Aristotle was a voluminous writer. I own a volume entitled THE BASIC WORKS OF ARISTOTLE. It is about 1500 pages, and has works on logic, nature, the heavens, the soul, the history and nature of animals, metaphysics, ethics and politics.
Because this site is focused on Christianity I have chosen to look quickly at Aristotle’s writing on ethics. This article is about Aristotle’s NICHOMACHEAN ETHICS, which is almost 200 pages focusing what is good, moral, and virtuous. A look at some of the section names gives an overview of the subject matter:
- what is the good for man
- kinds of virtue
- moral virtue, how produced, in what materials and in what manner exhibited.
- definition of moral virtue
- virtue concerned with honor
- virtue concerned with anger
- virtues of social intercourse
- the chief intellectual virtues
The book starts with the following quote:
“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim…”[i]
This is a very provocative statement. Later Aristotle will develop this to show that the good aimed at in medicine, for example, is health. But the statement is actually much more pervasive. Aristotle says, “every action and pursuit” is aimed at some good. Can this really be true? Sure it’s easy to see that there is some good that is aimed in diverse activities like writing, architecture, engineering, medicine, sports, the arts, and so forth. But what about crimes, the actions of evil dictators, and the like? Upon reflection, it could be argued that Aristotle’s statement is still true. For example, some evil dictators kill people in the goal of ethnic cleansing. As abhorrent as that may sound, to the evil dictator cleansing the population of people who are “genetically inferior” is a good thing. Or the gang leader, who oversees drugs, prostitution, and other crimes, views the end result, large amounts of cash, as a good thing. So, while definitely we who are not in agreement with the motives of evil dictators and gang leaders would think that those things are aimed at bad and evil, to the perpetrators of those crimes their actions are aimed at some good. But Aristotle’s writing flows in the more traditional ideological thinking as he developed his concepts. Here is some further development of Aristotle’s thesis:
Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or honour; they differ, however, from one another- and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor; but, conscious of their ignorance, they admire those who proclaim some great ideal that is above their comprehension. Now some thought that apart from these many goods there is another which is self-subsistent and causes the goodness of all these as well. To examine all the opinions that have been held were perhaps somewhat fruitless; enough to examine those that are most prevalent or that seem to be arguable.”[ii]
Notice at the end of that last paragraph that Aristotle says that there are many opinions, but to examine all the opinions is perhaps fruitless, and he says that is enough to examine just those opinions that are “most prevalent or that seem to be arguable.” In examining Aristotle’s writing this appears to be exactly what he does. In his investigation of ethics Aristotle examines the most prevalent and powerful arguments to define his terms, his terms in this case being terms that represent concepts relative to ethics, i.e., things like what is good, what makes one happy, what are the ends and means of different endeavors, what is the good produced by different endeavors, and so forth. The style of Aristotle is to exhaustively investigate and classify his conclusions systematically in every area of pursuit. And, again, what he chooses to investigate in each area are those things that are “most prevalent or that seem to be arguable.”
Continuing in Book I we read about Aristotle’s “three types of life”:
“Let us, however, resume our discussion from the point at which we digressed. To judge from the lives that men lead, most men, and men of the most vulgar type, seem (not without some ground) to identify the good, or happiness, with pleasure; which is the reason why they love the life of enjoyment. For there are, we may say, three prominent types of life- that just mentioned, the political, and thirdly the contemplative life. Now the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts”[iii]
More on “What is Good”:
Let us again return to the good we are seeking, and ask what it can be. It seems different in different actions and arts; it is different in medicine, in strategy, and in the other arts likewise. What then is the good of each? Surely that for whose sake everything else is done. In medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house, in any other sphere something else, and in every action and pursuit the end; for it is for the sake of this that all men do whatever else they do. Therefore, if there is an end for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and if there are more than one, these will be the goods achievable by action.
So the argument has by a different course reached the same point; but we must try to state this even more clearly. Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these (e.g. wealth, flutes, and in general instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.
Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.”[iv]
Here are quotes regarding different areas in the work:
On Moral Virtue:
“moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance the stone which by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times; nor can fire be habituated to move downwards, nor can anything else that by nature behaves in one way be trained to behave in another. Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit”[v]
On Wicked Men:
“Now every wicked man is ignorant of what he ought to do and what he ought to abstain from, and it is by reason of error of this kind that men become unjust and in general bad; but the term ‘involuntary’ tends to be used not if a man is ignorant of what is to his advantage- for it is not mistaken purpose that causes involuntary action (it leads rather to wickedness), nor ignorance of the universal (for that men are blamed), but ignorance of particulars, i.e. of the circumstances of the action and the objects with which it is concerned. For it is on these that both pity and pardon depend, since the person who is ignorant of any of these acts involuntarily.”[vi]
“With regard to giving and taking of money the mean is liberality, the excess and the defect prodigality and meanness.”[vii]
“With regard to anger also there is an excess, a deficiency, and a mean. Although they can scarcely be said to have names, yet since we call the intermediate person good-tempered let us call the mean good temper; of the persons at the extremes let the one who exceeds be called irascible, and his vice irascibility, and the man who falls short an inirascible sort of person, and the deficiency inirascibility.”[viii]
“The prodigal man, then, turns into what we have described if he is left untutored, but if he is treated with care he will arrive at the intermediate and right state. But meanness is both incurable (for old age and every disability is thought to make men mean) and more innate in men than prodigality; for most men are fonder of getting money than of giving.”[ix]
“We see that all men mean by justice that kind of state of character which makes people disposed to do what is just and makes them act justly and wish for what is just; and similarly by injustice that state which makes them act unjustly and wish for what is unjust.”[x]
“The virtue of a thing is relative to its proper work. Now there are three things in the soul which control action and truth-sensation, reason, desire.”[xi]
On men becoming gods by excess of virtue:
“Let us now make a fresh beginning and point out that of moral states to be avoided there are three kinds-vice, incontinence, brutishness. The contraries of two of these are evident,-one we call virtue, the other continence; to brutishness it would be most fitting to oppose superhuman virtue, a heroic and divine kind of virtue, as Homer has represented Priam saying of Hector that he was very good,
For he seemed not, he,
The child of a mortal man, but as one that of God’s seed came.
Therefore if, as they say, men become gods by excess of virtue, of this kind must evidently be the state opposed to the brutish state; for as a brute has no vice or virtue, so neither has a god; his state is higher than virtue, and that of a brute is a different kind of state from vice.”[xii]
On the Importance of Friends:
“For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods; even rich men and those in possession of office and of dominating power are thought to need friends most of all; for what is the use of such prosperity without the opportunity of beneficence, which is exercised chiefly and in its most laudable form towards friends?”[xiii]
On Pleasure and Activities:
“How, then, is it that no one is continuously pleased? Is it that we grow weary? Certainly all human beings are incapable of continuous activity. Therefore pleasure also is not continuous; for it accompanies activity. Some things delight us when they are new, but later do so less, for the same reason; for at first the mind is in a state of stimulation and intensely active about them, as people are with respect to their vision when they look hard at a thing, but afterwards our activity is not of this kind, but has grown relaxed; for which reason the pleasure also is dulled.”[xiv]
“The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement. And we say that serious things are better than laughable things and those connected with amusement, and that the activity of the better of any two things-whether it be two elements of our being or two men-is the more serious; but the activity of the better is ipso facto superior and more of the nature of happiness. And any chance person-even a slave-can enjoy the bodily pleasures no less than the best man; but no one assigns to a slave a share in happiness-unless he assigns to him also a share in human life. For happiness does not lie in such occupations, but, as we have said before, in virtuous activities.”[xv]
There is a clinical aspect to the thinking that Aristotle puts forth. Aristotle systematically classifies the thinking behind ethics in the same manner as a text on biology, or astronomy.
[i] All pages are from the Internet Classics Archive at MIT, this page located at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.1.i.html
© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.