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Dr. Larry Arnn Makes It Through The First Paragraph of Aristotle’s Ethics

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HH: It is that time of the week when we turn to the Hillsdale Dialogue. Once a week for a few minutes, I sit down with either Dr. Larry Arnn or another distinguished member of the Hillsdale College faculty to talk about one of the great works or thinkers in Western Civilization. Last week at this time, we opened the book on Aristotle, and we didn’t go very far, but we went far enough to bait the hook, I believe, for you to come back to find out what is this Ethics of which we speak. Dr. Larry Arnn is joining me again this week. For all the previous Hillsdale Dialogues, you go to, or you can find the link at, or you can go directly to They’re all there beginning with our study of the Iliad at the beginning of the year. And we are now in Aristotle’s Ethics. So Dr. Arnn, to remind those who were not here last week, we’ve come upon one big thing thus far, the good and being are convertible terms.

LA: Convertible terms. That’s right. They mean the same thing. And by the way, we shouldn’t apologize to our listeners that we didn’t get very far, because in my first graduate seminar on Aristotle with Professor Jaffa, we never got out of book one.

HH: (laughing)

LA: And he was not the least bit sorry about that. Now I routinely teach it and get all the way to book ten, because students today are more spoiled than I was. But…and book ten is great, and it’s very good to get there. But you could talk all day about any one of these main features of Aristotle, and they are extremely revealing. And also, I chastise you, Hugh, for not understanding the greatness of Aristotle and wanting to get on to Plutarch too fast.

HH: I do. I do want to get to Plutarch, and that is because then we can go backwards again. But let me begin by asking you the question which I’ve asked before, but people may not have heard it. As I prepared for this, I read the translation by W. D. Ross, and then I got a translation by J.A. Smith so I could compare them, especially as we entered into the first book of the Ethics to see how they were reporting it. What do you recommend to people who want to follow along this week, next and thereafter, in the conversation about the Ethics?

LA: Well, there are two. My favorite is by Joe Sachs, who taught at St. Johns for a long time, and his translation is beautiful, and I use that word advisedly, because that’s a big word in Aristotle, and we’ll define it. But also, Bartlett and Collins last year came out with a translation that’s excellent. And so those two are the two, either one of those two are the ones to get. Both of them have a great apparatus of glossary and footnotes and excellent explanatory introductions.

HH: Now I’m curious, a long, long time ago, when you were a graduate student, ancient of days, what did Professor Jaffa use for his translation?

LA: Ostwald.

HH: Okay.

LA: Yeah, and he’s still around. He’s good.

HH: First paragraph of the Ethics, would you read it out so people understand where we’re beginning?

LA: Well, okay, the first paragraph of the Ethics, which by the way, in graduate school, we spent a month on, and it’s, what, fifteen, eighteen lines long, starts this way. Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and choice, seems to aim at some good. And hence, it has been beautifully said that the good is that at which all things aim. That’s sentence one, and there’s a couple of things to know about that at the beginning. First of all, art, inquiry, action and choice, there are four Greek words that mean those four things, and what are they? They’re τέχνη, sorry, I’ve got them written down here. I’ve forgotten them for the moment, but I have them. They are…

HH: Art, inquiry, action and choice.

LA: Yeah, and well, I won’t tell you the Greek words, but I might tell you in a minute. Τέχνη, μέθοδος, προαίρεσις and, I’m reading my Greek right now, and it’s incredibly rusty.

HH: Because we’re not going to be able to help you out with this.

LA: Yeah, yeah, we need somebody else. But here, that describes every voluntary human action. Everything in those four words describe everything a human being can do voluntarily. And Aristotle says that everything we do voluntarily seems to aim at some good, and hence it has been beautifully said. The word good is ἀγαθοῦ. And the word beautiful is τἀγαθόν. And beautiful is the highest form of the good. And so this statement that everything seems to aim at some good, the statement that the good is that at which all things aim, Aristotle calls a beautiful statement. Now that’s an odd thing, by the way, because what about a murder?

HH: I was just going to say anyone who just turned off the cable channel just saw various felons of various sorts in the dock and pronounced guilty, and they see this monster in Cleveland who imprisoned three people for ten years in his basement. He was not aiming at the good.

LA: Yeah, well, you have to leave out of account crazy people. But take the hard case of a murder. Back in the day, you and I are both really old now, Hugh, so we’ll remember this. Ted Koppel was kind of the nation’s guru on Nightline.

