Lecture Supplement for Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:[1]


     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli


Book I. Happiness—The Good For Man:


A. Subject of Our Inquiry:


Chapter 1. Ends and Goods—The Good As the Aim of Action:


All human activities aim at some good, and some goods are subordinate to others:


403 “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.” [2]  [1094a]


-Aristotle distinguishes “subordinate” ends (and actions) from the “master” ends. 


Chapter 2. Political Science is the Master Science of the Good:


“If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.  [1094a]


-404 “And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them....”  [1094a-b]


B. The Nature of the Science [of Ethics]:


Chapter 3. The Method of Political Science:


We must not expect more precision than the subject-matter admits, and students of this study must have reached the age of discretion:


404 “Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than it all the products of the crafts.  Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature.  And goods also give rise to similar fluctuation because they bring harm to m

any people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage.  We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better.  In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.”  [1094b]


C. What Is The Good For Man? 


Chapter 4. Common Beliefs about Happiness:


The good for man is generally agreed to be happiness, but there are various views as to what happiness is:


 “...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 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 honor; they differ, however, from one another—and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill....”  [1095a]


He notes that arguing from and arguing to first principles are different sorts of activities, and “...while we must begin with what is known, things are objects of knowledge in two senses—some to us, some without qualification.  Presumably, then, we must begin with things known to us.  Hence any one who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just and, generally, about the subjects of political science must have been brought up in good habits.” [1095b]


Chapter 5. Four Views of the Highest Good (Four Lives):


Discussion of the popular views that the good is pleasure, honour, wealth, and contrast with the view that it is contemplation:


405 “...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....”  [1095b]


-“...people of superior refinement and of active disposition identify happiness with honor....But it seems too superficial to be what we are looking for, since it is thought to depend on those who bestow honour rather than on him who receives it, but the good we divine to be something proper to a man and not easily taken from him.  Further, men seem to pursue honour in order that they may be assured of their goodness....” 


Perhaps, he notes, we would say that the life of virtue is to be preferred to those of pleasure or honor, but, he notes, “...possession of virtue seems actually compatible with being asleep, or with lifelong inactivity, and, further, with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes; but a man who was living so no one would call happy....”  It is thus the activity of the virtuous person living the virtuous life that he wants to emphasize—an unactualized disposition is not of interest to him!  [1095b]


-In what follows, Aristotle will consider different accounts of virtue or excellence.  He identifies wisdom as our excellence, but distinguishes productive, practical, and theoretical or intellectual wisdom, so his account will be complex. 


Chapter 6. Critique of Plato’s “Forms:”


In this Chapter, Aristotle discusses Plato’s view of the forms.  First he notes that Plato uses `good’ in talking of such widely divergent “categories”[3] [as substance, quality, quantity, and relation—but since these are distinct and very different categories, they can not share a common property, characteristic, etc.:


“...but things are called good both in the category of substance and in that of quality and in that of relation, and that which is per se, i.e. substance, is prior in nature to the relative (for the latter is like an offshoot and accident of what is); so that there could not be a common Idea set over all these goods.  Further, since things are said to be good in as many ways as they are said to be (for things are called good both in the category of substance , as God and reason, and in quality, e.g. the virtues, and in quantity, e.g. that which is moderate, and in relation, e.g. the useful, and in time, e.g. the right opportunity, and in place, e.g. the right locality, and the like), clearly the good cannot be something universally present in all cases and single; for then it would not have been predicated in all the categories but in one only.  Further, since of the things answering to one Idea there is one science, there would have been one science of all the goods; but as it is there are many sciences even of the things that fall under one category, e.g. of opportunity, for opportunity in war is studied by strategics and in disease by medicine, and the moderate in food is studied by medicine and in exercise by the science of gymnastics.”  [1096a]


406 Secondly, he claims that there are a variety of things deemed to be “goods in themselves,” and if they can be pursued independently and in isolation, then there is not a common element:


 “…of honour, wisdom, and pleasure, just in respect of their goodness, the accounts are distinct and diverse.  The good, therefore, is not something common answering to one Idea.” [1096b]


Finally, Aristotle claims that Plato is “looking” for “the good” in the “wrong place:”


“…even if there is some one good which is universally predicable of goods or is capable of separate and independent existence, clearly it could not be achieved or attained by man; but we are now seeking [in our study of practical reason] something attainable.”  [1097a]


-“For a doctor seems not even to study health in this way, but the health of man, or perhaps rather the health of a particular man; it is individuals that he is healing.” 


