Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics

THE Nicomachean Ethics contain the latest presentation of Aristotle's moral teaching, incorporating and supplementing the earlier Eudemian Ethics and Ethica Megala or Great Ethics. Its extreme condensation suggests that it is a compilation of summaries of lectures. It has profoundly influenced ethical thought, particularly the classification of the virtues and the doctrine that virtue lies in a 'mean' mind.


EVERY art and science, every action, has for its end some good, whether this be a form of activity or an actual product. The ends of minor arts are only means to the ends of superior arts. If there is one supreme end, this is The Good, inquiry into which belongs to the supreme social science [for which the Greek term is Politics]. The name given to this supreme good, the attainment of which is the object of politics, is happiness, good living or welfare.

But happiness itself is variously defined: some identify it with pleasure, others with honour--the first a degrading, and the second an inadequate view. Platonists find it in an abstract idea of good, a universal which precludes particulars. There is a great deal to be said against this doctrine, even as a question of logic or metaphysic; but apart from that, the theory is out of court, for the all-sufficient reason that its practical value is nil--knowledge of the universal good in the abstract is of no practical use in everyday life--a fundamental point for us.

If, then, there is a supreme dominating good to be aimed at, what are the essential characteristics it must display? The Good of all Goods, the Best, must be complete in itself, a consummation. Whatsoever is a means to some end beyond fails so far of completeness; when we say that our end must be 'complete,' it follows that it must always be an end, never a means. It is not merely one amongst others of which it is the best, but the one in which all the others are summed up. It is of itself quite sufficient for the individual, and that not merely in isolation, but as a member of society.

Let us then define happiness as man's work--the performance of his function as man. Everything has some specific function, the performance of which is its good, and man, too, must have a specific function. Now, this cannot be the kind of life which he shares with the vegetable or with the brute creation, therefore it must be the active life of his distinctive--i.e. his rational--part, exercised in accordance with the virtue or virtues which perfect it, and in his life as a whole, not merely at moments.

Testing our conclusions by the judgements of common experience, we gather support from them. Goods external, and goods of the body, are reckoned inferior to goods of the soul, which is recognized as the seat of activities. The identification of happiness with virtue, however, necessitates the distinction between active virtue and virtuousness. As conducing to active virtue, the other kinds of goods are elements in happiness. We must assume it to be not something granted to us, outside our own control, but attainable by effort and education.

VIRTUES are of two kinds: of the intellect, acquired by study; and moral, acquired by practice. The moral virtues are not implanted by nature, but we have the capacity for them by nature and achieve them by practice, as by practice we acquire excellence in the arts, or control over our passions. Education, then, is of the utmost importance, since the state of virtue is the outcome of virtue in act.

The manner, the 'how' of action, must be in accord with right reason. Here, be it understood, we are not laying down universal propositions, but general rules which are modified by circumstances. Our activities must lie in a mean between the two extremes of excess and defect, and this applies both to the process of generating virtue and to its manifestation. The virtues are concerned with pleasure and pain, because these act as inducements or opposing influences; beauty, advantage and pleasure being the three standing inducements, and pleasure entering into both the others; so that in one aspect virtue is the best action in respect to pleasure.

But it does not lie in the mere act; the act must be born of knowledge, and of choice, done for its own sake, and persistently--the first, knowledge, being the least important; to make it the most important is a speculative error.

Now, there are three modes of mind: feeling or passion, faculty and habit. We do not praise or blame passion in itself, or the faculty; therefore virtue can lie in neither, but must be found in habit or condition. The virtuous habit or condition is what enables that whereof it is the virtue to perform its function, which, in the case of man, is the activity of the soul, preserving always a middle course between excess and deficiency, by choice.

In another sense, however, we must remember that there are qualities in themselves wrong, and that virtue may be presented as not something intermediate, but a consummation. But when we name each of these virtues--courage, temperance, liberality, etc.; the social virtues, or good manners; the virtues concerned with the passions---we can name the corresponding excess or deficiency. Justice and the intellectual virtues demand a separate analysis.

Each virtue stands in opposition to each of the extremes, and each of these to the other extreme, though in some cases the virtue may be more antagonistic to one extreme than to the other; as courage, for example, is more antagonistic to cowardice than it is to rashness.

BEFORE proceeding with this analysis, we must examine the question of choice. To be praiseworthy, an act must be voluntary. An act is not voluntary if it is the outcome of external compulsion. Where there is a margin of choice, an act must still, on the whole, be regarded as voluntary, though done 'against our will.' Of properly involuntary acts, we must distinguish between the unintentional and the unwilling, meaning by the latter, in effect, what the agent would not have done if he had known.

Choice is not the same thing as a voluntary act; nor is it desire, or emotion, or exactly 'wish,' since we may wish for, but cannot make choice of, the unattainable. Nor is it deliberation--rather, it is the act of decision following deliberation. If man has the power to say yes, he has equally the power to say no, and is master of his own action. If we make a wrong choice through ignorance for which we are ourselves responsible, the ignorance itself is culpable, and cannot excuse the wrong choice; and so, when the choice is the outcome of a judgement disordered by bad habits, men cannot escape by saying they were made so--they made themselves so. To say they 'could not help' doing wrong things is only an evasion.

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