The Nicomachean Ethics: How to Approach the Ethical Musings of Aristotle

The Nicomachean Ethics: How to Approach the Ethical Musings of Aristotle

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Aristotle spoke thoughtfully as he strolled along the natural pathways of the Lyceum and his companions were entranced by their teacher’s words. His philosophical musings seemed to intertwine perfectly with the pensive feelings elicited by the green landscape, racing waters, and shady caves. The world was their classroom and the guide leading them through it was one of the best. One of the means by which the famed philosopher’s musings have been passed down to us is in the form of the Nicomachean Ethics.

Practical Philosophy

The Nicomachean Ethics (Ethics) is a seminal text that has for centuries influenced the study of ethics all over the world. It’s the first part of Aristotle’s philosophy of human affairs; the second is Politics. The Ethics is about individual excellence, an essential prerequisite for the good life in the city. It’s a work of practical philosophy, not because it doesn’t include theory or argument, but because, as the philosopher says, the aim of his analysis isn’t theory but practice - the essence isn’t to learn about the virtues but to do virtuous actions. Behavior is what matters.

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The Ethics is a long text divided into ten books most probably by later editors rather than by Aristotle himself. The same with the title - Nicomachean Ethics wasn’t a title Aristotle used. Probably it was given either in the name of his father Nicomachus, or because his son Nicomachus edited the text.

First page of a 1566 edition of the Nicomachean Ethics’ in Greek and Latin.

A Work in Progress

We need to approach the Ethics as a work in progress, as a series of lectures that Aristotle gave in the Lyceum while walking with his students, as if the teacher is talking to us. Why? Because it takes several readings to gain insight into subtle meanings and puzzling contradictions, repetitions, questions Aristotle leaves unexplored, assumptions he turns into facts, popular opinions he presents and then rejects as inadequate, references he makes to other individuals, and cultural idiosyncrasies he mentions, that come to us from another time and era.

The School of Aristotle (The Lyceum) . ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

Throughout this work, Aristotle refers to other philosophers, like Plato, or to mythical figures, like Priam. He turns to the gods and the power of divine intervention in people’s life. He gives examples of excellence in arts and crafts. He speaks about the souls of animals and plants. He warns against the passions of young and immature people. He calls for character education from a young age. He explains the role of chance and the possibility of misfortune. And in doing so, he builds his argument about human excellence and the best way to live, the good life and eudaimonia - the state or act of living this good life.

It takes quite a while to read and fully understand the Ethics. And it takes an open mind to challenge, reflect, and learn from it. But eventually, we come to appreciate listening to Aristotle teaching on the highest good for human beings, the virtues of character and intellect, and eudaimonia, even if many points are open to interpretation. The value of his ideas is gradually revealed to us, not only because his is a work of profound wisdom, but also because it gives us insights into eternal questions of human existence that still concern us today.

Neoptolemus killing Priam. () W ould it be wrong to call Priam unhappy because his last years were unhappy ? Aristotle believed so.

A Theory of Virtue Ethics

The Ethics is a systematic inquiry into human character. Aristotle analyzes individual excellence that for him depended on who we are as persons, on personal responsibility and agency, on practice and effort, and on the good habits we develop. And, ultimately, on how all this is expressed in the activity of eudaimonia over a lifetime. The Ethics is a systematic study into the best life. The philosopher tells us, not that we should aim for eudaimonia, but rather that we do aim at it; not that we ought to live a life of eudaimonia, but rather what this life consists in. As such, he doesn’t speak about morality. His is a theory of virtue ethics, composed of character and intellect, driven by rational judgement, and aiming at a good life.

The path towards human excellence goes beyond theory- the philosopher intends it to be practical, relevant to our real experience and to the goals we can achieve. He mainly focuses on action, not knowledge or teaching – on how we can deliberately choose our actions and the way to perform them; he stresses practice, not mere possession of the virtues - to live well means to repeatedly do well; he calls on emotions, not only on behavior - to be virtuous means to feel good about our actions; he refers to our social self - we aren’t self-sufficient beings, we can only actualize our excellence with others. And overall, individual excellence spans a whole life - until the end- in the activity of contemplation that calls on the divine element within us.

An artist’s imagined portrait of Aristotle by Francesco Hayez.

Aristotle uses the term ēthē. The Greek word ēthos, the root of ethics, means character, and Ta Ethika (the Ethics) is the study of matters dealing with character. Character must be cultivated so that the whole person grows; it’s not enough to acquire skills and perform individual actions. Character education should start from a young age aiming not only at individual excellence but at a society in which people can live a good life. But it can’t last forever, no lifelong learning concept is involved in his thought. Once a person develops a good character, there is no reversal, no way back to a previous stage - a good character is stable.

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The Lasting Impact of Aristotle’s Ethical Theory

The value of Aristotle’s ethical theory, and the main reason for its lasting impact, despite contradictions, lies in the practical framework it suggests that can help us reflect how we can fulfill our human nature. And this framework is intended to be closer to our real experience than other alternative theories of how we ought to live.

In the ten books of the Ethics, the philosopher analyzes: The Goal of Human Life and Eudaimonia; Choice and Character Virtues; Justice; Intellectual Virtues; Self-control and self-indulgence; Friendship; Pleasure and Eudaimonia as contemplation.

Head of Aristotle. Copy of the Imperial era (1st or 2nd century) lost bronze sculpture made by Lysippos. ( CC BY SA 2.5 )

Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics

This new edition of the Nicomachean Ethics for Penguin Classics replaces the long-in-print translation by J. A. K. Thomson (1953), later revised by Hugh Tredennick (1976) and introduced by Jonathan Barnes (1976 updated 2004). To a fresh translation and introduction, Beresford adds 150 pages of endnotes and a twenty-page guide to further reading, organizing major Anglophone scholarship through 2017.[1] It may seem a crowded market, with at least eight other standalone English translations of the NE available in paperback. But only two of those editions, Terence Irwin’s and C. D. C. Reeve’s (both published by Hackett), compare with the new Penguin in both affordability and wealth of apparatus.[2] While each has its specific virtues, Beresford has produced a translation that is uniquely fluid and lively, with commentary that is no less rigorous for its novel perspective on perhaps the most studied of Greek ethical works.

The original purpose of Penguin Classics, as stated by founding editor E. V. Rieu, was to “present the general reader with readable and attractive versions of the great writers’ books in modern English, shorn of the unnecessary difficulties and erudition, the archaic flavour and the foreign idiom that renders so many existing translations repellent to modern taste.”[3] True to that aim, Beresford studiously avoids what he calls the “scholars’ dialect”, referring to the stock of traditional terms and phrases, often inherited from medieval Latin, that are sometimes assumed to have a special tie to Aristotle’s thought, even if their meaning has changed in contemporary English (e.g., “temperance” for sôphrosunê or “prudence” for phronêsis).[4] So the topic of IV.2, megaloprepeia, is no longer “magnificence”—as nearly all translations have it—but “being lavish” the megalopsuchos of IV.3 is not the “magnanimous” or “great-souled” man, but someone with a “sense of pride”. Book V’s analysis of dikaiosunê is not about “justice” it’s about the virtue of “being righteous, being fair” (more on this below). Accessibility is not the only point: Beresford finds that the scholars’ dialect tends to obscure the meaning of the Greek, while creating a false sense of distance between ancient and modern values. Citing advances in evolutionary psychology, he argues that standard English is fully adequate to express Greek ethical ideas (lvi–lvii). So he is happy to have Aristotle talk about “obligations”, “right and wrong”, and “morally significant” character traits.