Chapter 7. An Account of the Human Good—It must be Self-Sufficient and Final:


The good must be something final and self-sufficient.  His definition of happiness is reached by considering the characteristic function of man:


407 “...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 itself and never for the sake of something else, but honor, 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. 

  From the point of view of self-sufficiency the same result seems to follow....”  [1097a]


 “...to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is is still desired.  This might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man.”  -[1097b]


--Aristotle points out that life [that is nutrition and growth] is a “function” which we share with plants.  We are, however, seeking out the particular function of man. 


--Similarly, perception is a function we share with animals.  [1098a]


-407-408“There remains, then, an active life of the element that has a rational principle; of this, one part has such a principle in the sense of being obedient to one, the other in the sense of possessing one and exercising thought.  And as ‘life of the rational element’ also has two meanings, we must state that life in the sense of activity is what we mean; for this seems to be the more proper sense of the term.  Now if the function of man is an activity of the soul which follows or implies a rational principle, and if we say ‘a so-and-so’ and a good so-and-so’ have a function which is the same in kind, e.g. a lyre-player and a good lyre-player, and so without qualification in all cases, eminence in respect to goodness being added to the name of the function...human good turns out to be activity of the 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.”  [1098a]


--Aristotle points out again that we must remember that each inquiry has its appropriate degree of precision, and we must not expect more precision that in appropriate for a given discipline. 


Chapter 8. A Defense of the Account in Terms of Popular Views:


408 This definition is confirmed by then current beliefs about happiness:


Aristotle notes that “goods” have been divided into those things good externally, those good for the body, and those good for the soul, and his view accords with this orientation.  [1098b]


Similarly, others distinguish virtue and happiness with practical wisdom, others with theoretical wisdom, and others with pleasure and these.  Again, his view accords with such theories. 


Similarly, finally, those who distinguish “noble” pleasures from others, find that his view accords with theirs. 


Chapter 9. Happiness Is Achieved by Habituation:  


409 “…happiness seems, however, even if it is not god-sent but comes as a result of excellence and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things; for that which is the prize and end of excellence seems to be the best thing and something godlike and blessed.  [1099b]


Chapter 10. Can One Be Happy During One’s Lifetime?  


Should no man be called happy while he lives? 


409  “...he is happy who is active in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life....”  [1101a]


[Skip: Chapters 11 and 12]


D. Kinds of Virtue:


Chapter 13. Introduction—The Psychological Foundation of the Virtues:


He discusses the division of the soul (or, better, types of souls), and resultant division of virtue into intellectual and moral:


410-411 “Virtue too is distinguished into two kinds in accordance with this difference; for we say that some of the virtues are intellectual and others moral, philosophic wisdom and understanding and practical wisdom being intellectual, liberality and temperance moral.  For in speaking about a man’s character we do not say that he is wise or has understanding but that he is good-tempered or temperate; yet we praise the wise man also with respect to his state of mind; and of states of mind we all those which merit praise virtues.”  [1103a]


Book II. Virtue and.  Character:


A. Moral Virtue, How It Is Produced and Exhibited. 


Chapter 1. Moral Virtue Acquired As the Result of Habits:


Virtue, like the arts, is acquired by repetition of the corresponding acts:


413 Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while 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 downward 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 made perfect by habit.”  [1103a]


-“...of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity...but the virtues we get by first exercising them....” 


Chapter 2. There Can Be No Exact Prescription—One Must Avoid Excess and Defect:


These acts cannot be prescribed exactly, but must avoid excess and defect:


413 “Since, then, the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others (for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use), we must examine the nature of actions, namely how we ought to do them; for these determine also the nature of the states of character that are produced, as we have said.  Now, that we must act according to the right rule is a common principle and must be assumed....But this must be agreed upon beforehand, that the whole account of matters of conduct must be given in outline and not precisely....”  [1103b]


413-414 “...it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health...both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it.  So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues....temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.”  [1104a]


Chapter 3. The Importance of Pleasure and Pain—they are tests of virtue:


414 Pleasure in doing virtuous acts is a sign that the virtuous disposition has been acquired: a variety of considerations show the essential connexion of moral virtue with pleasure and pain. 


