On Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

“Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” -fictional proverb

The year was 1948. The New Yorker Magazine was celebrating its 23rd anniversary when it published a disturbing little story called “The Lottery.” The story was to cause decades of controversy. At the time, The New Yorker apparently did not distinguish between works of fact or fiction and, as a consequence, they received more angry letters than any other publication. “The Lottery” was written by Shirley Jackson, a troubled writer of horror stories who hailed from the Bay Area before settling in the town of North Bennington, Vermont to start a family. North Bennington is a tiny town in southern Vermont and it bears a great deal of resemblance to the town in “The Lottery.”

The story begins in a beautiful, bucolic summer scene:

“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took only about two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”

However, the horrifying nature of “The Lottery” occurs precisely because it takes place in a comfortable, safe, familiar setting: summertime in small-town America, in a village not much larger than 300 people. The story distorts this feeling of security and monochrome innocence. By the end, the truth about the lottery is revealed and a gruesome or macabre sense of dread overpowers the reader. In a crude plot twist, the townsfolk gather and draw lots (i.e. a “lottery”) but unlike in a typical lottery, nobody wants to win this contest. Like a heartless pagan ritual, the townsfolk of “The Lottery” gather each summer to select one person to be stoned to death, perhaps to purge the town of evil. The story ends as a woman known as ‘Mrs. Hutchinson’ is selected to be killed. The frenzied townsfolk quickly gather piles of stones while Mrs. Hutchinson screams, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right!” The story concludes just as she is about to be stoned to death.

Upon its controversial publication, “The Lottery” spawned an onslaught of public criticism. Almost immediately, The New Yorker received hundreds of angry letters decrying its portrayal of a cult-like small town America. To add some context “The Lottery” was published shortly after the end of World War II, on the heels of the Cold War and the accompanying cultural anxieties related to impending nuclear warfare. In a world where nuclear warfare was an ever-present possibility, a return to innocence in Middle America captured the Zeitgeist however “The Lottery” shockingly localized some of these anxieties and redirected these fears inward toward the safest places in American culture.

Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery,” The New Yorker, June 26, 1948.

What is Love in the Symposium?

Plato’s famous dialogue, the Symposium, takes place the day after the tragic poet Agathon wins his first and only award at the Lenaia in 416 BC (the year before Alcibiades’s failed quest to Sicily). The dramatic setting occurs among a group of Athenians gathered at Agathon’s house in Athens to celebrate his victory. The party is a symposium, sometimes translated as a “banquet.” The word symposium literally means the activity of “drinking together,” alluding to the Greek love of mixing intellectual discourse with the drinking of wine.

The dialogue is presented to the reader at multiple levels of distance, indicating there is something to be hidden in its meaning and also alluding to the opaque nature of eros, in general. The symposium happened many years ago. Aristodemus originally leaks the story of the symposium. He openly re-tells it publicly to anyone who will listen, including a man named Apollodorus, who confirms the details with Socrates. The dialogue is entirely based on the recollection of these two individuals, principally Aristodemus, as he originally attended the party with Socrates. Unlike other dialogues, like the Republic, the Symposium is a recollection by others in attendance and is not revealed to the audience until many years later after the failed Sicilian expedition has long passed out of the public’s consciousness. Leo Strauss indicates this is because of the popular belief that Alcibiades was the profaner of the sacred Eleusian mysteries, when in fact it was actually Socrates as evidenced by his speech about Diotima. The recounting of the tale can only be told many years after this fact, when the demos is no longer manic. This context is crucial to understanding the dialogue.

Although there are many important themes to consider in the Symposium, such as Homer’s famous ‘ancient quarrel between the poets and philosophers’ or the contest between theology and philosophy for the true seat of wisdom, the surface-level question of love, the god eros, is worth considering, as well. What is love? We are given essentially seven varying speeches that try to answer this question. Each speech reveals a great deal about the particular character of each speaker. In fact, unlike other Socratic dialogues, the defining question of ‘what is…’ does not begin at the outset of the dialogue. It is only addressed explicitly later in the dialogue. Instead, the plan of ‘giving eros his due praise’ is proposed by Erixymachus, the doctor, and Phaedrus, who claims that eros has never been properly praised. Erixymachus proposes the scenario beginning with Phaedrus, and Socrates calls Phaedrus the father of the speeches.

