Lecture Supplement Introducing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics


     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli


I. Aristotle’s Life:


Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) was the son of the court physician of Amyntas II, King of Macedon—who was the father of Philip the Great.  He was born in Stagira, a city on the Greek peninsula of Chalcidice which while thoroughly Greek, had Macedonian connections.  Aristotle received at least some medical training himself, and, at eighteen, he went to Athens to study at Plato’s Academy from 368-348.[1]  Plato bequeathed his Academy to his nephew Speusippus, who adhered to many of the Platonic doctrines which Aristotle had the most trouble with, and, thus, when Plato died in 348, Aristotle left Athens and traveled extensively in Asia Minor. 


     In 343 when Philip of Macedon invited him come to Pella to tutor his own son, Alexander, Aristotle moved to Pella, the Macedonian capital city.  His tutoring lasted only three years—in 340 Alexander was appointed regent for his father.  According to Martin Ostwald, at this point “Aristotle changed his residence to his native Stagira, which had been destroyed eight years before but rebuilt in Aristotle’s honor by Philip and Alexander.”[2] 


     Aristotle resumed his own studies, and returned to Athens in 335.  For the next twelve years, he devoted himself to his studies and to the organization of his own school in Athens, the Lyceum.[3]  Alexander died in 323, and Aristotle found himself under suspicion—as were all those people associated with the former “Conqueror.”  Indeed one individual, Eurymedon, proposed an indictment of Aristotle for impiety (the charge made against Socrates leading to his death), and Aristotle left Athens purportedly saying that he wanted to save it from “sinning against philosophy twice.”  He fled to the city of his mother’s birth, Chalcis, and died shortly thereafter in 322 B.C.E. 


     In his “Introduction” to his edition of The Basic Works of Aristotle, Richard McKeon maintains that:


the period of Aristotle’s most characteristic and productive scientific activity coincided almost exactly with the reign and campaigns of Alexander the Great.  Moreover, the greater part of his career as a student and as teacher was spent in Athens, where he lived as an alien, deprived of political rights and suspect for a time at least because of his relations with the Macedonia court.  He was a scientist rather than a practical man even in politics, and the chief effect of passing events on his career is probably to be found in the favorable conditions for scientific investigations afforded by the period of peace and prosperity unwillingly forced on Athens by Alexander’s dominion.[4] 


II. A Brief Introduction to The Ancient Worldview:


In her “Excellence and Obligation: A Very Concise History of Western Metaphysics 387 BC to 1887 AD,” Christine Korsgaard maintains that:


Plato and Aristotle came to believe that value was more real than experienced fact, indeed that the real world is, in a way, value itself.  They came to see the world we experience as being, in its very essence, a world of things that are trying to be much better than they are, and that really are much better than they seem....Plato believed that the essence of a thing is the form in which it participates.  A thing’s true nature and its perfect nature are one and the same.  Form, which is value, is more real than the things that appear to us to participate in but fall short of it.  Aristotle believed that the actuality of a thing is its form, which makes it possible for the thing to do what it does and therefore to be what it is....For Plato and Aristotle, being guided by value is a matter of being guided by the way things ultimately are. 

  In ethics, this way of viewing the world leads to what we might call the idea of arête [excellence or virtue].  Being guided by the way things really are is, in this case, being guided by the way you really are.  The form of a thing is its perfection, but it is also what enables the thing to be what it is.  So the endeavor to realize perfection is just the endeavor to be what you are—to be good at being what you are.  And so the ancients thought of human virtue as a kind of excelling, of excellence.[5] 


According to Korsgaard,


we are no longer at all puzzled about why the world, being good, is yet not good.  Because for us, the world is no longer first and foremost form.  It is matter.  This is what I mean when I say that there has been a revolution, and that the world has been turned inside out.  The real is no longer the good.  For us, reality is something hard, something that resists reason and value, something that is recalcitrant to form. 

  If the real and the good are no longer one, value must find its way into the world somehow.  Form must be imposed on the world of matter.  This is the work of art, the work of obligation, and it brings us back to Kant.[6] 


Korsgaard, in short, alerts us to “the fact” that our “fact/value” question (or distinction) wasn’t found in its current form in Plato and Aristotle. 


     A.R Caponigri draws our attention to the difference between the Ancient and the Modern views of motion and change.  He notes that the Ancient and Medieval worldviews relied upon


...the distinction between elementary substances: Earth, water, air and fire, and celestial substances.  This distinction, in turn, rests on a further and more basic distinction between the kinds of motion and their distribution in the cosmos. 

