(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s description of Aristotle as “the master of those who know” has an appropriate ambiguity: It suggests Aristotle’s mastery of his predecessors’ knowledge and also his influence, paralleled only by Plato’s, on his philosophical descendants. Both aspects of this mastery are prominent in Nicomachean Ethics. It is to Aristotle’s credit that he gives full recognition to the contributions of other philosophers, and it is to his glory that so many basic ethical ideas of later philosophers are found in this great seminal work. Although scholarly explanations of the work differ, it is generally agreed that the work was not intended for publication in its present form; it is a version of Aristotle’s ethics as stated by his son, Nicomachus. The Eudemian Ethics, a record composed by one of Aristotle’s pupils, Eudemus, supplements this work.

Nicomachean Ethics is part of a vast scientific and philosophical system to which a teleological view of the universe is basic: All things are to be understood in terms of their purposes, the ends toward which they tend and which are inherent in their forms and integral to their natures. Defining the end or good of humanity by reference to its nature, Aristotle’s ethics is a kind of naturalism, but not a reductionism failing to distinguish a higher sense of “nature” from one meaning simply “whatever is or occurs.” It thus suggests (though it does not fully develop) the crucial difference between the factual and the ideal. The normative element, the “oughtness,” of virtue is determined by the end or good by which virtue is understood. There is thus no nonnatural, self-subsistent, or supernatural source of obligation, but this is no loss to an ethics grounded firmly in the Aristotelian psychology and metaphysics.

The Good

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Aristotle’s psychological approach appears when he begins his investigation of the final good by reference to what he regards as a general fact of human and animal behavior. He cites the dictum of a predecessor that the good is “that at which all things aim.” However, there are many aims; some goods are desired for themselves, some for the sake of others. To avoid an infinite regression of goods merely instrumental to others, intrinsic goods must be presupposed; if one good appears to be more ultimate than any other, this will be the chief good. Its criteria will be finality and self-sufficiency—it will be valued for its own sake and its achievement will leave nothing to be desired. Everyone agrees, Aristotle notes, that happiness is thus final and self-sufficient; one desires other goods for the sake of this happiness but never this for the sake of others. However, this general agreement is merely verbal; specific descriptions of happiness are so varied that a detailed inquiry is obviously needed.

Among previous theories of the good is that of Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, who held that good is a self-subsistent essence, a universal form, or idea, in which all particular good things participate, and by which alone they are good. Aristotle objects, however, that if nothing but this form is good intrinsically, the good would be both empty of content and unattainable. In the practice of arts and sciences aiming at their own particular ends, it does...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Humanity’s end must likewise be found in form, which is soul. “Soul” here does not have the connotations given it in Christian tradition; it is not an entity but rather a level of function of living bodies. Even plants have the nutritive function or vegetative “soul”; lower animals have this plus a sensory and appetitive or desiderative soul; the human soul has a higher level, the rational. Now the excellence or virtue of each thing, according to the meaning of the Greek aret, lies in the efficiency of its peculiar function; therefore “human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.”

Two broad divisions in the human soul are the irrational and the rational; the former includes the vegetative, over which reason has no direct control, and the appetitive, partially amenable to rational guidance. The rational part includes the calculative and scientific functions. Corresponding to each of these are various kinds of excellence ranged under the two main types, moral and intellectual virtues.

To reach a definition of the first type, Aristotle observes that well-being is achieved through a mean between two extremes, either of which destroys it, as the athlete’s fitness is maintained by the proper amount of food, neither too much nor too little. However, this is not an arithmetical mean; the proper amount of food for a wrestler would be too much for a businessperson. Applying this concept to attitudes, emotions, and conduct, Aristotle develops a relational ethics that is not relativistic in the pejorative sense: “Virtue . . . is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle . . . by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect.” (Examples of virtues appropriate to certain activities and attitudes are shown in the accompanying table.)

Virtue lies in feeling or acting rightly in relation to...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Aristotle writes at length of friendship’s necessity to the good life. There are three types: friendships based on utility, those maintained for pleasure alone, and those between similarly virtuous people loved because of their goodness. The last kind is highest, rarest, and most durable.

