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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.

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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

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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 not seem that a knowledge of this universal good is prerequisite. Hence Aristotle turns to a search for the specifically human good.

This must be found in humanity’s own form and function qua human. To understand the latter, consider briefly the Aristotelian concept of matter and form, derived but considerably altered from that of Plato. Except for pure matter and pure form, terminal limits posited by the system rather than experienced differences in reality, the matter and form of any given thing are its two aspects of potentiality and actuality,...

(The entire section contains 5528 words.)

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