  Motion is distinguished into rectilinear and circular.  The circular is thought to be “perfect”....because its beginning and its end coincide; the rectilinear is imperfect....These types of motion are then distributed and assigned: rectilinear motion to the elementary substances, circular motion to the celestial. 

  Likewise proceeding by this logical process of conceptualization and analysis of concepts, this view holds that the circular movement of the celestial elements is eternal; but that of the elementary substances is predicated upon rest, from which they must be moved by a principle external to them.  This rest is identified as the “natural place” of the elementary substance in the universe: lower for the heavier, higher for the lighter and more volatile.  “Upper” and “lower” are absolute determinations in space.  The rectilinear movement of the elementary substances is due to the fact of their initial displacement from their natural locations, to which they seek to return.”[7] 


As Michael Matthews notes,


central to Aristotle’s thought is his concept of nature.  This was essentialistic and teleological.  Nature was not just matter moving around as a result of random pushes and pulls (materialism), nor was it an unintelligible and imperfect shadow of some other perfect realm (Platonism).  Nature was differentiated into various species and objects, all of them had their own internal and essential dynamic for change (including local motion).  Their alteration was the progressive, teleological actualization of a preexisting potential.  The universe was finite, closed, hierarchically ordered, and all its constituents were fixed.  Everything had its own preordained purpose. 

  In appropriate circumstances, the acorn would develop through an internally generated process of natural change. Likewise, when not interfered with, heavy objects would naturally move to their natural place at the centre of the earth.  Science was largely concerned with the understanding of these natural changes in the world.  The contrasting violent or chance changes were of little interest to philosophers, as they did not reveal anything of the object’s nature.[8] 


     Think of the difference between having the growth of an acorn and the falling of a ball-bearing as your scientific model and you can come to a better understanding of the contrast between the Aristotelian and Medieval world-views, on the one hand, and the early Modern world-view, on the other.  The Aristotelian notion of causation involves a compilation of four distinct notions:


-the material cause—what a thing is made of,

-the formal cause—how a thing is structured,

-the efficient cause—what brings a thing about, and

-the final cause—the goal/purpose of a thing. 


Together talk about matter and form are to answer the questions we can ask about what causes a thing to be what it is.  The full story here requires talk about the four Aristotelian causes—they provide a complete explanation both of what a thing came from and where it is going:





Where it is going

material cause

final cause

Where it came from

efficient cause

formal cause


While a full understanding of anything requires that we understand all four causes, the final cause is the most important one—Aristotle offers a teleological view![9]  Not everything lives up to its final cause however—consider two acorns which have the same internal character but are grown in very different environments.  Thus the talk of the other causes becomes quite important for him.  Talk of these other causes requires that we recognize that a thing may be judged against either an absolute standard (in terms of consideration only of the final cause) or against a more relativistic standard (which considers all the causes). 


III. Introduction to Aristotle’s Philosophy By Way of Contrast With Plato:


Like Socrates and Plato, Aristotle was concerned to deny the conventionalism of the sophists and to establish the objective validity of our knowledge and values.  There is a central similarity in the pictures that these three philosophers offer: each recommends the life of philosophic reflection as the best life.  Moreover each maintains that the state plays a fundamentally moral role, and the good life is, essentially, a social one.  There are significant differences between Aristotle’s philosophical orientation and Plato’s, however, and an examination of some epistemological and metaphysical points will help clarify the differences in their thought:


Plato explains the objectivity of our knowledge and values by an appeal to a changeless world of “the forms.”  This world was to explain (and ground) the changing world which we inhabit.  However, one of the main problems Plato’s theory faces is the problem of change—he must explain the obvious fact of change in this world, and it is not clear how appeal to unchanging forms can facilitate this.  Similarly, and secondly, Plato confronts the problem of participation—to the extent that his forms do not change, and are so very different from the things in this world, it is questionable how well they could do the explanatory job for which they were created—it is not clear how the forms “participate” in the particular things which are to be explained. 


Plato also sought exact and certain knowledge.  His model of knowledge was mathematics, and he wanted to appeal to timeless, external, universal, and unchanging standards.  For him knowledge was to be achieved by the exercise of pure reason that produced certainty, and its object was the otherworldly forms.  He held that belief was the appropriate attitude in regard to the changing world, and here we dealt with fallible opinion rather than knowledge. 


     Aristotle wanted to avoid the otherworldliness of Plato.  Yet he also wanted to avoid the conventionalism (or relativism) of the sophists.  To achieve this complex objective he opted for the following metaphysical position:


the forms are not separate, other-worldly, and logically prior to the particular things in this world—rather the forms are immanent in the changing things in this world.  That is, according to Aristotle each particular thing is composed of both form and matter (“thisness” and “suchness):


-suchness: the universal characteristic (necessary for knowledge), the properties which various particular things can share in common—it is the form which provides an answer to the question “What is it?” which is asked of a particular thing; and


-thisness: that which makes a particular thing (e.g., this course, this person, etc.) itself—it is this which provides for the identity of the individual through change. 


