The Nicomachean Ethics by Artistotle

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High-Level Thoughts

One of the original works of virtue ethics, this book on living a good life by Aristotle has some great advice on being a good, thriving person, through moderating your excesses and deficiencies and striving to improve yourself.

Summary Notes


Aristotle was born in Stagira in Macedon (now part of northern Greece; see note to i 2.§8, v 7.§1) in 384 B.C.

In 367 B.C., Aristotle came to Athens and was a member of PLATO’s Academy until the death of Plato in 347.

In 334 he returned to Athens and founded his own school, the Lyceum.

In 323 Alexander died; in the resulting outbreak of anti-Macedonian feeling in Athens, Aristotle left for Chalcis, on the island of Euboea (cf. note to ix 6. §3), where he died in 322 B.C.

Happiness is the right starting point for an ethical theory because, in Aristotle’s view, rational agents necessarily choose and deliberate with a view to their ultimate good, which is happiness; it is the ultimate end, since we want it for its own sake, and we want other things for its sake.

To find a more definite account of happiness, Aristotle argues from the human FUNCTION, the characteristic activity that is essential to a human being, in the same way as a purely nutritive life is essential to a plant, and a life guided by sense perception and desire is essential to an animal (see notes to i 7.§12–13).

Since a human being is essentially a rational agent, the function of a human being is a life guided by practical reason.

The human good, therefore, is an ACTIVITY of the SOUL in accordance with complete virtue in a complete life.

Aristotle claims that virtuous activity CONTROLS happiness

If virtuous activity controls happiness, we need to know what the relevant virtues are to secure happiness (i 13).

To be a generous person, I must not only know how to give money on the right occasions, and have generous impulses; I must also direct my capacities and feelings to the right goals, so that I act from the right desires, for the right reasons, and on the right occasions

The right moral choice requires experience of particular situations, since general rules cannot be applied mechanically to particular situations.

Incontinence (or ‘weakness of will’) is usually taken to consist in knowing that x is better than y, but choosing y nonetheless.

The value of this pleasure depends on the value of the activity on which the pleasure follows

The virtuous person has the most pleasant life; but this life cannot be devoted exclusively to the pursuit of pleasure.

All three of the main types of friendship (for pleasure, for advantage, and for the good) are concerned with the good of the other person; but only the best sort of friendship—friendship for the good between virtuous people— involves A’s concern for B’s good for B’s own sake and for B’s essential character

Aristotle infers that study is the happiest life available to us, insofar as we have the rational intellects we share with the gods

Book 1: Happiness

In all such cases, then,* the ends of the ruling sciences are more choiceworthy than all the ends subordinate to them, since the lower ends are also pursued for the sake of the higher.

For even if the good is the same for a city as for an individual, still the good of the city is apparently a greater and more complete good to acquire and preserve.

each person judges rightly what he knows, and is a good judge about that; hence the good judge in a given area is the person educated in that area, and the unqualifiedly good judge is the person educated in every area.

This is why a youth is not a suitable student of political science; for he lacks experience of the actions in life, which are the subject and premises of our arguments. §6 Moreover, since he tends to follow his feelings, his study will be futile and useless; for the end [of political science] is action, not knowledge.

Indeed, the same person often changes his mind; for when he has fallen ill, he thinks happiness is health, and when he has fallen into poverty, he thinks it is wealth.

For, it would seem, people quite reasonably reach their conception of the good, i.e., of happiness, from the lives [they lead]; §2 for there are roughly three most favored lives: the lives of gratification, of political activity, and, third, of study.

The many, the most vulgar, would seem to conceive the good and happiness as pleasure, and hence they also like the life of gratification. [20] §3 In this they appear completely slavish, since the life they decide on is a life for grazing animals.

The cultivated people, those active [in politics], conceive the good as honor, since this is more or less the end [normally pursued] in the political life.

it would seem, they pursue honor to convince themselves that they are good; at any rate, they seek to be honored by prudent people, among people who know them, [30] and for virtue.

