Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle.

Detail of The School of Athens by Raphael (1509-11).
Aristotle is on the right (Plato on the left) holding a
copy of Nicomachean Ethics.
However difficult I found reading this and however unnerving it is to write about, this is quite an exciting post for me: Aristotle's Ethics is the 100th title on my Ancient Greek and Roman Challenge. It's taken over two years to get to this point and I'm certain that, right now, I'm focusing on the most difficult section of it: the 4th Century B.C. Plato and Aristotle, who dominate this era, are by far the most challenging authors I've come across and it so happens I have both of them in my to-be-reviewed pile: this, and my 101st title, The Last Days of Socrates by Plato. I hope you'll forgive me for these two reviews will be relatively brief: I've accepted my limitations and would urge anyone looking for decent information on these authors to look elsewhere! Nevertheless, I'll try and say a few words.

First, the easy part: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (Ἠθικὰ Νικομάχεια) was written around 350 B.C. It was so called as it was written most likely for Aristotle's son Nicomachus (his father was also called Nicomachus, throwing some confusion into it). Aristotle wrote three main works on ethics (ethics referring to the practice of morality, which is the theory behind the deeds): Ethics, which is followed by Politics, and then Rhetoric, all of which I plan to read.

Ethics is divided into ten books, and I'll attempt a very brief outline here:

Book I
In this Aristotle sets out the basis for the book: that all human beings strive towards good, and happiness (εὐδαιμονία; a word that incorporates success and the idea of 'flourishing') is the supreme good. What makes us happy, and how we achieve it, is what is in question. Happiness may be a sensual feeling, which is a lower or base goal, but at the higher end, knowledge, for example, is good in so far as it makes the individual and potentially those around him or her happy. Reason is the key to this, and the ability to make rational decisions. Another question raised is the 'end' result and how one gets there.
Book II
The second book is concerned with the idea of virtue, be it learned or practised behaviour. There is no absolute moral code; acting virtuously depends on the situation, which calls for observation, and acting with temperance and avoiding extremes, particularly in the context of pleasure and pain. In order to become virtuous we must not only avoid these extremes but have self-knowledge and be aware of what triggers certain behaviours in order to avoid them. Finally Aristotle warns us that pleasure very often impedes our judgement.
Book III
Aristotle draws a distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, either in ignorance or compulsion. Ethics, or being moral, is therefore a choice. Character determines this choice: the good will choose the good, and the bad will choose the bad. Those unable to make an informed choice may also chose the bad. He uses the example of courage on the battlefield: those who choose to fight despite being afraid of death are honourable, those who choose to fight for fear of being seen as dishonourable are dishonourable, or rather they lack courage.
Book IV
Aristotle moves on from temperance to discuss other virtuous characteristics: generosity, magnanimity, temperate ambition, gentleness, friendliness, self-awareness, charm, and modesty.
Book V
This section deals with the idea of justice, either with regards to the law or the perceived natural order of things, and it is concerned with one's relationship to other people. Those who obey the law are virtuous. Aristotle identifies two kinds of justice, distributive and rectificatory, i.e. rectifying the mis-distribution of wealth, for example. Justice manifests in two ways: state or political justice, and domestic, or private. As with virtue, justice is voluntary and is based on choice. Aristotle goes on to note that lawfulness does not always bring about justice.
Book VI
Here Aristotle moves on to discuss intellectual virtues, or knowledge and the importance of being informed. One cannot do the right thing if one does not know what the right thing is to do. Aristotle then talks of the rational, contemplative soul able to reason and the irrational part of the soul, and then goes on to outline the five intellectual virtues: art, scientific knowledge, judgement, wisdom, and intellect or reason that guides us into being able to know and understand a principle before acting on it.
Book VII
From the good to the bad: Aristotle writes on that which guides us away from virtue: vice, incontinence (the opposite of temperance), and brutishness or baseness. He goes on to describe how to remedy this: with self-awareness and information to gain self-control.
Aristotle moves on to write on friendship and the nature of friendship, arguing that there are three types: 1) convenience, 2) pleasure, and 3) goodness, the latter of which is superior, honest, and long-lasting. He goes on to argue that friendship is linked to justice, then writes on politics in this context, suggesting that there are three types of constitution: monarchy, aristocracy, and timocracy. This he will expand on in Politics.
Book IX
The theme of friendship is continued, and Aristotle writes of the breaking up of friendship, most commonly when a friendship is based either on utility or pleasure, or when someone misrepresents themselves. Aristotle also finds friends treat each other like they may themselves; the virtuous people who wish only good for their friends are the better friends; those who are not virtuous and who are, for example, jealous, do not make good friends. Aristotle then distinguishes between true friends and superficial friends (who may well have their place so long as one is aware of it).
Book X
In the final book Aristotle returns to the concept of pleasure, arguing that some things are good whilst not necessarily being pleasurable or indeed not pleasurable. Pleasure is a necessary part of life, but the goodness of a life is measured by virtue, which leads to a higher pleasure. One may lead a pleasurable life but ultimately not a good one. Contemplation is one of the highest activities a human being can partake in, and this must be remembered and adhered to in order to live a good life. As people may not be (in fact probably aren't) naturally virtuous, one must strive towards it and be guided either by one's parents, one's peers, or indeed the state. He then turns to politics, arguing that in fact politicians are ill-equipped to discuss it. Aristotle will continue this train in his next book, Politics (Πολιτικά).

That was a difficult book indeed but, somehow, enjoyable despite knowing I have but the tenuous grasp of it. Nevertheless I'm very much looking forward to reading Politics, and may even start it tomorrow. I do feel like I've moved forward a little with Aristotle and one thing I've taken from it is the importance of temperance: today the political system encourages an excess - capitalism, and I'll be very interested to see what Aristotle has to say and perhaps attempt to apply it to our modern world.


  1. I always enjoy reading a post from you, and more so when I can compare notes with a book I have also read. I agree Aristotle is not the easiest form of entertainment but I am always pleased I made the effort even if I don't get through the whole text. The Nicomachean Ethics made a little more sense than others. I think you'll enjoy the Last Days of Socrates though.

    1. I did enjoy Socrates, read it a week ago and just put something up. In theory I prefer Plato, but there's something I like about Aristotle. About to start Politics. And thank you, I love your blog and like to read your posts, especially on titles I've got coming up! :)

  2. This is a wonderful capsule view of this difficult book. I have not read it but you make me want to. It is very similar to Buddhism of which I have read quite a bit of. They were both present at this time but in vastly different parts of the world. Enjoying your posts.

    1. Thank you :) Interesting you said that - I'm hoping to read Buddhist Scriptures soon and I'll keep that in mind!

  3. Bravo for your bravery in reading this book and for your excellent review! For us Aristotle-newbies, it's just right! My Well-Educated Mind List has his Poetics, so I'll get to it some point, but not for awhile. I should read him sooner rather than later though. Perhaps after I finish Plato .... we'll see .....

    1. I liked the Poetics... very hard, but very useful indeed, very eye-opening, I think you'll appreciate it. As for Plato - slight change of plan - going to read Aristotle's Politics next then read Republic, probably at the pace of 2 / 3 books a week.

      I'll be so proud when I've finished my 4th Century BC. That said there's a lot NOT on there that probably should be :)


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