     Aristotle also felt Plato placed too much emphasis upon theoretical (or pure) knowledge.  According to Aristotle, there are three different sorts of knowledge: the theoretical, the productive, and the practical:


theoretical knowledge (which is concerned with knowledge for knowledge’s sake) is the “pure” exercise of reason in the areas of metaphysics, physics, and mathematics;


productive knowledge (which is concerned with putting reason to use in the service of our immediate needs) is oriented toward concrete action in the changeable world producing results which satisfy our needs; and


practical knowledge (which deals with the use of reason for the organization of our lives) in the areas of politics and ethics.  As Martin Ostwald notes, the practical sciences resemble the productive “...in that the initiating motive...is in man himself and not external to him, as it is in the theoretical sciences.  But in the practical sciences [politics and ethics] man is a moral agent rather than a producer.  His end is not the creation of a product which will exist independent of him once it is completed, but rather the living of a certain kind of life.  In other words, in the practical sciences the end is neither the study or knowledge of something external to man as it is in the theoretical sciences, nor is it the creation of a product that will exist apart from him as soon as it is completed.  It is the very activity of living a good life that is in itself the end.”[10] 


Aristotle also felt that each subject matter admits of its own appropriate degree of precision.  While Plato held that knowledge was the same wherever it was found, Aristotle held that each area or discipline had its own standards of accuracy and precision.  Here Aristotle’s scientific orientation differs significantly from Plato’s rationalistic one.  


     The differences between Plato and Aristotle regarding both the object of knowledge (another world, this world) and regarding our cognitive states when knowing (certainty, different levels of precision for different sciences), are reflected in their overall world-views.  Plato was most concerned with reaching theoretical knowledge of the other-worldly forms dialectically, while Aristotle wanted to arrive at scientific knowledge of the changing world.  While Plato was a “rationalist” and Aristotle was an “empiricist,” however, as we have seen, we must not attribute our science to him.  He is certainly not an empiricist in the sense that such a thinker develops testable hypotheses, theories, laws, or explanations and then tests predictions in our experience of the world.  This is a view that will not come on the scene for almost two thousand years. 


     To get a quick idea of the sense in which Aristotle was an empiricist, we should look to his work in biology.  Aristotle developed a careful classification of animals based upon observations (both his own and those of others) of more than 500 distinct kinds of animals.  Some of his observations were so detailed that they support the following claim by W.T. Jones:


it is difficult…to draw a firm line between experiment and observation.  Did Empedocles, for instance, merely happen to observe what occurs when the end of a tube is submerged in water and seize on this as support for his theory about the plenum?  Or was the tube a device to test the theory?  Probably the former.  On the other hand, the Pythagoreans must have experimented to discover the ratios of their tuned lyre.  Was Aristotle experimenting when he observed the embryo chicken?  This question cannot be answered by a simple “yes” or “no,” for this is a borderline case in which we cannot be sure what Aristotle’s intent was.  Yet there is a difference in principle between (1) recognizing the interest and importance of some fact when one chances to see it and (2) deliberately planning a situation that will test some hypothesis. 

  The Greek neglect of experiment is one of the chief points that distinguishes their method from that of modern science.  Perhaps “neglect” is too strong a word, for it may suggest that they left something undone that they might easily have done.  Experiment is connected with an appreciation of the complexity of nature, with a recognition of the necessity of deciding between alternatives.  And the Greeks had no reason at the outset of the development of science to believe nature to be as complex as we know it to be.  Though their conviction that nature is a simply organized cosmos may have made them too facile, it had its fortunate aspect.  Had they been aware of how complex the order really is they might have been too discouraged even to begin investigating it.[11]


The description of the chick embryo that Jones refers to is in Aristotle’s Historia Animalium (The History of the Animals) and goes on for several pages.  Here is a portion of the discussion:


generation of the egg proceeds in an identical manner with all birds, but the full periods from conception to birth differ….With the common hen after three days and three nights there is the first indication of the embryo; with larger birds the interval is longer, with smaller birds shorter.  Meanwhile the yolk comes into being, raising towards the sharp end, where the primal element of the egg is situated, and where the egg gets hatched; the heart appears, like a speck of blood, in the white of the egg.  This point beats and moves as though endowed with life, and from it two vein-ducts with blood in them then in a convoluted course….and a membrane carrying bloody fibres now envelops the yolk, leading off from the vein-ducts.  A little afterwards the body is differentiated, at first very small and white.  The head is clearly distinguished, and in it the eyes, swollen out to a great extent….It is only by degrees that they diminish in size and collapse.  At the outset the under portion of the body appears insignificant in comparison with the upper portion….The life-element of the chick is in the white of the egg, and the nutriment comes through the navel-string out of the yolk.[12] 


