The Nicomachean Ethics


Reading Aristotle's The Nicomachean Ethics reminded me of a recent training I conducted at work. I teach a simplified form of process development in a culture that propagates making easy processes difficult.

  • Ben: Using this method of process development, you only need to monitor these four parameters: cycle time, fill time, first stage pressure, and second stage pressure.
  • Technician: The machine gives you over fifty parameters to monitor and if you can correlate those with your defects, you can see what is going wrong in the process.
  • Ben: If you simplify your process, you do not need to go through fifty parameters to find your problem; you only need to look at four.
  • Technician: So what do we do with the other 46?
  • Ben: Ignore them. Just because they are there does not mean you need to use them.

The Nicomachean Ethics is a lot like this: needlessly making something simple unnecessarily complex. Now, I do recognize the age of this material and the historical context from which it derives. I do have the advantage of learning from sources not available to the Greeks of antiquity. However, this book is considered to be a bedrock of philosophy here in our postmodern world and I cannot help but think this might be a source of a big problem facing us today: making seemingly simple ideas and things needlessly complex.

Aristotle's main idea is this: “Thus a master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this-the intermediate not in the object but relatively to us” (37). Moderation is a virtuous and ethical route for a person to take. This revelation from Aristotle is fine and earth shattering enough on its own and he could have left it at that. However, in his desire to be all things to all people (my interpretation), Aristotle decided to apply this teaching to a wide-ranging swath of human existence-goodness for man, moral virtue, intellectual virtue, friendship, and pleasure-and attempted to explain how we ought to live in these realms. Think if it as a philosophical micro managing of human experience.

The product of this application is a work that reads like the stereo instructions of human experience.

Acts just and unjust bring as we have described them, a man acts unjustly or justly whenever he does such acts voluntarily; when involuntarily, he acts neither unjustly nor justly except in an incidental way; for he does things which happen to be just or unjust. (125)

This is the soul of The Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle used language like this to explain this doctrine of seeking the intermediate route. While I think it may have served its purpose back in the day, I think it may have been detrimental to human existence over the ages. Rather than simply allow the main idea to stand on its own, Aristotle set a precedent for humans to overanalyze most everything they experience. While I understand the reality that there are complex things in the world, the inability for many people to either see simplicity or strive for simplification is worrisome. In my opinion, it makes human experience much more difficult than it needs to be.

I am reminded of my astronomy, where I learned of William of Ockham and his razor: “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” This idea is also seen in this saying, often attributed to Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

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