11 min read

Highlights from Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle)

Anecdote on virtue and habit from the introduction

The moral life can be, and often is, confused with the habits approved by some society and imposed on its young. For example, the audience at every formal lecture at St. John's College stands when the lecturer enters the room. This is because the president of the college in the 1930s and 40s was a Virginia gentleman who always stood when anyone entered or left a room. What he considered good breeding became, for later generations, mere habit. This is painfully clear in these thoughtless times when some student who stood at the beginning of a lecture gets bored and leaves in the middle of it. In such a case the politeness was just for show, and the rudeness is the truth. Why shouldn't we think that all habituation of the young is of this sort? To test this opinion, we need to look more deeply into the soul, and to realize that there is a whole layer of habituation that precedes the encounter of any child with its elders.

On the appropriate level of rigor

So one ought to be content, when speaking about such things and reasoning from such things, to point out the truth roughly and in outline, and when speaking about things that are so for the most part, and reasoning from things of that sort, to reach conclusions that are also of that sort. And it is necessary also to take each of the things that are said in the same way, for it belongs to an educated person to look for just so much precision in each kind of discourse as the nature of the thing one is concerned with admits; for to demand demonstrations from a rhetorician seems about like accepting probable conclusions from a mathematician.

On good judgement and experience

All people are good at making distinctions about things they are acquainted with, and each is a good judge of those things. Therefore, good judgement goes along with the way each one is educated, and the one who has been educated about everything has it in an unqualified way. For this reason, it is not appropriate for a young person to be a student of politics, since the young are inexperienced in the actions of life, while these are the things about which politics speaks and from which it reasons. Also, since the young are apt to follow their impulses, they would hear such discourses without purpose or benefit, since their end is not knowing but action. And it makes no difference whether one is young in age or immature in character, for the deficiency doesn't come from the time, but from living in accord with feeling and following every impulse. For knowledge comes to such people without profit, as it does to those who lack self-restraint; but to those who keep their desires in proportion and act in that way, knowing about these things would be of great benefit.

On honor

[P]eople seem to pursue honor in order to be convinced that they themselves are good.

On the forms

No doubt the better thing to do is to examine the universal good and go through the difficulties in the way it is spoken of, and yet such an inquiry becomes like trudging uphill because the men who introduced the forms were my friends.

Happiness is the most complete thing we seek

[T]he complete is what is chosen always for itself and never on account of anything else. And happiness seems to be of this sort most of all, since we choose this always on account of itself and never on account of anything else, while we choose honor and pleasure and intelligence and every virtue indeed on account of themselves (for even if nothing resulted from them we would choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, supposing that we will be happy by these means. But no one choose happiness for the sake of these things, nor for the sake of anything else at all.

Defining self-sufficiency

And by the self-sufficient we mean not what suffices for oneself alone, living one’s life as a hermit, but also with parents and children and a wife, and friends and fellow citizens generally, since a human being is by nature meant for a city .

The carpenter and the geometer

[B]oth a carpenter and a geometrician look for a right angle, but in different ways, for the one seeks it to the extent that it is useful to the work, while the other seeks for what it is or what it is a property of, since he is someone who beholds the truth .

Who becomes accomplished

Just as, with those at the Olympic games, it is not the most beautiful or the strongest who are crowned, but those who compete (for it is some of these who are victors), so too among those who in life are well favored and well mannered it is the ones who act rightly who become accomplished people.

The mean

First, then, one must recognize this, that things such as virtues are of such a nature as to be destroyed by deficiency and by excess, as we see (since one must use visible examples as evidence for invisible things) in the case of strength and health; for excessive gymnastic exercises, as well as deficient ones, destroy one’s strength, and similarly drink and food, when they come to be too much or too little, destroy one’s health, while proportionate amounts produce, increase, and preserve these. And it is the same way also with temperance and courage and the other virtues. Someone who runs away from and fears everything and endures nothing becomes a coward, while someone who fears nothing at all but goes out to confront everything becomes rash; similarly, someone who indulges in every pleasure and refrains from none becomes spoiled, while someone who shuns them all, like a boorish bumpkin, becomes in a certain way insensible. So temperance and courage are destroyed by excess and by deficiency, but are preserved by an intermediate condition.
Also, it is possible to go wrong in many ways (for what is bad belongs to what is unlimited, as the Pythagoreans conjectured, and what is good belongs among what is limited), but there is only one way to get something right (which is why the one is easy and the other is difficult, it being easy to miss the target and difficult to hit it); so for these reasons excess and deficiency belong to vice and the mean condition belongs to virtue, For the good are good simply, but the bad are bad in every sort of way.

