Taking Life Seriously:
A Study of the Argument of the Nicomachean Ethic

461 pages,
ISBN: 0802029531

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Aristotle Meets Diversity
by David Foster

The Canadian enchantment with diversity, to say nothing of personal freedom and equality, often prevents us from wondering too much whether one way of life might not be better than all the rest. The mere idea seems elitist and intolerant. So it is with great interest that we open this study of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the classic defence of the way of life dedicated to moral excellence or virtue. Our guide is Francis Sparshott, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Toronto, who brings to his chosen task an intimate knowledge of Aristotle's corpus and the habits of analysis acquired over forty years of teaching. The result is an ambitious commentary that has something to say about just about every topic in the Ethics, which is saying a lot. Sparshott is no uncritical admirer of this "collection of seductive half-truths," but he has studied it closely, and no short review could possibly reflect the detail and complexity of his analysis.
Sparshott's overall aim is to show that the Ethics is not a disorganized collection of lecture notes on discrete topics, as some scholars believe, but a "single continuous argument" from beginning to end. The core of this argument, he tells us, is a "project" to fully investigate the fundamental question that presents itself to every human being: How can I live a good life? A precise answer would of course differ for each individual: my options are not those available to Wayne Gretzky, and only a fool would today aspire to the life of an ancient Greek gentleman. Sparshott correctly argues, however, that Aristotle intends to set aside such differences of circumstance, to examine the resources available to each of us as human beings, both in life as a whole and in the course of an entire lifetime. Thus, Aristotle's reflections on such things as fear, pleasure, money, honour, moral responsibility, jokes, and friends are not intended to reflect a merely Greek perspective, but a universal human one. The claim to universality is rooted in the suggestion that happiness is "the full and unimpeded use of `logos' [reason], a life with and according to thought applied to one's circumstances." According to Sparshott's Aristotle, genuine happiness is attained only when the various life plans and projects in which each of us is immersed are subjected to a rigorous and comprehensive reflection, the goal of which is to make the aim or aims that are implicit in those plans and projects into a single explicit and consistent aim of life. Doing this is what it means to take life seriously.
This thesis is developed in the first chapter (a commentary on Book 1 of the Ethics). In the rest of the book, Sparshott leads us step by step through the Ethics, showing how Aristotle unfolds its implications and handles various problems that arise in connection with it. Sparshott assumes considerable familiarity with the original text, and because his purpose is not so much to defend a doctrine as to lay out a "sequence of argument", his contribution is difficult to summarize. Nevertheless, something like the following picture is developed. In an unwieldy second chapter, which comprises nearly two-thirds of the book and examines Books 2 through 6 of the Ethics, he argues that excellence of character or virtue is for Aristotle the specific content of a good life. His discussion nicely demonstrates that Aristotle is no grim moralist, for he emphasizes the flexibility of Aristotle's ethical thought, its subtle attention to individual differences and local variation. In addition, he shows that the virtues as Aristotle understands them are not "categorical imperatives", nor are they deduced from or imposed by law; rather, they arise from the content and context of practical life itself, and are meant to contribute to our happiness. On the other hand, he suggests that for Aristotle there is a kind of art to living well: Aristotle encourages us to approach living itself with the same unabashed intensity that we today feel comfortable seeing only in professional athletes. Aristotle then offers an alternative both to easygoing liberal tolerance and to the postmodern posture of ironic distance. The former implies that social peace is more important than happiness; the latter, that nothing is worthy of single-minded dedication, or if there is such a thing, that its achievement depends ultimately on chance.
Chapter 3, which comments on Book 7 of the Ethics, argues that Aristotle's solution to the problem of pleasure undermines his emphasis on virtue because it fails to explain moral weakness or to show that the life of moral action is pleasant. Our hopes for virtue having thus been dashed, in Chapter 4 Sparshott explores an alternative. He argues that Aristotle's beautiful discussion of friendship (Ethics, Books 8 and 9) indicates a conception of the good life that does not depend on striving for virtue but on feeling and consciousness (it also shows how "social values" can "coincide" with "personal values"). The commentary concludes with three short chapters based on Ethics, Book 10. Among other things, Sparshott argues that Aristotle retracts his earlier statement on pleasure, thereby restoring the status of virtue; he also reflects briefly on Aristotle's "distasteful" suggestion that the life of contemplation is happier than the life of moral action (and than a life of pleasant amusement).