As W.D. Ross notes, Aristotle rejects Plato’s “method of division by dichotomy” (which seems to arbitrarily classify animals without sufficient attention to the many similarities amongst species), and offers a much more complex classification scheme:


no cut-and-dried classification is to be found in his writings.  He is well aware of the difficulties; well aware of the existence of isolated species which fall under no recognized `greatest genus,’ and of species intermediate between two such genera.  But his classification is clear enough in its main lines, and is one that has on the whole stood well the test of time; it was a great advance on anything that preceded it, and no further advance was made before Linnaeus [1707-1778].[13] 


As Ross notes,


the sciences of Aristotle are based on a multiple system of classification, not on a simple scheme of mutually exclusive and independently existent genera and species, and one of the important contributions of metaphysical analysis to the sciences is the elaboration of causes which permits the differentiation of the subject matters of the natural sciences.[14] 


     In regard to ethics, as Ross notes, Aristotle notes that


ethics reasons not from but to first principles: it starts out not with what is intelligible in itself but which what is familiar to us, i.e., with the bare facts, and works back from them to the underlying reasons; and to give the necessary knowledge of the facts a good upbringing is necessary….The first principles of ethics are too deeply immersed in the detail of conduct to be...easily picked out, and the substance of ethics consists in picking them out.  For this two conditions are needed.  Firstly, the student must be so brought up that he accepts the general opinions on moral questions that represent the collective wisdom of the race.  These opinions are not very clear nor very consistent, but such as they are, they are the only data we have from which to reach the first principles.  The second condition is an enquiry in which these beliefs are examined, compared with one another, purged of their inaccuracies and inconsistencies, and found to yield truths `more intelligible in themselves,’ by no means obvious at first sight but self-evident when once you have reached them.  If ethics is not demonstrative, is it then…dialectical?  In a sense it is; one of the uses of dialectic is just this, to lead us to first principles.  Hence Aristotle often reasons dialectically, not from the principles known to be true but from the opinions whether of `the many’ or of `the wise,’ and particularly from those of the Platonic school.  But it does not follow that the Ethics is a prolonged argumentium ad hominem from opinions that he does not himself accept; he would certainly not have thought that worth his while.  For the most part he accepts the opinions of the Academy as his own, and when he does not he has no hesitation is saying so.[15] 


IV. An Introduction to Aristotle’s Ethical Theory:


Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (like all the writings we have of his) is actually based on notes from a course of lectures given by Aristotle, which incorporate his mature thoughts on ethical theory.  According to Martin Ostwald, the work gets its name from “...Aristotle’s son Nicomachus [who] is said to have edited the work after his father’s death....”[16] 


Aristotle’s ethics is an aretaic one—the central question of such theories is: “What sort of person should I become?”—rather than “What should I do?  Here we have what may be called an ethics of being rather than an ethics of doing. 


     Aristotle maintains that:


413[17] ...the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others (for we are inquiring not in order to know what excellence 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 that are produced.... 


For Aristotle, virtues are characteristics which enable human beings to live well in communities.  He conceives of humans as naturally social animals, and the good life as a social one:


he believes people are not self-sufficient materially speaking,

he believes the reproductive instinct shows a need for others,

he believes self-preservation is secured better in a community, and

[most importantly] he believes that the good life is possible only socially. 


As he sees it, we are led to form social units naturally.  As W.D Ross notes, Aristotle maintains


…that the state does not exist merely by convention but is rooted in human nature; that the natural is to be found, in its truest sense, not in the origins of human life but in the goal towards which it moves; that civilized life is not a declension from the life of a hypothetical noble savage; that the state is not an artificial restriction of liberty but a means of gaining it.  He is here implicitly attacking two views which had found favour in Greece:— (1) the view of some of the sophists…that law and the state are mere products of convention, interferences with the liberty of the individual which are either forced on him by his masters or adopted by him merely as a safeguard against injury; and (2) the view of the Cynics that the wise man is sufficient to himself and should be a citizen of no country but only of the world—a view which was encouraged by the disillusionment that fell upon Greece with the defeat of Chaeronea.[18] 


For Aristotle, then, to look at what we “naturally are,” we must look not to how we begin, but to our “end.”  For him family, village and city state form a “progression” which does not simply reflect some sort of “cultural” or “anthropological” progress, but, rather, reflects a progression toward conditions which allow for the development of persons in accord with their end. 


