Study Guide

The Nicomachean Ethics Analysis

By Aristotle

  • Tone

    Matter-of-fact, Dry Humor

    Aristotle has some serious work to get done by the end of these lectures, so for the most part, he's all about laying it down and marching on.

    But every once in a while, he drops a gem like this:

    For it seems possible for someone to possess virtue even while asleep or while being inactive throughout life and, in addition to these, while suffering badly and undergoing the greatest misfortunes. But no one would deem happy somebody living in this way, unless he were defending a thesis. (1.5.1095b34-1096a2)

    That, folks, is a 4th Century BCE zinger.

    Aristotle has exactly zero tolerance for high-falutin' theorizing about things that aren't consistent with life experience.

    It's in these moments of frustration with other philosophical groups (we're talking to you, Sophists!) that we get a glimpse into the personality of Professor Aristotle. He's a little dry, and a little fusty, but he's definitely not above cracking wise. After all, dude thinks being witty is generally an excellent thing.

  • Genre

    Philosophy

    It can't be anything else, y'all. This is Aristotle we're talking about: the guy who was known simply as "The Philosopher." He's kind of a big deal.

    But what does it mean, exactly, to say that we're reading a work of Aristotelian philosophy? In Ethics, Aristotle's trying to create a comprehensive system of practical thought about how we live together harmoniously and to the advantage of all. (Or, at least, to the advantage of many).

    Though Aristotle gets theoretical at times, he's really interested in creating a practical way to think about our purpose as moral creatures…and about how to achieve the highest human goods. He's in it to win it; he's not getting all philosophical just to alienate people and sound smart.

    At the center of Mr. A's ramblings is understanding what it means to be (a good) human, and what behaving well to one another entails. In other words: can we all just get along? And if not, why?

    And that is about as philosophical—and, frankly, as generous and awesome—as you can get.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    We get the "Ethics" part—these lectures are all about being good, happy, and generally pleasant to be around. Easy-peasy.

    But what in the name of all that is ethical does "Nicomachean" mean?

    Trick question: it's a name, not a word.

    There's speculation over whether The Nicomachean Ethics was named in remembrance of Aristotle's father—named Nicomachus—or to honor his own son—also named Nicomachus.

    Aristotle's son (talk about living up to a family legacy) edited Aristotle's written works. The Nicomachean Ethics—along with an earlier inquiry called the Eudemian Ethics—are part of a larger conversation about community that culminates in his work Politics.

    Taken together, these works emphasize Aristotle's conviction that the political art is the highest good—since it encompasses the good ends desired by every part of the human community. Of course, since we've read The Nicomachean Ethics, we also know that Aristotle pushes the career path of "philosopher" pretty hard, too.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Aristotle doesn't end Ethics so much as begin Politics. He's an overachiever like that.

    He moves from a discussion about how awesome the contemplative life is into a rant about the education of those who practice the political art. It might be hard to see the connection between a discussion about human happiness and the need for a better system of education for the next generation of lawmakers.

    But not if you're viewing the world from the inside of Aristotle's brainpan: Ethics and Politics are considered a continuous series of lectures on the experience of humans in community. The movement into governance as an important part of the common good seems like the natural next step.

    After all—and check out our Symbols section for more on this—the city and the individual aren't so very different, according to Mr. A. One has more houses and infrastructure, but they're ruled in pretty similar ways.

  • Setting

    Written around 350 BCE, the philosophies in Aristotle's Ethics weren't just for the ancient Greeks. Analyzing setting for Ethics might be a weightless conversation, given he's addressing all of humanity on the topic of happiness. 

    Those are some weighty topics fit for the world. 

    But if you do want to know more about Aristotle and his stomping grounds, head on over to his character analysis for more. 

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (10) Mount Everest

    We're not gonna lie: this is some serious literature. You should not be surprised, of course, since this is a work of head-scratching, mind-melting, tear-your-hair-out philosophy. Let's talk about some of the challenges you're likely to meet. (And by "likely to meet" we mean will meet.)

    First, the concepts are just hard, hard, hard. Aristotle is creating a system of thought about human life in community, so this is to be expected.

    He also employs some interesting rhetorical strategies to convey his ideas. Be aware that Aristotle often "acknowledges the opposition" by defining "perplexities" at the beginning of each book. Note that these are not his arguments, but rather what people generally say on the subject. This explains why he totally reverses most of them in the course of the book.

    Be prepared to define everything. Ten times. Just do your yoga breathing.

    Understand that Aristotle has to pick every possible concept to death. In professional terms, this is called reducing your liabilities. He has haters out there who want him to forget to consider something. He has to be thorough.

