Study Guide

The Nicomachean Ethics Quotes

By Aristotle

  • Happiness

    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)

    It's rare, but we see a little bit of Aristotelian humor in here—zing! The philosopher's telling us that we have to be very careful when defining happiness, since there are so many loopholes. While he does feel that virtue is part of a happy life, he knows that it can't be the extent of it, since a person can display virtue and still lack other essential characteristics of a good life (i.e. consciousness and health). His conclusion: there has to be something greater that defines happiness.

    But in every action and choice, it is the end involved, since it is for the sake of this that all people do everything else. As a result, if there is some end of all actions, this would be the good related to action; and if there are several, then it would be these. (I.7.1097a21-24)

    Aristotle's told us that in our pursuit of happiness, we seek the ultimate, complete good. Any good that can be made better by something else simply doesn't qualify. But what is this great good, this end that we all search for? Happiness, of course. There is nothing greater that we hope or aim for when we do anything (including waking up in the morning).

    The simply complete thing, then, is that which is always chosen for itself and never on account of something else. Happiness above all seems to be of this character, for we always choose it on account of itself and never on account of something else. Yet honor, pleasure, intellect, and every virtue we choose on their own account...but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, because we suppose that, through them, we will be happy. (1.7.1097a35-1097b5)

    Aristotle supposes that the ultimate good that every human being searches for has to be something so fantastic that we would live inside of it and only it forever if we could, without the need for anything else. And while the virtues are admirable, they aren't that certain something we reach for through good behavior. Happiness fits the bill precisely because it is the thing that motivates all our actions and choices—even if we make the wrong ones.

    Happiness, therefore, is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing; and these are not separated...For all these are present in the best activities, and we assert that happiness is these activities—or the best among them. (1.8.1099a25-30)

    Just in case you weren't catching Aristotle's drift: happiness is the bestest thing of all good things in the world. All the virtues he'll discuss plus all the external goods (i.e. money, health) come together to create the blissful state of happiness. You just can't get any higher.

    For it is impossible or not easy for someone without equipment to do what is noble: many things are done through instruments, as it were—through friends, wealth, and political power. Those who are bereft of some of these...disfigure their blessedness, for a person who is altogether ugly in appearance, or of poor birth, or solitary and childless cannot really be characterized as happy... (I.8.1099b31-1099b5)

    Even in the 4th Century B.C., Aristotle knows that those who are born without social privilege have a much harder time doing the things that bring them honor and happiness in this world. And although there is a kind of self-sufficiency in happiness (or "blessedness"), Aristotle's observations here show that even the happy person needs some external goods—like companionship and wealth—to maintain a good life.

    But those fortunes that turn out in the contrary way restrict and even ruin one's blessedness, for they both inflict pains and impede many activities. Nevertheless, even in the midst of these, nobility shines through, whenever someone bears up calmly under many great misfortunes, not because of any insensitivity to pain but because he is wellborn and great souled. (I.10.110027-33)

    It'd be impossible to talk about happiness without talking about its opposite (hey, it's Aristotle). He is responding to the idea that a person's life is often judged happy or unhappy based on last-minute reversals of fortune. He warns us not let the natural variations in good fortune change our opinion of a person's happiness. Still, there are some catastrophes that really do make us re-assess our bliss levels. Even when we suffer, there's an opportunity to recover a bit of life satisfaction, if we respond with a stiff upper lip.

    What, then, prevents one from calling happy someone who is active in accord with complete virtue and who is adequately equipped with external goods, not for any chance time but in a complete life? Or must one posit in addition that he will both live in this way and meet his end accordingly—since the future is immanifest to us, and we posit happiness, wholly and in every way, as an end and as complete? (1.10.1101a15-19)

    Aristotle's been wrestling with the idea of calling a man happy before he is dead. Why is this even an issue? Because what happens if a person lives a happy life all the way till the end, and something catastrophic happens to him? Should happiness be judged only when the whole of it can be assessed? Aristotle thinks that it is perfectly possible to assess a life in progress, especially if a person is living a life of virtue and is well equipped to deal with adversity…if it should come along.

    ...let us say that wisdom and prudence are necessarily choiceworthy in themselves, since each of them is a virtue of each part [of the soul], even if neither one of them makes or produces anything. Second, they do in fact make or produce something, not as the art of medicine produces health, but, rather, just as health produces health, so wisdom produces happiness. For wisdom, being part of the whole of virtue, makes one happy by being possessed and by being active. (6.12.1144a1-6)

    This argument resembles a dog chasing its tail: wisdom makes us happy because we are happy being wise. But Aristotle sees more subtlety to this argument. By choosing a life conducive to wisdom, we're making a good choice—a choice that accords with an intellectual virtue. And people who make good choices tend to be happy people. It seems so simple, but of course, the acquisition of knowledge is a serious undertaking.