Chapter 4. Virtuous Actions vs. Virtuous Character:


415 The actions that produce moral virtue are not good in the same sense as those that flow from it: the latter must fulfill certain conditions not necessary in the case of the arts:


“It is possible to do something that is in accordance with the laws of grammar, either by chance or at the suggestion of another.  A man will be a grammarian, then, only when he has both done something grammatical and done it grammatically; and this means doing it in accordance with the grammatical knowledge in himself. 

  Again, the case of the arts and that of the virtues are not similar; for the products of the arts have their goodness in themselves, so that it is enough that they should have a certain character, but if the acts that are in accordance with the virtues have themselves a certain character it does not follow that they are done justly or temperately.  The agent must be in a certain condition when he does them; in the first place he must have knowledge, secondly he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character.”  [1105a]


415 “Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such as the just or the temperate man would do, but it is not the man who does these that is just and temperate, but the man who does them as just and temperate men do them, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even the prospect of becoming good.”  -[1105b]


B. The Definition of Moral Virtue:


Chapter 5. The Genus of Virtue is Character:


The genus of moral virtue: it is a state of character, not a passion nor a faculty:


415 Aristotle maintains that the “things” of the soul are either passions, faculties, or states of character.  He contends that the virtues are neither passions nor faculties, and, therefore, they are states of character. 


Chapter 6. The Differentia of Virtue of Character—A Disposition to Choose the Mean:


The differentia of moral virtue: it is a disposition to choose the mean:


416 “In everything that is continuous and divisible it is possible to take a more, less, or an equal amount, and that either in terms of the thing itself or relatively to us; and the equal is an intermediate between excess and defect.  By the intermediate in the object I mean that which is equidistant from each of the extremes, which is one and the same for all men; by the intermediate relatively to us that which is neither too much nor too little—and this is not one, nor the same for all.  For instance, if ten is many and two is few, six is the intermediate taken in terms of the object; for it exceeds and is exceeded by an equal amount; this is intermediate according to arithmetical proportion.  But the intermediate relatively to us is not to be taken so; if ten pounds are too much for a particular person to eat and two too little, it does not follow that the trainer will order six pounds; for this also is perhaps too much for the person who is to take it, or too little—too little for Milo, too much for the beginner in athletic contests.  The same is true of running and wrestling.  Thus a master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this—the intermediate not in the object but relatively to us.”  [1106a]


416-417 Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.  Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and action, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate.  Hence in respect of its substance and the definition which states its essence virtue is a mean, with regard to what is best and right an extreme.  [1107a]


-Exception: “but not every action nor every passion admits of a mean; for some have names that already imply badness, e.g. spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the case of actions adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things imply by their names that they are themselves bad, and not the excesses or deficiencies of them.  It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to them; one must always be wrong.  [11071a]


Chapter 7. Examples of the Mean In Particular Virtues: [not in text]


417-418 This proposition is illustrated by reference to the particular virtues:



the excess

the mean

the defect

giving and taking money




honor and dishonor

empty vanity

proper pride





mock modesty



righteous indignation



C. Characteristics of the Extreme and Mean States:


Chapter 8. The Relation Between the Mean and the Extremes:


The extremes are opposed to each other and to the mean:


418 “There are three kinds of disposition, then, two of them vices, involving excess and deficiency respectively, and one a virtue, viz. the mean, and all are in a sense opposed to all; for the extreme states are contrary both to the intermediate state and to each other, and the intermediate to the extremes....”  [1108b]


Chapter 9. Attaining the Mean:


419 The mean is hard to attain, and is grasped by perception, not by reasoning:


“For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g., to find the middle of a circle is not for everyone but for him who knows; so, too, 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 every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.”  [1109a]


-“...since to hit the mean is hard in the extreme, we must as a second best...take the least of the evils....”  [1109a]


-“...the intermediate state is in all things to be praised, but that we must incline sometimes towards the excess, sometimes towards the deficiency; for so shall we most easily hit the mean and what is right.”  [1109b]




A. The Conditions Needed for Responsible Action:


Chapter 1. Actions Voluntary and Involuntary:


Moral action requires absence of compulsion and knowledge of the circumstances of the action. 


