Code of the Gentleman: Reviewing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

January 9th, 2013

What So Proudly We Hail coeditor Diana Schaub, whom we feature here discussing how African American thinkers have helped shape our understanding of what it means to be an American, has an article in the most recent issue of the Claremont Review of Books, reviewing a new translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

She writes:

The desire for learning came late to Winston Churchill. In his twenties, while stationed in India with the 4th Hussars, with the sudden conviction of his ignorance strong upon him, Churchill resolved to make up for his misspent school days, when he had languished at the bottom of the class. As he relates in My Early Life, the breeze for his own “second sailing” was a friend’s remark that “Christ’s gospel was the last word in Ethics.” Churchill’s curiosity was stirred:

This sounded good; but what were Ethics?…Judging from the context I thought they must mean ‘the public school spirit,’ ‘playing the game,’ ‘esprit de corps,’ ‘honourable behavior,’ ‘patriotism,’ and the like. Then someone told me that Ethics were concerned not merely with the things you ought to do, but with why you ought to do them, and that there were whole books written on the subject.

Being book-shy (or maybe what is today termed an auditory learner), Churchill lamented: “I would have paid some scholar £2 at least to give me a lecture of an hour or an hour and a half about Ethics…. But here in Bangalore there was no one to tell me about Ethics for love or money.”

And so Churchill’s two-year bout of book-learning began. In his four or five hours of self-directed daily reading in history and philosophy (with the requested books sent by his delighted mother), he managed to encounter Aristotle’s Politics but not his Nicomachean Ethics. Churchill’s longing for “a concise compendious outline of Ethics” was not satisfied until a quarter-century later when he finally plowed through the companion volume to the Politics—by which point his verdict was along the lines of “it’s just as I thought.”

That clipped endorsement of Aristotle’s philosophy of human affairs should not be taken as a sign of Churchill’s indifference. Rather, it bespeaks the mature Churchill’s lived familiarity with the ethical-political matters that are Aristotle’s subject. Churchill was a man of character who bodied forth the virtues, especially courage, greatness of soul, and practical judgment. The fact that he recognized himself (and others from his rich store of historical and contemporary acquaintance) in Aristotle’s sketches of the virtues (and vices) shows something about the enduring attraction and accuracy of Aristotle’s framework, despite the subsequent revolutions in morality associated with Christianity, Machiavelli, Kant, and Nietzsche.

At some point in the years between Bangalore and the prime ministership, Churchill did become aware of the distance between the counsel of the gospel and the code of the gentleman. In The Gathering Storm (the first of his six-volume history of the Second World War), he redrafts and redeploys the line from his friend that initiated his self-education, now with the aim of dissenting from it: “The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics. Everyone respects the Quakers. Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding states.” Churchill goes on to make the case for the prudent and flexible use of force (without descending into out-and-out Machiavellianism). These reflections—which he calls “some principles of morals and action which may be a guide in the future”—are presented at the close of the devastating chapter devoted to “The Tragedy of Munich.” I think it’s fair to say that Churchill gave “the last word in Ethics” to Aristotle not Jesus—which is in a certain sense to say he gave the last word to himself, the man on the spot who discerns and chooses well. As Aristotle explains shortly before beginning his description of each of the virtues, the ethical standard is not supplied by fixed rules (no Ten Commandments, no categorical imperative) but rather by the morally serious individual (the spoudaios) who

judges each case correctly, and in each case what is true appears to him. For with respect to each characteristic, there are noble and pleasant things peculiar to it; and the serious person is distinguished perhaps most of all by his seeing what is true in each case, just as if he were a rule and measure of them (1113a30-35).

 Of course, Churchill might not have picked up on all the nuances and puzzles of Aristotle’s dialectical treatment of the human good. He was content to leave more abstruse matters to the scholars and theoreticians. But he understood the fundamental choice that had to be made between man understood as divinely contemplative and man understood as supremely composite and thus civic (a grown-togetherness of body and soul living deliberately with others similarly constructed). “After all,” as he pithily put it, “a man’s Life must be nailed to a cross either of Thought or Action.” Aristotle chose Thought; Churchill chose Action. But their respective crosses are within hailing distance of one another since Aristotle thought deeply about action and Churchill acted with forethought (and then, as an afterthought, immortalized it all in writing). The political philosopher and the thoughtful statesman can admire one another.

As you continue to read Schaub’s essay, consider the question she raises: What is the relationship between the thinker and the actor, the political philosopher and the statesman who has to put thought into action? How have America’s own statesmen—think particularly of Abraham Lincoln, to use a good example—resolved the conflict? 

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