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Aristotle for autodidacts

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on November 18, 2007
Tags: aristotle

Quite some time ago, a clever polymathic autodidact wrote to me asking for advice about reading Aristotle. A long time ago I promised a response on the blog. Eh. What can I say? I’ve been busy. Here’s a brief version of what I would write if I had more time.

Let’s begin by facing the obvious: Aristotle is really difficult. There are several reasons for that. First, almost none of what comes down to us from antiquity with Aristotle’s name attached to it was written for “publication” (i.e., wider circulation). Rather, what we have seem to be more like lecture notes, or perhaps the sort of notes you might circulate after a lecture as a sort of memory aid. It’s a pity. An author renown in antiquity for the prose style of his published writings is now enjoyed mainly by eccentrics with an odd, acquired taste for crabbed lecture notes in a dead language. Just as we would expect with notes that were circulated among the initiated, Aristotle’s writings are also filled with arcane terminology and refer to contemporary debates familiar to his audience but often not to us.

And it gets worse. Those lecture notes—or whatever they are—seem to have been stitched together, sometimes rather crudely. For example, the text we read as the Nicomachean Ethics isn’t the unity we might expect from the fact that people are always going on about Nicomachean Ethics this and Nicomachean Ethics that. To take just one example, there are two discussions of pleasure in the work, apparently in conflict, and neither of which refers to the other. Clearly someone, whether Aristotle or a later editor, has done some cutting and pasting. This adds to the general air of confusion.

Finally, Aristotle is really hard to read because he was interested in really hard problems, and his answers to those questions were often subtle, and sometimes restated in different ways over a lifetime of thinking about them.

So, one way to answer the request for advice about getting into Aristotle is: you might just want to skip it. Or perhaps, defer it until you know a bit about the context in which Aristotle is writing. You might, for example, want to begin instead with Plato. Now of course Plato has difficulties all his own. But there at least the student (often) has the benefit of a polished text, and sometimes a highly readable and entertaining one. And while the dialectical context matters there too, you can get a quite a bit from, say, the Gorgias (which is a wonderful place to begin reading Plato) even if you don’t have any background in Classical Greek philosophy or culture.

If this isn’t enough to dissuade you, then I suppose the best way into Aristotle depends on your interests. You might approach Aristotle for a number of different (but compatible) reasons. You might, for example, be looking for true claims about matters of interest to you, along with good reasons for believing those true claims. In that case, my advice would be to spend rather more time poking around in Aristotle’s ethics than anywhere else. Both this and this translation of the Nicomachean Ethics are pretty good, and if you like to go it alone, you might pick them up and just start reading. (It can be useful to compare translations when you’re working through a difficult passage, but either one will do for the first few passes through the text.)

You might, however, be interested in Aristotle because you want to know more about the influence he exercised on Western intellectual history. In that case, you might be interested in the Physics, and in particular the first three books or so.

Now, usually when I’m recommending philosophy books, I just tell people to jump right in and ignore the secondary material. (I think this is especially good advice when it comes to Plato.) But for the reasons I mentioned above, it seems to me that it might be very useful to introduce yourselves to Aristotle’s texts in conjunction with carefully chosen secondary material. If you’re interested in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, then, you might get your hands on The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, edited by Richard Kraut, and dip into it as you read through Aristotle’s text. I’ve read a few of the papers in this collection so far and they’re just superb. In particular, I really enjoyed Gavin Lawrence’s “Human Good and Human Function,” which you can read with enormous profit immediately after giving Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics a shot. Jennifer Whiting’s “The Nicomachean Account of Philia is also wonderful.

I’m a bit less sure about the best secondary material on the Physics, but I do recall being extremely impressed by Sarah Waterlow’s (=Sarah Brodie) Nature, Change, and Agency in Aristotle’s Physics a while ago when I was working through some material in the Physics. Waterlow is especially good in that book at drawing contrasts between Aristotle’s and modern approaches to the study of nature. And it seems to me that this makes reading the Physics alongside Waterlow a challenging but possibly very rewarding way of starting to get a grip on a part of Aristotle’s thought that had an enormous influence historically.

There are also other ways in, and some very good introductions to Aristotle. To name just one, the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle is pretty solid, and is good at pointing the way forward in many more directions than I’ve mentioned here. The first chapter by Jonathan Barnes is also funny and helpful as the sort of introduction that I would attempt if I were less busy.

Aristotle enthusiasts are encouraged to add further suggestions in the comments.