Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics Summary and Analysis
Every human action aims at some good, and the good which is chosen for its own sake rather than as means to an end is the highest good. Ethics is a part of politics, which is the most authoritative and architectonic science. An inquiry into ethics should not be expected to have the same sort of precision as a mathematical inquiry, because the nature of the subject-matter is different. A proper student of ethics must already have substantial life experience and training in virtue; otherwise he will not profit from the subject because he is more inclined to listen to his passions than to reason.
The highest good is happiness, which means living well. There is a dispute as to what constitutes happinesswhether it is pleasure, honor, health, wealth, knowledge or something else. If a student's ethical habits are not good, he will be hindered from accepting ethical knowledge.
Some think that happiness is to be found in pleasure, others that it is to be found in honor, and others that it is to be found in contemplation. Happiness is not found in living for pleasure because such a life is slavish. Nor is it found in seeking honor because honor depends not on the person but on what others think of him. The contemplative life will be examined later.
The Good cannot is not a universal Idea, as the Platonists claim, because this universal Idea does not encompass the range of things are considered good and had no practical ramifications.
Each actions aims at some end specific to it. Some ends are for the sake of other things, but the highest good must be complete, an end in itself. The highest good should also be self-sufficient. Happiness fits these criteria.
To decide what happiness is, it is necessary to determine what the function of man is, because excellence consists in performing one's function well. Man's function is that which sets him apart from all other beings, an action which only human beings can perform. Thus the function of man is activity of the soul according to reason. Acting according to reason means acting virtuously. Therefore to good for man is activity of the soul "according to the best and most complete virtue."
Happiness is the first from principle from which our inquiry will advance. Precision in its definition should be sought in accordance with the nature of the concept.
There are three types of goods: external, those of the soul and those of the body. Those of the soul are most important, and a person's actions fall into this category.
Our definition of happiness includes all the other things that people commonly think of as the goodvirtue, prudence, wisdom, pleasure, etc. Noble actions are inherently pleasant to a virtuous man. The good, the noble and the pleasant are all interconnected, because they all go along with the best activities, the best of which is happiness. Happiness also requires a minimal amount of external goods.
The end of politics is the highest good, and consequently politics must try to cultivate dispositions to noble actions in citizens. Strictly speaking, only human beings with full use of reason (not animals or even small children) can be considered happy because happiness is action in accordance with reason.
Happiness consists in a complete life lived according to virtue. It is difficult to say whether the happiness of a person after death should depend on the fortunes of his descendants. Another difficulty is that a noble person may suffer external misfortunes which lessen his happiness. However, a virtuous person will endure misfortunes much better than an ignoble one. Therefore regardless of external circumstances no happy person will ever wretched, because to be wretched one must do something hateful or bad.
Happiness is the principle of actions and the cause of all good things. It is thus worthy of honor.
Because happiness is an activity of the soul according to virtue, it is necessary to examine human virtue. Something is considered to have reason in two senses: that which has reason in itself and that which listens to reason. These two senses are the origin of the distinction between intellectual and ethical virtues, respectively.
Aristotle begins his study on ethics by asserting that there is some ultimate good which is both complete and self-sufficient, and defines this good as happiness.
There must be one final end of all human actions, because a human action by definition is one that is done on purpose and for a definite goal. Note that there are some actions performed by human beingssuch as digestion or respirationwhich are not human actions per se. A human action is the type of action that separates human beings from animals, because it involves the use of reason and intelligence. An action may be performed for a limited goal, but that goal is a means to larger goal which is a means to another even larger goal, and so on, until one reaches the final goal which is desired for its own sake. All lesser goods, such as wealth, honor, fame, glory, pleasure, et cetera are not desired for themselves but in order to attain happiness. That this supreme good is happiness has never really been a cause of dispute, for according to Aristotle, "we may almost say that the great majority of mankind are agreed about this; for both the multitude and persons of refinement speak of it as Happiness, and conceive the good life' or doing well' to be the same thing as being happy." It is important to note that the Greek word "eudamonia" which is usually translated as "happiness" has no fully accurate translation in English and is not a state of being but an action of living well, and can also be translated as "blessedness" or "well-being."
The debate among philosophers, however, begins when considering what constitutes happiness. Aristotle holds that the happiness of man can be defined by determining the function proper to man. This function cannot be one which plants and animals also perform, because it must be particular to human beings. Therefore, man's function must be a part of the practical life of the rational part of man, the term practical implying purposeful conduct, which is possible only for rational beings. It follows, then, that happiness consists in the action of the rational part of man, the soul. The ultimate good of man should naturally flow from performing his function well; therefore, as Aristotle theorizes, "the Good of man [and, by extension, the definition of happiness] is the active exercise of his soul's faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several human excellences or virtues, in conformity with the best and most perfect among them." To constitute true happiness this action must persist with continuity throughout a lifetime.
This chapter also brings up several noteworthy features of Aristotle's thought in general. First of all, he insists on seeking precision in an inquiry only within the limits set by the nature of the inquiry itself. Therefore while one should expect perfect precision in a subject like mathematics, one should not expect ethics to be so exact, or doubt the validity of conclusions about ethics because their precision is not at the level of mathematical precision.
Second, the idea that a person needs to be virtuous in order to understand ethics is an important feature in Aristotle's argument. Studying ethics requires the use of practical reason and ought to result in actions that accord with ethical principles. If a person does not live virtuously, his reason is not disposed to accept the logic of ethical arguments and is even less disposed to put ethical principles into action, which is an imperative of practical reason. Practical rationality, connected with the virtue of "phronesis," most commonly translated as prudence, is discussed in greater depth in Chapter Six.
Finally, for those with an interest in the differences between Platonic and Aristotelian thought, section four is particularly important. While Plato considers the only true Good to be the universal form which exists only in the realm of ideas, Aristotle rejects Plato's characterization. Aristotle thinks that the good is the end of human action in general and should therefore have practical ramifications for the way a person should act.
A final note on this chapter is to call attention to the classical conception of virtue in general, as it is quite at odds with the modern conception. Aristotle, along with other classical (and also medeival) philosophers saw the need to act in accordance with virtue not as the result of external societal or cultural constraints upon a person but rather as an integral part of the person's nature. Acting virtuously is therefore simply acting as a human being is designed to act, and will therefore result in that person's living wellthat is, happiness. A second feature of the classical conception of virtue which is alluded to in the first chapter is the idea of the unity of the virtues. All of the virtues reinforce each other and overlap in many ways, such that growth in one virtue is to some extent growth in all virtues and vice versa. Justice (discussed more fully in Chapter 5) is the integration of all the virtues. Because the virtues are united, there can never be a genuine conflict between them. Finally, virtue is considered to be the goal of politics in Aristotle's philosophy. Aristotle's work, The Politics, is based upon this idea and is inseparable from his entire ethical theory. To be fully understood, The Nicomachean Ethics and The Politics must be studied in reference to one another because each depends on and completes the other.
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