Want to learn something more about ethics?
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With 12min, Aristotle and his most famous book on the subject: Nicomachean Ethics.
It’s the Dream Team.
Who Should Read “Nicomachean Ethics”? And Why?
If you need to read just one philosopher in your life, then it has to be either Plato or Aristotle.
And if you need to read just one book by the latter, then it has to be the Nicomachean Ethics.
So, who should read this book?
Everyone who has even the slightest interest in philosophy.
Or, for that matter, everyone who wants to become a better person.
Aristotle was an Ancient Greek philosopher, together with his teacher Plato, the most influential thinker in the history of Western civilization.
He studied under Plato in his Academy for two decades between the ages of 17 and 37, after which he left Athens to tutor Alexander the Great. Even though he was Plato’s best student, after Plato’s death, Aristotle shifted from Plato’s idealistic teachings to empiricism.
He contributed to numerous different fields – from physics to metaphysics, from logic to ethics, from biology to zoology, from politics to economics, from poetry to music – and almost every single thing he has written is still object of academic debate.
He also founded a Peripatetic school of philosophy at the Lyceum, where he also established a library of immense importance.
“Nicomachean Ethics PDF Summary”
The Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle’s best-known work on ethics and, quite possibly, the most influential book on the subject ever written.
It consists of ten books – all of them originally written as separate scrolls – and is based on Aristotle’s notes from his lectures at the Lyceum, the ancient university founded by the great philosopher in Athens in 334 BCE.
The “Nicomachean” part of the title refers to Aristotle’s son Nicomachus, to whom (quite probably) the work was dedicated; it is also possible that he was the one who edited it. Some scholars, however, claim that the Nicomachus this work is dedicated to is actually Aristotle’s father, who was also called Nicomachus.
Be that as it may, Nicomachean ethics deals with a problem both Plato and Socrates were interested in – namely, how should men live their lives in the best possible manner.
According to Aristotle, Socrates had shown first that this is not a question that should be dealt with merely theoretically, but one which is more specifically a practical matter.
That’s why Nicomachean ethics not only explains what is good and why it is good, but also gives advice as to how one should live to consider his living here on earth good, respectable, and virtuous.
But – we’re running ahead of ourselves.
Let’s walk you through each of the ten books.
“If there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake, clearly this must be the good,” Aristotle writes at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics.
And then he asks: “Will not knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is. “
So, that is the topic of the Nicomachean Ethics: to discover what’s the thing humans desire for its own sake and how should they act so as to most easily attain it.
After a lengthy analysis, Aristotle concludes that whatever we like to have – be it money, cars, women, football or sex (OK, he doesn’t use these examples per se) – we like it because it makes us happy.
However, as one can easily deduce, some of the things that make us happy, tend to make us unhappy afterward.
Simply put, because they are not good.
And what is good?
To quote Aristotle:
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. But we must add “in a complete life.” For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.
So, to sum up, Aristotle says that many things can lead to temporary happiness, but only virtuous actions lead to a happy life. And since this is something everybody wants, then it’s necessary to discover what virtue means and how should one reach it.
In the second book, Aristotle points out that, just like a lyre-player, no matter how talented, must learn and practice to become a virtuoso, a man, no matter how naturally inclined towards virtuous actions, needs education to attain the proper, virtuous habits.
And then Aristotle lays out the simplest definition for virtue: treading the middle way between two extremes.
What does that mean?
It means that anything in excess or deficiency is bad; and that everything in just the proper amount is virtue.
Or to use a famous example:
Anyone can get angry — that is easy — or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy.
At the end of Book II, Aristotle lists many character virtues and starting with Book III, he analyzes many of them in-depth.
But first he explains, foreshadowing Sartre, that you’re responsible for almost everything you do, because you always have a choice not do it (Sartre would add: even if the latter leads to death).
If that is the case, then even ignorance – not knowing what is good – is not actually an excuse, because you always have a choice to learn.
So, more or less, Aristotle says that if you’re not, it’s your fault for not having read his book.
And then he proceeds to explanations of what he means when he says that we should tread the middle way.
The two examples he uses in this book are courage and temperance.
Courage, according to Aristotle, is the mean between fear and confidence; in excess, it leads to fearlessness and overconfidence, both of which are bad; if deficient, it leads to cowardness, which is also bad.
Temperance is the mean between pleasure and pain; in excess, it leads to wastefulness; in deficiency, it makes a man insensible.
Book four deals with a second set of virtues, in four groups of two.
The first group deals with two very similar virtues: generosity and magnificence.
Generosity may, once again, lead to wastefulness if in excess, and to stinginess if lacking; magnificence leads to vulgarity and tastelessness when excessive, and to paltriness if not enough.
The second group of virtues are magnanimity and ambition.
Magnanimity is located between vanity (excess) and smallness of soul (deficiency), and ambition is located between, well, overambitiousness and lack of ambition. Sorry, guys, nobody has thought of better words for now.
The third group of virtues are gentleness and friendliness.