On Willingness

If someone who is not ignorant does things as a result of which one will be an unjust person, that person would be unjust willingly, and will not stop being unjust and be just simply because he wishes to, any more than a person who is sick will be healthy by wishing to. It may so happen that one got sick willingly, by living without self-restraint and disobeying one’s doctors; in that case it was in one’s power at one time not to get sick, but that is no longer possible for one who has given up one’s health, just as it is not possible for someone who has thrown a rock to take it back again. Nevertheless, to have thrown and launched it was up to oneself since the source was in oneself. In that way too it was in the power of an unjust or dissipated person at the beginning not to have come to be that way, which is why they are that way willingly, but once they have become so it is no longer possible not to be so.

Other virtues

It is also characteristic of such a person not to go after things held in popular esteem, nor those in which other people are pre-eminent, and to be a slow starter and full of delay, except where there is great honor or a great deed, and to be inclined to do few things, but great and notable ones. And he is necessarily open in hating and open in loving (for concealing such things belongs to one who is fearful, as does having less concern for truth than for people’s opinion), and speaks and acts openly (for he is freespoken on account of being contemptuous of others’ opinions, and truthful, except for those occasions when he is not because he is being ironic toward ordinary people), and is not capable of leading his life to suit anyone else, other than a friend, since that is fit for a slave, which is why all flatterers are servile and lowly people are flatterers.

On the division between husband and wife

The relationship of a husband to a wife seems aristocratic, since the man rules as a result of worthiness, and over those things which a man ought to rule; as many things as are suited to a woman, he turns over to her. If the husband is in charge of everything, he changes the relationship into an oligarchy, since he does it contrary to worthiness, and not insofar as he is better suited. Sometimes wives rule, when they are heiresses, but their rule does not come from virtue, but from wealth and power, just as in oligarchies.

On how many friends to have

More such friends than are sufficient for one’s own life are superfluous, and are obstacles to living beautifully, so there is no need for them. And also with those who are friends for pleasure, a few are enough, as is a little sweetening in one’s food. But should friends of serious worth be greatest in number, or is there also some measure of a group that is conducive to friendship, as there is of a city? For neither could there be a city made of ten people, nor would it still be a city when made of ten times ten thousand. The amount is perhaps not some one number, but anything between certain limits .

On expressing grief (not sure I agree with this, but still interesting)

Seeing the friend pained at one’s own misfortunes is something painful , since everyone avoids being a cause of pain to his friends. This is why someone of a manly nature, even if he is not exceptionally resistant to pain, is reluctant to make his friends share it, and does not stand by while the pain comes to them; in general, he does not permit others to express grief with him because he himself is not apt to express grief. But girlish women and womanish men enjoy having people lament with them, and love them as friends and partners in grief. But it is clear that, in all things, one ought to imitate the person who is better.

