Revisiting the Classics: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

Mitchell Langbert

NAS has invited readers to submit reflections on older books. This open-ended series of postings aims to show that contemporary books are not the only books that can profit contemporary readers. Guidelines for essay submissions appear here.

The field of business administration, in which I work, is oriented toward the new: Consultants, academics, and doctoral students have learned that to succeed in the consulting or the publication game, solutions need to be packaged as new, even though they are almost always repackaged versions of old books written decades before.  Because business schools don’t insist that their students learn the history of their discipline, business executives are often deceived into thinking that an idea that is a century old instead is the recent innovation of a clever consultant or academic.  Even the concept of “excellence,” 2,500 years old, has been sold as a new idea.  In an analysis of this phenomenon as it applies to research paradigms, Donaldson (1995) describes the field of management has having become fragmented and oriented toward painting real-world managers in a negative light because painting them in a positive light would be too closely linked to the traditional paradigms that saw business schools as supportive of business.  

Over the past few years, I have taught a class on success in which I attempt to break through the newer-is-better, business school clichés to give my students tools that will help them to succeed in the real world.  For the most part, the literature that can help them most is decades if not millennia old. 

First, I discuss the economic foundation of success as we know it today, for widespread success did not exist before the advent of free-market capitalism.  No book is more useful for giving an introductory understanding of how markets work than Henry Hazlitt’s (1988) Economics in One Lesson, first published in 1946.

In teaching about the competencies needed for success, Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), David Riesman’s Lonely Crowd (1963), Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (2007), first published in 1937, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), and most of all Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick (2013), first published in 1868, offer takes on success that were beautifully summarized in Bendix’s (1956) analysis of managerial ideology, Work and Authority in Industry.

But of all the books on success, the one that is most important is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Written 2,500 years ago with the aim of giving the young, educated elite of Athenian society an overview of how to succeed in the politics of their city state, it captures how to integrate character, ethics, and success better than any other success book, management textbook, or business book ever written.  I attempt to challenge my business students by having them read Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, which I call the moral or Jeffersonian take on success, and then compare it to the wealth-and-well-being take on success that is in the tradition of Hamilton, Alger, and most of the success-and-competency literature. 

Only Aristotle reconciles the belief that there is a conflict between the pursuit of well-being and the pursuit of the good.  His concept of sophrosyne is precisely what is missing from a business school pedagogy that teaches that markets contain all possible information so that knowledgeable action is impossible.  The excesses of Enron and of Wall Street, which posit a conflict between creativity and virtue, might have been avoided had business schools made Aristotle the foundation of their curriculum.

Dr. Mitchell Langbert is Deputy Chair of Business at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, where he teaches Business, Management, and Finance. He contributes frequently to academic journals such as Academic Questions, the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, and the Journal of Business Ethics.

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