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Found in translation
For nearly two decades, Robert C. Bartlett, Boston College’s Behrakis Professor of Hellenic Political Studies, taught Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics using English translations he considered inadequate. They belonged, he says, to a tradition of graceful though imprecise rendition, an approach dating to the 19th century, when many readers of Aristotle were proficient in ancient languages and could refer to the original text. With few people reading Greek today, Bartlett maintains, “you need to have the most faithful version you can get.”
Last fall, Bartlett assigned his students an edition of the classic more to his liking—one that he produced with Susan D. Collins, associate professor of political science at the University of Houston. The two had studied for their doctorates in political science at Boston College in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Nearly a decade ago, they began discussing a fresh translation of Aristotle’s foundational text—written in 350 B.C.E. and dedicated to the philosopher’s son, Nicomachus—which is often referred to simply as “the Ethics.” The University of Chicago Press published their Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: A New Translation in 339 pages last June. According to Bartlett, the work is part of a larger “revival of interest” in literal precision among classicists, a direction whose practicality is borne out by the work of at least one illustrious forebear. “Thomas Aquinas couldn’t read Greek,” says Bartlett. “But he was able to become a supreme interpreter of the Ethics because the [Latin] translation he used was so literal.”
In the New Translation, Bartlett points to the example of the Greek word eudaimonia, which is commonly rendered as “happiness” and which Aristotle and the Stoics after him place at the center of a well-lived (i.e., virtuous) life. Some translators of the Ethics have decoded the word as “human flourishing” or “wellbeing.” For the sake of literalness, Bartlett and Collins adhere to the more neutral “happiness,” leaving the reader to plumb its varied meanings.
Their translation also restores comments by Aristotle typically scrubbed by other interpreters. For instance, in Book Five, which focuses on justice, Aristotle says cryptically and without explanation: “What the law does not command, it forbids.” An earlier Penguin Classics edition purged this sentence entirely and inserted in its place a footnote: “The standard text, however interpreted, is hardly convincing.” Bartlett acknowledges that Aristotle indeed makes “a strange statement” here, but he and Collins have retained it because, reflecting the ancient Greek ethos, it was meant to convey a sense of the majesty of the law.
The research tools Bartlett and Collins employed were fairly straightforward. These included several editions of the Greek text and English translations reaching back to 1831, along with commentaries and philological studies from the past hundred years that probe Aristotle’s literary structure and historical context.
Commending the new translation in the July 1 New York Times Book Review, political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa pointed to various “helpful aids” inserted by Bartlett and Collins in their volume, saying: “Together these bring the original text within the compass of every intelligent reader.” Among those aids are a concluding 65-page commentary, rated “brilliant and highly readable” by Jaffa, and a glossary of key Greek terms. A chart details 11 moral virtues identified by Aristotle, together with the two vices associated with each. (In Aristotle’s moral philosophy, every virtue has not one but two opposites. For example, the opposites of courage are cowardice and recklessness, courage being the virtue that lies between them.)
In what is, in all, a 10-book treatise ranging over themes such as pleasure, ambition, and liberality, the one topic that occupies more than a single book of the Nicomachean Ethics is friendship. Bartlett says it is also the theme that most engages his students. Musing on the vast numbers of friendships claimed through Facebook and other social networks, he observes, “Aristotle would say they can’t all be friends.” According to the ancient philosopher, friends journey through life together: Without them, “no one would wish to live, even if he possessed all other goods.”