Beresford’s NE also looks very different on the page, due to his liberal use of supplements (in square brackets) and double translations of single Greek words (in curly brackets). A fair amount of exegetical work one might expect to appear as commentary is thus included in the translation itself, often with an accompanying note. For Beresford, the supplements—which occasionally amount to a whole sentence—are licensed by the extremely terse and elliptical character of the text (xlix). The Introduction sets out his view that the Êthika Nicomacheia transmit hupomnêmata—“records of a lecture”—taken down by an attendee at Aristotle’s talks (maybe Theophrastus), and later edited by his son Nicomachus.[5] To a far greater degree than any other version, Beresford’s has the quality of live speech, with frequent paragraph changes, parenthetical asides, rhetorical questions, and addresses to the audience (“you” is typical in impersonal constructions). His Aristotle is spontaneous and casual, sometimes playful or even flippant. Here is how he responds to the Academic view that knowing the Good itself will help us know and attain what is good for us:

All right, sure, that argument has a certain plausibility to it. But it seems to be at odds with actual forms of knowledge . I mean, all of those are aiming at some kind of good, and all of them are on the lookout for ways to improve themselves, but none of them show any interest in knowing about [the Form of the Good]. So here’s this huge resource, and yet craftsmen are all unaware of it, and never even think to look into it! Doesn’t sound very plausible. (I.6, 1097a3–8)

It’s hard for me to imagine Aristotle operating in such a register, but this is an extreme case: only rarely did I find the conversational tone jarring. In a few places, Beresford inserts a question from an audience member, italicized and in square brackets, where he suspects Aristotle to be addressing an objection or a request for clarification on the fly. While this helps bring out the dialectical nature of his lectures, I’m not sure it’s justified: a good teacher can tell when a point hasn’t gotten across or needs elaboration, and we don’t know if students at the Lyceum were free to interject.

Yet Beresford’s flexibility generally pays off, for instance in his readiness to vary the translation of a recurring Greek word as context demands (e.g., prohairesis is usually “choice”, but becomes “aim” at 1102a13). Consider also his handling of the unwieldy definition of aretê in II.6: Ἔστιν ἄρα ἡ ἀρετὴ ἕξις προαιρετική, ἐν μεσότητι οὐσα τῇ πρὸς ἡμᾶς, ὡρισμένῃ λόγῳ καὶ ᾧ ἂν ὁ φρόνιμος ὁρίσειεν (1106b36–1107a2). Here is Irwin:

Virtue, then, is a state that decides, consisting in a mean, the mean relative to us, which is defined by reference to reason, that is to say, to the reason by reference to which the prudent person would define it.

Virtue, then, is a deliberately choosing state, which is in a medial condition in relation to us, one defined by a reason and the one by which a practically-wise person would define it.

So a virtue is a disposition to choose certain things it lies in a middle state (middle relative to us) as determined by reason, or as a wise person would define it.

The indefinite article in “a virtue” seems unwarranted, but “disposition to choose certain things” for the difficult phrase ἕξις προαιρετική is smoother, and in my view more accurate, than the other two renderings, which make it sound as though the virtue rather than the person makes decisions. Beresford deals with the final clause efficiently, while losing none of the sense. The choice of “wise” for φρόνιμος is also apt, since “wisdom” already suggests practical knowledge.

The main text is followed by an eight-page discussion of three terms Beresford translates unconventionally: eudaimonia, aretê, and dikaiosunê. Although eudaimonia—the goal of human activity according to Aristotle—is traditionally rendered “happiness”, it is a commonplace that the Greek notion of eudaimonia isn’t really what we mean by “being happy”. As Beresford puts it, eudaimonia “refers to a state of well-being, not to a sense of well-being” (269). The result is that “happiness” is something of a term of art in the study of ancient ethics. Rather than defer to tradition, he opts for “flourishing” (sometimes glossed as “prospering” or “being blessed”), citing this term’s expanding usage in non-scholarly contexts (270). Aretê is traditionally “virtue”, sometimes “excellence”.[6] Beresford rejects both. He insists that aretê does not mean “excellence” in general, as often supposed, such that a Greek could refer as naturally to the aretê of a horse or of a wine as to the aretê of a person. Instead, aretê unqualified means “being a good person” (or “moral goodness”), just as agathos unqualified means “a good person”. Both terms have to be qualified to lose their ethical sense, and when aretê is so used it presumably sounds strange (cf. 1102b3, with 324 n. 81). Beresford tends to translate aretê as “goodness” but goes with “virtues” for the plural aretai (occasionally “a virtue” for the singular, as in the definition in II.6). I did not see a good reason to avoid “virtue” for aretê: in modern English, “virtue” on its own has strong moral connotations and seems no less archaic than “goodness” to refer to a person’s character.

More controversial is Beresford’s discarding of the firmly traditional “justice” for dikaiosunê, in favor of two alternatives: “fairness” (or “being a fair person”) for the specific virtue and “righteousness” (or “being a righteous person”) for the general virtue (to dikaion is sometimes “right and wrong”). Beresford points out that “justice” in standard English simply does not pick out a character trait (274) it applies instead to judicial rulings, political institutions, and the distribution of wealth. “Fairness” is a reasonable choice for the specific sense, if maybe not aspirational enough to serve as a virtue term. But “righteousness” for the general sense—the broad disposition to do what’s right—is far from ideal, and an exception to Beresford’s avoidance of archaisms. A better choice might have been “morality”, as dikaiosunê is translated throughout Robin Waterfield’s version of Plato’s Republic.[7] In any event, the pedagogical advantages of Beresford’s approach are perhaps clearest in Book V: the double translations (often keeping Greek in the main text), supporting diagrams, paragraph headings (tracking the book’s patchwork nature), and ample commentary make the notoriously vexed treatment of dikaiosunê surprisingly lucid.