Perhaps, indeed, one might conceive virtue more than honor to be the end of the political life. However, this also is apparently too incomplete [to be the good]. For it seems possible for someone to possess virtue [1096a] but be asleep or inactive throughout his life, and, moreover, to suffer the worst evils and misfortunes. If this is the sort of life he leads, no one would count him happy, except to defend a philosopher’s paradox

The moneymaker’s life is in a way forced on him [not chosen for itself];* and clearly wealth is not the good we are seeking, since it is [merely] useful, [choiceworthy only] for some other end.

Clearly, then, goods are spoken of in two ways, and some are goods in their own right, and others goods because of these.* Let us, then, separate the goods in their own right from the [merely] useful goods, and consider whether goods in their own right correspond to a single Idea.

Now happiness, more than anything else, seems complete without [1097b] qualification.* For we always choose it because of itself,* never because of something else.

The same conclusion [that happiness is complete] also appears to follow from self-sufficiency. For the complete good seems to be self-sufficient.* What we count as self-sufficient is not what suffices for a solitary [10] person by himself, living an isolated life, but what suffices also for parents, children, wife, and, in general, for friends and fellow citizens, since a human being is a naturally political [animal].

Happiness, then, is apparently something complete and self-sufficient, since it is the end of the things achievable in action.

For living is apparently shared with [1098a] plants, but what we are looking for is the special function of a human being; hence we should set aside the life of nutrition and growth.* The life next in order is some sort of life of sense perception; but this too is apparently shared with horse, ox, and every animal.

We have found, then, that the human function is activity of the soul in accord with reason or requiring reason.

Moreover, we take the human function to be a certain kind of life, and take this life to be activity and actions of the soul that involve reason; hence the function of the excellent man is to do this well and finely.

And so the human good proves to be activity of the soul in accord with virtue,* and indeed with the best and most complete virtue, if there are more virtues than one.

Goods are divided, then, into three types, some called external, some goods of the soul, others goods of the body.

This also leads to a puzzle: Is happiness acquired by learning, or habituation, [10] or by some other form of cultivation? Or is it the result of some divine fate, or even of fortune?

It is not surprising, then, that we regard neither ox, nor horse, nor [1100a] any other kind of animal as happy; for none of them can share in this sort of activity. §10 For the same reason a child is not happy either, since his age prevents him from doing these sorts of actions. If he is called happy, he is being congratulated [simply] because of anticipated blessedness; for, as we have said, happiness requires both complete virtue and a complete life.

Book 2: Virtue of Character

Virtue, then, is of two sorts, virtue of thought and virtue of character. Virtue of thought arises and grows mostly from teaching; that is why it needs experience and time. Virtue of character [i.e., of ēthos] results from habit [ethos]; hence its name ‘ethical’, slightly varied from ‘ethos’.*

A stone, for instance, by nature moves downwards, and habituation could not make it move upwards, not even if you threw it up ten thousand times to habituate it; nor could habituation make fire move downwards, or bring anything that is by nature in one condition into another condition. §3 And so the virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and we are completed through habit.

Virtues, by contrast, we acquire, just as we acquire crafts, by having first activated them. For we learn a craft by producing the same product that we must produce when we have learned it; we become builders, for instance, by building, and we become harpists by playing the harp. Similarly, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate [1103b] by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.

First, then, we should observe that these sorts of states naturally tend to be ruined by excess and deficiency. We see this happen with strength and health—for we must use evident cases [such as these] as witnesses to things that are not evident.* For both excessive and deficient exercise ruin bodily strength, and, similarly, too much or too little eating or drinking ruins health, whereas the proportionate amount produces, increases, and preserves it.

strength, for instance, arises from eating a lot and from withstanding much hard labor, and it is the strong person who is most capable of these very actions. §9 It is the same with the virtues. For abstaining from pleasures makes us become temperate, and once we have become temperate [1104b] we are most capable of abstaining from pleasures.

Virtue is about pleasures and pains; the actions that are its sources also increase it or, if they are done badly, ruin it; and its activity is about the same actions as those that are its sources.

But surely actions are not enough, even in the case of crafts;* for it is possible to produce a grammatical result by chance, or by following someone else’s instructions. To be grammarians, then, we must both produce a grammatical result and produce it grammatically—that is to say, produce it in accord with the grammatical knowledge in us.

the agent must also be in the right state when he does them. First, he must know [that he is doing virtuous actions]; second, he must decide on them, and decide on them for themselves; and, third, he must also do them from a firm and unchanging state.