Family ®

Village ®

City State

meets everyday wants

serves more than every day wants

comes into being to provide the good life. 


In effect, Aristotle holds that our “highest good” is achieved only within the social context of the [city] state. 


This conception of the importance of the community is especially poignant since Aristotle was a resident alien in Athens for a significant portion of his adult life—his own life lacked something which he believed to be essential for proper human functioning (he was not a citizen).[19] 


     To elaborate here and “ground” his view a bit more carefully, we should note that Aristotle believes we find out what a good thing is by asking what the function or purpose of that sort of thing is.  Thus, “What is a good knife” requires determining what the purpose of knives is, and then determining what would make for an excellent (or virtuous) one.  Thus he begins his ethical theorizing by asking “What is the final cause (end) for persons?”  Clearly, then, his ethics is teleological. 


Note the implicit presumptions that (1) there is a function here, and (2) that there is a unique function here!  In the case of human beings, this may appear especially doubtful.  For Aristotle, of course, the “question” of functionality is an objective one! 


To find out what our function is, we have to have a better idea of what kind of “thing” we are, and here we must look to Aristotle’s “psychology” and to his discussion of our “souls” (or “psyches”).[20]  As W.D. Ross notes,


the first step is to determine to which of the main divisions of being—the categories—soul belongs, and again whether it is a potentiality or an actuality.  But at this point a difficulty arises.  Suppose that there are different parts of soul, and various species or perhaps even genera arising from the presence of these parts in various combinations; it may then be that there is no one definition of soul.  It may be that the primary facts are the different kinds of soul, and that there is no one thing answering to the name `soul’ in general or only a slight nucleus of common nature in the various souls. 

  Aristotle’s answer is in effect that the kinds of soul are neither so much alike that any single definition of soul will give a sufficient idea of its varieties, ranging from its humble manifestations in plants and zoophytes to the heights it reaches in man or in God, nor yet so different that we cannot recognize a common nature in all its varieties.[21]


For Aristotle our souls have a nutritive part (one which is in all living things), a sensitive part (one which is in all animals), and a rational part (one which is in human beings only).  The rational part of the soul includes both theoretical reason and practical reason.  It is practical reason we are primarily concerned with here, of course.  In practical reasoning we can settle for much less than we can in theoretical reasoning—instead of absolute knowledge of the universals, here we need the ability to apprehend particular facts.  Indeed, Aristotle holds that while the happiest person would have both theoretical and practical knowledge, a person might settle for less and still be quite happy! 


     According to Aristotle: most people aim at pleasure, some people aim at honor, but virtue is what people should aim for.  In his “Introduction” to his selection from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in his Social and Political Philosophy: Classical Western Texts in Feminist and Multicultural Perspectives, James Sterba maintains that:


...Aristotle tries to provide ethics with a firm foundation.  He begins by noting that all human activity aims at some good.  He then argues that for humans happiness is the ultimate good.  Happiness, he claims, is wrongly thought to consist simply in pleasure, wealth, and honor.  Rightly understood, Aristotle argues, happiness is the activity of the soul exhibiting the best and most complete excellence or virtue.[22] 


As W.D. Ross notes, we need to be careful with Aristotle’s terminology here:


the conventional translation ‘happiness’ is unsuitable in the Ethics; for whereas ‘happiness’ means a state of feeling, differing from ‘pleasure’; only by its suggestion of permanence, depth, and serenity, Aristotle insists that eudemonia is a kind of activity; that it is not any kind of pleasure, though pleasure naturally accompanies it.  The more non-committal translation ‘well-being’ is therefore better.  If the question be asked whether Aristotle was a hedonist, it is better to go by his repeated and deliberate statement that the end of life is activity rather than by his use, for want of a better word, of one which suggests not action but feeling.[23] 


In her The Therapy of Desire, Martha Nussbaum maintains that:


eudaimonia is often rendered “happiness”: but this is ·misleading, since it misses the emphasis on activity, and on completeness of life, that is (as Aristotle cogently argues) present in the ordinary use of the Greek term, and wrongly suggests that what is at issue must be a state or feeling of satisfaction.[24] 


In her In her Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Martha Nussbaum maintains that:


…I want to refer directly to the Greek concept of eudaimonia, which is compatible with as many distinct conceptions of what that good is as one cares to propose….[25] 


In addition, John Sellars notes that we must, here, talk about “…a substantive well-being in one’s life, rather than a merely subjective feeling of contentment….sometimes translated as “well-being” or “flourishing”….”[26] 


     Talking about Aristotle and moral virtue means talking about his doctrine of the [golden] mean—what is good is not the same for every individual (a metaphor about athletics and trainers is useful here).  Aristotle believes that we must actually look to the world to see what morality requires:


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. 


