention it has always deserved. To their credit, Inwood and Woolf dismantle the scholarly scaffolding from the final product and their translation is as readable and visually elegant as the other books in the “Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy” series in which it appears.

They are not the only ones to have been working on the Eudemian Ethics—this year alone will see the publication of another English translation of the whole text (that is to say, a translation that includes the “common books”) and one into French. This flurry of editions comes on the heels of Anthony Kenny’s 2011 translation, itself the product of Kenny’s lifetime of dissident advocacy for the Eudemian Ethics as the later, more authoritative and philosophically superior work.

Inwood and Woolf are more cautious advocates, concluding that the Eudemian Ethics, while a masterpiece in its own right, was likely the earlier text. As philosophical translators in a tradition that treats Aristotle’s arguments as it would those of an intelligent contemporary, their most serious efforts go into rendering Aristotle’s arguments as transparently as they can be rendered. In this, their translation does not constitute a major advance on Kenny’s, but this is no criticism: philosophical translation is a collaborative enterprise that makes progress through the elimination of error. The specialist will want to own both and the layperson may choose either without anxiety. This is as it should be with Aristotle, whose stylistic excellences, such as they are, call for a philosopher rather than a poet to translate them.

In their renderings of Aristotle’s central concepts, Inwood and Woolf mostly retain the traditional English translations. Quite rightly, “eudaimonia” is still “happiness” and “arete” is still “virtue” in the face of those who champion such alternatives as “flourishing” and “excellence”. True, “happiness” in English can suggest something fleeting and subjective, and “virtue” carries connotations of “chastity”, where Aristotle is clearly referring to something quite different. Still, Inwood and Woolf are right to resist the temptation of these alternatives.

For one thing, there is the matter of scholarly tradition and the fact that a translation of Aristotle cannot be oblivious to the two-thousand-year history of Aristotelian exegesis from which we inherit our conventional renderings. For another, it is simply a mistake to suppose that English usage is so calcified as to leave “happiness” and “virtue” unable to carry the sense which Aristotle, who was in any case a revisionary about a good many Greek ethical terms, wanted them to bear. Here, as in so much of his philosophy, Aristotle is straining against the limits of available language.

Another key Aristotelian concept, “phronesis”—traditionally “prudence” (for translators with Latinate tastes) or “practical wisdom”—is here simply “wisdom”. Here they agree with Kenny who notes sensibly enough that the ordinary sense of the English “wise” makes the adjective “otiose”. But this raises the problem of how to render “sophia”, the theoretical, scientific counterpart to phronesis that is usually rendered “wisdom”. Here, Kenny goes for “intelligence”, a reasonable choice that is preferable to Inwood and Woolf’s “expertise” which has the unfortunate consequence of making Aristotle’s celebrations of the virtue sound like the pronouncements of a 1960s technocrat and suggesting a quite different conception of philosophy (etymologically, the love of “sophia”). This piece of revisionism is unlikely to catch on.

A final word must be said on style. Aristotle’s Greek is famously unadorned, spare, full of abrupt transitions and obscure leaps of thought, perhaps because what we have of his writings are the deliberately sketchy notes he lectured from. It calls on all the philosophical ingenuity of a translator to convey both its cogency and its frequent obscurity, and it is fortunate to have, in Inwood, Woolf, and Kenny, philosophical translators up to the task. But to say this is to leave out a further virtue one would like from the ideal translator: the ability to capture his odd flashes of wit and verve.

Of course, Aristotle’s readers will rarely find in his works the diversions of a Platonic dialogue. But it is a mistake to set too much store by the old contrast between Plato as the muse of Renaissance humanists and Aristotle as the patron saint of scholastic bores. The Aristotle of the Eudemian Ethics insists that everyone “has some affinity with the truth […] If we start from what is truly but not clearly spoken, clarity will be won as we make progress, continually substituting what is more intelligible for what is usually spoken of confusedly.”

Here is a manifesto for an Aristotelian way of doing philosophy, but equally, here is a philosophical sensibility expressed in an entirely human, and humane, voice. Aristotle’s stylistic achievements lie not in the panache of his prose but in a distinctive manner of thought. One might see pedantry in his subtle taxonomies, in his need to report and refute the views of every significant opponent, in his constant search for contradictions and ambiguities in the everyday utterances of ordinary people. But equally, one can see in these habits a humanism quite precocious for his time, a curiosity about the mundane, an optimism about the prospects of human intellectual effort in its quest to make sense of things—these too are humanist values.

In an early passage, Aristotle addresses the question: “which of the things in life should be chosen and would satisfy our appetite if we managed to obtain them”? Now compare these following alternative translations. The first is from the Victorian-era translation by Harris Rackham that chooses, to the point of unreadability, to mirror the length of Aristotle’s original sentence and the word order of his Greek:

[…] moreover, also the pleasure of food or of sex alone, with the other pleasures abstracted that knowledge or sight or any other of the senses provides for human beings, would not induce anybody to value life higher if he were not utterly slavish, for it is clear that to one making this choice there would be no difference between being born a beast or a man […]

In Kenny’s rendering, this becomes:

Further, no one who was not an utter slave would put any value on existence solely for the pleasures of food and sex, in the absence of all the other pleasures that are provided to humans by knowing and seeing and using any of their other senses. It is clear that for the person making such a choice there would be no difference between being born a beast or a human.

The sentences are shorter, the vocabulary less Latinate, and the sense consequently a good deal clearer. Now, finally, consider Inwood and Woolf:

Nor indeed would anyone who was not completely slavish prefer life merely for the pleasure of nourishment or of sex, if deprived of the other pleasures that knowledge or sight or any of the other senses provide people with. It is evident that whoever makes this choice might just as well have been born a beast as a human being.

This compares well with Kenny, though his “an utter slave” has an emphatic ring that their “completely slavish” lacks, and their “nourishment” seems needlessly precise for a context where “food” is perfectly suitable. But their elegant “just as well” is a definite improvement on the efforts of their predecessors.

As for the philosophical argument itself, it is hardly watertight, relying as it does on the reader sharing Aristotle’s characterisation of such a life as “slavish” and bestial, and joining him in thinking those qualities contemptible. Perhaps Aristotle meant it as a provocation to the young male Athenian aristocrats, much given to hedonism, among his audience. Or perhaps he was simply inviting them—and us (Aristotle was just immodest enough to have written with posterity in mind)—to consider what, and how much, would be missing from the life of the sybarite. But all this is to leave out Aristotle’s concluding flourish, colourful, vivid, and gratuitous. In Inwood and Woolf’s rendering, this reads: “At any rate the ox in Egypt, which is worshipped as the god Apis, is lavished with a good deal more of those sorts of things than many monarchs.”

To those who complain of the affectless impersonality of Aristotle’s style, passing remarks like these are the best counterexample. Just when we feared we should be bored, Aristotle gives us the holy oxen of Egypt, randy and gluttonous. With two splendid new translations, we can finally hear them loud and clear.

Nakul Krishna is reading for a DPhil in Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford. He is a contributing editor at the Oxonian Review.