Posted: October 12, 2004
ith stunning ferocity, the attacks of September 11, 2001 challenged the liberal democratic world spawned by the Enlightenment. On that day, it became clear not simply that America had enemies but that the "end of history"—the spread of liberal ideals heralded by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989—was neither a fait accompli nor a prospect welcomed by all peoples and nations. September 11 shook our sense of security, then, but it also deepened doubts already in the air about the universality and rationality of liberal principles. Having helped to fuel the intellectual movement popularly known as postmodernism, these doubts had also invited a return to pre-modern thought, and especially the thought of Aristotle. As a purely practical matter, of course, we have had to push doubt aside and act decisively in protecting our security and way of life. Yet, the very decisiveness with which we have acted, and the grave nature of our actions, have made all the more pressing the need to reflect on the principles and way of life we cherish, and to deal with the questions, raised by friend and foe, that have opened the door to Aristotle.
Two new and two revised translations of Aristotle's major ethical work, his Nicomachean Ethics, may aid us in this endeavor. Most recently, Focus Publishing (2002) and Cambridge University Press (2000) have issued completely new translations of the text. The first is by Joe Sachs, a Tutor at St. John's College, Annapolis, and translator also of Aristotle's Physics and Metaphysics. The second is by Roger Crisp, Fellow and Tutor at St. Anne's College, Oxford, who has contributed also to the revival of "virtue-ethics." In 1999, Terence Irwin produced a revised version of his well-known Hackett translation, and in 1998, Oxford published an edition of Sir David Ross's 1925 translation incorporating recent changes by J.L. Ackrill and J.O. Urmson. All the works include an introduction and glossary; Sachs, Crisp, and Ross offer also an index; and Irwin has expanded his original appendix of notes and commentary and wisely moved to this appendix the many intrusive headings he had inserted into his first version's text. Although the translators vary in their aims and diverge on the question of textual coherence, they are united in the view that Aristotle is relevant to our own search for understanding.
Aristotle's Greek is hardly ornate or even poetic. In fact, its terseness presents immediate challenges, from identifying the subject of a passage to capturing the full complexity of important terms. The act of translation is always an act of interpretation, and decisions translators make depend in part on their aim: while Sachs is intent on getting the reader "closer to the original," even if doing so should produce some awkwardness in English, Irwin seeks to "make Aristotle's terse and concentrated Greek fairly intelligible to those who read him in English" and so to smooth out the roughness in favor of readability. Crisp and Ross are closer to Irwin than to Sachs on this score. The negotiation between these two aims is never easy, and Sachs's effort leads to some cumbersome results. For example, while Irwin, Crisp, and Ross all rest content with "activity" as a translation of energeia, a word central to the Ethics, Sachs insists that "being at work" better captures the nuances of the Greek. Sachs's translation of a line from the opening passage of the Ethics illustrates the awkwardness that his concern for such fidelity can produce: "But a certain difference is apparent among ends, since some are ways of being at work, while others are certain kinds of works produced, over and above the being-at-work." A reader who perseveres through this and other such lines might begin to wonder whether it wouldn't be easier just to learn Greek. At the very least, it is with a small sigh of relief that one reads in Crisp: "But it is clear that there is some difference between ends: some ends are activities, while others are products which are additional to the activities." Sachs acknowledges that his effort to capture the richness of the original doesn't always produce the most graceful English, and, it must be said in his defense, the looser, more readable, translations sometimes put the reader so far from the Greek as to transform its meaning. Thus Sachs is guided by an important aim in seeking to be faithful to the vitality of Aristotle's language, but, of the three others, Crisp produces a readable translation that is also somewhat careful with the Greek.
In his own reading of the text, however, a translator brings to bear other important assumptions that influence the translation's quality. At first blush, for instance, Sachs appears to be the most convinced of the four that Aristotle's thought can transform our own moral horizon rather than merely inform it. By contrast, Ross's self-confidence leads him to conclude that Books 8 and 9 of the Ethics, the books on friendship, could not have been a part of the original treatise since these books "do not form an essential part of a treatise on ethics." While asserting that some of Aristotle's positions are quite radical, Crisp insists that others are "unreflectively adopted from the culture in which he lived" and even that he is sometimes—in his account of megalopsychia (greatness of soul), for instance—"more establishment than the establishment." Without argument or warrant from the manuscripts, Irwin is willing to excise a central, albeit difficult, phrase concerning the law in Aristotle's discussion of justice, "what the law does not command, it forbids." The phrase is so foreign to modern ears that Irwin thinks nothing of dropping it. And for all of Sachs's humility with regard to Aristotle's thought, his translation reflects firm interpretive conclusions, central to which is his view that Aristotle's ethics, like his metaphysics, is directed towards "the beautiful," or that "the true and the good stem from one source, and converge in the beautiful." These kinds of assumptions and conclusions invariably inform the interpretive decisions behind a translation, especially the treatment of central terms, the consistency with which these terms are translated through the work, and the management of textual uncertainties.