I. Phaedrus
, whose name literally means “radiant” or “bright” is featured prominently in the Symposium and the eponymous Phaedrus dialogue. He was a good friend of Erixymachus, because of their shared interest in physics, as well as the arts and philosophy. It was later said that Phaedrus was one of Socrates’s favorites. Like Alcibiades, Phaedrus was accused of being a profaner of the Eleusian mysteries in 415 BC, and also like Alcibiades, he fled Athens. His opening account of eros is a praise of eros as the oldest god, and therefore the greatest and most honorable (178B). As justification he cites the poets, Hesiod and Akousilaus (now lost). Without eros neither city nor man can accomplish “great and beautiful deeds”. Like the next two speakers, Phaedrus is concerned with the practical application of eros, and what it can make men do. He invokes the images of Alcestis dying for her husband, Admetus, who did not properly give praise of the gods and thus a human sacrifice was called for; of the “soft” Orpheus who was sent back from Hades as he did not die for his wife, Eurydice; and lastly of Achilles’s honorable vengeance for Patroclus’s death that assuredly cost him his life as he was made aware from his mother, Thetis. For this, the gods rewarded Achilles sending him to the Isles of the Blest. Phaedrus claims that Patroclus was in love with Achilles, as Phaedrus speaks from the perspective of the beloved, and praises their love. In his speech, we learn that love is intimately connected to the awareness and the acceptance of death, as a life-affirming need for the polis. Phaedrus presents the classically tragic viewpoint of eros.

II. Pausanius
Next, a few others speak, but Aristodemus skips over them to recount Pausanius’s story of love, from the perspective of the legal scholar and lover, rather than the beloved. He begins by identifying two versions of eros, the noble and the base. The determining factor is how one behaves, not that love is, in itself, inherently noble or base. He provides a defense of pederasty with the law, as it leads the beloved to admire his good and noble elders, and at the same time Pausanius gives a survey of Greek laws that appropriately harness a lover’s point of view. His point is to reform the laws so that a beloved may connect with a lover in order that both exercise a mutual love of virtue. Pausanius teaches us that the activity of love is not inherently noble or base, but must practiced in one way or another, and also forces us to examine the relationship between eros and nomos, love and the law. Love is not bound by customs or laws and it must, indeed, supersede the law (recall the unconventional love of Romeo and Juliet). We are also forced to consider the love of country, or the love of justice, and that it must sometimes also supersede the law (consider the actions of a tyrant versus those of a patriot in rebellion).

III. Erixymachus
Next, Aristophanes was set to speak but he is suddenly overcome with a ridiculous fit of hiccups, and so Erixymachus speaks in his place. Erixymachus, the doctor, expands the scope of love to “all things that are” (185A) including men, animals, and plants. In this way, the health of the body becomes a chiefly erotic art, namely the “art of medicine”. His concern is with harmony, consonance, and balance in the body because he wants to know what eros does to affect life and health. He builds on Pausanius’s defense of pederasty and apology for the lover over the beloved by declaring that decent human beings must be gratified in a harmonious way so that less decent humans can become decent and virtuous. This is to be understood as the noble eros. However the base eros arises with greed and plague and inclement weather, for these are unhealthy. From Pausanius, we are reminded of the inclusion of harmony and consonance in love, a coming together of the disorderly noise of a cacophony to form a more perfect and orderly symphony. Ironically Aristophanes was overcome with a fit of uncontrollable bodily functions -hiccuping and sneezing during Pausanius’s very physical account of love, which causes the others to laugh.

IV. Aristophanes
When Aristophanes speaks, he marks a somewhat new beginning for the eulogy of eros. He claims that humans are entirely unaware of the true power of eros, because eros is the most “philanthropic of the gods”. Additionally, eros is a “physician dealing with an illness the healing of which would result in the greatest happiness for the human race” (189D). Aristophanes tells a tragic yet humorous tale of the origins of man, not unlike those we may find in the works of many works from classical antiquity, such as Hesiod or Ovid. In his tale, there were originally three races of humans -men, women, and an androgynous race. However each person had two sets of everything -faces, genitals, arms and legs and so on. Instead of walking, people merely tumbled in large circles, as globular beings like their parents, who were the sun, earth, and moon respectively. In their proudness these early humans attempted to make an ascent into the sky and overcome the gods. Instead of obliterating the human race, Zeus decides to cut them in half with the help of Apollo who helps to turn their faces forward. Additionally, prior to this change, humans gave birth in the earth like Cicadas, but Zeus puts their genitals on the front of them so that if a man and a woman come together, procreation is possible together, and if two men come together they can at least satiate one another (there is no mention of lesbianism). Eros, then, is “bringer-together of their ancient nature, who tries to make one out of two and to heal their human nature” (191D). Aristophanes provides a defense of homosexuality, and also pederasty, as it is the manliest union of two people. Unlike others before him, Aristophanes attempts to address the question of love, rather than how it can be practically applied for mankind. From Aristophanes’s appropriately amusing account, we gather that there is an ancient nature to which we long to return, a nostalgia as in the case of Odysseus, and a desire to pursue the whole, which is perhaps the only part worth clinging to from his speech. As in the case of theological accounts, humans have a fallen nature which they must try to recover from, and there is an edenic siglio oro, or golden age, to which humans must try to return. Aristophanes, the famous comedian who mocked Socrates in the The Clouds, defends the role of the poets. He also concludes that there is an end to love -a satiation that occurs once someone forms a sexual union with his or her long lost other half. As a pain-loving antiquarian, Aristophanes concludes that this must be from an ancient past to which humans long to return. Eros is a gratifying desire for sex and procreation for Aristophanes, however the most noble eidos to glean from Aristophanes is that eros is a pursuit of the whole -the concept of the whole will later be addressed by Socrates.

V. Agathon
After Aristophanes’s conclusion, Erixymachus praises the speech and claims he is not envious of Agathon’s and Socrates’s station as they must follow what has already been said. Socrates then engages with Agathon who believes Socrates is trying to playfully threaten him because his sensibility is greater than many fools, and Socrates compels him to agree that he would show shame before the wise, but perhaps not before the many. Before Agathon can respond to this final question, Phaedrus interrupts and beckons Agathon to give his speech praising eros. Agathon begins his speech by stating, that unlike previous speeches, he will open with an attempt to address the identity of eros. First, he will address his identity, and then he will acknowledge his gifts. Agathon claims that eros is the happiest god, the most beautiful, and the best. He disagrees with Phaedrus by claiming that eros is actually the youngest god, and he is soft and supple. Eros travels to wherever a place is blooming and beautiful (196B). Recall that Agathon, known for his incredible attractiveness, was mocked by Aristophanes in his play, Thesmophoiazusae, as he was dressed in women’s clothing to spy on suspicious women. At any rate, Agathon continues by claiming that eros is not affected by violence or injustice, and eros is courageous and moderate in all things. In an attempt to honor Agathon’s “art”, in the same way that Erixymachus honored his medical art, Agathon notes that eros must be a poet and his powers can make other poets, as well. In this way, eros is a “maker”, poeitikos. One of his chief conclusions is that “there is no eros present in ugliness” (197B), a point which Socrates will later dispute. We learn from Agathon that eros is in all things soft and beautiful -we invoke the image of a budding flower in springtime. It is important to note that Agathon, the tragic poet, receives an uproar of applause from the crowd once he finishes his speech, as noted by Aristodemus. So much so, in fact, that Socrates playfully claims he cannot follow it to Erixymachus.

VI. Socrates
, in speaking after the two poets and in response primarily to their claims, begins by saying that he cannot eulogize eros in such a fashion, but if they like he can give an account on his own terms. Socrates then begins by compelling Agathon, in a dialectic, to admit that eros is a love of something (or someone) and must be a longing for something that it lacks (echoing Aristophanes), and therefore eros cannot be all good and all beautiful -it must be uglier than the beauty that it longs for. Agathon admits his own ignorance and agrees with Socrates (201B). Eros assumes a state of deprivation, and a longing for the whole. Socrates then proceeds to recount his exchange with Diotima of Mantineia, whose name literally means “honor of Zeus”. She was a “wise” person who was able to delay a plague upon Athens by ten years through her art of erotics (201D). Curiously, Socrates has introduced a “stranger” (from Arcadia) in the form of Diotima into the symposium of Athenian men, and also it is worth noting that she is a woman (earlier all the women at Agathon’s house had been dismissed). At any rate, Diotima introduces a mediation between humans and gods, and reveals that eros is one of these mediators -a daemon. Unlike others in the symposium, Diotima introduces eros’s parents as Poros (Resource) and Penia (Poverty), at the plotting of Penia while Poros was drunk on nectar they become impregnated with eros. She describes eros, not as philanthropic or giving or helping for humans, but rather as “always poor” and “far from being tender and beautiful, as the many believe” and as being “tough, squalid, shoeless, and homeless…always dwelling with neediness. But in accordance with his father he plots to trap the beautiful and the good….philosophizing all his life” (203D). To Diotima (Socrates), eros is a philosopher. She denies Aristophanes’s claim that eros can be any half of anything: “In brief, eros is the whole desire of good things and of being happy” (205D). She claims that when they are pursuing the good in eros, humans are pursuing beauty in terms of both body and soul -of trying to achieve immortality as mortals. With eros, each human is taking a part of the unchangeable things, yet they are always coming to be and also passing away (Aristotelian motion in the Physics). Procreation and generation, physically, is an attempt to continue the species (a manifestation of the “will to power” as Nietzsche termed it), and also men are always trying to achieve the immortal -she reintroduces the cases of Alcestis and Achilles that were originally mentioned by Phaedrus in his timocratic love of honor. None is a greater virtue than the ordering of the affairs of cities and households (209A) -those cities produce enduring “children” such as the laws of Lycurgus in Sparta and Solon in Athens. She then moves from the city to the individual -when one is young they must go to beautiful bodies, only to realize that bodies are all the same, and that love for the soul is more honorable. This kind of beauty always has being, is never perishing, and not beautiful in one respect nor ugly in another but is one whole form. From this Socrates is initiated into the Eleusian mysteries -the ladder of love -so that he may try to embrace the one single form of the beautiful. Diotima presents a hierarchy of love from bodies, to the form of kalon (the beautiful). Only at this place is the life of a human worth living, according to Diotima (again she implies the connection between death and love, self sacrifice, or passion). Socrates concludes by saying that there is no better “co-worker with human nature than eros” (212B). Unlike Agathon, only some attendees praise Socrates’s speech, but before Aristophanes can respond to the claims levied against him, a loud hammering is heard from the courtyard.

VII. Alcibiades
, the young, beautiful man and follower of Socrates, bombastically and ‘very drunkenly’ intrudes into the party, demanding to be taken to Agathon. He is wearing a wreath and says he shall adorn it upon the “wisest and most beautiful” person at the party (212E). Unlike others at the party, including Socrates, each of the men wishes not to be laughed at except for Alcibiades, for as Nietzsche says: there is no better way to kill something than to laugh at it. At any rate, Alcibiades leaps up noticing Socrates and claims that it is impossible to reconcile himself with Socrates as he is jealous of his love with Agathon. Alcibiades vows “vengeance” on Socrates at another time. Nevertheless he wreathes Socrates, rightfully praising the philosophers over the poets as the claimants to the throne of wisdom and beauty. Alcibiades then declares he will make a speech praising Socrates, while also telling the truth about Socrates (as vengeance). Alcibiades claims Socrates is like the Silenus, the half-human, half-ass that when caught gives vague wisdom about the preference for death rather than life. He claims that Socrates is also like the flute player Marsyas, charming those he encounters. Alcibiades says that he initially decided to take up the political affairs of the Athenians instead of growing old by the charms of Socrates, who is like the Sirens in the Odyssey. Alcibiades feels shame only before Socrates because of his decision to seek the honor of the demos (the many) instead of pursuing wisdom. Alcibiades is a political man, not a philosopher. He tells the story of when he was younger and once tried to seduce Socrates, but Socrates was not like other men, the pederasts, and in fact even when Alcibiades sent away his attendant, Socrates carried on as usual and would not give in to any licentious behavior, and this led Alcibiades to admire his courage and moderation far more than any other. He recounts Socrates’s self-control as it far surpassed others, even on their military expedition to Potidaea. Alcibiades claims that Socrates tends to lead boys, like himself, Charmides, and Euthydemus and many others, to believe Socrates is the lover, but in fact he makes them realize that he is actually the beloved. Alcibiades offers this as a warning to Agathon, and laughter erupts at the end of his speech. Alcibiades grows insanely envious at Socrates, as Agathon chooses to lie down next to him.The dialogue concludes when a large group of people come in through the front door and begin drinking. Erixymachus and Phaedrus, the light drinkers, take their leave along with some others. Eventually Aristodemus falls asleep and he is awoken when the cocks are crowing only to find that Agathon and Aristophanes and Socrates are still awake -the two poets and the philosopher. Socrates is compelling them to agree with two claims: 1) that the same man should know how to make comedy and tragedy, and 2) that he who is by art a tragic poet is also a comic poet. Socrates is, of course, speaking to a comic poet (Aristophanes) as well as a tragic poet (Agathon) and is asking them to step outside their particular arts to consider tragedy and comedy in the context of one another. As Aristodemus recalls, neither poet is able to fully follow Socrates. Aristophanes falls asleep first and then Agathon -leaving only the philosopher to endure. This is a fitting response to the charges leveled against Socrates in The Clouds, and it is also an amusing mockery of Aristophanes’s contest between poets in The Frogs. At any rate, Socrates leaves the party after putting the poets to bed and he is followed by Aristodemus. He goes to the Lyceum as he was wont to do any other day and in the evening he goes home to rest. Throughout the question of love, there is no mention of Xanthippe, Socrates’s wife, though she is mentioned elsewhere in the writings of Plato and Xenophon.

The issue of Socrates’s self-control is particularly apropos in a dialogue focused on eros. The Greeks had several different words for love, chiefly: philia or deep friendship and soldierly camaraderie, agape or selfless love for everyone including strangers, and eros meaning romantic and particularly sexual love. Eros can be dangerous for the lover, as well as for the beloved, as evidenced in the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades. Love can be life-affirming, but it must also be restrained and control, as in the case of Socrates. It is a dangerous sensation in the wrong hands, like Alcibiades, who maintains more of a tyrannical personality. A person’s self-control is tested at a symposium -a drinking party where people’s inhibitions are relaxed and truth-telling becomes more prominent, as the famous latin maxim reminds us. A symposium is a relaxing of laws, as evidenced by the discussion of pederasty among the Athenian aristocrats, such as the reformations requested by Erixymachus. In a symposium, it is crucial for the man of moderation to legislate rules for himself (note: this is not an allusion to Kant’s categorical imperative), as in the case of Socrates who is affected neither by alcohol, nor the words of the poets, nor sexual advances. As truth-telling becomes more prominent, rather than obedience to law or custom, the question of the relationship between eros and truth becomes less clear.

For this reading I used Seth Benardete’s masterful translation of Plato’s Symposium for the University of Chicago Press.

