Nicomachean Ethics

An important concept to help us understand Aristotles Ethics is what the Greeks called telos, or the ultimate goal. Aristotle believed that there is teleology in Nature. When he was investigating plants and animals as part of his biological work, Aristotle would ask what purpose do various aspects of plants and animals serve, to what end do they exist. Humans too are animals but they are rational animals, according to Aristotle. Reason or rationality is our telos. The purpose of our lives is to give an expression to reason, to fulfill reason. We have to strive to live, think, and behave more and more in accordance with ways of reason. If we fail to do so, the point of our existence is lost. When we behave rationally, each of our activities has purpose and a higher end.

Our actions are a means to achieve something, and that something can be generally considered as the good. We make an effort to move from point A to point B because point B has something better, i.e., more of good, than point A. And when we reach point B, we are more happy than we were at point A. The quantity of our happiness is increased. So it is reasonable to conclude that happiness is the highest good of human existence. Happiness is an end in itself.

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.

Happiness is the chief good. Our activities are means to increase the degree of our happiness. In Ethics, Aristotle has undertaken the task of answering the question of how to achieve more happiness in our lives.

Before we proceed further in our exploration of Aristotles Ethics, it may be useful to consider some background information regarding Aristotle and Greece, in the context of morality. Ancient Greece was the first great Western civilization, but it still had many barbaric and superstitious aspects. It was also a society that constantly engaged in wars. It is true that Athens was a good democratic city-state, and around the 5th century B.C., during the times of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, it enjoyed a golden age. Despite this, the fact remains that Athens was heavily based on slave labor and pitiless exploitation of fellow beings. The ancient Greeks looked down upon fellow beings while at the same time they worshipped a great number of imaginary, mythological beings as gods. Athens may have reached the heights of philosophical thinking in the ancient world, but we must remember that these Greek philosophers did not oppose or fight the injustices that existed in their society. On the other hand, they sometimes tried to provide justifications for all the evil and suffering that was going on in their midst. Aristotle, especially, provided a complete rationale for treating fellow beings very inhumanly. Aristotle talks much about justice and equality in his Ethics, but according to him slaves did not possess any soul, so they could not even be considered properly human. A majority of these slaves were prisoners of wars waged with neighboring states. So it would mean that only Athenians (and perhaps Macedonians, since Aristotle was a native of Macedonia) possessed a soul. Even here, only the upper-class citizens of the society, and only males in that population, had a truly human soul. Females were greatly suppressed, they had a very low status in the society. They too did not posses a soul. Aristotle further spread the bias against women by saying that women were matter and did not have a form, meaning they did not have a spirit. Aristotle said many things which express his low opinion of women. He is famous for asserting that women had lesser number of teeth than men Bertrand Russell remarked in this context that Aristotle could have just counted his wifes teeth and found out for himself that this was not the case. Hundreds of years after Aristotle, women in Europe had suffered greatly when people considered this Greek thinker as the official philosopher of the Church women were treated in a very bad way during the Dark Ages. Therefore we may wonder what authority an individual like Aristotle has to talk about higher things in life like the good and the beautiful, virtue, happiness, justice and so on, because he was directly responsible for so much suffering in the world. It is not that Aristotle was a hypocrite in talking about ethics while at the same time promoting very shocking ethical norms it is only that though he was one of the greatest philosophers and thinkers of the world, he was in many ways a product of his times and could not break out of the mold of the general Greek outlook of life. If we study the Ethics with these limitations of its author in mind, perhaps the work can make better sense.

At the beginning, Aristotle admits that this kind of study is by its very nature rather broad and vague. There cannot be any standard principles as in the study of mathematics or geometry, for example. Though many of Aristotles views were turned into doctrine and dogma many centuries after his life, Aristotle is not trying to be dogmatic in this book. Through his work, Aristotle is simply sharing his thoughts and views in order to enable us to think more clearly on a subject of great importance to our lives. This type of open philosophical enquiry, which is very different from the very dogmatic approach that every other society of the ancient world practiced, was the greatest glory of Ancient Greece. But sadly the Greek mind could not realize its own potential. Reason was highly praised by many of its philosophers (the others were mystics), but in real life reason could be followed only up to a certain extent.

Aristotle proceeds with his enquiry. He makes a simple observation that an individual can experience happiness when he behaves in right ways and for the right reasons. But how would be a person made to do what is right According to Aristotle, it is the inner virtue of a person which makes him act in the right ways and take pleasure in doing so. This inner virtue, however, needs to be brought out and cultivated. And hence there is the need of intention and effort on the part of an individual to cultivate a virtuous character.

