Reading in Part: On Aristotle's Way of Writing

...the big mistake I've made in reading is paying attention to Aristotle's actual words.

Reading in Part: On Aristotle's Way of Writing

When we were young, some of us read for the sake of pages. A house filled with rage and disappointment had to be escaped. It felt good to know you could understand those words in front of you. You may not have followed the narrative or thought much about the people or events within, but the pages were turned. No one can say I didn't achieve; I proclaim the book done.

Reading can define our most personal spaces. Not just the contents of our mind, but how our mind feels. When I say it that way, I understand why people won't read at all. A number of their reasons reduce to a kind of childishness, an insistence that they have the only account of the world that matters. But when I say that aloud, I realize there's a striking similarity with those who want to say they finished a lot of pages.

Or those who consistently find confirmation of their worst views.


I'm thinking of how to introduce the problem of reading Aristotle.

A number of scholars whom I admire engage his treatises as literary works. They're not wrong to do this. You look for details another reader might pass over, then note how they bring into play themes which are otherwise missed. Sophocles' "Antigone" provides an amazing example of this. A reader can ignore Antigone's conscious exclusion of Ismene and Eteocles, her brother and sister, from her vision of the family, even as she's willing to sacrifice herself for the sake of family honor. Likewise, in Aristotle's account of courage, early in the "Ethics," it's easy to talk about courage being a "mean" between cowardice and rashness. It's more difficult to engage how one musters courage by imagining how one will be remembered through a set of assumed moral structures.

Does any of this help us read Aristotle, though? What if I'm struggling to make sense of the first sentence of the "Ethics?" I should not have to be a literary detective to read philosophy and find value. The text should reward different sorts of attentiveness, no? Let's look at the first sentence, with its famous move from various goods to "the" good:

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. (translation W.D. Ross)

The big mistake I've been making for years with this sentence is thinking too much about "art" and "inquiry," "action" and "pursuit." In short, the big mistake I've made in reading is paying attention to Aristotle's actual words.

The real question is why anything was said at all. Why even hint at "the good?" If I were an alcoholic monk in the Middle Ages, I'd argue that this is proof Aristotle thought seriously about the universe being divinely designed. When someone would meekly suggest that this reading of mine is in bad faith, as the fact that "we aim for good things" does not necessarily imply the existence of "the good," I'd suggest they cleanse themselves of sin. "My mother, a little old lady who prays every day, believes God gives us purpose and meaning. She believes that our desires for good things point to a desire for an ultimate good. How dare you suggest her faith is anything less than prophetic."

Now that I've spent more time with the "Meno," I see another reason for this first sentence. What if there was no such thing as evil? If evil was mere ignorance? That if we knew better, we would always choose what was good? (Meno 78a) A version of "the good" is hiding in the logic beneath those questions. You could say something could compel you to always choose the best, and that something is not just knowledge or wisdom in general, but knowledge or wisdom which credibly speaks to a complete human life.

Still, I feel like I'm cheating. I know a thing or two about the history of ideas. I read a dialogue Aristotle himself might have read a hundred times. How does someone without prior knowledge, someone who just wants to read, make sense of the first sentence? Or, to put it another way, how were we supposed to become wiser when we were young?


I had a teacher who made fun of gimmicky approaches to education. "Feel the poem," he said, in mocking reference to another teacher's methods. He was right about that other teacher, but I'm less critical of her methods now. The real problem with her class was she had nothing to say, as I'll explain below.

I do need to defend her methods. With poems, I ask questions about speaker and audience, work through symbolism, identify rhetorical techniques. All of that is considered the opposite of "feel the poem," and a number of you are reading this blog because I employ a skill-based method of reading. However, a poem is a work of art meant to inspire certain feelings. And it does this whether it is understood in part or not in the slightest. When someone young, without training, encounters a text like Aristotle's, what are they supposed to do? If it is the product of certain literary techniques, then it stands as a work of art, a work of fine art. It is not unacceptable to immediately respond to what one thinks one sees. Close-reading can come later, when there are questions about the history of thought or Aristotle's own concerns.

So, yeah: feel the poem, get a feeling for the text. Nowadays I'm thinking the true value of Aristotle is not in the terminology which became doctrine (e.g. "rational animal," "teleology"), but the way he depicts the slipperiness of what we call reasoning. Here's a choice quote from the "Ethics," Book 1 Chapter 3, about the confidence knowledge bestows. At first glance, Aristotle may be thought to be endorsing an "all-round education," which makes one "a good judge in general:"

Now each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge. And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general.

He opens with a powerful premise. If you actually know something, you judge those things well. You are a good judge relative to those things. This is indisputable. Note how quickly this spins out of control. Someone, then, who has been educated is a good judge of what he was taught? No, not quite. Plenty of people go through formal education and learn nothing. "And the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general?" Wait, what? I believe in the value of the liberal arts, but the work of the liberal arts does not lie in learning lots of random things and being able to judge generally. Exposure to other perspectives is specialized work of its own, if not one of the hardest undertakings there is. What does it mean to truly appreciate where someone else is coming from? I know people who have spent their whole lives not even bothering to acknowledge the existence of others.

Reading like this puts one in a very difficult position when trying to put the text back together as a whole. If every sentence is treated as having rich suggestions leading to other lines of thought, a comprehensive interpretation of the whole of the text may not be possible or desirable. A comment on the work as a whole is something other than "this is exactly what Aristotle thinks;" it may have more to do with an aesthetic appreciation for the work's structure. A few words are more than good enough. No less an authority than Descartes may have found value in the few sentences of Aristotle noted above. The "Discourse on Method" famously opens with this: "Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed; for every one thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that those even who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually desire a larger measure of this quality than they already possess."


I don't know if I could have told my younger self to stop turning pages so quickly. I had no idea what reading really was, because I didn't understand what it meant to say something. Reading in part is powerful, but only when one knows words matter in a number of ways. Not just that they express a feeling, a reason, or an idea. But that they have to be wondered at.

This is where the other teacher I mentioned failed. If you want class to have great discussions, they have to know in part for what they're aiming. This doesn't mean you have to expound, in exquisite detail, an entire history with the tone and authority of Deuteronomy. But you do have to express a thought that mattered to you and explain why it mattered. Reading in parts, in fragments, is about finding those moments in another's thought. Their mind is on display, and it makes perfect sense to me why I would flip pages, unaware. When confronted with a universe, where to even begin?