The notes manage to be both inviting to students and challenging to scholars. In keeping with his universalist view of ethics, Beresford draws on a wide range of parallels—from the Hebrew Bible to Shakespeare to Curb Your Enthusiasm—to illuminate Aristotle’s concerns. He does not refrain from criticizing arguments that to his mind betray sloppy thinking or snobbishness (e.g., 306 n. 16 310 n. 37 362 n. 55 414 n. 11 439 n. 27 443 n. 45) and he points out where Aristotle’s position may be more nuanced than commonly thought (e.g, 420 n. 30 and 440 n. 32 on slavery). Another distinctive feature of the notes is their frequent engagement with the ancient and Byzantine commentators (along with the Magna Moralia), to help clarify difficult passages, correct longstanding translation errors, and resolve interpretive disputes. Beresford’s readings are almost always convincing I found just one mistake of any consequence. When Aristotle argues in IV.9 that a sense of shame is not a virtue because a good person would never do anything shameful, Beresford has him add parenthetically: “And it doesn’t make any difference here if we’re talking about things that are actually shameful or things that you regard as shameful [τὰ μὲν κατ’ ἀλήθειαν αἰσχρὰ τὰ δὲ κατὰ δόξαν]. You shouldn’t do either. So you shouldn’t ever feel shame” (1128b22–25). This misconstrues the κατ’ ἀλήθειαν/κατὰ δόξαν contrast, which isn’t about a person’s perception of his own actions, but instead distinguishes between things that are actually shameful and things that are only regarded as such (the second-century ce Anonymous commentator gives the example of eating in the agora).[8]Beresford’s rendering suggests that a virtuous person could be wrong about what’s worthy of shame, whereas Aristotle’s point is that a virtuous person will respect certain social norms even if they are mere conventions.[9]

Nonetheless, Beresford’s NE would be my top recommendation for a first encounter with Aristotle’s ethics, and should be sought out by anyone looking to engage with the work afresh.[10]

[1] Beresford foregoes chapter titles but provides a detailed table of contents. There is no glossary, though the index includes many Greek terms. Some key omissions from the further reading: Brad Inwood and Raphael Woolf, Aristotle: Eudemian Ethics (Cambridge, 2013) Jonathan Barnes and Anthony Kenny, Aristotle’s Ethics (Princeton, 2014), which includes a translation of the Magna Moralia and several relevant volumes in the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series now published by Bloomsbury Academic.

[2] Terence Irwin, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, 3 rd ed. (Indianapolis, 2019) C. D. C. Reeve, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics (Indianapolis, 2014) (reviewed here BMCR 2014.08.45).

[4] Beresford took the same approach in his Penguin Classics edition of Plato’s Protagoras and Meno (London, 2005). For a measured defense of the traditional approach, see Irwin’s introduction, xxxii–xxxiii.

[5] Unfortunately, there lacks space to say more about the Introduction, which includes a stimulating discussion of Aristotle’s “humanism”: his conviction “that facts about right and wrong do not depend on facts about the nature of the whole cosmos”—in particular, facts about the gods or God (xxiii). Part of the evidence for his humanism is the NE’s surprising silence about the virtue of piety. (Beresford overlooks a possible reference to piety in X.8, 1179a22–32 see further Joachim Aufderheide, “Aristotelian Piety Reconsidered,” CHS Research Bulletin 5, no. 1 (2016).)

[6] E.g., in Sarah Broadie and Christopher Rowe, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford, 2002).

[7] Robin Waterfield, Plato: Republic (Oxford, 1993). In his recent version of the New Testament (New Haven, 2017), David Bentley Hart translates the seven occurrences of dikaiosunê in Matthew five different ways (“requirement”, “what is right”, “uprightness”, “righteousness”, “justice”).

[8] So Reeve and most other translators Irwin construes it Beresford’s way.

[9] A few other translation issues: “there aren’t any such people” for οὐ πάνυ γίνονται at 1119a6 is too absolute (cp. “because they basically don’t exist” (correctly) for διὰ τὸ μὴ πάνυ γίνεσθαι at 1119a11) “piece of knowledge” for ἐπιστημῶν at 1129a12 doesn’t capture the way in which an epistêmê could be like a hexis (“expertise”?) “But it’s a very distinct form of it” is probably wrong for ἀλλ’ ἔχει διαφορὰν πολλήν at 1141b34, though the passage is admittedly obscure. I found remarkably few typos.

[10] Many thanks to Christopher Moore for helpful comments and discussion.

The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle s Nicomachean Ethics

Author : Richard Kraut
Publisher : John Wiley & Sons
Release : 2008-04-15
ISBN : 1405153148
Language : En, Es, Fr & De

The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethicsilluminates Aristotle’s ethics for both academics andstudents new to the work, with sixteen newly commissioned essays bydistinguished international scholars. The structure of the book mirrors the organization of theNichomachean Ethics itself. Discusses the human good, the general nature of virtue, thedistinctive characteristics of particular virtues, voluntariness,self-control, and pleasure.

The Nicomachean Ethics

Happiness is the activity of a rational soul in accordance with virtue says Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics. Activity means living. Rational soul means a human being. And virtue means human . Читать весь отзыв

Review: The Nicomachean Ethics

Just read the Wikipedia takeaways. Interesting inputs on the ideals of a mean amongst virtues, the highest order of happiness being intelligence, the three pillars of being sociable (friendly, honest . Читать весь отзыв

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Об авторе (2004)

Aristotle was born at Stageira, in the dominion of the kings of Macedonia, in 384 BC. For twenty years he studied at Athens in the Academy of Plato, on whose death in 347 he left, and, some time later, became tutor of the young Alexander the Great. When Alexander succeeded to the throne of Macedonia in 335, Aristotle returned to Athens and established his school and research institute, the Lyceum, to which his great erudition attracted a large number of scholars. After Alexander's death in 323, anti-Macedonian feeling drove Aristotle out of Athens, and he fled to Chalcis in Euboea, where he died in 322. His writings, which were of extraordinary range, profoundly affected the whole course of ancient and medieval philosophy, and they are still eagerly studied and debated by philosophers today. Very many of them have survived and among the most famous are the Ethics and the Politics.

J. A. K. Thomson was professor emeritus of classics at King's College, London, until his death in 1959.

Hugh Tredennick was professor of classics at Royal Holloway College and Dean of the Faculty of Arts at London University.

Advice from Aristotle

Aristotle was the most practical and business-oriented of all philosophers who asked ethical questions. You may stop at the idea that a person who's been dead for nearly 2,400 years has anything practical to say about modern organizations. But Aristotle remains relevant because he is particularly interested in defining principles in terms of the ethics of leadership.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle concludes that the role of the leader is to create the environment in which all members of an organization have the opportunity to realize their own potential. He says that the ethical role of the leader is not to enhance his or her own power but to create the conditions under which followers can achieve their potential.

Of course Aristotle never heard of a large business or corporation. None-theless, he did raise a set of ethical questions that are directly relevant to corporate leaders who wish to behave in ethical ways.

Here are some of them. (I'm only slightly paraphrasing them in turning them from a political context into an organizational context.)

  • Am I behaving in a virtuous way?
  • How would I want to be treated if I were a member of this organization?
  • What form of social contract would allow all our members to develop their full potential in order that they may each make their greatest contribution to the good of the whole?
  • To what extent are there real opportunities for all employees to develop their talents and their potential?
  • To what extent do employees participate in decisions that effect their work?
  • To what extent do all employees participate in the financial gain resulting from their own ideas and efforts?

If you translate Aristotle into modern terms, you will see a whole set of questions about the extent to which the organization provides an environment that is conducive to human growth and fulfillment.

He also raises a lot of useful questions about the distribution of rewards in organizations based on the ethical principle of rewarding people proportionate to their contributions.

