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Nicomachean Ethics

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle consists of 10 books that explore the best way to live. The work was compiled from a collection of notes based on Aristotle’s lectures at his school, the Lyceum. The philosopher was a student of Plato and an observational scientist. Nicomachean Ethics provides a roadmap for achieving happiness, which is not wealth or gratification, but the “good soul” that is a product of virtue. In this work, Aristotle defines virtues and explores their role in contributing to happiness and the common good. Aristotle is considered one of the fathers of contemporary science and philosophy. Nicomachean Ethics is lauded for its lasting resonance and for creating a foundation for Western philosophy.

This guide utilizes the third edition of Terence Irwin’s translation, which was published in 2019. Irwin is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the University of Oxford.

Plot Summary

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is an exploration of how to best live. Aristotle suggests that the attainment of happiness, a term he suggests is synonymous with the good, is determined by one’s virtuous actions. He proposes that virtues are the products of intentional decisions; no person is virtuous by accident. The work centers on three themes: The Meanings of Good and Happiness; Finding Balance in Virtue; and The Importance of Relationships for Good. Aristotle asserts that happiness is the aim of all humans, and virtue is the pathway for reaching it. Each Book in this volume is divided according to topic, and Irwin also divides each Book into subheadings to help clarify and organize the ideas presented.

In Book 1, Aristotle scientifically presents the subjects of happiness and good. He equates the two, explaining that happiness is the ultimate end, the result of the best way to live. Although humans can reach other satisfactory ends, such as wealth or fame, these do not come close to happiness. Aristotle proposes that humans seek happiness for its own sake. Everyone wants it, but not everyone understands how to achieve it. The only way to achieve happiness is through virtue, which Aristotle defines in Book 2.

Virtue is divided into two categories: virtue of thought and virtue of character. Each virtue is sandwiched between two vices or extremes. For example, bravery is the mean between cowardice and fearlessness. Virtue is action, the result of a conscious and intentional choice. To achieve virtue, humans must seek balance. Pleasure and pain both play a role in virtue. Doing good gives pleasure, and doing what is bad gives pain. However, Aristotle cautions that this dynamic, too, utilizes balance. Pleasure and pain can steer humans toward right action, but too much of either can lead to vice.

In Book 3, Aristotle looks at virtue as both voluntary and involuntary. To achieve happiness, virtue must be achieved with intention. People could sleep through their entire lives and, therefore, live virtuously, never having done another wrong. However, happiness comes only to those who must make complex decisions that deny the extremes of vice. Bravery and temperance represent two important virtues of character. The vices of extremes lie just outside the borders of each of these virtues. Finding balance is the key to attaining virtue. In Book 4, Aristotle explores virtues and non-virtues and their means. He looks at several virtues of character, including magnanimity and calmness, and reiterates the idea that virtues are about balance.

Book 5 centers on justice. Aristotle explores how justice and injustice relate to happiness, good, and virtue. He proposes that a person can experience injustice even when no person has committed an injustice. His approach to the topic mirrors his emphasis on equilibrium, as shown in the theme Finding Balance in Virtue. The philosopher painstakingly reveals that each topic presented has many sides and many considerations. Even in the case of justice, balance is needed.

In Book 6, Aristotle looks at virtues of thought and the states of the soul. For the philosopher, virtues of thought take precedence over virtues of character. He proposes that virtues of thought are what separate humans from animals and draw them closer to the divine, making them more godlike. Scientific knowledge and understanding are examples of virtue of thought.

Book 7 diverges from the discussion of virtue and focuses on vice. Aristotle spends considerable time analyzing incontinence, the lack of self-control. He distinguishes incontinence from intemperance, claiming that incontinence does not require intention. It involves the appetite for pleasure, but intemperance involves making choices that seek extreme pleasure, not simply longing for it.

Books 8 and 9 center on friendship. Aristotle proposes that friendships make humans better and bring them closer to the divine quality of good. Complete friendships encourage right action and right thought. Each person’s soul benefits from the relationship. Aristotle also presents other types of friendships: those of utility and those of pleasure. These friendships do not last; they survive only so long as they are mutually advantageous. As in all things, the philosopher emphasizes balance. Complete friendships depend upon equality. He also considers the importance of self-love or self-friendship: This relationship with the self can be just as important as friendships outside the self. However, just like any virtue, self-love can be taken to the extreme and become a vice.

In the final book, Aristotle thinks once more about pleasure. He rejects the notion that pleasure is either good or bad and proposes that, instead, it is an activity to be utilized with levelness. Pleasure is intrinsically linked to life. Humans seek pleasure because they love to live and seek life because they love pleasure. Aristotle proposes that the best way to reach happiness is through virtues of thought, namely contemplation and understanding. Study is the supreme way in which humans distinguish themselves from the animal world, and it is their most divine quality.