In recent posts I’ve been exploring the nature of great texts. In Part I of this series, I discussed how not to choose a text. In Part II, I laid out a plan for choosing great works of imaginative literature. Here, in Part III, I want to turn our attention to non-fiction. More specifically, I am focusing on expository literature—history, philosophy, and theology.
When choosing expository texts, the most important criterion to follow is this: Great expository texts from the past illuminate historical reality, including our own. They form a body of knowledge that helps students understand the world for which they will be increasingly responsible.
Take Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. He leads his readers in an immensely fruitful exploration of the world of human action. First, he gathers up the most representative and recognizable examples of human choices and behavior. Then, he teaches his readers to categorize, compare, and rank what we find so that we can determine how to act.
What is the end or purpose of human action, he asks? His answer is happiness. All men pursue happiness. But what is happiness, he continues? It must have to do with some good. Among the most important human goods, which one emerges as best? Some people see pleasure or wealth as the highest good. Others see honor. But don’t humans aim for pleasure, wealth and honor in order to achieve something else, something higher and more lasting than these ephemeral goods, some self-sufficient good? For Aristotle it makes sense that what is best for humans has to do with what is highest in our humanity, and what is highest has to do with what is lasting. Where do humans encounter the lasting?
Carefully, case by case, comparison by comparison, Aristotle gently but clearly brings us to the human mind. He highlights for us the mind’s natural affinity for what is knowable, its capacity to account for things, to articulate what it observes, and to reason according to principles. Finally, he leads his readers to appreciate the human mind’s rather remarkable capacity for discerning the right thing to do in the midst of changing circumstances.
Deftly, Aristotle both answers his question regarding the best kind of happiness, the best kind of life, and provides an account of what it means to be a human. A life marked by some significant measure of study on matters of greatest importance is the highest kind of good and the most lasting kind of happiness. Anyone, even those of us with responsibility for practical matters, will make better decisions and live a more worthy life if informed by reflection on the most important matters. In all this, Aristotle anticipates St. Augustine’s insight that our minds place us just below God in the order of things. He also anticipates the tradition of classical education where each student engages serious study as a foundational formation, a preparation for acting in the practical world and living well.
Aristotle also affords the reader some highly useful tools by which to measure moral action. Among his lessons is the one on his famous “mean”—a middle ground between excess and deficiency. Courage, for example, lies between recklessness and cowardice. As the mean, it is a kind of bullseye—the spot where the moral person should aim. Students love working through the moral excellences. They delight in aiming for the bullseye. They find it useful and pleasurable to work out good examples and to apply Aristotle’s ethics to contemporary problems and puzzles.
More challenging, but no less engaging, is the layer Aristotle adds to our consideration of the highest measure of human action—a measure that belies a legalistic approach. The ultimate standard for Aristotle is not a rule; it is not even what we would call the natural law. Rather, it is what is right by nature where human nature has as its measure the truly good man. That is, in order to do the right thing, one should look to what the good man does, the individual who lives out and perfects in his life what our nature is. In this, Aristotle anticipates the ultimate standard in Christian ethics, the person of Christ, and the saints who by careful discernment follow his way. Aristotle also lights the way for seeing the vital importance of leadership in almost any grouping of human beings.
As Aristotle speaks of intellectual and moral excellences, he covers a third area many students have never carefully considered as an excellence: friendship. Just as he leads us through an exploration of the range of human happinesses, he introduces us to the variety of friendships humans can have. Some are founded on shared pleasures—as in friends who make each other laugh; others are established on the basis of utility—as in business partnerships. But the highest friendship has to do with the highest in us, and that is our ability to know and do what is true and good. To lovingly preserve the highest in our friends, and for our friends to lovingly preserve the same in us, makes for the best kind of friendship.
Young people have a natural desire and capacity for friendship, so they delightedly take to this exploration of Aristotle. They love to sharpen their understanding by way of his examples, to debate the nature of friendship under his guidance, and to reflect on their own friendships.
Less familiar and often a source of puzzlement is Aristotle’s notion that friendship has political consequences. As students probe more deeply what Aristotle has to say about friendship as a kind of love necessary for a healthy polity, they start to see things present and missing in the world they occupy. As Aristotle explains, where the community is ordered by a love of things we hold in common, there is less of a need for laws to mediate our relationships.
In our case, the things we Americans love have included the truth that all men are created equal and other founding truths we hold to be “self-evident”; the Constitution; the memory of our greatest sacrifices in war; the immigrant experience many of our families share and the hope for freedom and opportunity that the Statue of Liberty represents. We could mention our history of pioneering and invention as well. Under Aristotle’s tutelage, the students become more aware of the kinds of things that have historically bound us; they begin to see as well why Americans increasingly have come to rely on law.
All of this is to say that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics shapes the students’ understanding of human happiness, reason, moral freedom, love, and justice. They understand themselves and their world more deeply, and their power to weigh and measure things in the realm of human action increases as they make their way through the text.
That is why Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is a great text. That is what I mean when I say great texts from the past illuminate the world today and prepare students to take responsibility for its future. As such, it is what we are looking for in a great expository text.
Andrew Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.
Header image of Plato and Aristotle in Raphael's School of Athens PD-Old, cropped by Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman.