Tutors Talk (& Read) Books: Seth Appelbaum (A09)
July 22, 2021 | Interview & Video by Hannah Loomis / Story by Eve Tolpa
Tutor Seth Appelbaum (A09) earned a BA from St. John’s Annapolis in 2009 and did his graduate work in philosophy at Tulane University, receiving an MA in 2013 and PhD in 2015. His dissertation addressed Plato and Maimonides and their treatments of the statesman’s need for flexibility in an inflexible system of laws. Prior to joining the St. John’s Santa Fe faculty in 2017, he was a visiting assistant professor of philosophy at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. He has recently taught freshman mathematics, junior language, and senior language, among other subjects. Read an interview below and watch the accompanying video here, in which Appelbaum recites and comments on the opening passage in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Which book have you chosen to discuss?
I brought a book that is very dear to my heart, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which I’ve been reading on and off since I was a freshman at St. John’s. It’s something I’ve been dipping into for the last 12 years, and I’ve taught it in class here and in class at other places. I’ve spent a lot of time with it.
Why has it had such staying power in your life?
It’s hard to exactly explain my relationship with this book. It’s a book of philosophy through and through, and it’s obviously a book of philosophy, and it presents itself as one. Aristotle’s style—people say it’s dry. So it’s not a book that one necessarily develops a warmth towards, the way you do with Plato’s Dialogues, because that has characters and Socrates is a charming and attractive figure. Aristotle doesn’t really give you too much of that. Instead, what he gives you is a really thorough-going and deep investigation of pretty deep problems and questions—and then an occasional witty comment. You have to dig a little deeply.
I’m not trying to differentiate him from Plato out of any distaste or hostility for Plato. Quite the opposite! I think Aristotle and Plato are interested in the exact same things, and more often than not they have the exact same things to say about them. But for whatever reason, Aristotle decided to write books that at least appear to be treatises, although when you start digging in, you find that he is not in any way just presenting his own thinking and his ideas about topics, but that everything he does is handled in a dialectical, dialogical fashion.
How can we discern that it’s a dialogue when it doesn’t obviously present itself that way?
It’s written in a form we call a treatise, or a manual or text book. It has an introduction about the question of what is happiness. It has a second introduction about what is virtue. Then he goes through the different virtues. He has other chapters that seem to be about related topics, like friendship and pleasure and things like that. There are no characters, there’s no serious dialogical component, and he seems to be making arguments in a systematic style.
The first thing to think about is, how does he introduce any of the topics he discusses? He always does a sort of survey of common opinion. He says, “Well, here are the things people say about this,” and then he pits the different statements and opinions against one another, and he takes some of these statements or opinions as the premise for the arguments he makes about them. In a similar way to Plato, he uses common opinion as a kind of character.
The other thing he does is so subtle. In the course of his arguments that are based off of common opinion, he will often say, “Of course, someone might say ...” or “Someone could ask us ...” In Plato, a counterargument would happen at that moment. Someone would say, “But, Socrates, blah blah blah.” No one says, “But, Aristotle, blah blah blah.” Aristotle does it himself. Oftentimes, those are important interventions in the argument.
So you can already see that there are a couple of strands that are dialectical. And there’s another strand, which has been nicely explored by one of my professors from graduate school, Ronna Burger. She has a wonderful book, Aristotle’s Dialogue with Socrates, [where] she’s gone through the Nicomachean Ethics and looked at all the times that Aristotle refers to Plato or Socrates, or refers to an argument that has an obvious basis in the Platonic Dialogues. What she notices—and what a lot of people notice—is that often Aristotle is a little dismissive of those arguments from his own teachers. But her discovery is that as you go through [the Nicomachean Ethics], and especially the last three or four chapters, you find that a lot of those earlier arguments get rehabilitated by the end of the book.
So there’s yet another dialectical, dialogical level, where he’s engaging with the work of his predecessors.
It sounds like the tactic of using public opinion as a character allows Aristotle to humanize a systematic argument.
I wouldn’t say that it’s merely a tactic. Really, the confrontation with public opinion is the substance of the Nicomachean Ethics. I do admit that there is something apparently systematic about Aristotle, and I think the book does give that impression, because there are specific premises and deductions from those premises, and often a long sequence of deductions. And in the course of making these deductions, Aristotle makes a lot of fine distinctions. So it gives the appearance of being systematic, but one finds that the conclusions are often framed with a lot of qualifications, which is a big disclaimer.
Also, a lot of the arguments end in a certain perplexity. He’ll say something like, “But let us say this other thing, because that will be simpler.” It’s often a challenge to the reader: “Are you going to be satisfied with this?”
Would Aristotle be expecting readers who were contemporaries with him to be responding?
He may not have expected to get a letter, but I think he expected people to read the book and not take it as gospel, to try to think things through for themselves. Of course, he must have known that in writing books that appear so definitive, people would be tempted to take them as dogmatic expositions of the truth. But I think one need not do that.
He is more interested in outlining a question and shining light on different possibilities than in giving a definitive statement about how things are. Maybe that’s the most that can be done in a book. But I don’t mean to imply that Aristotle is inviting a “reader response” free-for-all. He thinks some questions are fundamental ones, and he regards certain answers as plausible or even provable! One might regard him as someone more akin to Socrates, who asks a lot of questions and gives some hints about where he stands on matters, but prefers to have the student work things out for themselves.