420 When one throws goods overboard during a storm, is this a voluntary act or an involuntary one?  “Such actions, then, are mixed, but are more like voluntary actions; for they are worthy of choice at the time when they are done, and the end of an action is relative to the occasion.  Both the terms, then. “voluntary,” and “involuntary,” must be used with reference to the moment of the action.”  [1110a]


“Everything that is done by reason of ignorance is not voluntary; it is only what produces pain and repentance that is involuntary.  For the man who has done something owing to ignorance and feels not the least vexation at his action, has not acted voluntarily, since he did not know what he was doing, nor yet involuntarily, since he is not pained.”  [1110b]


421 “Now every wicked man is ignorant of what he ought to do…and it is by reason of error of this kind that men become unjust and in general bade; but 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 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.”  1110b] 


Here a footnote from Martin Ostwald’s translation is helpful: “reasoning on matters of conduct involves two premises, one major and one minor.  The major premise is always universal, e.g., “to remove by stealth another person’s property is stealing,” and the minor premise particular, e.g., “this horse is another person’s property,” so that the conclusion would be: “To remove this horse by stealth is stealing.”  What Aristotle says her is that ignorance of the major premise produces an immoral act, while ignorance of the minor premise produces an involuntary act which may be pitied or pardoned.  Thus it is a moral defect for a man not to know that to remove by stealth another person’s property is stealing.  In an involuntary act on the other hand, the agent does know the universal premise, but is ignorant of the particular, i.e., that this horse is the property of another.”[4] 


“Since that which is done under compulsion or by reason of ignorance is involuntary, the voluntary would seem to be that of which the moving principle is in the agent himself, he being aware of the particular circumstances of the action.”  [1111a]


Chapter 2. Choice:


In addition, moral action requires that the action is done by choice and that the choice arises from prior deliberation. 


421 “Choice, then, seems to be voluntary, but not the same thing as the voluntary, the latter extends more widely.  For both children and the lower animals share in voluntary action, but not in choice, and actions done on the spur of the moment we describe as voluntary, but not as chosen.”  [1111b]


Chapter 3. Deliberation—It Regards Means:


423 “We deliberate not about ends but about means.  For a doctor does not deliberate whether he shall heal, nor an orator whether he shall persuade, nor a statesman whether he shall produce law and order….They assume the end and consider how and by what means it is to be attained….  [1112a]


Chapter 4. Rational Wish—It Regards Ends:


423 “Now those who say that the good is the object of wish must admit in consequence that that which the man who does not choose aright wishes for is not an object of wish (for if it is to be so, it must also be good; but it was, if it is so happened, bad); while those who say the apparent good is the object of wish must admit that there is no natural object of wish, but only what seems good to each man.  Now different things appear good to different people, and, if it so happens, even contrary things. 

  If these consequences are unpleasing, are we to say that absolutely and in truth the good is the object of wish, but for each person the apparent good; that that which is in truth an object of wish is an object of wish to the good man, while any chance thing may be so [for] the bad man, as in the case of bodies also the things that are in truth wholesome are wholesome for bodies which are in good condition, while for those that are diseased other things are wholesome—or bitter or sweet or hot or heavy, and so on; since the good man judges each class of things rightly, and in each the truth appears to him?”[5]  [1113a-b]


Chapter 5. Man As A Responsible Agent—Both for Good and For Bad:


424 “The end, then, being what we wish for, the means what we deliberate about and choose, actions concerning means must be according to choice and voluntary.  Now the exercise of the virtues is concerned with means.  Therefore virtue also is in our own power, and so too vice.  For where it is in our power to act it is also in our power not to act, and vice versa….Now if it is in our power to do noble or base acts, and likewise in our power not to do then, and this was what being good or bad meant, then it is in our power to be virtuous or vicious.”  [1113b]


425 “With regard to the virtues in general we have stated their genus in outline, viz. that they are means and that they are stares of character, and that they tend, and by their own nature, to the doing of the acts by which they are produced, and that they are in our power and voluntary, and act as the right rule prescribes.  But actions and states of character are not voluntary in the same way, for we are masters of our actions from the beginning right to the end, if we know the particular facts, but though we control the beginning of our states of character the gradual progress is not obvious any more than it is in an illness; because it was in our power, however, to act in this way or not in this way, therefore the states are voluntary. 

