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Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is widely considered one of the most important historical philosophical works. Indirectly it was critical in the development of all modern philosophy, not to mention European law and theology. One might say that Aristotle was really the first social scientist. Like Machiavelli, he closely observed how people actually behaved, but unlike Machiavelli, he did so for the purpose of teaching virtue. Moreover, Aristotle formulated a unique way of looking at the good life—one that requires us to look for a mean between extremes. The motto “Moderation in all things” is completely Aristotelian, though he would probably have added “. . . including moderation!”
About the Author
Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects including physics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, linguistics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology, creating a comprehensive system of Western philosophy that encompasses morality and aesthetics, logic and science, politics and metaphysics.
About the Editors
Hunter Lewis, co-founder of global investment firm Cambridge Associates, has written nine books on economics and moral philosophy. He has served on boards and committees of fifteen leading not-for-profit organizations, including environmental, teaching, research, and cultural organizations, as well as the World Bank.
Stuart Kellogg (1948-2011) was a graduate of Yale College, editor of The Advocate, the human rights magazine, and also wrote fiction, literary criticism, and essays on a variety of topics.
From: Book One
It is the hallmark of an educated man to look for precision in a class of things only insofar as the nature of the subject admits. In other words, it is equally foolish to demand scientific proofs from a rhetorician as it is to settle for probable reasoning from a mathematician. And so we must be content to sketch the truth roughly and in outline.
The end of the medical art (that is, its goal) is health; that of shipbuilding, a vessel; that of military strategy, victory; that of economics, wealth. In each case, it is for the sake of the latter that the former is pursued.
Is there an end we desire for its own sake—desiring everything else for the sake of this? If so, it must be the chief good. And will not knowledge of it have a great influence on life? And shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we should try to determine what that end is.
The answer appears to be political life whose end must be the good for man. Even if the end is the same for a single man as for a state, that of the state seems to be greater and more complete: although it is worthwhile to attain the end for one man only, it is finer, more godlike, to attain it for a nation or for city-states. Our inquiry, therefore, leads us into the study of social and political life.
Given that all knowledge and every pursuit aim at some good, what does political study aim at, and what is the highest of all goods achievable by social and political action? The general run of men and people of superior refinement agree that it is the best life, and identify living well and doing well with living the best life. But men differ in their definition of “living and doing well.” Many think it is attaining something obvious, such as pleasure, wealth, or honor. But often even the same man identifies the best life with different things: e.g., with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor.
Judging from the lives that men actually lead, the majority—and especially men of the most vulgar type—identify the best life with pleasure. On the other hand, people of superior refinement and active disposition identify the best life with honor, for that is, roughly speaking, the end of the political life. But this seems too superficial to be what we are seeking, since honor depends on those who bestow it. Furthermore, men seem to pursue honor in order that they may be assured of their own goodness. At least this is the case with men of practical wisdom, who regard virtue as superior to honor. One might even suppose that virtue, rather than honor, is the end of the political life. But this cannot be, since possession of virtue appears to be compatible with being asleep, with lifelong inactivity, and with the greatest suffering and misfortune; yet no one would claim that a man who lives in this way is living the best life.
After a lifetime spent in the pursuit of honor comes the contemplative life, but we shall consider that later.
Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; it is merely useful and desired for the sake of something else. Pleasure, honor, and contemplation are more likely to be ends, since they are loved for themselves. But not even these are ultimate ends.
As there is more than one end, and we choose some of these (e.g., wealth) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. The best life is indeed something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action. But to say that the best life is the chief good seems to be a platitude; a clearer account is still desired.
This might be discovered if we could first ascertain the function of man. Have the carpenter and the tanner certain functions or activities, while men in general have none? Given that an eye, hand, foot—indeed, each of the body parts—evidently has a particular function, may one not reason that the whole man has a function apart from all these? If so, what can it be?
We suggest that the unique function of man is to act, from the depths of his soul, in accord with a rational principle, which means in accord with virtue—or if there is more than one virtue, in accord with the best and most complete of these.
But we must add “in a complete life.” One swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; so, too, even a few years do not make a man blessed and cause him to live the best life.
Let this serve as an outline of the good—a first, rough sketch to be filled in later.
We must consider our conclusion not only in terms of our premises, but also in light of further evidence. If a conclusion is true, all the data harmonize, but with a false one the facts soon clash.
Our account is in harmony with those who identify the best life with virtue or with a single virtue, for to virtue belongs virtuous activity. But it matters a great deal whether we place the chief good in state of mind or in activity. At the Olympic Games, it is not the most beautiful or the strongest who are crowned, but those who compete, for it is from these the victors emerge. In the same way, it is necessary to act in order to win—rightly win—the noble and good things in life. We identify the best activities with the best life. But in order to engage in these best activities, we also require some external goods, as it is impossible, or at least not easy, to perform noble acts without the proper equipment. In many actions we rely on friends, riches, and political power as instruments; likewise, lacking certain things (e.g., good birth, good children, beauty) takes the luster from the best life. The man who is very ugly in appearance, ill born, or solitary and childless is unlikely to live the best life (this would be still less likely if he had thoroughly bad children or friends, or had lost good children or friends by death). The best life depends on a degree of prosperity.
Read the complete public domain version translated by W. D. Ross showing deletions and additions
[Nicomachean Ethics pdf]