We normally think of virtue in terms of a persons actions. I may have the desire to steal a thing from my friend, but as long as I do not put it into action, I am on the path of virtue. However, Aristotle views virtue as the disposition of a person. The Greek term arete used for virtue is a very broad concept. It not only refers to virtuous and admirable qualities of a persons character, but also those of the intellect. In addition, it may refer to any kind of natural aptitude or skill. For example, for a wrestler the primary virtue lies in his physical strength. It is his arete. In short, those qualities of an individual which can enable him to realize his unique potential as a human being can be considered as virtues  and they will lead him to happiness when they are cultivated and implemented with serious effort.

The Greek term for happiness too has rather broad implications. It is in fact not very much like happiness as we think of it. It is something closer in meaning to success or fulfillment. It is something that needs to be achieved through effort and action. Therefore, happiness itself is seen more as an activity rather than as an inner state of being. Here the meaning is that true happiness can only be found in success in the society, not in simply enjoying life in any way one pleases. This way of thinking was not unique to Aristotle but it was the general way in which the Greeks looked at life. The city-states of ancient Greece were very strong social units here even happiness could only be achieved in a social context. An individuals existence was an integral part of the collective existence. It may be difficult for us to understand, but the Greeks did not attach much importance to the personal life of an individual. Therefore happiness was not considered to be an inner personal feeling or experience, as it is the case with us in the modern world. In Greek society, happiness was the result of a persons position in the society. This means that a successful and highly regarded citizen of the Greek city-state was happier than another person who has not reached his status.
Aristotle says, in Book 1, chapter 13

 Since happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue, we must consider the nature of virtue for perhaps we shall thus see better the nature of happiness. The true student of politics, too, is thought to have studied virtue above all things for he wishes to make his fellow citizens good and obedient to the laws.

It is clear that when Aristotle is talking about ethics, he is basically talking about it in a public social framework. The last book of Ethics is titled Politics, and this in itself shows how important politics and social participation were to Aristotle. In Greek view of life, a person achieves happiness when he lives according to the expectations of the society and fulfills his duties well. When we keep this in mind, it would be easy to understand why Aristotle places so much emphasis on virtue as a means to achieve happiness. Generally, we associate wealth, or love, or sensual pleasure or power and prestige and so on with happiness. Aristotle too recognizes this, but he downgrades these ways of achieving happiness. To him, virtue is the most important thing  why We know why Christians, for example, place a great emphasis on the concepts of virtue and sin this is simply because sin and disbelief lead us to hell after we die, while virtue and belief lead us to heaven. Greeks did not have a highly developed concept of afterlife as their neighboring Egyptians did, for instance. So the purpose of cultivating virtue was not to become a saint or an angel and reach heaven, but simply to promote the well-being of the society. I may ask why I should be so much concerned about the well-being of the society, but in Ancient Greece such a question could not be easily asked because the life of a person was very closely integrated with the society that he is a part of. The individuals existence was not clearly separated from the collective existence. In fact, this was the way it was in most ancient societies, and Greeks could be even seen as being rather modern if we go by the standards of the ancient world. Individualism simply did not exist in those times, it is mostly a modern concept.
An individuals existence is defined in terms of his participation in the collective effort, therefore an individuals happiness is dependent upon the well-being of the society. And there is only one way to achieve true happiness, by being useful to the society. Most self-help thinkers of today, for instance, advocate that happiness is a simple thing and that it can be achieved simply by positive thinking or a change in ones attitude, but they are talking in a language that Aristotle would not have understood. For Aristotle, happiness can only result by following a way of life that can lead to a more prosperous society.

The Greek word hexis refers to the state of being, and happiness is not hexis. Happiness is energeia, or a dynamic activity. Interestingly, virtue is hexis. We possess virtues or the seeds of virtue inside us, and when we cultivate and follow those virtues and implement them in action, happiness results. Here, happiness is still not a state of being, rather it is the activity of right kind of living. In order to achieve happiness, or rather practice happiness, it is very important for a man to act in accordance with the virtuousness of his character.

Normally, ethics is the study of morality what is the good type of action and what is the bad type. However, since Aristotle sees virtue not as lying in outward action, but in the inner character of a person, he does not preach about good actions, he only presents what make up a good character and tendencies of behavior. Although the English word ethics comes from the Greek ethos, the original word in Greek does not signify morality, it means character. Aristotles Ethics is therefore to a great extent a study of the ideal character. Good action naturally flows out of good character. And good action leads to happiness.

A good character can have several good aspects. But soul or psuche goes deeper than a persons character. It is the deepest essence of our being. And according to Aristotle, a human being (that is to say, an upper-class Athenian citizen) possessed a rational soul. Therefore the supreme good of human existence lies in living ones life in the light of reason.