On friendship

Is it then the same way with friends as with lovers, for whom seeing the beloved is their greatest contentment, and the thing they choose over the other senses, since it is especially through seeing that love is present and comes to be present, so that for friends too, living together is the most choiceworthy thing? For friendship is a sharing in common, and one has the same relation to a friend as to oneself, while in relation to oneself, the awareness that one is is something choiceworthy, and thus it is so in relation to the friend as well; but the being-at-work of this awareness comes about in living together, and so, naturally, friends aim at this. And whatever being consists in for any sort of people—whatever it is for the sake of which they choose to be alive—this is what they want to be engaged in with their friends. This is why some friends drink together, others play dice together, and still others engage in athletic exercise together and go hunting together, or engage in philosophy together, each sort spending their days together in whatever it is, out of all the things in life, that they are most contented by; for since they want to share their lives with their friends, they do those things and share those things that they believe living together consists in. So the friendship of people of low character becomes corrupt (for they share in base activities, not even being constant in these, and become corrupt in becoming like one another); but the friendship of decent people is decent, and grows along with their association, and they seem to become even better people by putting the friendship to work and by straightening one another out, for they have their rough edges knocked off by the things they like in one another. Hence the saying “[you will learn] from what is good in the good.”

On aptitudes

Life is a certain kind of being-at-work , and each person is at-work in connection with those things and by means of those capacities that satisfy him most: a musical person by hearing and with melodies, a lover of learning by thinking and with topics of contemplation, and so too with each of the rest. The pleasure brings the activities to completion and hence brings living to completion, which is what they all strive for. It is reasonable, then, that they also aim at pleasure, since it brings living to fulfillment for each of them, which is worthy of choice.
For those who are at-work with pleasure discern each sort of thing better and are more precise about it; for example, people who enjoy doing geometry become skilled at geometry, and understand each part of it more, and likewise those who love music or architecture or each of the other pursuits become better at their particular work because they enjoy it.
And there seems to be a particular pleasure for each sort of animal, just as there is also a particular kind of work, since the pleasure is in accord with the way of being-at-work . And this will be apparent to one who considers each kind, since different sorts of pleasure belong to a horse, a dog, and a human being; as Heracleitus says, donkeys would rather have garbage than gold, since food is more pleasant than gold to donkeys. So the pleasures of different species of animals are themselves different in species, and it would be reasonable for those belonging to the same species to be undifferentiated; but in the case of human beings at least, they differ by no small amount. For the same things delight some and give pain to others, and things that are painful and hateful to some are pleasant and loveable to others.

On the best life

Now the activity of the virtues that involve action is present in political pursuits and in things that pertain to war, and the actions that have to do with these things seem to be unleisured—completely so with the actions involved in war (for no one chooses to make war for the sake of making war, or even prepares for war in that way, since anyone would seem to be completely bloodthirsty if he were to make friends into enemies so that battles and killings might come about). But the activity of the person engaged in politics is also unleisured, and political activity achieves, beyond itself, positions of power and honors and happiness for oneself and one’s fellow citizens that is different from their political life, and which it is clear that we seek as something different from it. So if, among actions in accord with the virtues, those that pertain to politics and war are pre-eminent in beauty and magnitude, but they are unleisured and aim at some end and are not chosen for their own sake, while the being-at-work of the intellect seems to excel in seriousness, and to be contemplative and aim at no end beyond itself, and to have its own pleasure (which increases its activity), so that what is as self-sufficient, leisured, and unwearied as possible for a human being, and all the other things that are attributed to a blessed person, show themselves as the things that result from this way of being-at-work, then this would be the complete happiness of a human being, if it takes in a complete span of life, for none of the things that belong to happiness is incomplete. But such a life would be greater than what accords with a human being, for it is not insofar as one is a human being that he will live in this way, but insofar as something divine is present in him, and to the extent that this surpasses the compound being, to that extent also the being-at-work of it surpasses that which results from the rest of virtue. So if the intellect is something divine as compared with a human being, the life that is in accord with the intellect is divine as compared with a human life. But one should not follow those who advise us to think human thoughts, since we are human, and mortal thoughts, since we are mortal, but as far as possible one ought to be immortal and to do all things with a view toward living in accord with the most powerful thing in oneself, for even if it is small in bulk, it rises much more above everything else in power and worth. And each person would even seem to be this part, if it is the governing and better part; it would be strange, then, if anyone were to choose not his own life but that of something else. What was said before will be fitting now too: what is appropriate by nature to each being is best and most pleasant for each, and so, for a human being, this is the life in accord with the intellect, if that most of all is a human being. Therefore this life is also the happiest.