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Taking Life Seriously: A Study of the Argument of the Nicomachean Ethics.

Sparshott, Francis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. xviii + 461 pp. $72.00--This magnificent book makes original and unique contributions to the understanding of Aristotle's ethical thought. Sparshott's approach is comprehensive but, unlike S. Broadie's excellent Ethics with Aristotle (1991), it is not systematic: he has written a detailed running commentary on the entire text. However, his "aim is not to argue a thesis about the interpretation of the text as a whole, but to enable the reader to see how it actually goes." This method might seem too modest to the specialist who wants to know Sparshott's views on the perennial topics, but no serious student of the text will read more than a page or two without learning something new. The reasons are simple: (1) Sparshott's ear is uncannily attentive to the least ambiguity in Aristotle's expressions; (2) he meticulously paraphrases, reconstructs, and deciphers every argument and line of thought Aristotle pursues. Lavishing care on such a well-known text might seem overindulgent, but Sparshott shows how many of Aristotle's key terms and concepts are vague or general in scope. In his discussion of book 1, for example, he unpacks the ambiguities in several terms: self-sufficiency does not mean isolation (as is sometimes thought); ultimacy does not mean termination, but completeness or perfection; and completeness does not mean all-inclusiveness, but concentration on an ideal. Also illuminating is his masterly account of justice, the subject of book 5 of the Ethics. In tracking the broad semantic range of "justice," Sparshott concludes that it is intermediate between a moral and an intellectual virtue, and hence includes both the notions of a fair distribution of things and of the whole of virtue. Sparshott's focus on the genesis of concepts and phrases and his pursuit of the penumbras of meaning that radiate through the text as a whole are the most attractive features of the book. Two additional aspects of this exegesis of terminology are noteworthy. (1) Sparshott reveals more thoroughly than before how deeply rooted in Plato are key Aristotelian concepts and arguments. (2) By extensive reference to the Metaphysics and De anima, Sparshott demonstrates that Aristotle indeed provides a metaphysical foundation for his ethical inquiries.

As for general patterns in Sparshott's interpretations, perhaps the most interesting is the tension he discerns in the text between the first-person and third-person points of view in Aristotle's accounts of virtue, happiness, and how we are to live. The first view presents the individual's aspiration for well-being from inside a life, whereas the demands of the external view shape the formal criteria articulated in the function argument. Put another way, this is the tension between happiness conceived as a property descriptive of a whole life and happiness as a "quality of experience," as Sparshott aptly puts it. He argues that the gap between the two views is bridged in book 9, where Aristotle analyzes friendship as shared awareness.

The unique value of Sparshott's commentary is evident in his treatment of the end of the treatise. On the question of the relative importance of the happiness to be achieved by the active and contemplative lives, Sparshott has nothing original to offer, preferring to follow the detailed defence of the primacy of contemplative virtue defended in R. Kraut's Aristotle on the Human Good (1989). Sparshott focuses instead on why Aristotle--quite surprisingly I have always thought--never says a word about whether the purely contemplative life is within the capacity of most people, or whether special gifts or a peculiar temperment are necessary for the pursuit of the philosophical life. Sparshott adroitly contrasts this remarkable silence with the elaborate psychological portrait of the philosopher supplied by Plato in Republic book 6. I strongly recommend Sparshott both for his thorough scholarship and for the wisdom of his judgments.
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Author:Bussanich, John
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1995
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