  Let us take up several virtues, however, and say which they are and how they are concerned with them….first let us speak of courage.”  [1114b-1115a]


B. The Virtues and Vices [Book III 6-Book V 11]:


Chapter 6. Courage and Its Sphere of Operation:


It is concerned with feelings of fear and confidence; and is clearly in evidence when life is threatened in battle.  [1115a]


425 “Now we fear all evils, e.g., disgrace, poverty, disease, friendlessness, death, the brave man is not thought to be concerned with all….Now death is the most terrible of all things; for it is the end, and nothing is thought to be any longer either good or bad for the dead.”  [1115a]  


Here, once more we get the point that the virtues he wants to talk about have a “duality” that comes from our nature and the “four causes:” the final cause (telos or end) and the particular nature of the individual intermix and just as in the case of Milo and the ordinary citizen, the “mean” will have both a common and an individual specification.  Talking about courage in battle helps focus on the common element (remember, here, the “traditional” [Homeric] conception of arête and its influence on his view and his culture. 


Chapter 7. Courage: Its Nature and Its Opposites:


Courage is motivated by a sense of honor, and its opposites are rashness (excess) and cowardice (deficiency). 


427 “What is terrible I not the same for all men….”  [1115b] 


Attend, again, to the above comment about “duality.” 


Chapter 8. Qualities Similar to Courage:


426-427 He discusses the courage of: the citizen, of Socrates, of the wounded, of the experienced soldier, and of those ignorant of the danger.  [1116a-1117a]


Chapter 9. The Relation of Pleasure and Pain to Courage:  


428 Just as boxers aim at a pleasant end, but experience many blows to achieve it, “…courage is similar, death and wounds will be painful to the brave man and against his will, but he will face them because it is noble to do so or because it is base not to do so.”  [1117b] 


The “Middle” Core of the Work:


In the ensuing discussion Aristotle discusses the virtues of: temperance (self-indulgence and ‘insensibility’), liberality with money (prodigality and meanness), magnificence with money (meanness and niggardliness), pride (vanity and humility), honor (ambition and its opposite), good temper (irascibility and its opposite), friendliness (obsequiousness, and churlishness), truthfulness (boastfulness and mock-modesty), wit (buffoonery and boorishness), shame (bashfulness and shamelessness), and justice (extended discussion).  He then turns to discussions of intellectual virtue [Book VI], continence and pleasure [Book VII], friendship [Book IX], and pleasure’s relation to happiness [Book X, Chapters 1-6].  We pick up with his general discussion of happiness [Book X, Chapters 6-9]. 


Supplemental Reading Regarding the Intellectual Virtues:[6]


Book X. Chapters 6-9: Happiness:


Chapter 6. Happiness, Activity and Amusement:


1176b-1177a] Summary—attend to it carefully! 


Chapter 7. Happiness, Intelligence, and the Contemplative Life:


[1177a] “If happiness is activity in accord with virtue, it is reasonable for it to accord with the supreme virtue, which will be the virtue of the best thing.  The best is understanding, or whatever else seems to be the natural ruler and leader, and to understand what is fine and divine, by being itself either divine or the most divine element in us.  Hence complete happiness will be its activity in accord with its proper virtue; and we have said that this activity is the activity of study. 

  This seems to agree with what has been said before, and also with the truth.  For this activity is supreme, since understanding is the supreme element in us, and the objects of understanding are the supreme objects of knowledge.   Further, it is the most continuous activity, since we are more capable of continuous study than any continuous activity.” 


Note: it should be clear that Aristotle is not working with the common conception of the gods in his culture.  His talk of the divine as being wholly non-human (and associated with the life of rational cognition) is not simply the then common view of the lives of the gods.  Jump, here, to 1178b for a related passage which helps us clarify what he is contending when he both “privileges” the intellectual virtues, but doesn’t contend that they are the only important virtue. 


[1177b] “Such a life would be superior to the human level.  For someone will live in it not insofar as he is a human being, but insofar as he has some divine element in him.” 


Here, again, we need to pay attention to the “duality” which comes from speaking of the “common end) for men, and the “golden mean” in this sense of virtue, and the end for each particular individual. 


Chapter 8. Theoretical Study and the Other Virtues: The Advantages of the Contemplative Life:


[1178a] “The life in accord with the other kind of virtue [i.e., the kind concerned with action] is [happiest] in a secondary way, because the activities in accord with this virtue are human.  For we do just and brave actions, and the other actions in accord with the virtues, in relation to other people, by abiding by what fits each person in contracts, services, all types of actions, and also in feelings; and all these appear to be human conditions.  Indeed, some feelings actually seem to arise from the body; and in many ways virtue of character seems to be proper to feelings.” 