For example, Disney's Board of Direc-tors compensated Michael Eisner with something like $285 million between 1994 and 2004. Now, I don't pretend to have all the data about how much Michael Eisner deserves, but thanks to Aristotle, we do have some questions that a virtuous member of the Disney Board Compensation Committee might ask in making decisions about his compensation, including: Is the CEO's proportionate contribution to the organization 10, 100, 1,000 times greater than that of an animator at our Burbank studio or the operator of the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland?

Aristotle doesn't provide a single, clear principle for the just distribution of enterprise-created wealth, nor do I believe it would be possible for anyone to formulate a monolithic rule. Nonetheless, here are some Aristotelian questions that virtuous leaders might ask:

  • Am I taking more than my share of rewards-more than my contribution is worth?
  • Does the distribution of goods preserve the happiness of the community?
  • Does it have a negative effect on morale? Would everyone enter into the employment contract under the current terms if they truly had different choices?
  • Would we come to a different principle of allocation if all the parties concerned were represented at the table?

Again, the only hard and fast principle of distributive justice is that fairness is likely to arise out of a process of rational and moral deliberation among the participating parties. All Aristotle says is that virtue and wisdom will definitely elude leaders who fail to engage in ethical analysis of their actions. He tells us that the bottom line of ethics depends on asking tough questions.

James O'Toole is research professor at the Center for Effective Organizations, University of Southern California, and Mortimer J. Adler Professor at the Aspen Institute. This article is excerpted from a talk delivered at a meeting of the Center's Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

There is perhaps no pursuit more quintessential to human existence than that of happiness and a meaningful life. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle examines the many facets of life that bring virtue and contentment. He queries what it means to be good, just, and ethical. These questions are as relevant now as they were then. Seeking one’s purpose in life will always be a key element of human nature.

Aristotle begins his musings by explaining that happiness is the motivation for every human action, but every person’s idea of happiness differs. Some seek happiness in pleasure, others in honor, and still others in contemplation. Despite the reasons for one’s happiness, every action taken is done so because it is believed it will bring them closer to it. Aristotle himself describes happiness as “the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world” (Ross). To better understand happiness, one must first know what it means to be virtuous, because as Aristotle says, “happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue” (Ross). He goes on to discuss the nature of virtue and all the aspects of life in which one can find happiness.

According to Aristotle, happiness is in accordance with virtue, therefore navigating between excess and deficiency to find virtue will ultimately lead to a good life. As he says, “the intermediate state is in all things to be praised” (Ross). Aristotle theorizes that many aspects of personality exist on two equal and opposite ends of a spectrum, which “introduce the necessity of choice” (Mysen 35). He asserts that finding moderation is the key to living a virtuous life. If pain and pleasure are on opposite ends of the scale, a temperate man will moderately desire pleasure, but not be pained by the absence of it. Either of these extremes can be dangerous, as pain “upsets and destroys the nature of the person who feels it” and pleasure can create appetites that are “strong and violent” (Ross). However, it is not enough to find this moderation on occasion, because “the good life will consist of habituation and consecutiveness” (Mysen 44). The theme of finding the mean between two extremes will continue to be expanded upon in further chapters.

In book five, Aristotle goes on to speak of justice. He discussed how to achieve virtue thoroughly in the last chapters, and now describes justice as “the actual exercise of complete virtue” (Ross). Although he specifies that there are several types of justice, and that being just will help one become virtuous, and vice versa. Happiness and virtue are habits that are formed over a lifetime, so is a sense of justice. Therefore, laws exist to “command and forbid the right actions at the right times for the right purposes and habituate people on the course to becoming self-sufficient in the matter” (Mysen 84). According to Aristotle, when the legal justice system is doing its job it should serve as a guideline to help people create just habits over time. Building on the theme that happiness is voluntary, he also claims that acting justly is voluntary. If a man acts unjustly by mistake or as an act of passion, it is a part of human nature and should be forgiven. But if he knowingly acts against the good of another, “he is an unjust and vicious man” (Ross). Aristotle’s ideas about justice being a compendium of all virtues, that is both voluntary and habitual ties back to themes presented in earlier chapters.

Aristotle goes on to discuss the virtues of the soul, as opposed to the moral virtues previously mentioned. He lists the five virtues the soul possesses as art, scientific knowledge, practical wisdom, philosophic wisdom, and intuitive reason. Art is the act of creation and is variable. There is no correct way to make or experience art. Scientific knowledge, however, is the understanding of what is “universal and necessary” (Ross), not varying. Philosophic wisdom is not changing and takes years of experience to understand. Intuition is always changing and does not need to be learned. It is the skill to make the right decision at the right time to achieve the greater good. Practical wisdom is the virtue he dwells upon the longest. It is not as rare or remarkable as philosophic wisdom, because it is possessed by all living things. Aristotle presents something of a paradox by saying that “it is not possible to be good in the strict sense without practical wisdom, nor practically wise without virtue” (Ross). It is the possession of all of these virtues of the soul that can help one to achieve completeness.

Much has been said about navigating between virtue and vice, pain and pleasure, and in book seven Aristotle elaborates on this theme. He describes four types of men temperate, intemperate, continent, and incontinent. Of these, he says intemperance is the worst because an intemperate man will choose vice even though he has the ability to reason against it. He forgives the incontinent man because he is swayed by passions and desires. While he does not glorify pleasure seeking, he acknowledges that it is an incontrovertible part of human nature. He does warn against self-indulgence, but says that an incontinent man will repent and be forgiven, while an intemperate man will not. Neither pain nor pleasure is inherently good or evil, so it is acceptable and even encouraged to experience both. Ending with the thought that “the life of a good man will not be pleasanter than that of anyone else, if his activities are not more pleasant” (Ross).

Aristotle spends the next two books ruminating on the meaning and importance of friendship. There are three types of friendships those formed from love, pleasure, and usefulness. Bonds formed from love are true and lasting. Those formed from pleasure are likely to dissolve if one party stops finding the other to be agreeable. Bonds formed for the sake of usefulness are the most brittle. He notes that “when the motive for friendship is done away, the friendship is dissolved, inasmuch as it existed only for the ends in question” (Ross). True friendships are virtuous because each friend wishes good for the other and helps the other to achieve good ends. A true friend doesn’t only love their friend, but “also loves the activity of bestowing the good, feeling it enriching to create a good that is separate from oneself, which now belongs to the other person” (Mysen 101). Aristotle asserts that even a man possessing every virtue, wealth, health, and pleasure cannot be truly happy without friendship. Humans are inherently social creatures and need friendship in order to be fulfilled.

Aristotle concludes his musings with some final thoughts about pleasure, virtue, and contemplation. He notes that pursuing pleasurable outcomes for virtuous reasons is a key to happiness. But most human pleasures are not constant and men spend a great deal of time pursuing new ones. Contemplation is the only pleasure that is constant and self-sustaining, thus it is the highest of all virtues, meeting all of the previously mentioned qualifications of happiness. Engaging in contemplation is “in fact, superhuman, and so the philosopher lives a life that is superhuman” (Bush 64).