Being human, we have a rational soul and therefore we seek to realize our inner potential. To do this, we need to exercise our judgment and put in the right kind of effort to cultivate various virtues.  We have the potential to be morally virtuous, but it needs to be brought out through effort and practice so that it becomes a natural tendency or disposition in us. Normally, in ethical considerations we emphasize on the actions. We need a good character so that good action can come out of it. The emphasis is on the action part or on the nature of the particular acts. However, for Aristotle, the emphasis is on the character. We have to behave in the right way so that our character can develop. If we have a great moral character, good actions as a rule flow from it.  Therefore actions are secondary.

Besides moral virtue there is what Aristotle calls intellectual virtue it means learning, acquiring knowledge, improving logical thinking, and becoming more wise. As reason is the very soul of our being, it is very important to develop our intellect in order to be truly virtuous. In Aristotelian worldview, a highly educated person or a keen thinker is a virtuous person whether or not he exhibits what we can consider a well-developed moral side. Aristotle gives interesting examples of the great pre-Socratic philosophers Thales and Anaxagoras. Aristotle agrees that they were keen explorers of nature and they possessed deep wisdom. However, according to Aristotle, they may have lacked practical judgment, which is also an intellectual virtue. Still, because wisdom is a higher virtue than practical judgment, these people can be considered to be highly virtuous even if their practical actions did not show a good sense of judgment.

Book VI of Ethics is devoted to intellectual virtues. Of course, all the other great works of Aristotle on philosophy and sciences can be of much help for the cultivation of intellectual virtue. A large part of Ethics is, however, focused on the cultivating of moral virtue. Aristotle does not offer moral commandments though. There are no thou shalt do this and thou shalt not do this. One has to obey what ones reason says and follow the right course of action in each specific situation. But reason may not be sufficient in many practical situations, one has to therefore follow ones intuition and conscience, which are products of right upbringing in the right kind of society.

Practical circumstances constantly change, what may be a good thing to do in a particular situation may not be the right thing in just a slightly different situation. Hence there cannot be any fixed guidelines for conduct. Aristotle however offers some broad criteria. The notion of mean is a very important thing for Aristotle. One has to generally strive to create a balance between the extremes. Even too much of a good thing can be bad. For example, courage is good, but if practiced in excess it could turn into rashness. And rashness is as undesirable as cowardice. One has to constantly strive to find the mean by using reason

Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.

Another important thing which can lead us on the path of virtue and happiness is controlling our desire for pleasure. Aristotle is not against seeking pleasure, like Stoics are for example. Aristotle simply says one has to follow moderation. For example, a mature person can get much more pleasure from eating moderately than an ordinary person will get by fully indulging in his appetites.

Another chief characteristic of virtue is that it is not a static thing. It is growing and evolving. Therefore a virtuous man is constantly striving to learn from his mistakes and improve the quality of his virtue.  

Cultivation of intellect and reason is a virtue in itself, but Aristotle admits that reason cannot always be a good guide in the practice of moral virtue. Usually it is not very difficult to see what is right and what is wrong using the logic of reason. But practicing what is right does not always follow from simply realizing what is right. Practicing follows more from the right upbringing, the right kind of influences in our life, and the right kind of training we have received in the past. It is very rare for an evil man to change his ways simply by thinking about and realizing what is good and what is evil. The force of habit continues to drive him on the path of evil. In the case of Aristotle himself, even if he contemplated deeply and realized that all men were born equal, it would not have been easy for him to pay his servants well and treat them with respect as fellow human beings. As such, Aristotle admits the limited role of reason in the cultivation of various virtues, because they depend very much on the local customs, ways of living, and ways of raising children. The notions of morality  what is good and what is bad  differ from society to society. Aristotles own conceptions of virtue and vice as presented in this book are heavily influenced by the Athenian outlook toward life. Aristotle does not intend to give his conceptions of morality, such as temperance, gentleness, truthfulness, friendliness, or his other opinions a valid rational justification.

However, toward the end of the volume, Aristotle takes care to stress on the importance of reason. The highest good of human life lies in rational contemplation, by practicing which we achieve our telos. This is what gives the highest happiness for a human being. Contemplation is the what gods do, and when we humans do that, we are closest to gods

Therefore the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness. (Book 10, chapter 8)

However, everyone cannot be a philosopher. And even for people who have contemplative tendencies it not possible to practice contemplation all the time and we have to lead a practical life in the real world, we need to consider upon various matters of ethical behavior so that a persons happiness and a societys well-being are increased.


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