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Protreptic aspects of aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

  • Author(s): Hutchinson, DS
  • Johnson, MR
  • et al.

© Ronald Polansky 2014. In order to reach the fullest understanding of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, we would do well not only to study the details of his argumentation but also to appreciate the various purposes that these details serve. Aristotle tries to inform his audience about his own ethical and social standpoint and how it is founded on arguments consistent with his wider philosophical commitments; but he also tries to motivate members of his audience to engage in their own philosophical inquiries, as applied not only to concrete moral and political questions but also to the most abstract and inapplicable forms of philosophy. We hope to show that the overall protreptic plan of Aristotle’s ethical writings is based on the plan he used in his published work Protrepticus (Exhortation to Philosophy), by highlighting those passages in his ethical writings that primarily offer hortatory or protreptic motivation rather than dialectical argumentation and analysis, and illustrating several ways that Aristotle’s ethical works adapt certain arguments and examples from his Protrepticus. We confine our attention in this contribution to the Nicomachean Ethics. The most explicit references to Aristotle's audience and his purpose in writing any of his ethical discourses are found in NE x. Early in the book, he writes this: “True arguments, then, seem to be the most useful, not only in the acquisition of knowledge, but in how we live. For since they are in harmony with the facts, they are believed, and for that reason they exhort (protrepontai) those who understand them to live in accordance with them” (1.1172b3-7). Toward the end of the book, however, he focuses on the qualification “those who understand them” rather more: “As things are, though they [sc. philosophical arguments] appear to have the power to influence and exhort (protrepsasthai) those young people who possess generosity of spirit, and perhaps to make susceptible to virtue character that is well bred and truly loves what is noble, they seem unable to exhort (protrepsasthai) the masses in the direction of what is noble and good” (9.1179b7-10, modified). For the majority of people, then, politics and laws are called for, not Ethics and philosophy.

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