One might be tempted to think that the philosophies of a man who lived so long ago would not be applicable to the world today. However, Aristotle’s ideas about man’s purpose in life and how to find happiness are universal to all human beings. It is a valid system of ethics because it is not limited by the scope of time or location. Every person wants to do some good in the world and find pleasure in their lives. As long as this is the case Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics will still be relevant.

Ethical Theories of Aristotle and Immanuel Kant

Ethics is one of the oldest disciplines, the object of which includes ethics and morality. Ethics studies the place of morality in other social relations, analyzes its nature and internal structure, explores its origins and historical development, and theoretically substantiates its systems. Since 300 BC when the ethics was firstly designated as a special area of study till the present day, the interest in understanding does not get subsided. Such philosophers as Aristotle and Kant addressed to ethical issues at various times. Their views on ethics were different and so are of particular interest for the research.

The identification of morality with the moral character of individuals, and relevant to them usual patterns of behavior, for the first time was reasonably deployed and almost exhaustively theoretically formalized by Aristotle. Aristotle distinguished in man a specific group of qualities, which apply to his ethos (character and disposition) and differ from the qualities of body and mind. These qualities (or virtues, which are understood as good qualities or the best condition of anything) he called the ethical and science about them – ethics.

Ethical virtues, according to Aristotle, are an expression of identity of active principle in man. The soul of man, according to Aristotle has a complex structure, composed of rational and irrational parts (Broadie, 1993). Ethical virtues arise at the interfaces of these parts and make an area of their intersection and interaction. They are not peculiar to either to gods or animals, because the gods have no affect, and the animals don’t have the mind. Ethical virtues reflect the actual human nature in man, the correct operation of the soul, when its sensible and affective parts are connected together so that the first dominates, while the second follows its instructions just as a son obeys his father. They record reasonably participative nature of the human soul in its perfect expression.

Aristotle in his ethical theory believes that if the properties of the body (such as height) and the quality of the mind (such as memory) are given to a man, so the ethical virtues are intravital entities and are formed in the process of conscious individually-responsible activities. They are associated with an active desire of man to the highest good, which Aristotle calls happiness. Ethical (moral) virtues express a person’s ability to make correct choice in various fife situations, the course and outcome of which depend crucially on his choice. According to Aristotle, on how a person acts, depends what structure of soul he has ( Hughes, 2001).

Virtue as a habitual state of mind, strong character of the individual are directly correlated with practiced in the society habits and mores. If the choice is moral and it is based on correct judgments, so the judgments themselves are correct when they are focused on the society. A reasonably informed choice is in a sense a joint choice. Whatever, identifying virtue with the virtuous individual, Aristotle does not isolate the person from the society, and wholly immerse into it. And ethics for him is above all a political science, besides the main political science. Virtuous individuals and entangling them norms of behavior are two interdependent parties, which determine the objectivity of ethics as a doctrine of virtue.

Kant’s ethical strategy is exactly the opposite of peripatetism. It focuses not on how individuals should behave in certain situations, not to identify the reasonableness of private self-interest, or specific virtues, and the commitments that are preserved under all circumstances and for all sentient beings. Kant is interested not in the highest good and ethical virtues, but in moral law and duty. Not the behavior of a particular individual in a particular situation, not the duty to this particular man, but the duty of mankind (humanity), embodied in the moral law and the manifest with the course, – that is a proper subject of ethics according to Kant. The man has a moral virtue not by himself, but in its empirical existence of the unit, but only in connection with and in the context of the universal moral law. He is the aim only to the extent and degree that is identical to all other sentient beings – through the moral law as a sign of their birth, through the personification of the law.

Two examples from the writings of Kant clearly illustrate his position, as hey were conceived by him as an illustration. In a little essay “On a supposed right to lie because of philanthropic concerns” Kant presents the following situation. Your friend, running away from a robber who is chasing to kill him, takes refuge in your home. If a robber asks you if the robber is in your house, so you can not (should not!) lie to him (Kant, 1993). The second example is found in the Kant’s “Metaphysics of morals”: if any of the island people, living independently, suddenly, for whatever reason, decide to discontinue its independent political existence and go around to the world as individuals, and if in the prison of this island there is a prisoner sentenced to death, so the people should follow their moral duty, and enforce the death penalty (Sullivan, 1994).

Kant, of course, was not a heartless man. He was just a consistent thinker. Since morality is unconditional, and there is a universal law, then there can not be morally justifiable cases of deviation from it. In connection with the first example, Kant makes the explanations that help to understand the strict content of his thought. Suppose, says Kant, that wanting to save a friend, we lied to the thief. He believed us and went down the street to look for the man he seeks. A friend makes another assumption at this time, and hearing a voice outside the door left the house, coming down the street through the window, and immediately came across a robber, who was supposed to look for him inside the house. From the example we see that because of supposedly humane considerations we do not help a friend, and hurt him. Kant by presenting this seemingly far-fetched reasoning holds one simple and absolutely unassailable thought, which is the base of all this ethical theory: a man is not able to take full, and thus morally responsible behavior control, the only thing he can be responsible for is the set of the principles that guided him (Irwin, 2009).

Kant and Aristotle follow the situation of the action. It is characterized by the fact that a person making moral choice is itself an essential element of it. This situation is fundamentally uncertain, unpredicted because its course and the outcome will be different depending on the choice of this one who commits the acting. Moral choice differs from any other particular choice in the way that it is not the attitude towards what it is, but the creation of what it should be. It is always a risk, a leap in the dark. However, the peculiarity of moral choice is that it depends solely on the individual responsible behavior, performed with open eyes. How is this possible bearing in mind the principle of uncertainty surrounding the action noted above?

Action as a reasonable act can be described in the form of the syllogism, where the general premise is its basic principle (rule, principle, and subjectively posited base), a particular principle is the special circumstances in which it is performed, and the conclusion is a decision or action itself in the narrow sense. Aristotle considered particular principles to be the most significant in the action. According to him, full knowledge of them guarantees the right choice, if it is made by a virtuous individual possessing the sense of discretion and tact. Kant considered that the moral choice is not connected with the specific matter of the action, but with its common basic principle. The moral value of action depends “not on the actual object of the action, but only on the principle of volition” (Sherman, 1997). What can be the principle and what is a moral law – these are its own object of Kant’s ethics.

The ethics of Kant, in a sense may even be considered a kind of sanction healthy human sensuality. Kant freed human activities in its material content and the psychological motivation of immediate moral guardianship. Thus, he ethically freed and bent all the pragmatics of human behavior, allowing them to develop according to their own objectives and criteria. He showed that the psychology and behavior of a pragmatist, on the one hand, and ethical behavior, on the other hand are two different things. They form parallel universes, each of which lives by its laws. “A pure practical mind does not want to give up a claim to happiness, and it only wants these claims to be taken into account, since it is a duty” (Sullivan, 1994). In any case, the ethics of Kant reserves for the human pursuit of happiness a wider scope than the various teachings of hedonism, which morally elevating some specific forms of practice hedonism (in one case, for example, sensual life, in another – civic participation in the third – a utilitarian success, etc.) inevitably disparage other its manifestations.

