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The Ethics of Aristotle
known as the Nicomachean Ethics

by Aristotle of Stagira
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes

Bust of Aristotle after Lysippos (c330BCE) and 14th Century version of the text

(Greece, c320BCE)

Aristotle was a pupil of Plato at the Academy of Athens, the first European university. He wrote more than twenty books, on subjects from politics and logic to animal diseases, with a boldness and certainly which was far removed from the free and open discussions of his mentor. Forgotten in the West, his writings were preserved by Islamic scholars to be re-discovered by the mediaeval Christian church, who liked his no-disagreement style, and to whom Aristotle became The Philosopher.
Based on WD Ross's translation of 1908 and DP Chase's of 1911. Abridged: GH.

The Ethics of Aristotle

Book One

Every art, every enquiry, every pursuit, is thought to aim at some good. Medicine aims at health, shipbuilding, a vessel and economics, wealth. So, will not the knowledge of whatever 'the good' is have great influences on life? Furthermore, men judge best the things they have long experience of, so the young, (whether young in years or youthful in passions), will profit little from what is taught here.

Both philosophers and common men agree that by 'good' we mean happiness. The vulgar, like beasts, identify happiness with pleasure. Superior, refined, people tend to identify it with honour and virtue. We can say that, as a lyre-player plays the lyre, and a good player plays it well, so the function of a good man is noble use of his rational abilities. We must ask if happiness can be learned, or comes from divine providence, or by chance.

Though a man may have many changes of fortune, the best man makes good use of what chance throws at him, though his happiness depends, somewhat, on one's friends. Yet is 'goodness' a thing praised or prized? Things are praised for their relationship to something else; we praise the good man, the good athlete etc. because their actions relate to something we call good. Eudoxus was right to say that pleasure, like god, is not praised but prized.

We can say that happiness is an activity of the soul according to virtue, the student of politics must examine human virtue, for his duty is to perfect it.

Book Two

Intellectual virtue comes largely from learning, while ethical virtues come mainly from habit. We wish to know not what virtue is, but how to practice it.

The soul consists of three things- passions, faculties and character, so virtue must be in one of these. Passions are feelings accompanied by pleasure or pain if they are too little or too great, such as appetite, fear, confidence or joy. We are not called good because of our passions, for we do not choose them, but virtue is by choice. If, then virtue is neither a passion nor a faculty, it must be found with character.

But what state of character is virtue? By the excellence of the eye we see well, by the excellence of a horse it runs well, so the virtue of man is that which makes his work good. The master of any art avoids excess, avoids deficit and seeks the middle, the intermediate. Too much confidence is rashness, too little is cowardliness. Too much liberality is prodigality, too little is meanness. Too much honour is vanity, too little is undue humility. Each is in a sense opposed to the others, as when the brave man seems rash to the coward, and cowardly to the rash man. Even finding the middle of a circle takes skill.

Anyone can get angry, or be generous, but to do so to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time with the right motive in the right way is not easy. Especially, we must guard against pleasure, because pleasure cannot be judged impartially.

Book Three

Only voluntary actions are praised or blamed, while involuntary actions receive pardon or pity. So, we must discuss choice, for it shows up character better than actions do. Both children and animals share voluntary action, as they share appetite and anger, but they cannot be said to make rational choices. Wishes relate to the ends, choice to the means, and opinion precedes them both.

Our virtue is of means, so if it is in our power to act nobly, it is also in our power to do evil. We do not punish ignorance, unless the man is the cause of his own ignorance, as when we double the penalty for crimes committed while drunk, since man has the power not to get drunk. Yet, some men voluntarily make their own ignorance, by being unjust or self-indulgent. Let us consider the several virtues, beginning with courage.

The brave man should always fear disgrace, he who does not is shameless. Poverty and disease we perhaps ought not to fear, for they are not due to man himself. The truly brave man has conquered the greatest fear of all, fear of death. Surely the noblest; death in battle, is indeed honoured by the state.

The brave man is he who nobly faces what he fears for the right reason, in the right manner and at the right time. First is the courage of citizen-soldiers. This is nearest to true courage, for it comes from virtue, desire for honour and fear of disgrace, which is noble. Second, there is Socrates' idea that courage is knowledge. Third, passionate enthusiasm is often thought a form of courage. Fourth, the sanguine man resembles the brave man. Fifth, men who are ignorant of danger appear to be brave, but only by their ignorance. The brave man fears death and wounds, yet still choose the noble deeds of war, for it is not the exercise of virtue, which is pleasant, but its end.

