Nicomachean Ethics  

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One swallow does not a summer make

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael. Aristotle gestures to the earth, representing his belief in knowledge through empirical observation and experience, while holding a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics in his hand. Plato holds his Timaeus and points his index finger to the heavens, representing his belief in The Forms
Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael. Aristotle gestures to the earth, representing his belief in knowledge through empirical observation and experience, while holding a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics in his hand. Plato holds his Timaeus and points his index finger to the heavens, representing his belief in The Forms

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Nicomachean Ethics (sometimes spelled 'Nichomachean'), or Ta Ethika, is a work by Aristotle on virtue and moral character which plays a prominent role in defining Aristotelian ethics. It consists of ten books based on notes from his lectures at the Lyceum and were either edited by or dedicated to Aristotle's son, Nicomachus.

Nicomachean Ethics focuses on the importance of habitually behaving virtuously and developing a virtuous character. Aristotle emphasized the importance of context to ethical behavior, and the ability of the virtuous person to recognize the best course of action. Aristotle argued that eudaimonia is the goal of life, and that a person's pursuit of eudaimonia, rightly conceived, will result in virtuous conduct.


Aristotle argues that the correct approach in studying such controversial subjects as Ethics or Politics, which involve discussing what is true about what is beautiful or just, is to start with what would be roughly agreed to be true by people of good up-bringing and experience in life, and to work from there to a higher understanding.

Taking this approach, Aristotle begins by saying that the highest good for humans, the highest aim of all human practical thinking, is eudaimonia, a Greek word often translated as well-being or happiness. Aristotle in turn argues that happiness is properly understood as an on-going and stable dynamic, a way of being in action (energeia), specifically appropriate to the human "soul" (psuchē), at its most "excellent" or virtuous (virtue representing aretē in Greek). If there are several virtues the best and most complete or perfect of them will be the happiest one. An excellent human will be a person good at living life, who does it well and beautifully (kalos). Aristotle says that they would also be a serious (spoudaios) human being, in the same sense of "serious" that one contrasts harpists and serious harpists. He also asserts as part of this starting point that virtue for a human must involve reason in thought and speech (logos), as this is an aspect (an ergon, literally meaning a task or work) of human living.

From this starting point, Aristotle goes into discussion of what ethics, a term Aristotle helped develop, means. Aristotelian Ethics is about what makes a virtuous character (ethikē aretē) possible, which is in turn necessary if happiness is to be possible. He describes a sequence of necessary steps in order to achieve this: righteous actions, often done under the influence of teachers, allow the development of the right habits, which in turn can allow the development of a good stable character in which the habits are voluntary, and this in turn gives a chance of achieving eudaimonia. Character is ēthos in Greek, related to modern words such as ethics, ethical and ethos. Aristotle does not however equate character with habit (ethos in Greek, with a short "e") because real character involves conscious choice, unlike habit. Instead of being habit, character is a hexis like health or knowledge, meaning it is a stable disposition which must be pursued and maintained with some effort. However, good habits are described as a precondition for good character. (Similarly, in Latin, the language of medieval European philosophy, the habits are mōrēs, giving us modern English words like "moral". Aristotle's term for virtue of character (ethikē aretē) is traditionally translated with the Latinate term "moral virtue". Latin virtus, is derived from the word vir meaning man, and became the traditional translation of Greek aretē.)

Aristotle then turns to examples, reviewing some of specific ways in which people are generally thought worthy of blame or praise. As he proceeds, he comes to describe how the highest types of praise, so the highest types of virtue, imply having all the virtues of character, and these in turn imply not just good character, but a kind of wisdom. These four virtues which he says require the possession of all the ethical virtues together are:

  • Being of "great soul" (magnanimity), the virtue where someone would be truly deserving of the highest praise and have a correct attitude towards the honor this may involve . This is the first case mentioned, and it is mentioned within the initial discussion of practical examples of virtues and vices at 1123b Book IV.
  • The type of justice or fairness of a good ruler in a good community is then given a similar description, during the special discussion of the virtue (or virtues) of justice at 1129b in Book V.
  • Phronesis or practical judgment as shown by good leaders is the next to be mentioned in this way at 1144b in Book VI.
  • The virtue of being a truly good friend is the final example at 1157a in Book VIII.

This style of building up a picture wherein it becomes clear that praiseworthy virtues in their highest form, even virtues like courage, seem to require intellectual virtue, is a theme of discussion which Aristotle chooses to associate in the Nicomachean Ethics with Socrates, and indeed it is an approach we find portrayed in the Socratic dialogues of Plato. Aristotle also does this himself, and though he professes to work differently from Plato by trying to start with what well-brought up men would agree with, by book VII, Aristotle eventually comes to argue that the highest of all human virtues is itself not practical, being contemplative wisdom (theōria 1177a). But achieving this supreme condition is inseparable from achieving all the virtues of character, or "moral virtues".

The way in which Aristotle sketches the highest good for man involving both a practical and not only a theoretical side, with the two sides necessary for each other, is also in the tradition of Socrates and Plato, as opposed to pre-Socratic philosophy. As Template:Harvcoltxt points out (p. 212):- "The Ethics does not end at its apparent peak, identifying perfect happiness with the life devoted to theōria; instead it goes on to introduce the need for a study of legislation, on the grounds that it is not sufficient only to know about virtue, but one should try to put that knowledge to use." At the end of the book, according to Burger, the thoughtful reader is led to understand that "the end we are seeking is what we have been doing" while engaging with the Ethics (p. 215).

See also

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