Too much of a gentleness leads to irritability, and not enough of it to spiritlessness (they really need to find better words); too much of friendliness leads to either flattery (if for own advantage) or obsequiousness (if for no purpose).
The final group of two virtues analyzed here are truthfulness and wittiness.
If you are more than truthful, you’re exaggerating and boastful; if you’re deficient in truthfulness, you suffer from a form of self-deprecation and self-irony. If you are more than witty, you’re a buffoon; if you’re less of it, you’re boorish.
Aristotle says that justice, the highest of virtues, deserves a whole book; which is why Book V deals with every single aspect of what it means to be a just person living in a just society.
Why should Aristotle deal with just societies in a book about ethics?
Because, as he explains, justice is not exactly a virtue for isolated individuals; it’s not anything in that case; justice can only be made sense of in a community.
Now, If you know anything about Plato and Aristotle – or about how much you liked your teachers in high-school – you already know that in describing his ideal community, Aristotle is, almost explicitly, criticizing Plato’s Republic.
Because, unlike Plato, Aristotle doesn’t think that a just society is a strict hierarchy ruled by a benevolent dictator, but something which is built around the values of equality, commensurability, and proportion.
In Book VI, Aristotle enumerates the five types of stable states of the soul (hexis) which can be considered intellectual virtues:
#1. Art – making things in a way which can be explained;
#2. Knowledge – axiomatically graspable concept: “all knowledge seems to be teachable, and what is known is learnable.”
#3. Practical Judgment – judgment used in making good decisions upon overall actions (when specific, it is art)
#4. Wisdom – a combination of common sense (nous) and knowledge; it only belongs to the wise; however, we don’t need it, since we have:
#5. Common sense – or intellect, it deals with unarticulated truths and is what helps us perfect our virtues.
Here Aristotle discusses self-restraint.
If one is virtuous only when treading the middle road, then self-restraint is a very important value one must learn to acquire.
It is also something that must be furthered by the laws of a country, which means that the lawgivers should really understand the essence of not only pleasure and pain, but self-restraint as well.
The good news: self-restraint is not a vice, and can be taught.
In other words, practical guides for self-mastery are as old as time.
“Without friends,” writes Aristotle, “no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods.”
This is the reason why Books VIII and IX are dedicated to the topic of friendship.
There are three types of friendship, according to Aristotle: useful, pleasant, and complete.
The complete friendship is the one everybody should strive for – it is one in which friends are capable of seeing what is likable in each other.
Unequal friendships, on the other hand – whether between rulers and subjects, or dominant and submissive people – are no friendships, and unjust societies hinder the possibility for real friendships.
Still on friendship.
If you’re in a bad one, then you’re probably expecting from the other person things that he or she cannot offer, and/or vice versa.
If that is the case, you’ll never be satisfied, and it’s better that you break off the bond as soon as possible.
Of course, you should, first of all, understand your self because your friend is actually your second self.
This is why it is all but impossible for a person to be happy without having friends; and why sad people can be cheered up by, you’ve guessed it, friends.
When you have a good friend, it’s like you’re talking to yourself.
According to Aristotle’s final book of the Nicomachean Ethics, happiness is tightly linked with pleasure.
All beings – whether rational or irrational – instinctively tend toward pleasure and away from pain.
The only life worth living is the one in which you enjoy the right things in the right amounts – because, basically, that is what happiness is.
Key Lessons from “Nicomachean Ethics”
1. Aristotle Says That Self-Help Books Are a Good Thing
2. One Can Learn to Be Good
3. The Golden Mean
Aristotle Says That Self-Help Books Are a Good Thing
You can think that you’re good, but unless you demonstrate your goodness through your deeds, nobody would believe you.
In other words, if you talk the talk but refuse to walk the walk, you’re the opposite of good: you’re a liar, and a hypocrite, and an altogether lousy person.
Analogously, according to Aristotle, there’s no point in merely theoretically analyzing what is good and what is virtuous; the point is teaching people how to be good.
Which is precisely what many self-help books are doing today.
We feel that Aristotle would have endorsed them.
One Can Learn to Be Good
The good news: you can learn to be a good person.
The bad news: it requires a lot of effort.
And don’t pat yourself on your shoulder thinking that not knowing that something is bad gives you an excuse for doing it; you can always learn, so this is always merely a temporary alibi.
No matter who you are.
The Golden Mean
If you need to take away one thing of the Nicomachean Ethics, then, by all means, let it be this one: treat the golden middle way.
Excesses and deficiencies destroy virtues, says Aristotle, which can only be found in moderation.
Too much courage leads to recklessness; too little of it to cowardice.
And this is true with all other virtues.
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“Nicomachean Ethics Quotes”For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them. Click To Tweet Philosophy can make people sick. Click To Tweet The good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life. Click To Tweet Freedom is obedience to self-formulated rules. Click To Tweet With the truth, all given facts harmonize; but with what is false, the truth soon hits a wrong note. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
It is difficult to exaggerate how revered and influential Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics has been throughout the history of philosophy.
Quite possibly, it may be the single most debated ethical work ever written.
Which renders our critical review all but obsolete.