Now, temperance is concerned with bodily pleasures. But we do not call the music-lover, the art-lover or the lover of perfumes intemperate. The grossest pleasures are those of touch and taste, for even dogs enjoy the taste of the hare.

Some desires seem to be universal, such as desire for food and sex. But different people desire different foods and have differing sexual preferences. The temperate man finds the middle position, he desires the right things in moderation.

Self-indulgence is a more voluntary fault than cowardice, for the first is actuated by pleasure, the second by pain. Self-indulgence is childish, and just as the obedient child should live as his tutor directs, so the temperate man should be guided in his passions by his rational intellect.

Book Four

Liberality is concerned with the use of wealth, prodigality is an excess of liberality, while meanness is its deficiency.

A deficiency in magnificence is niggardliness, excess is tasteless vulgarity. Giving grandly requires artistic skill to choose the fitting expenditure that will bring honour without seeming to show-off. To err in magnificence is a vice, if a harmless ones.

Proper pride and self-respect seems a worthy thing. The man who thinks himself worthy of less than his real worth is unduly humble. The man with proper pride has nobility and goodness of character. The vain man, on the other hand, will adorn himself in fancy clothes and expect praise for mere good-luck. The man of undue humility robs himself of what he truly deserves, but cannot be thought bad, only mistaken.

We blame both the ambitious man for seeking honour more than is right, and the unambitious man as not willing to be honoured even for noble reasons. The man who is angry at the right things, with the right people, in the right way, is praiseworthy. If he errs at all, it is to have too little anger at things worthy of anger. Bitter, sulky people, repress their angry passions, making them troublesome to themselves and to their friends.

In daily life, some people obsequiously agree with everyone, while others churlishly oppose everything. Truthfulness is noble, but is only praiseworthy when a man practices it equally regarding tiny things as well as when much is at stake. The mock-modest man seems more attractive. The man who finds the middle state can listen well and talk with cultured wit. Let us now discuss justice.

Book Five

By justice, men generally mean that character that disposes men to act justly, and injustice the opposite. Lawlessness and avarice are thought unjust, so that law-abiding and fairness is thought just. Since avarice is though unjust, so, to some extent, justice is concerned with goods. Justice itself is complete virtue in its fullest sense, and alone of the virtues, is directed towards others.

It is clear that a man who commits adultery from desire is merely licentious, but one who does so for gain is unjust. We see that particular injustices are concerned with gain of money or honour, while universal justice is found in the virtuous conduct. Particular acts of justice are concerned with the division of money or honour, or with rectifying errors of distribution.

Political justice is either natural or legal. The natural is that which is the same everywhere, independent of people's opinions, while laws can differ greatly. If a man seized the hand of another and used it to strike a third man, then the second man would not have acted voluntarily. Mistakes committed in ignorance and from ignorance are pardonable; but those committed in ignorance but through some unnatural passion are inexcusable.

Can a man treat himself unjustly? If a man kills himself, he is acting unjustly. It is towards the State that man owes duty, so if he takes his own life the State properly dishonours him. This completes our analysis of justice.

Book Six

We have already said that one should aim at the mean between deficiency and excess, as right principle dictates. But if you grasped only this, you would have no knowledge of how to apply it. Hence, we must discover what the right principle is.

In the soul three things control actions; sensation, intellect and appetite. Since moral virtue involves choice, and choice is deliberate appetite then, if the choice is to be good, the reasoning behind it must be true and the desire right. The origin of action is choice, and the origin of choice is appetite and purposive reasoning. Judgement and opinion need not be included as they can often err. Science aims at knowledge of the eternal and is supposed to be teachable. Since production is different to action, art is not concerned with action but has an element of chance, as Agathon says: Art loves chance, and chance loves art.

To understand prudence, or practical wisdom, we may consider what type of person we call prudent. A prudent man is able to deliberate rightly, not just about particular things like health, but about the good life generally. Prudence, then, is a virtue, and one which is of the calculative, reasoning part of the soul. But it is not merely a rational state, for such can be forgotten while prudence cannot.

Wisdom seems the most finished form of knowledge. Wisdom is scientific and intuitive knowledge of what is by nature most precious.

Prudence and political science are the same state of mind, but they are realised differently. The man who knows and provides for his own interests is called prudent, but politicians are considered meddling busybodies.

What is called judgement is the faculty of judging correctly what is equitable. And equitable judgement is sympathetic judgement.

What is the use of the intellectual virtues? Wisdom and prudence, being virtues, must be desirable in themselves, even without any result. But the aim can be noble or base, which is why we may call both prudent and unscrupulous people clever. Prudence is not quite the same, for insight cannot lead to prudence without some virtue.