With all necessary and justified reservations and clarifications, separating the Kantian ethics from vulgarization, it should be still recognized that it could not build a bridge between duty, uniqueness and absoluteness of the categorical imperative and inclinations, the multiplicity and relativity of human empirical purposes. In Kant’s ethics there is no place in its specific content. It is unique, perhaps the only moral philosopher’s case that does not appeal to any historical moral standards. The Stoics saw a proof of virtue in the fact that there were people like Socrates, Antisthenes, and Diogenes. Kant saw the proof of the debt in the fact that there is no, and perhaps, never existed its indisputable evidence (Wood, 2008).

Since Aristotle’s ethics is considering the special circumstances of actions, and Kant’s ethics – their common fundamental principle, then in both case, an action syllogism is incomplete, so incomplete that the reasonable inference has the meaningful actions in the strict sense, neither in Aristotle nor Kant’s ethics. But between them there is a big difference. The fact is that the special circumstances of conduct constituting a private sending, closer to the action than the general fundamental principle, therefore, the classification and differentiated description of these circumstances carried out by Aristotle when he singles out certain virtues is at the same time, the typology of virtuous actions. There is no single behavior, but their classes. Aristotle’s ethics is trying to cover actions as much as possible for its specificity. As for Kant, it is moving in the opposite direction. His ethics covers actions on the part of their uniform and universal form. It is separated so far from specific actions, as it is only possible within the ethical theory.

The difference between theoretical vectors of Aristotle and Kant’s ethics is clearly seen in this sample. From the Aristotle’s perspective virtues and vices deal with the same subject area, differing from each other only in measure mastery of it: vices are the lack and excess in passions and actions, and virtue is in the middle. Kant criticizes a typical view of hedonism as it reduces the motive virtues and vices to the same category. He himself believed that the moral motive is fundamentally different from all other motives, and respectively, virtues and vices relate to different subject areas (Engstrom, 1998).

Kant raised the morale in such rarified heights where the air is devoid of impurities necessary for life, which made the question about its practical status appearing. He believed that the mind is clean as practical. The question is, whether it was practical, becoming clean? From the Kant’s perspective of duty individuals can be moral only as mankind. How can he, however, remain an individual, becoming mankind, or that the same thing, to become mankind, remaining individual?

Even though there are some contradictions in Kant’s ethical theory, I still support his ideas. I agree with Immanuel Kant that the main things are a person’s behavior, his actions. Knowledge has value only if it helps people become more humane, to gain a solid moral ground, and to implement the idea of good. I support the idea of Kant that the foundation of morality can not be learned from the experience, as they are completely a priori. All notions of morality are possible only as a purely speculative idea of “things in themselves’, meaning noumenal world. I am sure that this purity of their origin makes them the highest practical principles. I believe that Kant’s ethics is normative in contrast to other ethical systems, which are aiming to describe the real moral relations and so called descriptive. Kant manages to get rid of traditional ideas about the pursuit of happiness as the moral foundation.

To summarize the considerations about the historical context of Aristotle and Kant’s ethics, it’s possible to say the following. The most important task of ethics is that of truncated, incomplete syllogisms of actions, which they have been in the theories of Aristotle and Kant, to approach to the full, .i.e. to find solutions in which Kant and Aristotle would be complement each other.

Broadie, Sarah. Ethics with Aristotle. 1993. pp. 245-246.
Engstrom, Stephen., Whiting, Jennifer. Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics: rethinking happiness and duty. 1998. pp. 36-38.
Hughes, Gerard J. Routledge philosophy guidebook to Aristotle on ethics. 2001. pp. 65-66.
Kant, Immanuel., Allington, James Wesley. Grounding for the metaphysics of morals: On a supposed right to lie because of Philanthropic concerns. 1993. pp. 45-47.
Irwin, Terence. The Development of Ethics: From Kant to Rawls. 2009. pp. 693-695.
Sherman, Nancy. Making a necessity of virtue: Aristotle and Kant on virtue. 1997. pp. 46-47.
Sullivan, Roger J. An introduction to Kant’s ethics. 1994. pp. 78-79.
Wood, Allen W. Kantian ethics. 2008. pp.201-205.

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics Summary

Nicomachean Ethics is a philosophical inquiry into the nature of the good life for a human being. Aristotle begins the work by positing that there exists some ultimate good toward which, in the final analysis, all human actions ultimately aim. The necessary characteristics of the ultimate good are that it is complete, final, self-sufficient and continuous. This good toward which all human actions implicity or explicitly aim is happiness‹in Greek, "eudaimonia," which can also be translated as blessedness or living well, and which is not a static state of being but a type of activity.

To discover the nature of human happiness it is necessary to determine what the function of a human being is, for a person's happiness will consist in fulfilling the natural function toward which his being is directed. This natural function must be something which is specific to human beings, which is essential to being human. A person is primarily his intellect. While the spirited and desiring parts of the soul are also important, the rational part of the soul is what one can most properly consider a person's identity. The activity which only human beings can perform is intellectual it is activity of the highest part of the soul (the rational part) according to reason. Human happiness, therefore, consists in activity of the soul according to reason. In practical terms, this activity is expressed through ethical virtue, when a person directs his actions according to reason. The very highest human life, however, consists in contemplation of the greatest goods. More will be said later on this topic, which is the culmination of the Ethics.

Ethical virtue "is a habit disposed toward action by deliberate choice, being at the mean relative to us, and defined by reason as a prudent man would define it." Each of the elements of this definition is important. Virtue is not simply an isolated action but a habit of acting well. For an action to be virtuous a person must do it deliberately, knowing what he is doing, and doing it because it is a noble action. In each specific situation, the virtuous action is a mean between two extremes. Finally, prudence is necessary for ethical virtue because it is the intellectual virtue by which a person is able to determine the mean specific to each situation.

Before going into a discussion of the individual virtues it is necessary to clarify what it means for an action to be voluntary, since only voluntary actions can be virtuous. For an action to be involuntary, there must be some external principle causing the action and the person must not contribute anything to the action. An action done through fear is only partially voluntary, and an action done through ignorance may have different degrees of voluntariness, depending on whether or not the person would have wanted to do it if he had known what he was doing. A proper intention is necessary for virtuous action. Intention is not a desire, a wish or an opinion. It is something previously deliberated upon, and is formed with reason or thought. One can only intend something which one has the power to do.

The first virtue discussed is bravery. It is a mean between rashness and cowardice. A brave man is one who faces and fears what he should for the right reason, in the right manner and at the right time. A brave man performs his actions for the sake of what is noble. A brave man is thus one who is fearless in facing a noble death.

The next virtue is temperance. It is a mean with regard to bodily pleasures. The intemperate man desires pleasurable things and chooses them because they are pleasurable he is pained when he fails to get what he desires. A temperate man is moderately disposed with regard to pleasures and pains. He loves such pleasures as right reason dictates. Temperance keeps the desiring part of the soul in harmony with reason.

Generosity is the third virtue which Aristotle examines. With regard to property, generosity is a mean between wastefulness and stinginess. A generous man will give to the right person, the right amounts and at the right times. He will also take proper care of his possessions. Generosity does not depend on the quantity of the giving but on the habit of the giver, which takes into account the amount which the giver himself has and is able to give away.