The Oresteia: An Affirmation of the Noble Lie

In Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers, we are first introduced to Orestes, the son of the late and betrayed Agamemnon. He appears, hidden, before the grave of his father as his sister Electra is making libations in her father’s honor. This second part of the trilogy takes place an unknown number of years after the murder of Agamemnon. Orestes has been exiled for most of his life in central Greece, in Phocis.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1862

Like Odysseus upon his return to Ithaca, Orestes disguises himself as a wanderer, or a beggar with news of the death of Orestes. In doing so, he is welcomed into the home of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Why does he put them through this elaborate ruse if he is only going to kill them? In disguise, one is capable of acquiring greater knowledge -as in the case of Gyges the lydian (recall in Book I of Herodotus’s History), or Odysseus in The Odyssey, or even Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Orestes is looking for knowledge. He wants to hear from the words of Aegisthus, the usurper, and his own mother Clytemnestra about the state of the house and the death of his father. As was customary in Greek theatre, the acts of violence occur offstage -first Aegisthus is killed when Orestes reveals himself and then Clytemnestra rushes to the scene to discover that he is, indeed, her son. The Libation Bearers concludes with Orestes being haunted by the furies, or the “Eumenides”, as he is forced to flee his own family’s palace.

In the closing part of the trilogy, The Eumenides, a chorus of furies confronts Orestes as he stands before the temple of Athena in Athens (though the play curiously opens with a confrontation between Apollo and Clytemnestra). The Chorus argues that Orestes should be found guilty or else everyone who commits the crime of matricide in the future will be found innocent, Apollo comes to testify on behalf of Orestes, and Orestes leaves his fate up to Athena. In making her proclamation at the end of the trial, Athena states:

“No anarchy, no rule of a single master. Thus
I advise my citizens to govern and to grace,
and not to cast fear utterly from your city. What
man who fears nothing at all is ever righteous?”

“These words I have unreeled for my citizens,
advice into the future. All must stand upright
now, take each man his ballot in his hand, think on
his oath, and make his judgment. For my word is said”
(The Eumenides 690-710).

In addition, upon reading the verdict that Orestes is found innocent, the Chorus of Furies responds by letting loose the tight hand of vengeance, though not gently:

“Gods of the younger generation, you have ridden down
the laws of the elder time, torn them out of my hands.
I disinherited, suffering, heavy with anger
shall let loose on the land
the vindictive poison
dripping deadly out of my heart upon the ground…”

Orestes was found innocent, by an evenly cast ballot which is deemed fair by Athena.

In Aeschylus, the chief characteristic of the tragedy is the action and the backdrop. The tragic component is a function of the war in Ilium, and the curse that has been brought upon the house of Atreus for it. The Oresteia is a play about the end of the cycle of vengeance -revenge and requital are replaced by a Republican form of judicial accounting -wherein a formal trial decides the fate of someone. However, Aeschylus reaffirms Greek mythos by installing the arbiter of justice as the god Athena, not a mortal man. Justice is still divine and super human, but it is also attainable to man on earth. In presenting it in this way, Aeschylus gives a hopeful, redemptive work of art that reinforces the Athenian way of justice and life.

In the place of self-destructive furies, Athena praises the future of the city of Athens, capable of self-governance, bound by reason rather than vindictiveness. In doing so, Aeschylus reaffirms a noble lie about the birth of the democratic sensibilities of Athens. Unlike Sophoclean, or even Euripidean tragedy, Aeschlyus’s tragedies engage the background and the plot as primary -in other words, the fate of Agamemnon, Orestes, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, Electra or any other one individual is not the ultimate subject of the play, instead it gives way before the story of the transformation of a people from vengeful to upright and judicial. It concludes with a cautionary hope for the future of democratic man.

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore translation.

Nature in the Nicomachean Ethics

Regarding the question of nature, or rather the “not-natural” we recall Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘natural’ in King Lear. In the play, political nature has been upset and Shakespeare freely uses the word “nature.” If we accept Aristotle’s famous pronouncement that “man is a political animal” in his Politics then indeed human nature has been upturned in King Lear. In the play, King Lear has wrongly abdicated his political power, dividing his “substance” between his three daughters. However, at the same time he wishes to maintain all of the glory and honor of kingship without the ownership and responsibility of being a king. Needless to say Goneril and Regan make a mockery of their father. The play descends into madness as the characters retreat further and further into the natural world (that is to say, the world untouched by the machinations of mankind): the wild and untamed nature becomes God for bastard children, kings become blind beggars, fools become philosophers, the undeserving become powerful, and the deserving become castaways. The political harmony, more in accord with nature, has been cataclysmically upset.