If we have a disposition towards justice or temperance or courage, then we have it from our birth, but moral qualities are acquired.

Book Seven

There are three states of character to be avoided: vice, indiscipline and brutishness. The contrary of vice is virtue and of indiscipline is discipline.

We must consider whether indisciplined people act knowingly or unknowingly- whether the indisciplined man is so because of his circumstances or his attitude. Firstly, for a man to do wrong without reflecting on his own knowledge is very different from acting with that knowledge. Secondly, there are two types of practical knowledge that act as the starting-point to actions. Thirdly, we may assume that indisciplined people are like those asleep, or drunk, or mentally disturbed or in the grip of temper or sexual craving, who speak and act without knowledge. Fourth, even if a man knows both the universal and particular premises his natural desires may sway his scientific judgement.

It is obvious that indiscipline or discipline are concerned with pleasures and pains. Now, certain pleasures, such as food and sex, are necessary, others, like victory or honour or wealth are merely desirable. Also, morbid states, like nail-biting or homosexuality, may come naturally to some people, or may have been acquired by habit, for instance if someone has been sexually misused as a child. Where nature is the cause, we do not blame people as indisciplined. But those congenitally incapable of reason we call brutish, and those troubled by illness we call morbid.

Indiscipline of temper, which is anger, is different to indiscipline of desire, because a bad man can do much more harm than a brute.

The man who pursues excessive pleasures is licentious, because he is unrepentant. On the other hand, the man deficient in the appreciation of pleasures is the opposite of licentious, while the temperate man is between the two.

Some people cling doggedly to their opinion, whom we call obstinate. The opinionated are motivated by pleasure and pain and enjoy a sense of superiority. Thus they resemble the indisciplined. The indisciplined and the licentious man both pursue bodily pleasures, but the first thinks it is wrong while the second does not.

The prudent man is morally good. But simply knowing what is right does not make a man prudent, he must be inclined to actually do it,. The indisciplined man is not so disposed. He is like a State which has good laws, but fails to implement them, while the bad man is like a State that actually does implement its bad laws.

So is pleasure good? Some say that pleasure is not a good because it hinders thinking. Others that some pleasures are disgraceful or harmful, and others that pleasure cannot be the supreme good because it is not an end but a process. This does not prove that pleasure is not a good.

The argument that there must be something better than pleasure because the end is better than the process is not conclusive because pleasures are a species of activity, and therefore an end. Pain is clearly an evil to be avoided. Now, the opposite of pain is pleasure, so it must be good. When Speusippus argued that good is contrary to both pleasure and pain, he cannot be correct, for he refused to allow that pleasure is an evil.

Different people may pursue different pleasures, but it is always pleasure which they pursue. Those who think that some noble pleasures are highly desirable, but bodily pleasures are not, ought to consider why, in that case, the pains which are contrary to them are bad, for the contrary of a bad thing is a good one. The bad man shuns, not just excessive pain, but all pain. Now, pleasure drives out pain. Only God could enjoy one simple pleasure forever.

Book Eight

Friendship is a kind of virtue, or implies virtue. It is necessary for living, for nobody would choose to live without friends. When we are young, friends keep us from mistakes, and later, friendship is the bond that holds communities together. It might help if we could define what an object of affection is. Is it the good that people love, or only what is good for them? It would be absurd for a man to wish for the good of his wine.

There are three kinds of friendship. Some, especially the old or the ambitious, love from utility, to derive benefit from the friendship. Sometimes such people do not even like each other, as with friendship with foreigners. Those who love on the grounds of pleasure are motivated by their own pleasure. Only the friendship of those who are similarly truly good is perfect, but it is rare, as good man are rare.

With friendship for the sake of pleasure, as beauty wanes, so often the friendship wanes too. Pleasure or utility friendship is possible between two bad men, but obviously only good men can be friends for their own sakes.

Friends who spend their time together confer mutual benefit. Friendship arises less readily among sour and elderly people, while young men become friends much more quickly and easily than older men, although the latter may still be well-disposed toward others. However, to have many perfect friends is no more possible than to be in love with many people at once, for love is a kind of excess of friendship.

Another kind of friendship involves superiority, as the affection of father for son, husband for wife or master for servant. In such cases, affection is proportionate to merit; the better person must be loved more than he loves. There is a great gulf in the form of affection between ordinary people and gods or royalty. This raises a problem as to whether friends do actually wish each other the greatest of goods, ie. to be a god, because they will no longer have them as friends.