The many, however, do not do these actions. They take refuge in arguments, thinking that they are doing philosophy, and that this is the way to become excellent people. They are like a sick person who listens attentively to the doctor, but acts on none of his instructions. Such a course of treatment will not improve the state of the sick person’s body; nor will the many improve the state of their souls by this attitude to philosophy.

Now virtue is about feelings and actions, in which excess and deficiency are in error and incur blame, whereas the intermediate condition is correct and wins praise,* which are both proper to virtue. §13 Virtue, then, is a mean, insofar as it aims at what is intermediate

That is why error is easy and correctness is difficult, since it is easy to miss the target and difficult to hit it. And so for this reason also excess and deficiency are proper to vice, the mean to virtue; ‘for we are noble in only one way, but bad in all sorts of ways.’

We must also examine what we ourselves drift into easily. For different people have different natural tendencies toward different goals, and we shall come to know our own tendencies from the pleasure or pain that arises in us. §5 We must drag ourselves off in the contrary direction; for if we pull far away from error, as they do in straightening bent wood, we shall reach the intermediate condition.

This is enough, then, to make it clear that in every case the intermediate state is praised, but we must sometimes incline toward the excess, sometimes toward the deficiency; for that is the easiest way to hit the intermediate and good condition.

Book 3: Preconditions of Virtue

Dying to avoid poverty or erotic passion or something painful is proper to a coward, not to a brave person. For shirking burdens is softness, and such a person stands firm [in the face of death] to avoid an evil, not because standing firm is fine.*

Book 4

For a lover of the truth who is truthful even when nothing is at stake will be still keener to tell the truth when something is at stake, since he will avoid falsehood as shameful [when something is at stake], having already avoided it in itself [when nothing was at stake].

Book 5: Justice

But doing acts of cowardice or injustice is not doing these actions, except coincidentally; it is being in a certain state when we do them. Similarly, practicing medicine or healing is not cutting or not cutting, giving drugs or not giving them, but doing all these things in a certain way.

There are three [capacities] in the soul—sense perception, understanding, desire*—that control action and truth.

Book 6: Virtues of Thought

As assertion and denial are to thought, so pursuit and avoidance are to desire. Now virtue of character is a state that decides; and decision is a deliberative desire. If, then, the decision is excellent, the reason must be true and the desire correct, so that what reason asserts is what desire pursues.

Further, every science seems to be teachable, and what is scientifically knowable is learnable. But all teaching is from what is already known, as we also say in the Analytics;* for some teaching is through induction, some by deduction,

Young people, then, [lacking experience], have no real conviction in these other sciences, but only say [20] the words,* whereas the nature of mathematical objects is clear to them.

Book 7: Incontinence

Let us now make a new start, and say that there are three conditions of character to be avoided—vice, incontinence, and bestiality. The contraries of two of these are clear; we call one virtue and the other continence. The contrary to bestiality is most suitably called virtue superior to us, a [20] heroic, indeed divine, sort of virtue.

Moreover, someone is not prudent simply by knowing; he must also [8, 9] act on his knowledge. But the incontinent person does not. §3 He is not [14] in the condition of someone who knows and is attending [to his knowledge, as he would have to be if he were prudent], but in the condition of one asleep or drunk.

Some maintain, on the contrary, that we are happy when we are broken on the wheel, or fall into terrible misfortunes, provided that we are [20] good.* Whether they mean to or not, these people are talking nonsense. Not so subtle jab at stoic ideas from Socrates, actual Stoicism was founded ~100 years later.

Book 8: Friendship

Hence friendship has three species, corresponding to the three objects of love. For each object of love has a corresponding type of mutual loving, combined with awareness of it.

But complete friendship is the friendship of good people similar in virtue; for they wish goods in the same way to each other insofar as they are good, and they are good in their own right.