    So it's a tough go, but we promise that you will be more eudaimonic for the effort. After all, using the brain is the best activity for a human.

  • Writing Style

    Analytical, Considered and Precise

    Because Aristotle deals in concepts, he's often given to meta-discourse that can make our eyes glaze over. His writing can feel abstract or fuzzy when this happens—what he's talking about becomes too big to comprehend, and we start itching to eat a Hot Pocket or watch some Netflix.

    However, because Aristotle is a pro and knew how to give a good lecture, those moments are always reeled in at just the right moment—right before we've gotten up from our desk to grab those Hot Pockets.

    Consider this very self-aware opening to Book 6:

    But speaking in this way is, though truthful, not at all clear. For in all the other concerns too about which a science exists, it is true to say that one ought not to strain or slacken either too much or too little, but as accords with the mean and as correct reason states. (6.1.1138b25-28)

    He wants to give us the conceptual and practical in his discussion of the virtues, which means that he'll speak in general (universal) and specific terms in equal measure. And generally, those "general" terms are a little more ephemeral and headdesk-inducing, and the "specific" terms are way easier to understand and digest.

    When Aristotle's talking about balance, his prose reads like a technical manual for the soul—he searches out the origins for every action and traces down the smallest consequences.

  • The City/The Nation

    Two Bodies

    Aristotle—in his typical, gung-ho Aristotelian way—juxtaposes the concept of the city or nation with the individual person from the very beginning of Ethics.

    Why? He wants to put these two "bodies" together so that we can see how the health of one is closely connected with that of the other…and also so that we understand that no matter how sovereign a state we think a person is, the common good is always greater. In other words, no man—even a man living on an idyllic Greek isle—is an island:

    For even if this is the same thing for an individual and a city, to secure and preserve the good of the city appears to be something greater and more complete: the good of the individual by himself is certainly desirable enough, but that of a nation and of cities is nobler and more divine. (1.3.1094b10)

    If you had to read that paragraph more than once, Shmoopers, you're not alone. We, not to mention scholars throughout the ages, have had to read Aristotle line by line, and over and over.

    Here's what he's saying: sameness between the individual and the city is a reflection of the macrocosm ("macrocosm" means "great world," in this case, the city or nation) in the microcosm ("microcosm" means "little world," like individuals within the city).

    Because these two things have similarities, it's hard to decide who's going to lose out if it comes down to brass tacks. But it's not that hard.

    When Good Cities (People) Go Wrong

    Aristotle further develops the parallel between the city and the individual, making the likeness between the two even more likeness-y. Here, he says that a person who lacks self-restraint,

    ...is like a city that votes for all that it ought to vote for and has serious laws, yet it makes use of none of them...But the wicked person [is like a city that] makes use of the laws, though the laws it uses are wicked. (7.10.1152a19-24)

    This political simile reminds us that a failure of the rational soul is basically a problem of poor governance within a person—which is kind of like what happens in civic life when laws are ignored. If you can't govern yourself? Mayhem. If you can't govern a city? You got it: mayhem.

    A wicked person is like a corrupt government, since he'll use flawed logic to reason his way to his desired ends. It's like this: if you want to eat an entire cake (bad idea) you'll usually come up with some pretty good justifications, like "But I haven't had any cake this week!" or "But starting tomorrow I won't have any cake for, like, a month!"

    Similarly, a corrupt politician is rarely going to be twisting his villain moustache and rubbing his hands together gleefully. He's way more likely to think "But it's for the good of the city!" or "No one should have more power than me because I'm so smart!"

    Basically, because of poor governance—which means flawed reasoning—a person or a city can become bodies that operate from faulty rulebooks. And that's no bueno.

    So maybe the next time you're tempted to use the old chestnut "My body is a temple," think of Aristotle and say, "My body is a city or nation-state." (No one but your fellow Aristotle-lovers will know what you're talking about, but we bet you'll feel pretty learned.)

  • Swift Servants

    Wise words from Aristotle (is there any other kind?): it's way better to be reckless than to be a pleasure-seeking hedonist.

    In other words, it's way better to eat an entire cake because you think "Yikes! I heard that there was a local baker's strike. It's probably my only time ever again to eat chocolate cake" than to just lie back and think "Mmm. Cake. Cakeity-cake-cake-cake. So good."

    Here's why: Aristotle explains that those who lack self-restraint because of "spiritedness" (basically: becoming enraged or impassioned) aren't quite so bad as those who can't control themselves due to desire.