Most people seem to want to be loved rather than to love. For honour is men's confirmation of their own opinion of themselves. But people enjoy being loved for its own sake, so it may be supposed that being loved is better than being honoured. Friendship seems to consist more in giving than in receiving affection, as we see in the joy that mothers show in loving their children.

There is a similarity between friendship and justice, as is seen in the wider community. There is the friendship of a king for his subjects. In perverted constitutions, where there is nothing in common between ruler and ruled, friendship and justice are rarely found.

Friendship between relatives appears to be derived from parental affection. Parents love their children from the moment of birth, but children only come to understand this later. Hence mothers love their children more than fathers do. This love of children for parents, or of men for the gods, implies a relation to an object superior to oneself. Man is by his nature a pairing rather than a social creature and the family is an older and more necessary thing than the state. Humans cohabit not merely to produce children, but, as the functions of husband and wife are different they supply each other's deficiencies to secure the necessities of life. Children, too, form a bond between parents, which is why childless marriages so often break up.

Quarrels occur most of all in friendships based on usefulness because each is only using the other for his own benefit, but in friendships based on virtue, quarrels are rare because the friends are eager to treat each other well.

Book Nine

In all dissimilar friendships, there is equitable exchange. Quarrels occur when the outcome of the friendship differs from the parties' desires. If both wanted pleasure, all would be satisfactory. But if one wants pleasure, and the other gain, all fails, for it is what a man actually needs that he is anxious to get, and it is only for its sake that he is prepared to give what he has.

When the association was one of utility or pleasure there seems nothing odd in dissolving it if they no longer have the attributes we sought. When a person is mistaken in thinking he has been loved for his character, though his friend has done nothing to suggest it, he has only himself to blame. To remain friends would seem impossible. Perhaps, as often with boyhood friendships, one should show a little more favour to former friends for old time's sake.

Goodwill differs somewhat from either friendship or affection, for we can feel it towards people we do not even know. Does a happy man need friends? Hesiod's principle that "neither let many share thy table, or none" may be true for friends through utility, and a few friends for amusement are enough, like a pinch of seasoning in food. But, with friends of good character, they must also be friends of one another, if they are to live together, and this is difficult if the numbers are large. Do we need friends the more in good times of in bad? Those who are in misfortune need help, while in good times they need companionship. Thus friendship is more needed in adversity, where friends can lighten ones grief. But a resolute man will invite friends to share success, but hesitate to involve them in misfortunes. Everyone wishes to share their pleasures, be it in drinking, playing dice, or going in for athletics or hunting, or philosophy.

So much for friendship.

Book Ten

Next, we must discuss pleasure, for it is very closely bound up with human nature. Now, some philosophers say that pleasure is the Good. Eudoxus thought that pleasure is the ultimate Good. Plato refutes the view that pleasure is the ultimate Good by pointing out that a pleasant life is more desirable with wisdom than without, and that if the mixture is better, pleasure is not The Good, for the good cannot become more desirable by adding anything to it. If only irrational creatures sought pleasure, there might be some truth in the idea that what creatures seek is not a good, but as thinking men are attracted to it also, then plainly those who hold such a view are talking nonsense. Some say that pleasure is not a good as its opposite, evil, can be opposed as well by another evil as by a good. This argument has some merit, but need not concern us here. Others claim that the good and pleasures cannot be the same thing for pleasures vary in degree, which the ultimate good cannot. Again, they claim that pain is a deficiency and pleasure its replenishment. This might be true of food, but the pleasure of, say, learning, is not preceded by any pain. Some people take pleasure in disreputable things, but we may be sure this only applies to people of an unhealthy disposition.

Probably, we cannot feel pleasure continuously because the senses become fatigued, and pleasures of the intellect differ from those of the senses. Those who work with pleasure show better judgement and greater precision. This is clear when we see how activities are hindered by competing pleasures. Since activities differ in goodness, each has a pleasure proper to it. The pleasure proper to a worthy activity is good and that proper to an unworthy activity bad. Further, intellectual pleasures are superior sensual ones. Clearly, disgraceful pleasures are not really pleasures, except to the depraved. But what are the good pleasures of a good man?

Happiness is not a state, but an activity of some sort which is chosen for its own sake and is self-sufficient. If true happiness is an activity in accordance with virtue, it must be in accordance with the highest virtue and with the very best part of man. Life lived with moral virtue is happy in a secondary way, since justice and bravery are purely human concerns. Some hold that people can be good by nature, others that it must be taught. A temperate way of life is not easy for most people, which is why the State should encourage goodness by appealing to finer feelings, and discourage evil by penalties.

● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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