You can look at ethics from at least two angles. Is it an endlessly differentiated range of judgements on what to do or be? Or is it the pursuit of a relatively coherent set of concerns, with varying vitality, across a variety of settings and lengthy periods of time, which always might yield, and sometimes has yielded, insights that hold force for the majority of human beings? The first view is educationally discouraging but far from implausible. The second, educationally enticing but ever more of a strain on our capacity to suspend disbelief. After more than two millennia, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics remains one of the three or four most potent western contenders to vindicate this second view. It has held an honoured place in western higher education for centuries. David Bostock's study succeeds admirably in keeping the text in view from both angles: as a fairly idiosyncratic diagnosis of the intimations of a specific and often formidably distant culture, but also as a vigorous, sustained and illuminating piece of consecutive thinking, which protrudes imperiously into the most pressing puzzles and arguments of our day.
Bostock's is not an epiphanic work, nor is it one to cause a reader suddenly to view their own life or the broader values of the society to which they belong quite differently. But it epitomises the merits of a particular style of education. Sceptical, meticulous, wry, usually impressively clear, if sometimes a little clipped in tone, it guides the student through Aristotle's main themes and arguments, sometimes to dismiss them abruptly, but never without first taking the trouble to grasp them accurately.
How does it really make sense for a human being to live? Is there anything that we must never do? Can (or does or must) a human life have a point? Aristotle will hardly make anyone who is confident that these questions are merely silly judge otherwise. But should you wonder how to answer them, you may well lie within his reach. Then Bostock's thoughtful, patient, decorous, deft and very Oxonian book would be the most instructive of companions.
John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.
Aristotle's Ethics. First Edition
Author - David Bostock
ISBN - 0 19 875265 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £15.99
Pages - 256