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…
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.
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.