     Here, I believe, we confront a fundamental interpretative issue in reading the Nicomachean Ethics.  Throughout our primary selection (Books I and II), and, indeed, in the remainder of the work (Books III-Book V and Books VII-X Chapter 5), with the exception of Book VI, Aristotle discusses the “moral virtues.”  In Book VI he distinguishes “theoretical” and “practical” wisdom, and initially states what he reiterates in our supplemental selection (Book X, Chapters 7-8 [I will discuss the final Chapter in a moment])—that the intellectual virtues are higher than the moral ones and that practical wisdom can not be higher than theoretical wisdom:


[Book VI, Chapter 13, 1145a] “But again it [practical wisdom] is not supreme over philosophic wisdom, i.e. over the superior part of us, any more than the art of medicine is over health; for it does not use it but provides for its coming into being; it issues orders, then, for its sake, but not to it.  Further, to maintain its supremacy would be like saying that the art of politics rules the gods because it issues orders about the affairs of the state.” 


These passages lead to a picture of Aristotle’s view of the highest good as largely akin to that of Plato—the highest good for human beings is the life of philosophic contemplation, of the pursuit of “theoretical wisdom” (and “philosophical or theoretical” activity, which is the most continuous) over “practical wisdom” (and activity).  On this interpretation, the “[highest] end for human beings” is the life of the philosopher.  There is much to recommend this interpretation, and the textual evidence in Book VI and X (Chapters 7-8) certainly support it unequivocally. 


     I want to advance a different interpretation however.  Looking back at his critique of Plato’s doctrine of the forms (Book I, Chapter 6), and paying attention both to his view that forms are immanent rather than transcendent, and to his view that human beings are fundamentally social beings (that the state is the “end” for us), I interpret his mention of the “godlike” character of the philosophic life as “qualifying” his praise in Book VI and Book X Chapters 7-8.  His view of actual human beings is that we are complex—we have a soul with nutritive, perceptual, emotional, and intellectual elements; and talk of our “end” (“final cause”) must pay close attention to all these “elements” (as well as to our “material, efficient, and formal” “causes”).  Contemplation for Plato can have a significant “otherworldly” element, but this can not be the case for Aristotle.  While the “intellectual” element of the soul may be “higher” (while the “intellectual” virtues may be superior to the “moral” ones), character (and, thus virtue) is the state of an individual, not simply of a component thereof. 


     That is, the contemplative life is a life after all, which means (for Aristotle) that it takes place in a body, in a state, and in collaboration with other individuals.  Thus, I believe, the praise of the intellectual virtues and the contemplative (or philosophical) life must be seen in context, and, I think, Aristotle so qualifies the praise in the final Chapter of his Nicomachean Ethics (Book X Chapter 9). 


Chapter 9. Moral Education and Politics:


Aristotle has just praised the intellectual virtues as the “highest” and the life of philosophical contemplation as “the best.”  Indeed he has deemed it “godlike,” and talked of the “moral virtues” (those associated with action in the world with other individuals) as good in a “secondary way” (as being “merely human”).  While the study of politics will be important as facilitating a means to achieving theoretical wisdom and the contemplative life, Aristotle here seems to “qualify” his praise for that life:


[1179b] “…the aim of studies about action…is surely not to study and know about a given thing, but rather to act on our knowledge.  Hence knowing about virtue is not enough, but we must also try to possess and exercise virtue…. 

  Now if arguments were sufficient by themselves to make people decent, the rewards they command would justifiably have been many and large….In fact, however, arguments seem to have enough influence to stimulate and encourage the civilized ones among the young people, and perhaps to make virtue take possession of a well-born character that truly loves what is fine; but they seem unable to turn the many toward being fine and good.” 


“Now some think it is nature that makes people good; some think it is habit; some that it is teaching.  The [contribution] of nature is clearly not up to us, but results from some divine cause in those who have it, who are the truly fortunate ones.  Arguments and teaching surely do not prevail on everyone, but the soul of the student needs to have been prepared by habits for enjoying and hating finely, like ground that is to nourish seed.” 


“It is difficult, however, for someone to be trained correctly for virtue from his youth if he has not been brought up under correct laws….” 


[1180a-b] “That is why legislators must, in some people’s view, urge people toward virtue and exhort them to aim at the fine—on the assumption that anyone whose good habits have prepared him decently will listen to them—but must impose corrective treatments and penalties on anyone who disobeys or lacks the right nature, and must completely expel the incurable.” 


“It is best, then, if the community attends to upbringing, and attends correctly.  But if the community neglects it, it seems fitting for each individual to promote the virtue of his children and friends….” 