The topic of friendship raises questions of the relations between benevolence and self-love, and Aristotle anticipates such later writers as Scottish philosopher David Hume and Bishop Joseph Butler. Our estimate of “self-love,” he points out, requires distinction between higher and lower senses of the term. Selfish concern for wealth or physical pleasure is of course blameworthy, but the true lover of self is one who seeks that most fitting to one’s highest nature—the just, temperate, and noble. If all sought for themselves the highest good, self-love would make for the greatest common welfare. True self-love thus involves beneficence and occasionally sacrifice of wealth or even life itself for the sake of friends and country. Thus the good person needs friends in order to exercise virtue fully.

The Intellectual

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The good person also needs the second major type of virtue, the intellectual, for the moral involves choice, and choice is defined as “either desiderative reason or ratiocinative desire.” Good choice, then, presupposes right desire and true reasoning. The rightness and truth are measured against the right rule by which Aristotle avoids subjectivism: “There is a mark to which the man who has the rule looks . . . there is a standard which determines the mean states which we say are intermediate between excess and defect.” However, pure, contemplative intellect does not directly motivate, its end being truth per se; therefore it is the practical or productive intellect that aims at the truth in harmony with right desire.

Practical wisdom is the intellectual virtue most intimately connected with moral virtue: “It is a true and reasoned state of capacity to act with regard to the things that are good or bad for man.” It is deliberation about the contingent, not the eternal, for its concern is with selecting the best means to the good life; therefore, it is a function of the productive intellect that can command and sometimes control the irrational soul, the feelings and desires. Practical wisdom is thus a virtue of the calculative level, the lower of the two rational parts of the soul. Because it must not only calculate the means but also recognize the ends, “it is not possible to be good in the strict sense without practical wisdom, nor...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Before one can fully appreciate Aristotle’s concept of happiness, it is necessary to review his treatment of pleasure, regarded by many philosophers as the summum bonum. As usual, Aristotle considers arguments on both sides in some detail. He concludes not only that pleasure is a good but also that there are cogent reasons for thinking it the chief good: Everyone agrees that its opposite, pain, is bad. Both beasts and humans aim at pleasure (and at the start Aristotle had accepted the view that “the good is that at which all things aim”), and because pleasure is a necessary accompaniment of each activity carried to its unimpeded fulfillment, happiness would seem to be the fruition in pleasure of at least some or...

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Nicomachean Ethics

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Long after he had studied under Plato and taught Alexander the Great, Aristotle developed the belief that everything has 4 causes: material (physical), formal (design), efficient (maker or ancestor), and final (ultimate goal). Thus, morality has to do with physical and emotional appetites, rationality, the social and political setting, and contemplation of truth.

According to Aristotle, a person is responsible only for voluntary deeds, not for deeds committed in ignorance or when forced. Truly bad acts are performed when irrationality overpowers reason, when persons act impulsively, or when evil is disguised as good.

Virtue, on the other hand, is the midpoint between the extremes of too much and too little....

(The entire section is 959 words.)

Nicomachean Ethics

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

The Work

Aristotle assumes that all things, human beings included, have a good, a purpose or end, which it is their nature to fulfill. To understand the virtue of human nature, one must discover the specific good that is its purpose. Human nature, in Aristotle’s analysis, has two levels: the nonrational and the rational. Each level has its good and corresponding virtue.

The virtue of the rational level is to recognize and contemplate truth. This purely intellectual virtue has value in itself but is not sufficient for morality. Morality is only possible when both levels of human nature work together.

The nonrational level of human nature includes vegetative functions, such as biological...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Ackrill, J. L. Essays on Plato and Aristotle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. This work contains important and insightful reflections on two of the most influential thinkers in Western philosophy.

Adler, Mortimer J. Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy. New York: Scribner’s 1997. A reliable interpreter provides an account that introduces Aristotle’s thought in accessible fashion.

Bar On, Bat-Ami, ed. Engendering Origins: Critical Feminist Readings in Plato and Aristotle. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Feminist...

(The entire section is 683 words.)