HH: Yes.

LA: And one time, he went into a Texas maximum security prison, and he spent several nights talking to the inmates. And it was very interesting the way they talked, and this, by the way, is also an argument that’s at the beginning of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. None of them said I did it, and I know it was wrong, but I like it, right? You didn’t get that from anybody. They all said I didn’t do it, or else they said I was provoked, or else they said I did it and it was a mistake, but other people did worse, and they’re not being punished as bad. They all said that. I started taking notes after about the third guy, and it went on for about four or five nights. There were many guys, right? Every one of them made a claim about justice. You see? Or else, they all, and the few who didn’t make that claim, admitted that they were in the wrong. But that was rare. And then the ones who were in the wrong, they had to make an explanation. I was a fool, I was impulsive, I was drunk, I was under the influence of some drug or something. You see? In other words, they live in a moral universe just like us. Everybody does. In Macbeth, where King Macbeth, I mean, sorry, Lord Macbeth kills Duncan, his kinsman and his houseguest, in order to get his throne. And Shakespeare pictures the scene. Above, the angels cry out against the deed. And below, the demons scream for the blood of Duncan. And I remember reading that in class with Professor Jaffa, and he was playing it on a recorder, and this is how old I am, on a phonograph, and he picked up the needle, and he said does this man live in a richly populated moral universe or not? And if you think back to the definition of the good that we made, the good and being are convertible terms. Of course it makes sense that we long for the good, because it is our apprehension of the good that permits the faculty of human speech. And of course, if you say to a little child carve one of these or paint one of these, they’ll try to make it like the one of these. And they’ll say is it a good one? You see? So Aristotle’s point is we speak of the good, else we could not speak. And we aim for the good in all that we do, unless we are simply insane, which is rare.

HH: But I’ll press you on this. But people are saying but that’s just not true. I got stolen from today. I got hit over the head by a mugger. My best friend ran off with my girl. You know, I got sent a bill that I didn’t deserve. Those people weren’t aiming for the good. How could anyone be that silly?

LA: Well, first of all, all of those people, you know, they certainly aimed, and obviously aimed for one good. They wanted the property or the girl, right, a good. I once had an argument with a very, before I came to Hillsdale, this really arrogant, young man, really great. I’m not going to say his name, but I remember it like yesterday. And he was saying there isn’t any such thing as good. And one day, I interrupted him. I said, just like you just said, Hugh. You’re just like that boy. And he said to me, he said, as he was talking, he was kind of ranting at me a little bit. And I looked at him, and there was this very pretty girl he was sitting next to, and half the time, they were holding hands. And I said is that your girlfriend? And he said what? I said sorry to interrupt you, but I said I just wondered, is that your girlfriend? And he said yeah. I said nice, isn’t she? And he said yeah. I said what if I sleep with her? He said what? And I said well you know, I mean, I’m the teacher, maybe I could parlay something here. What do you think? Is it okay? And he said my girlfriend? And I said well, she’s nice, isn’t she? You say so. He said you can’t do that, and I said why not? I mean, according to you, right, according to the ethics of you, his last name was actually Jones. I won’t say the rest of it. It’s distinctive, the rest of it. I said Mr. Jones, I said isn’t that okay, right? Well, he didn’t think so, but she was good. So you need something, right? You want something. And isn’t it true how artful we are at inventing reasons why it’s okay? And that means we need those reasons, because the odd thing about human beings, see, is that everything we do, okay, I’ll finish that when the music stops.

HH: I love that he is now radio savvy. We’ll be right back, America.

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HH: We are back in Aristotle this week, and we are on the first sentence of the Ethics. Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and choice, seems to aim at some good. And hence, it has been beautifully said that that the good is that at which all things aim. Dr. Arnn?

LA: Lovely. So, and you raised up the point about the murderer, and I was getting to this point. And we should all think about this for a minute, because we have to divorce ourselves from so much of modern thought to get this point. But it’s obvious when you get it. Human beings are capable of blushing. We’re capable of being embarrassed. And that means that what we do, not just what we decide to do, but what we actually do is not really dispositive of what we think about it. So we can make the huge commitment of doing something, even something very difficult, even something dangerous, even something harmful to others, maybe. But we blush about it. And that means something stands outside us in our actions that judges us, and we are aware of that thing. And that’s why relativists, who are a dime a dozen in the academic world today, all get up in a high state of dudgeon if you mess with them in any way. But I have my rights, they will say, right? I get to preach my relativism and craziness to the young all day long. I’ve got a right to do it. You see? And that means that we humans are tied to the good, and it judges us even when we do wrong. It may not stop us, and that’s, by the way, the reason why we must labor to develop ethical characters is that we know the good, or have awareness of it, but we have interest and needs, too, and we can give into those even, Aristotle writes in this great book, The Ethics, to the place where we destroy our characters.

