Aristotle: background Biographical

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Aristotle ~ Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle: background


Born: Stagira in 384 (hence, “the Stagirite”). Entered Plato’s Academy in 367. Wrote dialogues, now lost. Our “works of Aristotle” appear to be class or lecture notes.


In general, if Plato loved math, Aristotle was inspired by biology.

The Nicomachean Ethics - Book I

Ethics and the good life

The key question: What is a good life? For Aristotle, the question, ‘Why be good?’ is nonsensical.

Aristotle’s is an ethics of good.

Principles of the analysis

“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.” NE I, 1

So this science is about goods, the good(s) for which we act.

Hierarchies of goods: The task is to determine what is the chief good. (Ch. 2)

We desire many things for the sake of something else. What is the good that we desire for its own sake?

Generally agreed-upon answer: happiness (Ch. 4, 5)

What is the highest good that we can achieve by action? We say ‘happiness’. But what is happiness? What makes for happiness? Some candidates:

  • Pleasure, life of enjoyment (approved by the vulgar)

  • Honor (for the political life)

  • Virtue

  • Money-making

But all these have shortcomings. They don’t seem adequate for human happiness.

Aristotle’s approach: what is that for the sake of which everything is done? (Ch. 7)

We choose other things for the sake of happiness, but not happiness for any further end.

The “function” of the human being

Artisans and crafts workers have their functions

We can say what it means to be a good flutist, carpenter, or cook.

Body parts have their functions

We can say what a good or bad foot is, what makes for good muscle development or a bad heart.

It seems reasonable to speak of a human being’s function.

What is a good human being supposed to do, to be like?

Aspects of this ‘function’

  • It can’t be simply to live; plants do that.

  • It can’t be perception, because animals do that.

  • “There remains, then, an active life of the element that has the active principle.


“Human good turns out to be activity of soul in exhibiting excellence, and if there are more than one excellence, in accordance with the best and most complete.”

The Theory of Virtue (arête = excellence)

“Parts” of the soul (Ch 13)

Two parts of the soul: One irrational and the other possessing reason. The vegetative part, by which we grow, keep our heart beating, and so on is irrational. But:

“There is another natural principle of the soul which is irrational and yet in a sense partakes of reason.”

Faculty of desire or concupiscence

This is irrational, but subject to reason. That is, reason can govern it. Two kinds of desire are important:

  1. Desire for pleasure and satisfaction

  2. Anger against threats and harm

We need to control these, because it is easy to give way to pleasure or to one’s hot temper.

Two kinds of virtue (Book II)

Intellectual: The result of study and teaching. So, wisdom can be learned.

Moral: Results of habit: Just as one becomes a builder by building or a violinist by playing violin, “we become just by doing just acts.”

NOTE: This is reflected in the way we train children. Temperance: “No, just two cookies, if you eat your vegetables.” Courage: “Jump into the pool. I’ll be here to help you.”

“Thus, in a word, states of character arise out of activities. […] It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.”

The Aristotelian Mean

Important Disclaimer

Ethics is not an exact science. Therefore we cannot get the same precision here as in speculative sciences. Keep this always in mind.

The basic problem of morality

We are attracted to pleasures and repelled by pains, but these in themselves do not make us good. We have to manage our own behavior so as not to be governed by pleasures and pains.

The challenge: to become the kind of person who enjoys virtuous living.

Objects of choice and avoidance:




The noble

The base


The advantageous

The injurious


The pleasant

The painful

Moral virtue defined

Virtue is a state of character.

Virtue is concerned with choice, lying in the mean, which is determined by the rational principle.

Virtue as a mean:

















Empty vanity


Undue humility

Note that the virtuous mean cannot be determined with mathematical precision. The same act may be courageous for one but foolhardy for another.

Categorical evils

Not every action or passions admits of a mean. Some are just bad. “Nor does goodness or badness with regard to such things depend on committing adultery with the right woman, and the right time, and in the right way…”

Note that this is not exact. No absolute guidelines, no calculus for courage.

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