The next virtue is munificence, which consists giving large amounts for suitable occasions. The deficiency of this virtue is called meanness and the excess is ostentation. A munificent man spends gladly and lavishly, not calculating costs, but always for a noble purpose.

Magnanimity, the fifth virtue Aristotle discusses, is one of the peaks of virtue. A magnanimous man claims and deserves great honors. Someone who deserves honors but doesn't claim them is low-minded, and someone who claims honors but doesn't deserve them is vain. It is better to be vain than low-minded, because vanity will be naturally corrected by life experience. A magnanimous man is great in each of the virtues, and is a sort of ornament of virtues because he shows how good a virtuous life is.

The next virtue concerns honor, specifically small and medium honors. It is a mean between too much and too little ambition which can be described as right ambition.

The virtue that is a mean with respect to anger is good temper. The excesses are irascibility or bitterness. If one is irascible he gets angry quickly and retaliates but then forgets about it. Someone who is bitter holds anger for a long time. A good tempered man is one who becomes angry on the right occasions, with the right people, at the right time and for the right length of time.

The next three virtues are friendliness, the mean between flattery or obsequiousness and quarrelsomeness truthfulness, the mean between boastfulness and self-depreciation, and wit, the mean with regard to humor and amusement. Wit entails saying the right things in the right manner and also listening to things properly.

The last virtue, which unites and orders all of the other virtues, is justice. Justice can also be considered in a more specific sense, as one of the virtues. Both justice in the specific sense and justice as the whole of virtue are defined in relation to other people, but justice in the specific sense is concerned with honor, property, safety and similar things, while justice in the larger sense is concerned with virtue as a whole. Another subset of justice is distributive justice. Justice (in the narrow sense) is a mean between two extremes of unfairness. What is just in distribution should be in some way according to merit, but not all agree what that merit should be. Advocates of mob rule say that this merit is freedom, oligarchs say that it is wealth, others say that it is good ancestry and aristocrats say that is virtue.

Natural justice is that which is just in all times and places. Conventional justice is that which is made up of laws and customs. All laws are to some extent just because any law is better than no law, but are always at least slightly flawed in that they must be formulated universally and cannot take into account all specific circumstances. As a result, a judge should rule in accordance with the intention of the lawmaker or the idea behind the law when the law does not seem to properly fit the situation.

Prudence is the intellectual virtue of practical reason. It is concerned with human actions and gives a person the ability to choose what the virtuous mean is in specific situations. Acquiring prudence requires time and experience. Prudence and ethical virtue are both necessary for one another.

Continence and incontinence are concerned with bodily pleasures just like temperance and intemperance, but are distinct from them. The incontinent man is disposed to do what he knows is bad because of his passions. The continent man knows that his desires are bad but does not follow them because of reason. The difference between continence and temperance lies in the fact that for a temperate man his desires are in line with his reason.

Friendship is a necessary part of the good life. There are three types of friendship: friendship based on usefulness, friendship based on pleasure and friendship based on virtue. Only the last type is genuine friendship. Friendships based on usefulness and pleasure tend not to be very enduring, since they only last as the long as each party derives the usefulness or pleasure he desires from the relationship. Friendship based on virtue is based on wishing the good for the other person. This genuine friendship is necessary for self-knowledge and helps both of the friends to grow in virtue. Friendship presupposes justice and goes beyond it. The virtue of a friend is to love. The relationship one has with a friend is like the harmonious relationship between the different parts of the soul of a virtuous man.

In spite of what many philosophers may say, pleasure is a good. It perfects actions. The goodness of pleasure is determined by the goodness of the action which it accompanies. The highest good, happiness, must also involve pleasure.

Man's highest action and most complete happiness is a life of contemplation of the highest goods. Man's intellectual capacity is his highest capacity, and therefore his highest happiness resides in the use of that capacity. The life of contemplation is so sublime that it is practically divine, and man can achieve it only insofar as there is something divine in him. Contemplation is the action which best fulfills all the qualifications that the ultimate good should have, because it is the most continuous, complete and self-sufficient of all actions.

For most people, mere exhortation will not be enough to make them act virtuously. Consequently, good laws are necessary in order to make people virtuous. Laws and proper education are necessarily especially for the young, in order to train their passions and desires to be in accord with reason. Yet since such a great number of men are not virtuous, laws are necessary not just for the young, but for everyone.

Take Up and Read: Nicomachean Ethics

I am writing this ongoing blog series on Reflections to encourage Christians to read more vigorously and enrich their lives with Christian classics in such fields as theology, philosophy and apologetics. Hopefully, a brief introduction to these Christian texts will motivate today’s believers to, as St. Augustine was called in his dramatic conversion to Christianity, “take up and read” (Latin: Tolle lege) these excellent books.

This week’s book, The Nicomachean Ethics by the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, is a classic of Western civilization in the field of philosophy and ethics. This work not only shaped ethical theory in Western philosophy but it also deeply influenced Christian moral thought—especially in the Middle Ages. Almost 2,400 years after it was written, Aristotle’s masterwork continues to challenge people who ask the big questions of life.

Why Is This Author Notable?

Aristotle (384–322 BC) is arguably the greatest philosopher ever. His influence on Western civilization is incalculable. A student at Plato’s Academy as a young man, Aristotle would go on to tutor Alexander the Great and write nearly 1,000 books and pamphlets. Most of his writings were lost in antiquity, but those that survived have been greatly influential in such fields as logic, rhetoric, metaphysics, ethics, psychology and even natural history.

What Is This Book About?

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is one of the greatest treatments of moral theory in the history of Western philosophy. In contrast with his teacher Plato, who grounded virtue in the transcendent world of forms, Aristotle’s ethics tend to be more this-worldly and pragmatic.

Aristotle’s work is divided into ten “books,” with titles such as “The Object of Life,” “Justice,” “The Kinds of Friendship” and “Pleasure and the Life of Happiness.” His understanding of the human condition and the pursuit of the good life can be summarized in these points:

  • Human action is directed toward a goal and Aristotle identifies that end as eudaemonia—best defined as “well-being” or the “good life” instead of “happiness.”
  • Eudaemonia is not a means to an end but rather an end in itself an intrinsic good instead of an instrumental good.
  • The goal of life must be connected to humankind’s distinctive feature—reason—so eudaemonia is found in “contemplation.”
  • Whether an individual achieves the good life can only be determined at the end of life.
  • Aristotle distinguishes between intellectual and moral virtues—with intellectual virtues obtained by learning and moral virtues (justice, courage, liberality, temperance) by habit (character traits).
  • Aristotle’s approach can be called a “self-realization” theory of ethics.

Criticism of Aristotle’s ethics can be illustrated by asking two questions:

  1. How can one do virtuous acts without having a virtuous disposition?
  2. Are human beings as naturally rational as Aristotle thinks?