Similarly, in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, we find a consideration of political harmony, or rather the Aristotelian mean. To invoke an image from Plato’s Laws, the mean is like a string puppet being pulled with equal force in two directions, yet staying constant in the center. It is a balance between the extremes. In this balance, we find happiness, the chief target we are aiming at, as outlined in Book I, 1102a 1-10. However, happiness is a state of being in the soul (a combination of the rational willing and the irrational habituation) in accord with virtue, and virtue “comes to be present not by nature nor contrary to nature, but in us who are of such a nature to take them on, and to brought to completion in them by means of habit” (Book II, 1102a 20-30). Habit and willing can only push one so far; a stone can by nature fall downward, but it cannot be habituated to fall upward. The latter would be not natural.

Therefore, we find three occurrences of the “not natural” in Aristotle’s Ethics. A natural predisposition (a state of being not controlled by man or his will), an excess, and a deficiency. The latter two destroy virtues. As an analog, recall the base nature of Dmitri in the Brothers Karamazov.

However, this discussion poses another problem for us: it implies that virtue, or the “aptness to hit the mean” (Book II, 1106b, 15) is likely not natural. If so, can we also claim that the golden mean is not natural, as well? In inquiring we must remember that Aristotle clearly states that the purpose of this discussion is for contemplative purposes, not to edify in knowing what virtue is, as a Socratic dialogue would try to do, but rather to make us better, or habituate us politically. To use a Nietzschean phrase, perhaps the Ethics for Aristotle is a book for All and for None. At any rate, Aristotle frequently locates his terms, whether they be virtues or just merely goods, in a situation of action, or a “being at work”.

Perhaps the “not natural,” when it comes to the consideration of the good, is a lack of action, or a being at rest. Happiness, after all, is mentioned as a kind of active state in the soul, in accord with virtue and the ultimate objective of pursuing the good, which is an aptness to hit a mean influenced by one’s nature and habituation. The remainder of the text, following Books I-II is an attempt by Aristotle to lay out the particulars of this idea: particular virtues, both political and not, and also justice. These are identified not in terms of definitions, but rather in contradistinction to their excesses and deficiencies.

One might call the Nicomachean Ethics, writ large, a text of habituation. It is an attempt to persuade the reader that pursuing the mean in all things – “all things in moderation”, as the Pythia would say- is the right path to happiness and goodness. It is perhaps not an honest text, or at least not as dangerous as the Platonic dialogues that unearth the lack of knowledge present in the most well-born men in the polis. The Nicomachean Ethics, in its vague declarations that are never quite affirmative, leaves the door open for the close reader to assume that Aristotle is not being entirely genuine. Perhaps he has a particular audience in mind with the text, young men like Nicomachus. However, he approaches the topic differently than Plato by scrawling a treatise rather than literature as a poet. By using phrases like “it seems that happiness…” and “to many virtue is…” Aristotle avoids being put on trial for making wild declarations that commit him to any Socratic fallacies.

If the claims I have made are true, then it poses a problem for the question of the not natural, for Aristotle writes the text directed at those who can be habituated and also for those who can will themselves into goodness. Perhaps this esoteric reading of the text implies that Aristotle thinks goodness and the mean is highly unnatural, and must instead be forced or habituated on the young through lawgivers and treatises to make them good, and also to guide them toward willing to be good. Therefore a kind of imperial enforcement, a hierarchy, is the most natural way of things, especially if man is by nature a political animal and if we are to accept that it is not in the character of goodness to abdicate power into the hands of the undeserving, a la King Lear.

For this reading I used the magnificent Joe Sachs translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.