HH: So are you saying that by definition the tyrannical, and you referenced Hitler in an earlier part of this conversation, but there are lots of monsters through history, that they have all become insane?

LA: No, what they become is vicious. And you have to understand about Aristotle. We can zoom around in the book a little bit. We have to keep coming back. I think we’re going to talk about this book for, I don’t know how many times, but…because it will repay it, I promise. But here’s what happens to people. We do things, and we have a conscience about them, tied to our perception of the good. Remember that sentence, the good and being are convertible terms. That fact, and our perception of it, is what enables us to talk. So how do you form your life? The word ethics, we translate today, the big term ethics, we often translate it as character. And that comes from a different Greek word which means to etch or engrave. And here’s what Aristotle describes about the human types. And this book, by the way, is a training manual, The Ethics. Everybody should read it and try to make themselves better, because here’s what he says. He says that there are really four kinds of people. There are vicious people, and that is they have done so many bad acts, they have made a thousand choices, and then a thousand more, until it’s ingrained in them that they cannot stop themselves from doing evil. That’s very rare, he says. Then there are incontinent people. And you know, that doesn’t mean adult diapers. That means, but it means something connected to that. It means people who see the good, but they lack the strength and discipline to do it. Then the third kind is continent people, people who are drawn to the bad, but they control themselves. And then finally, there are virtuous people, and those are rare, too, really virtuous. But what those are, are people who have made a thousand choices, and a thousand more, and a thousand more, over and over again, doing the right thing for the right reason, and thinking it through so that both their thoughts and their desires come into harmony with good action. And those people are not really much tempted anymore.

HH: You know, there is an echo in that of the seed sower parable in the Gospels, of the various people who respond to the Gospel message. But it’s not quite a perfect parallel. But the categories are there. Now these vicious people are rare. How rare are they?

LA: Well, it’s not common. You know, think of your own life, by the way, because Aristotle’s, one important part of Aristotle’s method is he’s always inviting you to think about the things that you see. And what do you see, by the way? Who do you know? And isn’t is really rare for you to know somebody who’s simply bad? Now Hitler was bad. He was dang bad. You know, he needed killing, and he got it. And he killed very many people. And he was so bad that he shot his wife, and then himself. But the last recorded sentiments from him are about how bad the German people were whom he had caused terrible misery for. It took a lifetime for him to make himself so bad. And you know, we even have a record, if you read Ian Kershaw’s biography of him. And before the first World War, almost until it started, Hitler was a street bum who lived cold, and used to rant his speeches against the Jews over outdoor fires, right? This is a very bad soul with an enormous will that trained himself in the evils that he committed. Lord, in the bunker, Goebbels and his wife poisoned their children. Then he shot the wife, and then he shot himself. Terrible people, right?

HH: Right.

LA: Really vicious people. Not common. Murderers, multiple murderers, people like that, so they may be insane, they may have just simply lost their reason. Or they may have given in so many times, over and over again, that they stunt their ability to do any other. But virtue is the opposite phenomenon, because you know, everybody, and this is reasonable, right? If you just think about your own life, aren’t there things you used to do that were very powerful influences over you, that you have managed in your life to banish, and now you’ve got other problems to worry about, you know, things to work on? Like I can name some in my own case, things I used to do that don’t draw me anymore. Well, it means that I have conquered those things with the help of the Lord. But Aristotle says that the process, and by the way, in this process is found human accountability. He says that you can, in the beginning, by the way, because the Ethics is written in a certain way. It’s written at each stage for the person who knows this much. And he changes as he goes as you learn more. So early on, he says everybody’s responsible for themselves, and there’s just no way around it. You know the good, and if you don’t practice it and do it, then you’re responsible for your middling condition which is where most people are. But he says if you become vicious, you really did that to yourself. Later, Aristotle admits you could take a child and ruin their life before they ever got a chance, but that, too, is very rare.

HH: When we come back, we’re going to find out whether Aristotle believes there are as many truly virtuous people as there are vicious people.

— – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, when we went to break, you had described the four categories of people, the vicious, the incontinent, the continent, and the virtuous. Does Aristotle believe that the first and the last category are roughly numerically equal among people?

LA: He doesn’t say that, but he depicts them both as uncommon. More common is continent people, you know, you and me, Hugh, and you know, most of us. But I want to, there’s one other thing in the first paragraph we have to establish, and then we’ll be done with it, and then we can zoom around better.

HH: Please.

LA: Because remember, the first argument in the first paragraph is that everything aims to the good.

HH: Right.

LA: The second is an argument about hierarchy. And today in the world, we are taught to think horizontally, right? If you ask young people, if you use my example again, what I do for a living, unless they’re uniformed officers at Hillsdale College, as I say, unless they’ve started their education seriously, if you ask them what’s important, they always think about themselves first, right? They’re always thinking of what’s important to me, you know, and I have to realize my own dream, and I have to study what’s important to me, and all that, right? But Aristotle explains, using the example of a bridle, that in fact, every artifact we see around us points to a hierarchy that reaches up to Heaven. He says there’s a bridle, and that means somebody made the bridle. So there’s two steps there, right? And the bridle is superior to the bridle making, because there wouldn’t be any bridle making if you didn’t want the bridle. But the bridle is not good for its own sake, because you only want the bridle to ride the horse. But riding the horse is not good for its own sake. Above all, you want the horse riding for victory in war. And when you get to victory in war, so remember, there’s three steps. There’s bridle making, bridle, horsemanship, there are four, and victory in war. And when you get to victory in war, you get to something everybody wants, something good for its own sake. The same thing is true of the bottle we talked about before. There’s bottle making, the bottle, there’s drinking, there’s health. Health and victory, and intelligence, and victory in war, and a whole bunch of goods, are very necessary goods that are valuable for their own sake. And Aristotle says look at the ordinary artifacts around you, and you will see everything is pointing up to something higher. And that’s a great way to look at the world, because when you get up to that very elevated level where things are good for their own sake, and then ask yourself this question. If you had all of them, would it be enough? If you were rich and good looking, and smart, and living in a free country victorious at all its wars, and your health was good, would that be enough? And by the way, for most of his life, or for the middle powerful period of his life, Adolf Hitler had those things. Was he complete? Or is there something you would have to add to those very elevating goods to make your life complete? And Aristotle says there is such a thing, and that thing is called happiness.

HH: The chief good.

LA: The highest good. He says that if there weren’t such a good, then the universe wouldn’t make any sense, because all these things we look around us and see that point up, and remember, we’ve made two arguments about the things we see around us right now. One is you can recognize their being and their good in the same faculty, and that’s why you can reason and speak. But the second thing is all those things imply a hierarchy, pointing upwards. And at the top of that hierarchy for human beings is what Aristotle calls happiness, which he says is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.

HH: Repeat that.

LA: Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. Now we don’t have time, although I urge everyone here to take the time. One of these days, I’m going to teach an online course about the Ethics. And I long for every American to study the Ethics. There’s just nothing like it. I promise. And in the Ethics, Aristotle, book one of the Ethics, he comes at this question what is that really high, good thing from ten different directions. He talks about what it’s not, he talks about how the young have to be careful trying to figure out what it is too early because they don’t have any experience, he says that it’s not the kind of thing that you can measure like in geometry. It’s more like carpentry where the angles are just kind of close. But then he announces toward the end of book one that it is happiness, an activity of the soul, in accordance with virtue.

HH: We’ll come back and expand on that in the last segment of this week’s Hillsdale Dialogue.

— – –

HH: And the chief good of human life is not pleasure, it’s not wealth, it’s not honor. Aristotle tells us many things it’s not. Dr. Arnn just told us it’s happiness, but he said something that was very interesting. If you could have it your way, you would have every American study the Ethics. Now why is that?

LA: Well, because it’s, in my opinion, it restores order in a very disordered world, because it teaches you to look at things as they are, including, especially, yourself, and figure out how you’re to live. And it has something in common with the Bible about that, and it’s account is in some respects different from that of the Bible, and it is based in the reason and common observation. But it leads to many, not all, of the same moral results.