Sparshott succeeds in making us confront the Ethics as a whole, and his attempt to make sense of the work as we have it is refreshing in an age when scholars are often more interested in the provenance of the text than its substance. Nevertheless, any claim to articulate the continuity of an argument depends ultimately on an adequate account of the various parts. And while Sparshott is usually helpful, one is almost always left wondering whether he got it quite right or whether there wasn't more to it. For example, while explaining the meaning of spoude (the Greek word for "seriousness" and the source of his title), he makes good use of Aristotle's example of guitar playing to show how in every human endeavour, including morality, the standard is some human expert. But Sparshott, who is himself a prolific poet as well as the author of two books on aesthetics, says very little about why, in explaining the moral idea of seriousness, Aristotle appeals to the fine arts. Related to this, and more generally, Sparshott does not say much about nobility or moral beauty, a crucial concept in Aristotle's ethical thought.
Another example is Sparshott's brief treatment of the pride involved in the virtue of greatness of soul. For modern readers that pride is one of the most galling things in the Ethics, but although he plainly considers it both offensive and silly, Sparshott does not simply denounce it. He accounts for it, and in a way defends it, as the "pompous carrying-on" of a high public official. But the man of greatness of soul condescends to public office only rarely, and he is in any case proud even in private life. The pride in question has to do with the attitude that a man of great and genuine virtue has towards himself. There is indeed an element of exaggerated self-importance about such a man, but neither the emphasis on public life nor the pejorative term "pomposity" captures the significance of the connection to virtue.
Given the tendency of many modern intellectuals to regard life as a matter of irrational commitments, Sparshott is notable for suggesting that it makes sense to reason about morality. But his approach is based on an attempt to separate Aristotle's approach to reasoning about life, which he generally approves, from Aristotle's view of the specific content of the good life, which he disapproves of. He argues that Aristotle's admiration for the virtues betrays a narrowness that is inconsistent with the inclusivity of his call for the rational examination of life. Aristotle is criticized for excluding "alternative moral styles", and for denying the importance of "personality", the life of imagination, and the satisfactions ordinary people find in their occupations and hobbies. More generally, the orientation by virtue is said not to recognize that "the maximizing of diversity in individual developments [is] an important aspect of the human function." Sparshott even suggests that a "harlequin life", as long as it is pursued consistently, would be a good life. In the name of reason and diversity, then, he denies that the moral virtues are a crucial component of happiness. Indeed, the orientation by virtue is itself questioned. He leans to the view that the longing for completion or perfection, upon which the concern with virtue rests, is a kind of "nostalgia", an "insidious temptation".
Sparshott is a relativist. He attempts to show that Aristotle's treatment of reason "left the way open for a certain sort of relativism," but concedes that Aristotle would oppose this interpretation. Thus, in the end, he also rejects Aristotle's argument that the life that makes the fullest use of reason, the life of contemplation, is the best life: that argument too "runs against the universalistic and inclusive tendency implicit in the original project" of the Ethics. From what then are we to take our bearings, if not virtue or reason? Sparshott appears to say that happiness is a matter of consistently pursuing a single method or aim in life as a whole; that method or aim can have no distinct content because everyone is different, and because we live in an "evolutionary world, a world without fixed species," a world in which individuals are continuously and radically remaking themselves. This view seems to provide no basis on which we could prefer the life of a decent citizen or statesman, say, to that of a libertine or a Stalin. Sparshott does not of course draw this conclusion, but his open-ended praise of diversity offers no principled way to avoid it.
Nor in this book does Sparshott really meet the Aristotelian challenge to relativism. As a study of the Ethics, perhaps the most striking thing about Taking Life Seriously is its relative lack of interest in the actual content of the moral virtues Aristotle examines so carefully in Books 3, 4, and 5 (justice is a partial exception). Sparshott says he does not examine the virtues in detail because that "would do nothing to unravel the threads of the argument of the Ethics as a whole." But according to Aristotle himself, the truth about virtue is more fully revealed in the accounts of particular virtues than in the general reflections on virtue as a whole. Sparshott then does not follow Aristotle in believing it necessary to examine the moral virtues as distinct phenomena on their own terms. For this reason his assessment and criticism of the life of moral action is not based on the strongest possible defence of that life.
Taking Life Seriously raises the important question of the status of morality, but it is more useful for showing how a scholar who has no doubts about modernity answers that question than as a guide to Aristotle's answer. At one point, Sparshott confesses to his "own frivolity in supposing that a good life should remain at some deep level uncommitted, leaving open `options' in which one has no real interest." The problem is that such frivolity seems to preclude genuine openness to the possibility, raised by Aristotle, that for a serious person not all options are open. Taking Life Seriously is ultimately an unserious (in the Aristotelian sense) study of seriousness.

David Foster is a professor of political science at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio.


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