Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated Terence Irwin (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999)

Aristotle’s major ethical work is the primary source for the tradition of virtue ethics. It is notable, amongst other things, for his teleology, definition of virtue, doctrine of human nature and discussion on friendship.

Aristotle believes that, “Every craft and every line of inquiry, and likewise every action and decision, seems to seek some good” (1). The good he thinks that humans seek is what he calls happiness. He identifies three kinds of happiness: pleasure, honor and study. Aristotle is hierarchical in his thinking and he ranks all of his typologies. For him, study is the highest good. Likewise, political science is the highest science because it is about the happiness of many and not just one.

The good that is sought can also be understood as a function. And just as a horse has a function, so too with a human being “activity of the soul in accord with reason or requiring reason” (9). Philosophy can be understood as the craft to best realize this function. Goods can be divided into three types: external, of the soul and of the body.

A person can only be said to be truly happy at the end of life because reversals of fortune can reveal that what was thought to be happiness earlier was illusory. Happiness is defined as “a certain sort of activity of the soul in accord with complete virtue” and virtue is defined as “virtue of the soul, not of the body” (16). Aristotle divides the virtues into virtues of thought and virtues of character. Some of the virtues of thought are wisdom, comprehension, and prudence. Some of the virtues of character are generosity and temperance.

This is an act based ethics, ones becomes virtuous by doing things, by acquiring the habits of virtue, rather than believing things. Virtues, furthermore, are understood as the mean between two extremes. Generosity, for instance, is the mean between being a miser and being a spendthrift.

Justice in this system is what allows us to become virtuous. An unjust social system is one that cultivates unvirtuous behavior. Law is useful and just when it aims to cultivate virtuous behavior. One reason why political science is the highest science is that it tries to pass the correct laws that will cultivate the correct behavior in the citizens of a city.

Aristotle, incidentally, understands human beings as social creatures. We are people who live in communities, cities, and are parts of families. Seeking virtue is never an individual act.

Also, Aristotle believes that there are both voluntary and involuntary actions. Only adults, and possibly men, are capable of voluntary actions.

Throughout the book Aristotle makes reference to incontinent people as opposed to virtuous people. The incontinent are those who are “prone to be overcome by pleasures” which the lowest kind of happiness (109).

Two books (VIII and IX) of the ethics are concerned with friendship which “is most necessary for our life” and is what “hold cities together.” It is so important that most “legislators would seem to be more concerned about it than justice” (119). The good that friendship seeks is love and “friendship is said to be reciprocated goodwill.” Friendships has “three species, corresponding to three objects of love” (121). These are: utility, pleasure and character. The most enduring, and rarest, kind of friendship is that of character.

The book closes with a discussion of education and the disconnect between theory and practice. Aristotle attacks “the sophists who advertise that they teach politics but none of them practices it” while praising those who both teach and practice politics.

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