There is much for Christians to both agree and disagree with in Aristotle’s ethical masterpiece. One example includes Aristotle’s reflection on how eudaemonia is the pursuit of a lifetime:

“One swallow does not make a summer neither does one day. Similarly neither can one day, or a brief space of time, make a man blessed and happy.”1

Why Is This Book Worth Reading?

The great medieval Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas called Aristotle “The Philosopher.” And as one of the great models of the philosophical enterprise, Aristotle’s reflections on ethics are worthy of careful consideration. Despite some disagreement with Aristotle’s conclusions, Christians stand to learn a great deal from this intellectual giant.

Therefore, I encourage you to take up and read Nicomachean Ethics.

Reflections: Your Turn

Would it be better for human beings to seek “well-being” in life rather than happiness?

Historical Context for Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

An Olympic discus thrower. Olympic competitions were opportunities for displays of excellence. (Wikimedia Commons) As one of the central texts of moral philosophy in the Western tradition, the Nicomachean Ethics introduces terminology and methods for grappling with one of the most fundamental philosophical questions: what does it mean to live a good life? Or to use Aristotle's terminology, how might one achieve eudaimonia, a term understood as some combination of "happiness," "blessedness" and simply "faring well?" Simultaneously a study of individual excellence and one of political life, Aristotle's text does not understand "living well" as a kind of pleasant feeling or other positive psychological state. As the Nicomachean Ethics shows over the course of its ten books, eudaimonia entails acting virtuously, almost always among others – within a family, among friends and as part of a civil society.

Within these broad claims about human excellence and the qualities of a good life, Aristotle defines methods and terms that continue to influence many aspects of contemporary ethical thinking. For instance, Aristotle lays out his ethical philosophy as an example of "teleological" thinking, where human actions aim at the "final" and "self-sufficient" goal (or telos) of a good life. Rejecting some goals that people often take to be the aim of a good human life – such as pleasure, health or wealth – Aristotle asserts that the true telos of human behavior is the eudaimonia of living well. Alongside this telos-based approach, Aristotle also introduces the notion of the ideal human condition as an intermediate or "mean" between two extremes of deficiency and excess. The virtuous behavior of courage, for example, lies between the extremes of cowardice and rashness. Human excellence, in sum, seems to be an activity that aims at the right amount of certain virtuous traits: the right amount of generosity, the right amount of temperance, and so forth.

All of these ethical behaviors, Aristotle argues, are best executed as a kind of "habit" that we must actively practice, and he roots these ethical habits in the concepts of deliberation and choice. Because life presents us with questions that almost never have mathematically precise or even predictable answers, one must grapple with difficult choices, among which there may not be one obviously best option. To take an example familiar to New Yorkers: should we give money to subway panhandlers and if so, how much? This ability to choose well constitutes Aristotle's notion of "practical wisdom," or phronesis, itself a virtue that Aristotle thinks we can practice. The Ethics does not, however, recommend that we move through life in a constant state of anxiety about whether we are choosing correctly whenever we are faced with minor ethical decisions. Rather, by setting out a fundamental distinction between performing deeds that are themselves ethical and performing deeds out of a firm, habitual ethical disposition, Aristotle wants his readers to cultivate and practice the attitudes and behaviors that render ethical choices not quite "automatic" but perhaps welcome – those we make readily out of our own inclinations and volition.

Even if Aristotle begins with topics that seem most obviously applicable to the virtuous behavior of an individual – her courage or her temperance, her dispositions or her voluntary choices, for example – the Ethics shifts over the course of its ten books to topics that are decidedly more interpersonal in nature. In Book Five, for example, Aristotle turns to the topic of justice, an activity that he divides into two species: distributive, which considers what different classes of people deserve, and rectificatory, which considers how we might rectify those imbalanced situations in which injustices have been committed. Also in Book Five, Aristotle turns to problems of legal equity: how, he asks, could we expect to craft a law that might apply to the varying, unpredictable events of human activity? Not providing just one simple definition of what it means to be "just" – a central term for many texts on the Contemporary Civilization syllabus – Aristotle underscores in this discussion of equity his belief in the manifold and malleable nature of ethical reasoning.

The final books of the Ethics continue to emphasize Aristotle's interest in issues of interpersonal relationships. Books Eight and Nine, for example, consider the importance of friendship, the only topic within the text treated with two full books. Launching from these concerns about the best kinds of bonds between people, Aristotle moves to the broader topic of politics in his last book, often seen as a transitional discussion into the Politics, another text on the Contemporary Civilization syllabus. Here Aristotle acknowledges that ethical behavior is difficult to achieve and that not all citizens will be able to achieve eudaimonia. In the face of this relative inaccessibility of human excellence, he suggests that the city-state take an active role in cultivating citizen virtue – to some degree, men become good by obeying well-crafted laws. These final topics reveal the double nature of Aristotle's treatise: what begins as a discussion of personal character and habitual behaviors ultimately gestures toward the social recommendations that will dominate the Politics.

Even if Aristotle finds himself at odds with Plato in many respects, the final book of the Ethics recalls some of the themes of Plato's Republic, where the ideal city-state – in Plato, the kallipolis– sees its own excellence as one closely coupled with the excellence of each citizen. Almost paradoxically, too, Aristotle ends the Nicomachean Ethics by suggesting that the best life is the "contemplative" one, a strange conclusion for a book devoted to a life of human activity, often emphasizing its interpersonal and social dimensions. With its often-technical presentation of virtues and its interest in ethics as both an individual and social concern, the Nicomachean Ethics provides a view of human activity that is impossible to distill into an easy slogan or set of moral rules. That complex, irreducibility of human ethics, as it turns out, seems to be a major element of Aristotle's argument.

Written by Charles McNarama, Core Lecturer, Classics, Columbia University

The Reception of Aristotle's Ethics

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  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Online publication date: February 2013
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online ISBN: 9780511979873
  • DOI:
  • Subjects: Classical Studies, Classical Philosophy, Ancient Philosophy, Philosophy

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Book description

Aristotle's ethics are the most important in the history of Western philosophy, but little has been said about the reception of his ethics by his many successors. The present volume offers thirteen newly commissioned essays covering figures and periods from the ancient world, starting with the impact of the ethics on Hellenistic philosophy, taking in medieval, Jewish and Islamic reception and extending as far as Kant and the twentieth century. Each essay focuses on a single philosopher, school of philosophers, or philosophical era. The accounts examine and compare Aristotle's views and those of his heirs and also offer a reception history of the ethics, dealing with matters such as the availability and circulation of Aristotle's texts during the periods in question. The resulting volume will be a valuable source of information and arguments for anyone working in the history of ethics.


'As this engaging volume makes clear, different periods in the history of the reception of Aristotle’s ethical theorizing have unsurprisingly drawn different morals from his teachings, as they were made available from the Nicomachean Ethics and other sources. As the authors of this fascinating volume attest, by comparing our own approaches and preoccupations to those of earlier encounters with Aristotle’s ethical writings, we stand to learn a great [deal] about our own philosophical practices and preferences - and, of course, about Aristotelian ethical theory itself.'

Watch the video: Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle. Book 2 (July 2022).


  1. Mikalrajas

    This does not suit me.

  2. Orville

    Wonderful, very useful message

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