Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
There is perhaps no pursuit more quintessential to human existence than that of happiness and a meaningful life. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle examines the many facets of life that bring virtue and contentment. He queries what it means to be good, just, and ethical. These questions are as relevant now as they were then. Seeking one’s purpose in life will always be a key element of human nature.
Aristotle begins his musings by explaining that happiness is the motivation for every human action, but every person’s idea of happiness differs. Some seek happiness in pleasure, others in honor, and still others in contemplation. Despite the reasons for one’s happiness, every action taken is done so because it is believed it will bring them closer to it. Aristotle himself describes happiness as “the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world” (Ross). To better understand happiness, one must first know what it means to be virtuous, because as Aristotle says, “happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue” (Ross). He goes on to discuss the nature of virtue and all the aspects of life in which one can find happiness.
According to Aristotle, happiness is in accordance with virtue, therefore navigating between excess and deficiency to find virtue will ultimately lead to a good life. As he says, “the intermediate state is in all things to be praised” (Ross). Aristotle theorizes that many aspects of personality exist on two equal and opposite ends of a spectrum, which “introduce the necessity of choice” (Mysen 35). He asserts that finding moderation is the key to living a virtuous life. If pain and pleasure are on opposite ends of the scale, a temperate man will moderately desire pleasure, but not be pained by the absence of it. Either of these extremes can be dangerous, as pain “upsets and destroys the nature of the person who feels it” and pleasure can create appetites that are “strong and violent” (Ross). However, it is not enough to find this moderation on occasion, because “the good life will consist of habituation and consecutiveness” (Mysen 44). The theme of finding the mean between two extremes will continue to be expanded upon in further chapters.
In book five, Aristotle goes on to speak of justice. He discussed how to achieve virtue thoroughly in the last chapters, and now describes justice as “the actual exercise of complete virtue” (Ross). Although he specifies that there are several types of justice, and that being just will help one become virtuous, and vice versa. Happiness and virtue are habits that are formed over a lifetime, so is a sense of justice. Therefore, laws exist to “command and forbid the right actions at the right times for the right purposes and habituate people on the course to becoming self-sufficient in the matter” (Mysen 84). According to Aristotle, when the legal justice system is doing its job it should serve as a guideline to help people create just habits over time. Building on the theme that happiness is voluntary, he also claims that acting justly is voluntary. If a man acts unjustly by mistake or as an act of passion, it is a part of human nature and should be forgiven. But if he knowingly acts against the good of another, “he is an unjust and vicious man” (Ross). Aristotle’s ideas about justice being a compendium of all virtues, that is both voluntary and habitual ties back to themes presented in earlier chapters.
Aristotle goes on to discuss the virtues of the soul, as opposed to the moral virtues previously mentioned. He lists the five virtues the soul possesses as art, scientific knowledge, practical wisdom, philosophic wisdom, and intuitive reason. Art is the act of creation and is variable. There is no correct way to make or experience art. Scientific knowledge, however, is the understanding of what is “universal and necessary” (Ross), not varying. Philosophic wisdom is not changing and takes years of experience to understand. Intuition is always changing and does not need to be learned. It is the skill to make the right decision at the right time to achieve the greater good. Practical wisdom is the virtue he dwells upon the longest. It is not as rare or remarkable as philosophic wisdom, because it is possessed by all living things. Aristotle presents something of a paradox by saying that “it is not possible to be good in the strict sense without practical wisdom, nor practically wise without virtue” (Ross). It is the possession of all of these virtues of the soul that can help one to achieve completeness.
Much has been said about navigating between virtue and vice, pain and pleasure, and in book seven Aristotle elaborates on this theme. He describes four types of men; temperate, intemperate, continent, and incontinent. Of these, he says intemperance is the worst because an intemperate man will choose vice even though he has the ability to reason against it. He forgives the incontinent man because he is swayed by passions and desires. While he does not glorify pleasure seeking, he acknowledges that it is an incontrovertible part of human nature. He does warn against self-indulgence, but says that an incontinent man will repent and be forgiven, while an intemperate man will not. Neither pain nor pleasure is inherently good or evil, so it is acceptable and even encouraged to experience both. Ending with the thought that “the life of a good man will not be pleasanter than that of anyone else, if his activities are not more pleasant” (Ross).
Aristotle spends the next two books ruminating on the meaning and importance of friendship. There are three types of friendships; those formed from love, pleasure, and usefulness. Bonds formed from love are true and lasting. Those formed from pleasure are likely to dissolve if one party stops finding the other to be agreeable. Bonds formed for the sake of usefulness are the most brittle. He notes that “when the motive for friendship is done away, the friendship is dissolved, inasmuch as it existed only for the ends in question” (Ross). True friendships are virtuous because each friend wishes good for the other and helps the other to achieve good ends. A true friend doesn’t only love their friend, but “also loves the activity of bestowing the good, feeling it enriching to create a good that is separate from oneself, which now belongs to the other person” (Mysen 101). Aristotle asserts that even a man possessing every virtue, wealth, health, and pleasure cannot be truly happy without friendship. Humans are inherently social creatures and need friendship in order to be fulfilled.
Aristotle concludes his musings with some final thoughts about pleasure, virtue, and contemplation. He notes that pursuing pleasurable outcomes for virtuous reasons is a key to happiness. But most human pleasures are not constant and men spend a great deal of time pursuing new ones. Contemplation is the only pleasure that is constant and self-sustaining, thus it is the highest of all virtues, meeting all of the previously mentioned qualifications of happiness. Engaging in contemplation is “in fact, superhuman, and so the philosopher lives a life that is superhuman” (Bush 64).
One might be tempted to think that the philosophies of a man who lived so long ago would not be applicable to the world today. However, Aristotle’s ideas about man’s purpose in life and how to find happiness are universal to all human beings. It is a valid system of ethics because it is not limited by the scope of time or location. Every person wants to do some good in the world and find pleasure in their lives. As long as this is the case Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics will still be relevant.