    For this reason, all people suppose the happy life to be pleasant, and they weave pleasure into happiness—reasonably so. For no activity is complete when it is impeded, but happiness is among the things that are complete. Hence the happy person needs in addition the goods residing in the body as well as external goods and chance, so that he not be impeded in these respects. (7.13.1153b14-19)

    Aristotle's responding here to allegations that pleasures are naughty and should be avoided. Okay, that's an oversimplification of the discussion, but that is the essential point. We must be realistic enough to understand that no person can be happy without pleasure—since the opposite of pleasure is pain.

    Since happiness is the most complete of all goods (needing nothing further to be most excellent) and since humans live inside of a body, pleasure is clearly part of those goods possessed by the happy person. Of course, there are ways that we can go overboard with pleasure—but that's another discussion.

    If happiness is an activity in accord with virtue, it is reasonable that it would accord with the most excellent virtue, and this would be the virtue belonging to what is best. So whether this is the intellect or something else that naturally seems to rule, to command, and to possess intelligence concerning what is noble and divine, whether it itself is in fact divine or the most divine of the things in us—the activity of this, in accord with the virtue proper to it, would be complete happiness. (10.7.1177a13-17)

    We've made it to the big reveal here: the thing that will make us most happy. Aristotle believes since perception (and especially self-perception) is the thing that makes us uniquely human, the part of us that is capable of acknowledging our existence is what will do it for us.

    He's cagey about naming the exact part responsible—intellect? Reason? Comprehension?—but it's clear that he's speaking of the activity of the rational soul. The joys of contemplation (and of course, the philosophical life) are the very best thing ever. No bias here—not from a philosopher like Aristotle. (Ha.)

  • Society and Class

    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. (I.2.1094b7-10)

    Aristotle's speaking here of the greatest good, which he posits is the "political art." He chooses this because human life is carried out in community and the best chance we have for happiness as individuals is to live in a just society governed by good laws. Though he values individual happiness and will talk about how happy individuals contribute to the health of the city, he makes no bones about who's more important here. Individual happiness isn't necessarily a casualty in the search for the common good—but it's a lot less important.

    But he who is excessive and vulgar exceeds in spending beyond what is needful, as has been said. For on small things, he lavishes much expense and makes an ostentatious display of himself contrary to what is proper...And he will do all such things not for the sake of the noble but to display his wealth. (4.2.1123a20-26)

    Those with money have an obligation to use their goods to help advance society. When a person abuses his goods by expending them as he shouldn't, he also does a great social wrong. Aristotle says time and again that members of a community (which is really a political "friendship") must contribute what they can to the common good. In this light, the vulgar person isn't just tacky; he's downright harmful.

    But instances of good fortune too seem to contribute to greatness of soul, since the wellborn deem themselves worthy of honor, as do those who possess political power or wealth. For they are in a position of superiority, and everything superior in point of goodness is more honorable. Hence these sorts of things render people more great souled, since they are honored by some as a result. (4.3.1124a21-25)

    Aristotle's being pretty slippery in his assessment of privilege here. In this conversation about the "great souled person," he seems to be saying that wealth guarantees virtuous nobility. And he kind of is. However, Aristotle isn't implying that all people with money are noble. While it may be easier for them to achieve a high moral standing, their power and wealth don't guarantee goodness, let alone a perfection of virtue.

    For it is a difficult and august thing to be superior among the fortunate, but easy to be that way among the middling sorts; and to exalt oneself among the former is not a lowborn thing, but to do so among the latter is crude, just as is using one's strength among the weak. (4.3.1124b20-23)

    Aristotle's speaking here of the "great souled," powerful, wellborn people with a whole lot of virtue. This person is of somewhat mixed character, according to our modern sensibilities. He's basically a well-intentioned snob.

    As such, his job isn't to please the unwashed masses. He needs to shine at the highest levels of society in order to benefit the community. Such a man shouldn't be getting cheap validation from those who are socially miles away from him.

    [...] for all agree that what is just in distributions ought to accord with a certain merit. Nevertheless, all do not mean the same thing by merit; rather, democrats say it is freedom; oligarchs, wealth; others, good birth; aristocrats, virtue. (5.3.1131a25-29)

    In speaking of distributive justice, Aristotle gives us a mini-analysis of how different types of regimes calculate merit. It's important for Aristotle's social math to determine a correct proportion for the distribution of common goods. Everyone surely should not get exactly the same amount, especially if they don't contribute to society. But how to decide who's worthy presents a problem. Each type of society values certain goods above others, making it difficult to determine an absolute value.

