Aristotle, the judge-y philosopher

So as I noted the other day, I’m going back to re-read all of Magna Moralia (MM), Ethica Eudemia (EE), and Ethica Nicomachea (EN) by (roughly) Aristotle after approximately 20 or so years, in order to reclaim this guy from my decades-old impressions that I didn’t really love Aristotle’s intellectual project. In the interim, he’s become quite en vogue again, due in part in my field to Bent Flyvbjerg’s Making Social Science Matter.

I’m working on the EN right now*, and while I am finding much that of value–I’ve taught bits of the EN for years–I am still running up against the same problem that I had even as a callow 17 year-old trying to read this guy even as my classmates dissed me doing it: he’s a judge-y fellow, and it’s not just his reasonable rebuking of over-indulgence in his “incontinence” sections. It’s all over the book. For all the beatings Plato gets for his loyalty to aristocracy, Aristotle again and again returns to the idea that being high born and well-taught are precursors to virtue.

This is fine, I guess, in an ancient, except that it does not really answer the question of whether somebody might be low-born and desirous of virtue, but ill-taught because of his or her context, might be able to acquire abilities to recognize what is fine and good.
Quite early on here, we have:

καὶ εἰ τοῦτο φαίνοιτο ἀρκούντως, οὐδὲν προσδεήσει τοῦ διότι. ὁ δὲ τοιοῦτος ἢ ἔχει ἢ λάβοι ἂν ἀρχὰς ῥᾳδίως. ᾧ δὲ μηδέτερον ὑπάρχει τούτων, ἀκουσάτω τῶν Ἡσιόδου:

οὗτος μὲν πανάριστος ὃς αὐτὸς πάντα νοήσῃ,

ἐσθλὸς δ᾿ αὖ κἀκεῖνος ὃς εὖ εἰπόντι πίθηται·

ὃς δέ κε μήτ᾿ αὐτὸς νοέῃ μήτ᾿ ἄλλου ἀκούων

ἐν θυμῷ βάλληται, ὁ δ᾿ αὖτ᾿ ἀχρήϊος ἀνήρ.

And the man of good moral training knows first principles already, or can easily acquire them. As for the person who neither knows nor can learn, let him hear the words of Hesiod:

Best is the man who can himself advise;

He too is good who hearkens to the wise;

But who, himself being witless, will not heed

Another’s wisdom, is worthless indeed.

Sigh. I’m having trouble with the ἀχρήϊος bits. Irwin translates as “useless”; Rackham, the translator for the Loeb Classical edition I cribbed from above, uses the word “worthless.” Those strike me as defensible translations, both, but capturing different ideas about what a person who doesn’t listen to wiser fellows failing really is: is he of no use to them, or is without value as a person (…because, perhaps, he’s of no use in general, no use to them, no use to society, or no use to anybody, even himself ? Aristotle doesn’t allow for happy fools.)

This is in a big section where Aristotle is banging on about how teaching is somewhat wasted on callow and immature learners, which anybody who has spent time with recalcitrant undergrads can tell you, is true (I just imagine a bunch of rich young male Greeks lolling around ignoring Aristotle while they scroll through…scrolls…or some other ancient version of Yik Yak.)

Back to my original point about Aristotle McJudgypants, it’s not clear to me from worthlessness to uselessness how one ever acquires virtue or knowledge of the good and the right if his precursors are not met, and that mets one must be older and experienced to know what is right and wrong, and that’s fine to some degree, but at what point does one get to push off the ground and say “I’ve got the practical wisdom, y’all listen” and by which mechanisms even those of us with grey in our hair should be expected to keep revisiting and revising our ideas of the right and the good.

And if anybody of good breeding and nurturing can acquire good morals easily, then what do we need study for?