Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Nicomachean Ethics (First Impressions)

As part of my reintroduction to academic life, I'm going to take a class at the UW this quarter on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. The class hasn't started yet, and I'm not even sure if I'll be able to get in, as I'm a non-matriculated student and they get bumped to the end of the line. Still, I figured that no time spent reading Aristotle is wasted, so I picked up the Loeb edition off of Amazon, and it arrived yesterday. After Caedmon went to bed last night, I spent most of the evening reading.

It's really my first time trying to read classical (Attic) Greek, and as you'd expect, it's slow going, even with Rackham's English translation sitting on the right-hand side of every page. Aristotle's vocabulary differs significantly from the New Testament, and forms like the optative, which have almost no representation in the New Testament, show up on every page. In addition, Aristotle is very compact. Most of the time, Rackham's translation is almost more of a paraphrase – it makes specific interpretational decision by specifying subjects and objects which are merely implied in the original. For instance, at one point, Aristotle writes "εἰ δὲ πλείω, ταῦτα" (1097a), literally, "but if multiple, these". Rackham expands those four words to fifteen: "or if there be several such ends, the sum of these will be the Good."

Rackham's work represents a great deal of scholarship and study, and for a translation made in 1923, it's surprisingly easy to read. But to my surprise, there were occasions when I found the Greek easier, or at least, significantly illuminating. For instance, Rackham has a particularly dense translation of 1096a.20:

But Good is predicated alike in the Categories of Substance, of Quality, and of Relation; yet the Absolute, or Substance, is prior in nature to the Relative, which seems to be a sort of offshoot or 'accident' of Substance; so that there cannot be a common Idea corresponding to the absolutely good and the relatively good.

All the talk about "categories" of "substance", "quality" and "relation" are technical philosophical terms, and if you're not familiar with the whole history of discussion about these things, it's not entirely clear what they are. But Aristotle doesn't actually use these technical terms:

τὸ δ᾽ ἀγαθὸν λέγεται καὶ ἐν τῷ τί ἐστι καὶ ἐν τῷ ποιῷ καὶ ἐν τῷ πρός τι, τὸ δὲ καθ᾽ αὑτὸ καὶ ἡ οὐσία πρότερον τῇ φύσει τοῦ πρός τι (παραφυάδι γὰρ τοῦτ᾽ ἔοικε καὶ συμβεβηκότι τοῦ ὄντος): ὥστ᾽ οὐκ ἂν εἴη κοινή τις ἐπὶ τούτοις ἰδέα.

A less philosophical but equally faithful translation might read:

But people use the word 'good' both when they're referring to what something is, what sort of thing it is, and what it's connected with. (Of course, the fact that something exists is prior to what it's connected to – something has a connection to other things only after it already exists.) But the net result is that there's no common idea sitting behind all these different ways we use the word 'good'.

My guess is that there's a medieval Latin translation of Aristotle lurking somewhere in the back of Rackham's mind, which keeps whispering words like substantia to him every other sentence or so.

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