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Accordingly, it is important not to understate the difficulty of translating from one language to another, let alone of translating a text as rich and profound as Aristotle's Ethics. The simplest decisions can become enmeshed in an interpretive web, and the project as a whole requires a constant movement and negotiation between one world and another. One example can suffice to illustrate. Prohairesis, often translated as "choice," is a crucial term in Aristotle's presentation of human action (praxis). In the very first line of the Ethics, he underlines the deep connection between action and choice by joining them with a conjunctive phrase, te kai, that emphasizes closeness of relation: "Every art and every inquiry (pasa techne kai pasa methodos), and similarly every action and choice (praxis te kai prohairesis) is thought to aim at some good." The usual translation of prohairesis as choice, however, hardly begins to capture the word's full meaning and significance. Even Aristotle wrestles with a couple of definitions in Book 6: choice (prohairesis), as the "starting point" (arche) of action, is either intelligence operating through longing (orektikos nous) or longing operating through thought (orexis dianoetike). The realm of action and choice is the realm in which desire and reason operate together, and Aristotle's understanding of prohairesis as the starting point of action involves a complicated view of this very operation. In struggling to convey this complexity with an appropriate English term, then, a translator may be ready to throw in the towel before the first line of the Ethics is translated. The difficulty is immediately apparent in the four editions under review. Sachs, whose innovation knows no bounds in other cases, rests content with the usual, "choice," but Irwin prefers "decision"; Crisp, "rational choice"; and Ross, "pursuit." Each translation has its problems: for example, Crisp, trying to be consistent, will eventually have to put the rather awkward suggestion in Aristotle's mouth that, "Virtue makes the rational choice right," and Ross, who is less concerned with consistency, will later translate prohairesis as "choice," leaving no sign of its important place in the opening line of Book 1.
In short, translators are compelled to approach their task with a mix of humility and hubris, and sometimes they err too far in one direction or the other. Perhaps the most jarring example is Sachs's insistence on translating to kalon as "the beautiful," as compared to Crisp's fairly consistent translation of the term as "the noble." A highly nuanced Greek term, to kalon captures a range of meaning in a single word for which English requires at least three, "noble," "beautiful," and "fine." The word is central in the Ethics: the end or telos of moral virtue, Aristotle maintains in his discussion of courage, is to kalon. Although it is impossible in English to convey the complexity of concerns connected with the Greek, it becomes clear in the context of courage that, as the end of virtue, to kalon connotes the noble dedication of a virtuous person to an end other than his own greatest goods—a readiness, in forsaking these goods, to die nobly in war. By contrast, Sachs's insistence on "the beautiful" as the right translation produces a highly "aestheticized" version of the Ethics that may owe more to Kant than to Aristotle or to Sachs's own conclusion that "the true and the good stem from one source, and converge in the beautiful." In approaching any translation, then, a reader must be aware that the translator acts as a filter, and, short of learning Greek, the one who wishes to plumb the depths of Aristotle's Ethics would do well to heed Crisp's advice to consult several translations and commentaries.
But even if we as readers should take the greatest care in comparing one translator or commentator against another, it must also be recognized that we, too, bring to Aristotle certain hopes or expectations. The hope that tends to govern the study of Aristotle today is that his Ethics offers an account of virtue and the highest human good that can correct liberalism's agnosticism concerning the good as well as its reduction of human motivation to mere self-interest. There can be no question that Aristotle has much to say about virtue and the good. Yet how best are we to learn from him? The most urgent problems of our own time have led to many efforts to revive Aristotelian notions of virtue within a liberal political frame—to marry ancient virtue with liberal freedom. But in simply adapting Aristotle to our uses in this way, we may well lose what is most valuable in his thought.