HH: Is that why Aquinas, the great doctor of the Church, was drawn into the Ethics? Is that why we call him an Aristotilian?

LA: Yeah, and he, Aquinas referred to Aristotle in his writings mainly as the term The Philosopher, because that’s what he was. And Aristotle is, and you know, many of these things I’m saying, by the way, there are qualifications on them, there are questions about them that one can do wonderful, can spend wonderful hours and ennoble his life greatly by going into. But what I want to do here with you is I want to give people a sense of the strength of these claims. They give an account of the human soul, about what is distinctive about it, and about how the human life can best be lived. And everybody needs to know that.

HH: But now, let me begin with the objection. If that were in fact the case, and it would profit everyone immeasurably to do so, the evidence that it isn’t the case, and that that doesn’t deserve the time, is that it is not done, isn’t it?

LA: Well, but that’s, you know, Aristotle gives a wonderful account of that, right? The virtues, you see, they have to do with the human being faces certain obstacles in living well. And we will find, if we get to the end of this book, that pleasure, now rightly defined, becomes the purpose of the Ethics, of the life, pleasure. But in the beginning, pleasure is a bad thing. It’s a seducer. And pain is the other obstacle. Pleasure and pain, and we are driven by pleasure and pain to do things we ought not, even though we always have a sense that we ought not. And so the Ethics is not like reading, you know, Tom Clancy. There’s a little more to it than that. And I happen to like Tom Clancy, and I read it when I don’t have enough strength to read the Ethics. But so the virtues, and see, when Aristotle describes an activity of the soul, the soul is the animating part of the human being, and every creature with a soul. Many creatures have souls. We have a rational soul. And the principle of action in us is in our soul. And a virtuous soul is a soul well-disposed to be what it is. In other words, a virtuous cow, a good cow, a cow with a full being of the cow, is like a good human soul in this regard. It has the attributes that are right for the soul, to make the soul fully what it is, just like you look at an oak tree and you might see two of them. And one of them is really big and strong and leafy and tall. And another one is a little more scrawny. And you say look, that’s a better one, right? The same thing with the soul, and the soul encounters obstacles. And the first obstacle it encounters are in pleasure and in pain. And the two, and there are two kinds of virtues, by the way. There are thinking virtues or doing virtues. There are intellectual virtues, or there are moral virtues. And the first virtues Aristotle talks about are the two principal moral virtues, the ones that have to do most with pleasure and pain. And the one that has most to do with pleasure is moderation. And the one that has the most to do with pain or danger is courage. And that’s why when we make from the classics a list of the cardinal virtues, moderation or temperance is always included, and courage is always included, although there are many other virtues listed in the Ethics. Those are the two prime moral virtues.

HH: Moderation and courage. When we come back next week and we go deeper into the first chapter of the Ethics, we’ll pick up on those other ones But I want to conclude in our two minutes. Can we draw a lesson from the fact that the Ethics used to be widely read and understood by educated people, and routinely a part of the curriculum, and it is not today?

LA: Of course, we can.

HH: And what is that…

LA: It’s a terrible fact, and that’s because today, we think, first of all, it has to do with a turn in modern philosophy. We should stop thinking about what the best is, or what the right is, and we should start thinking about how we get what we want, the most comfortable, the most powerful, the most at ease, Machiavelli, right? But then that has decayed, Machiavelli, into a kind of nihilism today in which oddly enough, we’re extremely confident about all these subjects today. We know what the good is. The good is whatever we say it is. And that means that we discard this effort to give an account of ourselves, and to develop our characters into, as the expression of a soul well-ordered and happy.

HH: So if people gave an account of themselves, if they knew how to even begin it, what Catholics would call the examination of conscience and what Aristotilians would call walking through the Ethics, they would be better people generally, and the country would be better off certainly.

LA: Sure, of course, because you know, you have to tell young people, you know, my eldest daughter, now a college professor teaching Aristotle, when she was a young girl, she would sometimes cry and kick her legs, and say why can’t you let me be happy? And I would say you’re too young to be happy. First, you have to learn how to be good.

HH: And that’s what we’re doing, right?

LA: That’s right. That’s right.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn, as always, a great pleasure. The Hillsdale Dialogues continue next week, and we’re going to get to the second paragraph of the Ethics and beyond. We promise it. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues are available at, as are all of the other online offerings of the marvelous institution. Or you can go straight to, and there’s a link at

End of interview.


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