    [...] without friends, no one would choose to live, even if he possessed all other goods; and indeed those who are wealthy or have acquired political offices and power seem to be in need of friends most of all. What benefit would there be in such prosperity of one were deprive of [the opportunity to perform] a good deed, which arise and is most praiseworthy in relation to friends especially? Or how could one's prosperity be guarded and preserved without friends? (8.1.1155a8-10)

    Friends are imagined here as a kind of social and financial insurance: they give us the opportunity to do good deeds (and thereby gain honor) and they help to protect us from our archenemies, who are clearly interested in ruining us financially.

    Aristotle isn't being callous here; he's speaking in practical terms of the benefits of finding allies within the community. Because while living together can offer many good things, the world can get very ugly to us when we're alone—and maybe even more so when fortune's on the line.

    The deviation from kingship is tyranny, for while both are monarchical, they differ most because the tyrant looks to what is advantageous for himself and the king to what is advantageous for the ruled. (8.10.1160b1-3)

    It's hard to argue with these definitions of kingship and tyranny, even if Aristotle's views on kingship are a little rose-colored. He defines the regimes—or types of rule—not in order to give us a civics lesson; he does it to show that what we know about political society is reflected in more intimate communities.

    So what we know of the good king might be applied to the father of a household, and so on down the line. Whatever notions Aristotle has of justice as it applies to society as a whole, then, can easily be adapted to individual relationships.

    It seems, then, that each partner correctly deems himself worthy of something—that is, that one ought to distribute more to each of them from the friendship, but not more of the same thing. Rather, to the person who is superior, one ought to distribute honor, and to the one in need, gain. Honor is the reward of virtue and of benefaction, whereas aid is the gain appropriate to need. (8.14.1163b1-3)

    Aristotle equates the relationship between friends to the terms of justice normally reserved for conversations about "social contract." While this friendship is not equal—it's based on superiority—there are still things that each person can and should contribute. Aristotle uses the language of distributive justice to explain this concept. The superior friend "gains" nothing tangible, but he does earn honor, which is nobler. While this is a friendship of utility and therefore not the best, it is important: it represents the relationship between a king and his subjects.

    But since different things go to parents, brothers, comrades, and benefactors, one must distribute to each what is properly his and fitting. People appear to do this in fact: they invite their relatives to weddings because the family line is something they share in common, as are the actions pertaining to their family. (9.2.1165a16-21)

    Aristotle speaks often about distributive justice, which basically states that each person in any given community (including families) gets what's rightly theirs. That doesn't mean that each person receives (or gives) the same things, but that each person receives in proportion to what they contribute to the common good. The same principle applies to giving or giving back: you've got to render what is properly due to each person according to rank or relationship. This type of exchange is the grease that keeps the wheels of society—on the macro- and micro-levels—turning.

    But in most cities, what concerns such things has been utterly neglected, and each lives as he wishes, 'laying down the sacred law for children and wife' in the manner of the Cyclops. The most excellent thing, then, is for the public care to be correct. But when cities utterly neglect the public care, it would seem appropriate for each individual to contribute to the virtue of his own offspring and friends, or at last to make the choice to do so. (10.9.1180a27-32)

    Aristotle has a little rant at the end of Ethics concerning the creation of good citizens. He feels that it should be (or at least, has been) the concern of the political realm to enshrine and transmit principles of virtue to citizens through solid lawmaking. However, things are falling apart. In the absence of public intervention, the onus for the moral education of people falls to friends and family. Aristotle is all for that, but there is the sense that getting to what is good—either for the community or the individual—is at least partially the responsibility of the regime.

  • Principles

    The refined and active, on the other hand, choose honor, for this is pretty much the end of the political life. But it seems to be more superficial than what is being sought, for honor seems to reside more with those who bestow it than with him who receives it; and we divine that the good is something of one's own and a thing not easily taken away. (1.5.1095b22-27)

    In trying to get at the ultimate good that makes us happy, Aristotle considers honor. It seems like a good choice: we all love to be publicly recognized for the good things we do. But honor, like so many other good things, rests in the hands of the community (who judge who deserves merit) and not within ourselves. And things that are entirely out of our control can't be the ultimate good—since it depends on the whims of those who might not even be virtuous.

