Philosophy’s longest sentences, Part 3

My third contribution to the contest to find the longest sentences ever published by a philosopher, my first and second contributions being a 161-word contender from John Stuart Mill and a 163-word heavyweight from Immanuel Kant.

We turn now to Book 1 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

aristotle“Now if the function of man is an activity of soul in accordance with, or not without, rational principle, and if we say a so-and-so and a good so-and-so have a function which is the same in kind, e.g. a lyre-player and a good lyre-player, and so without qualification in all cases, eminence in respect of excellence being added to the function (for the function of a lyre-player is to play the lyre, and that of a good lyre-player is to do so well): if this is the case, [and we state the function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case,] human good turns out to be activity of soul in conformity with excellence, and if there are more than one excellence, in conformity with the best and most complete.”

Those 188 lyrically-functioning words can be found at 1098a7-18 or page 1735 of Volume Two of The Complete Works of Aristotle, edited by Jonathan Barnes, Princeton University Press, 1984.

Note the 66 bracketed words: in a footnote Barnes notes that they were excised by Bywater. How dare he. But I leave it to those of you who have not neglected their Greek for the last twenty years to advise me on those words’ proper status in (or out of) the quotation.

2 thoughts on “Philosophy’s longest sentences, Part 3

  • June 29, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    I find it interesting that this sentence packs so much in even though it is not what we would consider reader-friendly these days. Aristotle has an unusual effect on me. I read a passage such as this one and think, “How obvious!” Then I get to thinking about the ramifications and realize what a timeless and profound insight it was.

    That man has a nature, that there are better and worse ways of living out that nature, and that we can cultivate the virtues necessary to a life of excellence are truths easily forgotten in the chaos of everyday life. I occasionally need to pause and remind myself that having a good life is the point and that it should not get buried in everyday trivia. Thanks, Aristotle. By the way, Stephen and I can help you break those long sentences up next time.

  • June 29, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    I am more of a writer than a philosopher, and so I do wonder if such a sentence is necessary, I mean, is the idea so vast that it needs such a long sentence, or it could be broken up into smaller sentences without losing the essence. Of course what I am not familiar with is translations from other languages; I would most certainly say that English writers could–and should– break up their sentences, but I don’t know if you can do that with other languages. I have always been of the opinion that profound things can be condensed into short and succinct sentences, but perhaps I am mistaken.

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