[1180b] “Further, education adapted to an individual is actually better than a common education for everyone, just as individualized medical treatment is better.  For though generally a feverish patient benefits from rest and starvation, presumably some patient does not; nor does the boxing instructor impose the same way of fighting on everyone.  Hence it seems that treatment in particular cases is more exactly right when each person gets special attention, since he then more often gets the suitable treatment.” 


“Then perhaps also someone who wishes to make people better by his attention, many people or few, should try to acquire legislative science, if laws are a means to make us good.  For not just anyone can improve the condition of jut anyone, or the person presented to him; but if someone can, it is the person with knowledge, just as in medical science and the others that require attention and prudence.” 


In ending the Nicomachean Ethics, then, Aristotle says we must study politics, and must attend to the science of using laws, education, and habituation to prepare the ground for individuals to develop virtuous characters.  Now if the highest end is the pursuit of philosophical wisdom and intellectual virtue, if the contemplative life was the true highest end for human beings, then the detailed discussion of the need to go on and pursue the empirical study of constitutions and states to yield the practical science of politics would seem out of place here.  Of course the “praise” of political science here could be no more than the praise of a means to the ultimate end of theoretical wisdom; but I can’t buy that interpretation.  I think it works only for those individuals who are “lucky” enough to have the “divine gift” [1179b] of a nature already habituated to virtue (and, indeed, to the highest of the virtues).  But these people are “godlike,” and Aristotle, I contend, is concerned with real individuals, and with virtuous character instantiated in the mundane (rather than some “divine”) world.  Thus, I interpret him as ultimately coming down on the side of the “moral” (or “practical”) virtues—of advocating “practical” wisdom over the “theoretical” for man, and of praising politics over philosophy.  There are, of course, many who reject this view (and they are, I should add, far better schooled in Aristotle than I). 


Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for that note)

[1] Our text reproduces selections from W.D. Ross’ 1930 translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as it is revised by J.L. Acknill and J.O. Urmson in 1980 (Oxford: Oxford U.P.).  These notes are sometimes based upon Ross’s unrevised translation, so there may be minor differences between my citations and those in the text.  The titles for Books and Chapters are borrowed (in part) from Ross, from Martin Ostwald’s translation of the Nicomachean Ethics (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962), and from Terence Irwin’s translation of the Nicomachean Ethics (second edition) (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999). 

[2] As Richard McKeon notes (in his “Introduction,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (N.Y.: Random House, 1941), pp. xi-xxxiv, p. viii), “the pagination of the Bekker edition of the Greek text of Aristotle [1831-1870], which is published in the first two of the five volumes of the Berlin edition, has become the customary means to locate a passage in Aristotle....”  This passage is in Chapter 1 of Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, the first column (a) of page 1094.  The editors of our text, Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, eds. Louis Pojman and James Fieser (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011), do not use the standard reference system, and so I will use their pagination in referring to passages, and I will follow each citation with the standard reference.  For the selections from Book X which I am having your read, I will use the standard reference method. 

[3] The categories are general types of predicates assignable to subjects.  The most basic category is substance (or being) and these predicates answer to the question “What is it?”  Ensuing categories are quantity (answering “How large is it?”), quality (answering “What sort is it?”), relation, etc. 

[4] Martin Ostwald’s translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, op. cit., p. 55 (footnote). 

[5] In his footnote to his translation of this sentence Martin Ostwald maintains: “this seemingly trivial sentence is, in fact, one of the most important in the Ethics.  It seems trivial in that it hinges on the double meaning inherent in the Greek verbal adjective boulēton here translated as ‘object of wish’), which means (1) an actual object of wish, something wished as a matter of fact; and (2) something intrinsically wishable, the true object of wish as an ethical norm.  But behind this linguistic ambiguity lies the whole question of the factual and normative in ethical choices.  Aristotle’s solution is to recognize “Whatever seems good to a particular individual” as the factual object of all wishes and choice, but at the same time to insist upon the existence of a normative object of wish, which is “by nature the object of wish” and which he defines as the end actually wished and chosen by the good man. This shows in what sense the man of high moral standards is for Aristotle the “standard and measure,” who makes the actual and the normative coincide.”

Nichomachean Ethics, trans. Martin Ostwald (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962), pp. 63-64 (footnote). 

[6] The supplement is taken from the web version of W.D. Ross’s translation available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.10.x.html . 

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