416-417 Excellence [virtue], then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this [1107a] 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 that states its essence virtue is a mean, with regard to what is best and right an extreme. 


-417 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.” 


     Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics consists of an extended discussion of various “excess, virtue, deficiency” “triads:”


foolhardiness, courage, and cowardliness;

self-indulgence, self-control, a rare condition for man;

self-indulgence, temperance, and insensibility;

extravagance, generosity, and stinginess;

vulgarity, magnificence, and niggardliness;

pride [pettiness], humility [high mindedness], vanity;

ambition, a nameless mean, and lack of ambition;

short temper, gentleness, and apathy;

obsequiousness, friendliness, and grouchiness;

boastfulness, truthfulness, and self-deception;

buffoonery, ready-wit [wittiness], and boorishness; and

bashfulness, shame, and shamelessness. 


     For Aristotle, the moral virtues are different from the intellectual ones.  They can not be taught directly, but must be lived in order to be learned.  For Aristotle, however, these “moral” virtues are not enough.  Here, unfortunately, we encounter a major “vice” in the selection in our text—the editor does not include Aristotle’s discussion of the intellectual virtues, and, I contend, this is central to understanding his overall theory:


1177a if happiness is activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be that of the best thing in us.  Whether it be reason or something else that is this element which is thought to be our natural ruler and guide and to take thought of things noble and divine, whether it be itself also divine or only the most divine element in us, the activity of this in accordance with its proper virtue will be perfect happiness.  That this activity is contemplative we have already said. 

  Now this would seem to be in agreement both with what we said before and with the truth.  For, firstly, this activity is the best (since not only is reason the best thing in us, but the objects of reason are the best of knowable objects); and secondly, it is the most continuous, since we can contemplate truth more continuously than we can do anything.  And we think happiness has pleasure mingled with it, but the activity of philosophic wisdom is admittedly the pleasantest of virtuous activities; at all events the pursuit of it is thought to offer pleasures marvelous for their purity and their enduringness, and it is to be expected that those who know will pass their time more pleasantly than those who inquire.[27] 


-As David Ross says, “Aristotle...[here] passes from moral to intellectual virtue.  Two reasons make it necessary to study the latter.  (1) The virtuous man has been defined as acting in accordance with the `right’ rule.  The forming of this rule is an intellectual operation and we must consider its nature.  (2) Well-being has been defined as `activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there be more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most perfect.  If we are to know what happiness is, we must consider the nature of the intellectual as well as the moral virtues.”[28] 


-Ultimately, then, for Aristotle contemplation is the essential component of the good life.  Thus, Ross says: “...both theoretical and practical wisdom are good in themselves apart from any good they produce, since they are virtues of distinct parts of the soul; we have been told definitely that theoretical wisdom, and less definitely that practical wisdom, is not, or not only a means to well-being, but in its exercise constitutes well-being.  But we have also learnt that theoretical wisdom is superior to practical and that at any rate part of the latter is that it helps to produce the former.  It is clear that contemplation is for Aristotle the main ingredient in well-being; whether moral action is another ingredient in it or only a means to its production is not so evident.  The doubt is not entirely removed by Book X.  Well-being, we are told, must be activity in accordance with the virtue of the best part of us, which is reason.  The activity of which we are capable, since it is the exercise of the best in us on the best of all objects, those which are eternal and unchanging; is what we can do most continuously; it brings pleasure of wonderful purity and stability; it is least dependent on other men, while moral virtue requires others as the objects of its activity; it alone seems to be loved for itself, while practical activities—notably the greatest of them, the deeds of the statesman and the soldier—aim at goods beyond themselves; it is the life we must ascribe to the gods, since the ascription of moral life to them would be absurd.  But the life of contemplation is too high for us; we cannot live it qua men, beings compounded of body, irrational soul, and reason, but only in virtue of the divine element in us.  We must, as far as may be, `lay hold of eternal life’ by living the life of that which, however small a part of us it be, is the best thing in us, and the most truly ourselves.”[29] 


V. Criticisms of Aristotle’s virtue-ethics:


In his Inventing Right and Wrong, J.L. Mackie contends that:


as guidance about what is the good life, what precisely one ought to do, or even by what standard one should try to decide what one ought to do, this is too circular to be very helpful.  And though Aristotle’s account is filled out with detailed descriptions of many of the virtues, moral as well as intellectual, the air of indeterminacy persists.  We learn the names of the pairs of contrary vices that contrast with each of the virtues, but very little about where or how to draw the dividing lines, where or how to fix the mean.  As Sidgwick says, he “only indicates the whereabouts of virtue.”[30] 