    [...] to us it is clear, on the basis of what has been said, that happiness belongs among the things that are honored and complete. This seems to be the case also on account of its being a principle: it is for the sake of this that we all do everything else, and we posit the principle and the cause of the good things as being something honorable and divine. (1.12.1102a1-4)

    Aristotle helps us to understand the origin of the term "principle" by speaking of happiness. The Greek word for principle is "archē" which can simply mean the origin or beginning of something. It also means "first principle," the thing that starts a process in motion and governs the character of something. Aristotle speaks of happiness as principle in both ways: the governing good that shapes our actions, and the motivator of all virtuous actions.

    Virtue too is defined in accord with this distinction, for we say that some of the virtues are intellectual, others moral: wisdom, comprehension, and prudence being intellectual, liberality and moderation being moral. For in speaking about someone's character, we do not say that he is wise or comprehending but that he is gentle or moderate. (1.13.1103a4-8)

    Aristotle does us a favor by spelling out the moral and intellectual virtues that he'll discuss in detail in this work. Note that Aristotle identifies all the virtues as "praiseworthy" characteristics—a basic definition that he'll return to repeatedly as he susses out what things are truly virtues and what are simply attributes.

    Neither by nature, therefore, nor contrary to nature are the virtues present; they are instead present in us who are of such a nature as to receive them, and who are completed through habit. (2.1.1103a23-25)

    Aristotle engages a bit in the "nature vs. nurture" argument in Ethics, though he avoids the topic of natural goodness (or badness). He clearly believes that we are born disposed to receive virtues, but that our education and habituation—practical application of principles to daily action—have the upper hand in forming our characters. This also speaks to the idea of personal responsibility. Though education (i.e. what our parents and communities instill in us) is crucial to forming a moral human being, it's ultimately up to each person to stick to what he knows is right.

    So too in the case of the virtues: by doing things in our interactions with human beings, some of us become just, others unjust; and by doing things in terrifying circumstances and by being habituated to feel fear or confidence, some of us become courageous, others cowards. (2.1.1103b14-18)

    Becoming a person of virtue requires a constant practice of moral principles (or "habituation"). We learn what is expected of us through education (how to be courageous, or just), but unless we have the characteristic to receive such learning, it'll be hard to put it into action. But it is by acting as a just or courageous person that we actually earn the titles.

    For moral virtue is concerned with pleasures and pains: it is on account of the pleasure involved that we do base things, and it is on account of pain that we abstain from noble ones. (2.3.1104b9-11)

    Though Aristotle will later tell us that pleasure might very well be the highest good for humans, it's also a bit of a trap. Since we're motivated from the beginning to seek happiness, we are naturally drawn to that which is pleasant. But depending on the virtues present (or absent) in each person, pleasure can lead us away from doing what is right.

    On the one hand, we might abandon everything else to seek pleasure. On the other, we might love pleasure so much that we become reluctant to endure pain. And as we will see, pain is sometimes a necessary part of virtue.

    If doing the noble and the shameful things is up to us, and similarly also not doing them—and this, as we saw, amounts to our being good or bad—it is, therefore, up to us to be decent or base. (3.5.1113b12-14)

    There's no getting around it: Aristotle is 100% sure that we're personally responsible for our behavior. The proof of our virtue is in our actions, particularly because they are voluntary actions on our part. Unless they aren't.

    This simple, positive declaration is served up alongside a lengthy discussion of voluntary and involuntary behavior. As it turns out, Aristotle does believe that it's possible to do bad things but not really be a bad person, depending on our ability to choose our actions. Being human is complicated.

    For to boxers, the end—the crown and the honors—for the sake of which they fight is pleasant, but being struck is grievous and, given that they are made of flesh and blood, painful, as is all the exertion involved. And because there are many such painful things involved, the end for the sake of which boxers fight, being a small thing, appears not to be pleasant at all. (3.9.1117b1-5)

    Aristotle isn't properly speaking of boxers (fighters, not underwear); he's really talking about courage. The illustration of the boxer who is willing to undergo something very unpleasant in order to have honor is a fair analogy for those who are brave in other situations. It also illustrates a paradox of virtue: though the ends may be something we long for (honor, money, etc), the path to glory can be miserable. We have to go against our understanding of virtue (as something pleasurable) in these cases to do the right things.

    Thus it belongs to the liberal person more to give to whom he ought than to take from whom he ought or to refrain from taking from whom he ought not, since it belongs to virtue more to act well than to fare well and to do what is noble than not to do what is shameful. (4.1.1120a10-13)

    Aristotle uses the example of "liberality" to outline the nature of virtue. The purpose of virtue is to motivate good actions (not to make money, gather honors, or have a great job). A truly virtuous person also acts in a positive rather than negative manner. So while it is good not to do things that are bad (i.e. have self-restraint), it's far better to actively do things that will benefit ourselves and our communities (i.e. be a moderate person).