    He describes the spirited person in this way:

    For spiritedness seems to hear reason in some way, but to mishear it, like swift servants who run off before they hear what is said in its entirety and then err in carrying out the command... (7.6.1149a27-29)

    So the person who's got his blood up does engage with reason—just under the wrong assumptions. The image of the "swift servant" is a pretty awesome simile for the process of becoming impassioned or enraged: we perceive something that we interpret in an unfavorable way and then react before processing the data correctly. Our emotions and physical responses fly in every direction without any deliberation—you know, we hear "baker's strike" and we think "oh no! no more cake ever again!"

    While Aristotle says that this kind of behavior is less shameful than simply indulging in our longings it's still hugely problematic. You should slow down and look before you leap.

    After all, just check out what happens to Oedipus when he acts before thinking.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person/Third Person (Objective)

    As we struggle through Ethics, we have to remember that Ethics is a record of Aristotle's lectures to his students at the Academy in Athens…rather than a work composed only to be read individually.

    So it's natural that Aristotle would slip quite easily between the first-person plural and third person in his demonstrations: he was talking to a big group of eager-beaver philosophy students.

    Take a look at how this works:

    Now, to examine thoroughly all these opinions is perhaps rather pointless; those opinions that are especially prevalent or are held to have a certain reason to them will suffice. But let it not escape our notice that there is a difference between the arguments that proceed from the principles and that that proceed to the principles. (1095a31-33)

    Here's the deal: the use of first-person approximates the speech of conversation or addressing someone (in this case, it's a professor addressing his students). The third-person's there to allow Aristotle to expound or explicate on his thoughts—it gives the sense of a remove from the subject matter. The third-person is a little more aloof, and a little more detached.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Aeschylus (3.1.1111a10, 12)
      • Anaxandrides (7.10.1152a21)
      • Aphrodite (7.6.1149b16)
      • Cyclops (10.9.1180a29)
      • Empedocles (7.3.1147a21, 1147b13; 8.1.1155b8)
      • Endymion (10.8.1178b20)
      • Epicharmus (9.7.1167b26)
      • Euripides
      • Alcmaeon (3.1.1110a29)
      • Orestes (7.14.1154b29; 9.9.1169b8)
      • Philoctetes (6.8.1142a4)
      • The Phoenician Women (9.6.1167a.33)
      • Other references (8.1.1155b3)
      • Hector of Troy (7.1.1145a21)
      • Heraclitus (2.3.1105a9; 8.1.1155b5; 10.5.1176a6)
      • Hesiod, Works and Days (9.10.1170b21)
      • Homer, The Iliad (2.9.1109b10; 3.8.1116a22; 3.8.1116b28; 7.1.1145a21; 7.6.1149b16; 8.11.1160b26; 8.11.1161a14)
      • The Odyssey (2.9.1109a33)
      • Inscription in the Temple of Apollo, Delos (1.8.1099a28-29)
      • King Priam of Troy (1.9.1100a7; 7.1.1145a21)
      • Plato (3.5.1113b15, 3.6.1115a10)
      • Niobe (7.4.1148a34)
      • Rhadamanthus (5.5.1132b26)
      • Satyrus (7.4.1148a35)
      • Simonides (1.10.1100b20; 4.1.1121a7)
      • Sophocles (7.2.1146a20; 7.3.1147b15; 7.9.1151b17)
      • Theodectes (7.7.1150b9)
      • Theognis (9.9.1170a.13; 9.12.1172a14; 10.9.1179b6)

      Historical References

      • Anacharsis (10.6.1176b34)
      • Anaxagoras (6.7.1141b5; 10.8.1179a14)
      • Bias of Priene (5.2.1130a1)
      • Celts (as reckless warriors) (3.8.1115b29)
      • Eudoxus (10.2.1172b9)
      • Phalaris (7.5.1148b24)
      • Pythagoras (1.6.1096b5; 2.6.1106b30; 5.5.1132b21)
      • Protagoras (9.1.1164a25)
      • Sardanapalus (1.5.1095b22), the Assyrian king who lived for pleasure and died in a dramatic way. Eugene Delacroix took his story as a subject for his painting.
      • Solon of Athens (1.10.1100a10; 10.8.1179a10)
      • Socrates (3.8.1116b4; 4.7.1127b25; 6.13.1144b18; 7.2.1145b23, 25; 7.3.1147b15)
      • Speusippus (1.6.1096b6; 7.13.1153b5)
      • Thales (6.7.1141b5)
      • Xenophanes (7.7.1150b12)

      Pop Culture References

      • Anthropos, "Human Being" (Olympic boxing champ) (7.4.1147b36)
        Milo of Croton (2.6.1106b4)