     In his Varieties of Moral Personality: Ethics and Psychological Realism, Owen Flanagan maintains that:


there are two main models of moral excellence in philosophy.  One is the model of the principled reasoner who applies some supreme general-purpose algorithm to all moral problems.  The other is the model of the morally excellent person as the fully virtuous person.  The first model fails to capture the actual psychology of many persons we think of as excellent.  The second picture is, on the interpretation according to which the virtuous person possesses the full complement of the virtues, either an idea we do not understand or one that is incoherent.  The weaker and more credible model that distinguishes among the mandatory and nonmandatory virtues still has three problems.  First, we cannot agree about what to include on which list.  Second, even when there is something approaching agreement, exceptions are normally granted; otherwise saints and exemplars would be few and far between.  Finally, we do not know from a psychological point of view, what a virtue is; how the virtues are individuated; how they interact; how situation sensitive they are; how they are subserved by and interact with cognition, the emotions, and temperament; and how they connect to action.[31]


Flanagan goes on to offer a theory which is to overcome these problems. 


     In his “The Moral First Aid Manual,” Daniel Dennett maintains that much ethical theory is far to “theoretical.” Dennett contends that while there are serious problems with the first sort of theory, the “retreat to an “ethics of virtue” is not an answer:


it is all very well to say, more or less with Aristotle, that if we concentrate our theoretical attentions on Virtue, the process of decision-making will take care of itself (since the Virtuous Person will know how to make morally wise decisions without any need to consult a Manual).  This just passes the buck; how, exactly, is the paragon of Virtue supposed to do this?  This “design” question remains archingly open—it is both theoretically and practically interesting since few of us take ourselves to be beyond improvement in this regard—even if we agree (as we should not, in fact) that the ideally virtuous agent needs no help from our designers.[32] 




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

[1] As David Ross notes, “we need not suppose that it was any attraction to the life of philosophy that drew him to the Academy; he was simply getting the best education that Greece could offer.  Whatever the motive of his joining the school may have been, it is clear that in Plato’s philosophy he found the master-influence of his life” (in David Ross, Aristotle [1923] [fifth edition, 1949] (London: Methuen, 1966), p. 2). 

[2] Martin Ostwald, “Introduction,” in his edited translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962), pp. xi-xxiv, p. xii. 

[3] David Ross notes that “...Aristotle rented some buildings—as an alien he could not buy them—and founded his school.  Here, every morning, he walked up and down with his pupils [hence the name Peripatetics] in the loggie [open covered galleries] or among the trees, and discussed the more abstruse questions of philosophy; and in the afternoon or evening expounded less difficult matters to a larger audience....The more abstract subjects—logic, physics, and metaphysics—required a more intensive study, while subjects such as rhetoric, sophistic, or politics answered a wider demand and could be expounded in a more popular way” (David Ross, Aristotle, op. cit., p. 5). 

[4] Richard McKeon, “Introduction,” in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (N.Y.: Random House, 1941), pp. xi-xxxiv, pp. xiv-xv. 

[5] Christine Korsgaard, “Excellence and Obligation: A Very Concise History of Western Metaphysics 387 BC to 1887 AD,” in The Sources of Normativity, ed. Onora O’Neill (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1996), pp. 1-5, pp. 2-3.  Emphasis added to passage at three points. 

[6] Ibid., pp. 4-5. 

[7] A.R. Caponigri, A History of Western Philosophy: Philosophy From The Renaissance to the Romantic Age (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame, 1963), p. 152. 

[8] Michael Matthews, The Scientific Background to Modern Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989), p. 6—the emphasis is mine. 

[9] Teleological explanations occur when past and present events are explained in terms of future events (they are “goal-oriented” explanations).  They are often contrasted with mechanical explanations which hold that present and future events are to be explained in terms of past mechanical events and their consequences. The contrast is well-stated by Wilber Long in his entry under “teleology” in Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Dagobert Runes (N.Y.: Philosophical Library, 1960), p. 315. 


[10] Martin Ostwald, “Introduction,” op. cit., p. xvii. 

[11] W.T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy: The Classical Mind (second edition) (N.Y.: Harcourt, 1970), pp. 234-235. 

[12] Aristotle, Historia Animalium (The History of Animals), 561a, ff, trans. J.A. Smith, in The Works of Aristotle, eds. J.A. Smith and W.D. Ross (Clarendon: Oxford, 1910-1952), v. 2 (1930). 