In fact, we see immediately that his ethics is intimately bound up with a view of politics that is not liberal in its foundation. His two major works of political philosophy, the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, begin from the premise that the individual is a part of an "authoritative" and "architectonic" political community, and not that he or she arrives on the scene, natural freedoms in hand, willing to sign the social contract under certain clear conditions. Nonetheless, even the most committed Aristotelians today are unwilling to relinquish the principle of individual freedom; Alasdair MacIntyre, for instance, preserves it by insisting that the aim of politics is the creation of "independent practical reasoners" and that the good life is the "quest for the good." A modern reader ought to be given immediate pause, however, by Aristotle's early proposition in the Ethics that the investigation of the good necessarily begins from an acknowledgment that the political community is both the most authoritative educator with regard to our action and the object of our noblest devotion. As a matter of political concern, he further suggests, the highest good for a human being is morally virtuous action, the end of which is "the noble," to kalon. In the Ethics, Aristotle's account of the 11 moral virtues belonging to the good human being is framed by two that emphatically reflect the horizon of a life lived in accord with virtue: courage, as noble death on the battlefield, and justice, as the proper orientation towards the common good. The good that such a life aims at might be summed up by paraphrasing the immortal words of an American president who, on this occasion, strayed from the orthodox liberal line: the good is not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. For Aristotle, this view of the good is not the end of the story; nevertheless, he suggests, we cannot begin to understand ethics without reflecting on its essential political content.
It is by understanding this content, moreover, that we may begin to judge how far or how close the distance is between Aristotle and us. The good life, the life of virtue, is a political one according to Aristotle, because the political community is the arena of our noblest actions and because the highest purpose of the law is not to regulate our interests or protect our freedoms but to perfect us as citizens and human beings. Aristotle's deepest relevance may rest in helping us to recall a view of the individual and the political community that is not liberal; it seems fair to say that his first presentation of the relation between the two is closer to the view of those who attacked us on September 11, because they emphatically reject liberal principles. But in coming to terms with this view, we may better appreciate the serious purpose of our foes and the loss they perceive in the spread of liberal ideals. Thought through, Aristotle's presentation of the connection between the human good and virtuous action may also provide insight into aspects of our own experience, which persist no matter what liberal theorizing may say. In brief, he reminds us that individuals will devote themselves to ends other than their own self-interest; that politics involves challenges of such consequence as to call for citizens and leaders imbued with noble purpose, a firm sense of justice, and greatness of soul; and that our own quest for community and willingness to sacrifice on behalf of comrades and country are rooted in longings that cannot be captured adequately by liberal individualism or the idea of social contract. Rooted as our political history and practice are in religion and tradition, of course, they present a more complex picture than a simple distinction between ancient and modern suggests. Nonetheless, Aristotle, as compared to liberal thinkers, may illuminate certain attachments and practices that infuse our political life—both the support they provide and the special dangers they present.
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In recovering Aristotle's very different starting point, we are prepared also to follow the movement of his thought to its important conclusion. For in the final analysis, he contends, not politics but philosophy is the highest end or best life for a human being. Aristotle's political philosophy is not so much a defense of the political life as it is an investigation of the human good, of which politics is a part. His careful examination of law as the authoritative voice of the community and the educator to virtue shows that the mere assertion of authority is not sufficient: insofar as the law makes a claim to wisdom with respect to the human good, it makes a claim that it must defend. Indeed, while those who attacked us may reject the universality of liberal principles of justice and freedom, they cannot so easily dismiss the challenge of Aristotle, who begins from their own premises concerning the law's authority, and yet shows that the law is not authoritative simply. Aristotle is a part of the intellectual heritage of the West, to be sure, but he was also known as "the Philosopher" in the Jewish and Islamic worlds of the past. In this regard, his thought is truly universal—it can cross time and "cultures"—and there is perhaps no time like the present for the world to benefit from his wisdom.
For us, too, Aristotle offers the opportunity to think through the question of the good life. Although his thought may be part of our heritage, the liberal thinkers who broke with the Aristotelian tradition insisted on leaving this question, in particular, unanswered. A modern reader may therefore be perplexed by the fact that Aristotle not only answers the question, but points to one life in particular, the philosophic life, as best. In trying to think through the question of the good, therefore, we liberals inevitably find ourselves in a predicament: our insistence on this question's openness is connected with the pride of place we give to the individual's right to answer it as he or she sees fit, and thus to the individual's freedom from coercion regarding the central concern of human life. From firsthand experience, we know that the taste of such liberty is sweet. We know also that a political order devoted to individual freedom produces undeniable benefits, among which are security against arbitrary power, representative institutions, equal protection before the law, and the unprecedented prosperity generated by free markets and private property rights. There are many good reasons to be lovers of liberty and partisans of the political order in which liberty is the highest end. But it would require a radical transformation of Aristotle's thought to make him a simple partisan in our cause.
Because we live in uncertain times, our desire for certainty may blind us to the truly complex nature of our situation. For the sake of our self-understanding, and in recognition of the responsibility that comes with our astonishing power, we must examine this situation with open-mindedness and wisdom. Reading Aristotle's Ethics can shed light in corners where lovers of liberty fear to tread; but in exploring these foreign places, we may exercise the full extent of our freedom and come to judge better the justice and indeed the goodness of our cause.