Book 9

For it is said that we must love most the friend who is most a friend; and one person is a friend to another most of all if he wishes goods to the other for the other’s sake, even if no one will know about it. But these are features most of all of one’s relation to oneself; and so too are all the other defining features of a friend, since we have said that all the features of friendship extend from oneself to others.*

Book 10: Pleasure

To those who cite the disgraceful pleasures [to show that pleasure is not a good], we might reply that these [sources of disgraceful pleasures] are not pleasant.

if things are pleasant to people in bad condition, we should not suppose that they are also pleasant, except to these people.

we might say that pleasures are choiceworthy, but not if they come from these sources, just as wealth is desirable, but not if you have to betray someone to get it, and health is desirable, but not if it requires you to eat anything and everything.

Or perhaps pleasures differ in species. For those from fine sources are different from those from shameful sources; and we cannot have the [30] just person’s pleasure without being just, any more than we can have the musician’s without being musicians, and similarly in the other cases.

And no one would choose to live with a child’s [level of] thought for his whole life, taking as much pleasure as possible in what pleases children, or to enjoy himself while doing some utterly shameful action, even if he would never suffer pain for it.

Moreover, there are many things that we would be eager for even if they brought no pleasure—for instance, seeing, remembering, knowing, having the virtues. Even if pleasures necessarily follow on them, that does not matter; for we would choose them even if no pleasure resulted from them.

It would seem to be clear, then, that pleasure is not the good, that [10] not every pleasure is choiceworthy, and that some are choiceworthy in themselves, differing in species or in their sources [from those that are not].

But what about those pleasures that seem to be decent? Of these, which kind, or which particular pleasure, should we take to be the pleasure of a human being? Surely it will be clear from the activities, since the pleasures are consequences of these. Hence the pleasures that complete the activities of the complete and blessedly happy man, whether he has one activity or more than one, will be called the fully human pleasures to the fullest extent. The other pleasures will be human in secondary, or even more remote ways, corresponding to the character of the activities.

happiness is not a state. For if it were, someone might have it and yet be asleep for his whole life, living the life of a plant, [1176b] or suffer the greatest misfortunes. If we do not approve of this, we count happiness as an activity rather than a state, as we said before.

we should count happiness as one of those activities that are choiceworthy in their own right, not as one of those choiceworthy for some other end. For happiness lacks nothing, but is self-sufficient.

As we have often said, then, what is honorable and pleasant is what is so to the excellent person. To each type of person the activity that accords with his own proper state is most choiceworthy; hence the activity in accord with virtue is most choiceworthy to the excellent person [and hence is most honorable and pleasant].

Happiness, then, is not found in amusement; for it would be absurd if the end were amusement, and our lifelong efforts and sufferings aimed [30] at amusing ourselves.

Relaxation, then, is not [the] end; for we pursue it [to prepare] for activity.

But the happy life seems to be a life in accord with virtue, [1177a] which is a life involving serious actions, and not consisting in amusement.

Then if someone is alive, and action is excluded, and production even more, what is left but study? Hence the gods’ activity that is superior in blessedness will be an activity of study. And so the human activity that is most akin to the gods’ activity will, more than any others, have the character of happiness.

A sign of this is the fact that other animals have no share in happiness, being completely deprived of this activity of study.

But happiness will need external prosperity also, since we are human beings; for our nature is not self-sufficient for study, but we need a healthy body, and need to have food and the other services provided.* [1179a] Still, even though no one can be blessedly happy without external goods, we must not think that to be happy we will need many large goods. For self-sufficiency and action do not depend on excess.

Clearly, all this is true of [30] the wise person more than anyone else; hence he is most loved by the gods. And it is likely that this same person will be happiest; hence, by this argument also, the wise person, more than anyone else, will be happy.

It is best, then, if the community attends to upbringing, and [30] attends correctly. But if the community neglects it, it seems fitting for each individual to promote the virtue of his children and his friends—to be able to do it, or at least to decide to do it.

Further, education adapted to an individual is actually better than a common education for everyone, just as individualized medical treatment is better.

First, then, let us try to review any sound remarks our predecessors have made on particular topics.* Then let us study the collected political systems, to see from them what sorts of things preserve and destroy cities, and political systems of different types; and what causes [20] some cities to conduct politics well, and some badly.* For when we have studied these questions, we will perhaps grasp better what sort of political system is best; how each political system should be organized so as to be best; and what habits and laws it should follow.

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