[13] W.D. Ross, Aristotle, op. cit., p. 115. 

[14] W.D. Ross, “Introduction,” op. cit., p. xxiii.  Ross notes that “the subtle changes which gradually made natural functions into grades of perfection of being, scientific classifications into metaphysical forms, and finally made observation seem otiose in science, and dialectic seem over-subtle play with fictions in metaphysics, were initiated in the Greek commentators on his works.  They were later developed and elaborated by medieval philosophers, and the consequences of those changes have more frequently than what Aristotle himself said, furnished objects for the rhetorical refutations constructed to lay the ghost of Aristotelian science during the Renaissance and often repeated in subsequent centuries.  Whatever the virtues or defects of Aristotle’s physical treatises, they depend on the separation of metaphysics from physics, not on the merging of the two sciences, and although the conception of a continuous scale of nature from inorganic substances to biological and psychological phenomena is of basic importance in all his science, explanation does not consist in running uniformly up the hierarchy of beings to God or in reducing, for all problems, functions to organs and organs to their material elements” (ibid., p. xxii). 

[15] W.D. Ross, Aristotle, op. cit., pp. 189-190. 

[16] Martin Ostwald, “Introduction,” op. cit, p. xii.  David Ross notes that when he left Athens after Plato’s death, Aristotle “...accepted an invitation from a former fellow-student in the Academy, Hermeias, who had risen from being a slave to the ruler of Atarneus and Assos in Mysia, and had there gathered round him a small Platonic circle.  In this circle Aristotle spent three years.  He married Pythias, the niece and adopted daughter of Hermeias, who bore him a daughter of the same name and seems to have died during his later stay in Athens.  After her death he entered into a permanent and affectionate though unlegalized union with a native of Stagira [Aristotle’s town of birth], Herpyllis, and had by her a son, Nicomachus....” (David Ross, Aristotle, op. cit., p. 3). 

[17] The page references here are to the selection from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, translated by W.D. Ross [1908],  Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, ii.2.1103b, trans. W.D. Ross [1930], revised by J.L. Acknill and J.O. Urmson, in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition), eds. Louis Pojman and James Fieser (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011), p. 413.  As Richard McKeon notes (in his “Introduction,” in his The Basic Works of Aristotle, op. cit., pp. xi-xxxiv, p. viii), “the pagination of the Bekker edition of the Greek text of Aristotle [1831-1870], which is published in…the five volumes of the Berlin edition, has become the customary means to locate a passage in Aristotle....”  Thus the above reference is to Chapter 2 of Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, the second column (b) of page 1103.  The editors of our text do not use the standard references. 

[18] W.D. Ross, Aristotle, op. cit., p. 239.  The reference to Phillip II’s defeat of Thebes and Athens in 338 B.C.E. which helped cement his control of Greece and set the stage for his son, Alexander the Great, to build an empire. 

[19] Cf., Martha Nussbaum, “Aristotelian Social Democracy,” in Liberalism and the Good, eds. G. Mara and H. Richardson (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 201-252, p. 233. 

[20] To understand what he has to say about virtue, we must first make certain we do not misunderstand his use of ‘soul’—we see this word through a two thousand year filter of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.  He does not use it in this fashion (or, better perhaps, this two thousand year use is an adaptation of his [and Plato’s] use of the term). 

[21] W.D. Ross, Aristotle, op. cit.,  p. 129. 

[22] James Sterba, “Introduction” to his selection from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in Sterba’s Social and Political Philosophy: Classical Western Texts in Feminist and Multicultural Perspectives (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1995), pp. 39-41, pp. 39-40. 

[23] W.D. Ross, Aristotle, op. cit., p. 190.  Emphasis added to passage. 

[24] Martha Nussbaum The Therapy of Desire (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1994), p. 15. 

[25] Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2001), p. 31, footnote. 

[26] John Sellars, Stoicism (Chesham: Acumen, 2006), p. 123. 

[27] Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea, trans. W.D. Ross, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon, op. cit., x.7.1177a, p.1104. 

[28] David Ross, Aristotle, op. cit., p. 215. 

[29] Ibid., pp. 232-233. 

[30] J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (N.Y.: Penguin, 1977), p. 186.  Cited by Pojman in his “Virtue-Based Ethical Systems,” op. cit., p. 374. 

[31] Owen Flanagan, Varieties of Moral Personality: Ethics and Psychological Realism (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1991), pp. 11-12.  . 

[32] Daniel Dennett, “The Moral First Aid Manual,” in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values v. 8, ed. Sterling M. McMurrin (Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah, 1988), pp. 121-147, p. 131, footnote. 

Last revised on: 11/07/2013

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