Thoughts on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

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I am currently doing a project that requires some background knowledge of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Instead of giving you a summary (because that would take too long), I thought I’d mention what stood out to me in the work.

The Nicomachean Ethics (c. 300 BCE) is roughly divided into four sections: Virtue, Justice, Pleasure, and Friendship. Aristotle’s greatest contribution to the West is arguably in the area of virtue ethics, although his Metaphysics and Politics were also influential. I decided to do my project on the Ethics because it’s a work that I have wanted to read ever since I finished The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I am fascinated by studies on habit formation. Graduate school should be about reading difficult things, so I often choose to do my term papers on texts that I have been putting off reading.

On to the book…

Moral Virtue
I love that Aristotle defines virtue as an action. It’s not an intention or a feeling. Virtuous people ACT virtuously. Although moral virtue has a natural component, it is mostly the result of habit. If you want to be courageous, you have to practice acting courageously by taking on projects that make you uncomfortable. According to Aristotle, true philosophers are not merely theoreticians. They walk the walk too.

Aristotle argues that all humans seek the good because it brings them happiness. We do everything for happiness, but not all actions can make us truly happy. Every virtue involves choice and is the mean of two extremes. The middle-path can be difficult to discern, but it leads to the greatest happiness.

There were a few things, however, that put me off to Aristotle’s teachings in this section. First, love is not listed as one of the moral virtues. Second, pride is described as the root of all virtue (!). And finally, men alone have the capacity to be virtuous. When Aristotle says “men”, he means men. Women are described as under-developed men (lovely, I know).

Unfortunately, the only notes I made in my book on this topic concern teachings that I dislike. Aristotle thinks that fathers cannot act unjustly toward their children because offspring are the equivalent of a “man’s chattel” until they can live on their own.

He also does some victim-blaming in the subsection on anger. An angry man is less guilty than the one who provoked his anger: “[F]or it is not the man who acts in anger but he who enraged him that starts the mischief”. Still, it is worth pointing out yet again that justice is not an inner disposition but an action. I’m sure Aristotle addresses political justice in more depth in The Politics.

This is arguably the most confusing section of the book. The end-notes of my Oxford World’s Classics edition describes the scholarly confusion surrounding Aristotle’s teaching on incontinence. I did, however, gather a few things from this section.

Only humans are capable of being continent because only humans have the capacity for universal judgement. Men become incontinent when sleep, anger, or alcohol impede their judgment. Incontinence, like vice, is an excess. I appreciated that Aristotle didn’t try to address a myriad of individual cases, but admitted that many situations require discernment.

Aristotle is not opposed to pleasure. In fact, he thinks it’s impossible for a person to be happy while experiencing torture (against the Stoics).

Those who say that the victim on the rack or the man who falls into great misfortunes is happy if he is good are, whether they mean to or not, talking nonsense.

I agree. I can certainly see people acting courageously in difficult situations, but they aren’t happy.

Pleasure is not evil in itself because “all things have by nature something divine in them”. Pleasure only leads to vice if it is taken to an extreme. Only if pleasure obstructs a person’s ability to reason or to behave temperately is it harmful.

This is, hands-down, my favorite section of the book. Aristotle defines a friend as a second self. For a man to be happy, he needs friends because humans are meant for community. Consequently, a healthy state functions as a kind of friendship between the leader and the people. In the 16th century, Montaigne will disagree that any kind of friendship can exist in a hierarchical relationship, but Aristotle things that equality does not necessarily mean that everyone should be treated in the same way. While I am more inclined to agree with Montaigne’s definition of equality, I appreciate the communal/political dimension Aristotle gives to the concept of friendship. He makes it clear that friendship requires justice. It is justice that creates equality in a hierarchical relationship.

Reciprocity is central to a good friendship. Bad friends only care about what they can get from another person. They are compared to tyrants who use others for their own benefit. The best friendship is between two virtuous men, but all true friendships are pleasurable and good.

Parting Thoughts
In the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne will develop Aristotle’s teachings on friendship in his essay “Of Friendship“.  This beautiful meditation is inspired by Montaigne’s life-long friendship to Etienne de La Boétie.

Aristotle is at his best when he makes general observations about human behavior. If you are interested in habit formation or virtue ethics, I recommend The Nicomachean Ethics. It is a good place to begin.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics”

  1. Wonderful review, Fariba. I have enjoyed it a lot. (I was supposed to read this in college, but never did, maybe now. It’s never too late, right?)

  2. An excellent book that always merits a revisit. I remember in college, there were many debates about the “virtue of pride”. It may be helpful to note that the pride described is not hubris but “megalopsyche”, so that it could be better rendered “magnanimity” or “greatness of soul”. Although he gives some characteristics that are less essential (but still make great aphorisms “the magnanimous man is never in a hurry”; “the magnanimous always speaks in a deep voice”), the most essential characteristic is having a right estimation of one’s own capacity for greatness; in this way one will neither squander their ability on the one hand or aim for things above them on the other.

    I think the discussion of continence and incontinence is difficult due to typical translation choices, but the idea there is basically that not every is simply virtuous or vicious: people are often closer to the middle, so that they do bad things out of weakness and good things because they are more convenient. A professor said “The continent man usually does not get drunk, except on his birthday. In the incontinent man usually gets drunk, except maybe on his wife’s birthday.”

    I’m glad you enjoyed it! Oh–I remembered one more thing. You mentioned how Aristotle does not include “love” among his moral virtues, but…he spends two whole books on friendship! I too always thought it was strange that he seemed to neglect love, but I really think now that the section on friendship fills that gap. Thomas Aquinas defines the theological virtue of love/charity as “friendship with God”, so it is reasonable to see the friendship of books 8/9 as the human equivalent of this virtue.

    1. I apologize for responding so late to your wonderful comment. I am currently working on a project that looks at the reception of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in Montaigne’s Essays. Thank you for the correction about pride. I falsely assume that pride always referred to hubris in the classical world. Pride as Aristotle describes it (magnanimity) would be a good thing. I recall reading an article in which Montaigne’s magnanimity is discussed. I have recently become interested in reading Aquinas (thanks to Deny’s Turner’s biography) . I am aware that he included charity as a theological virtue, but I haven’t read the sections of the Summa on ethics. I’m definitely Team Aristotle.

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