    But those who possess such goods in the absence of virtue do not justly deem themselves worthy of great things, nor are they correctly spoken of as great souled...And people who possess such goods become haughty and hubristic because, in the absence of virtue, it is not easy to deal with the goods of fortune in a suitable manner. (4.3.1124a27-31)

    People of fortune often have a sense of privilege that comes with the territory. Because they have money and power, they believe themselves to be good or virtuous—sometimes even excessively so. Aristotle says that virtue cannot rise from external goods, like money. The virtues have to be present and active in the person. Otherwise, good fortune can become a calamity for the human soul.

  • Friendship

    For someone who accords with the middle characteristic here is the sort of person we mean by an equitable friend, if his disposition also goes together with feeling affection for the other. This characteristic differs from friendship, however, because it is without the relevant passion, that is, the feeling of affection for those with whom one associates...(4.6.1126b21-23)

    Aristotle isn't really defining friendship here. Instead, he's talking about the virtue a person might have in relation to the people around him. If this were a Jane Austen novel, we might say that this person is "amiable"—someone who knows how to be friendly in a pleasing way. This virtue is the starting point for friendship, because without it, a person would not be properly sociable.

    In poverty as well as in other misfortunes, people suppose that friends are their only refuge. And friendship is a help to the young, in saving them from error, just as it is also to the old, with a view to the care they require and their diminished capacity for action stemming from their weakness; it is a help also to those in their prime in performing noble actions, for 'two going together' are better able to think and to act. (8.1.1155a11-16)

    We can't emphasize enough how much we agree with Aristotle here: you always need your buds. There's no time of life when we can make it on our own—or if we can, it is always much more pleasant to have a companion to share in our lives. Again, Aristotle's not getting all Hallmark Channel on us here: he's totally practical. As humans, we need another set of hands, brains, and a shoulder to cry on in order to lead stable and productive lives.

    When people are friends, they have no need of justice, but when they are just, they do need friendship in addition; and in the realm of the just things, the most just seems to be what involves friendship. Yet friendship is not only necessary but also noble, for we praise those who love their friends, and an abundance of friends is held to be a noble thing. Further, people suppose good men and their friends to be one and the same. (8.1.1155a26-31)

    What exactly is it about friendship that makes justice a secondary concern? Aristotle will later posit that it's because we see our friend as a second self, and it is very nearly impossible to do an injustice to ourselves. This automatic sense of justice between friends also allows other virtues to surface, or at least makes it easier for the good side to come out.

    Because of this, we always think of our friends as the "best"—kind, worthy, good people. Which is why we always ask a friend for a job recommendation, and not just anyone. And although Aristotle later tells us that we really shouldn't have many great friends, we do feel that he or she who winds up with the most friends wins.

    Those who love each other on account of utility, then, do not love each other in themselves, but only insofar as they come to have something good from the other. Similar too is the case of those who love on account of pleasure, for people are fond of those who are witty, not because they are of a certain sort, but because they are pleasant to them. (8.3.1156a10-14)

    When Aristotle speaks of love in this way, he is still speaking about friendship—or rather "friendly affection," which is a kind of passion that holds us to what is lovable in another person. This can also extend to erotic relationships, but "love" in this case is not exclusively sexual. In these types of friendships, those involved don't love their friend for who they are, but rather what they bring to the relationship. And you can imagine what happens when either friend can't deliver what's expected of him.

    These sorts of friendships, then, are easily dissolved when the people involved do no remain the same as they were. For if they are no longer pleasant or useful, those who love them will cease to do so. And what is useful does not remain constant but is different at different times. (8.3.1156a19-22)

    Aristotle is speaking here of two types of false friendships, those of utility and pleasure. These relationships are entirely practical—we would call them relationships of convenience—but are less than satisfactory in terms of emotional fulfillment. They also tend to be short-lived…for the reasons mentioned. Though this is a bleak definition of friendship, Aristotle is setting us up to understand what a strong friendship (or complete friendship) looks like.

    But complete friendship is the friendship of those who are good and alike in point of virtue. For such people wish in similar fashion for the good things for each other insofar as they are good, and they are good in themselves. (8.3.1156b7-10)

    This is ideal friendship, in which each person loves the other for his "characteristics" or virtues. Because the cause of such love resides in a part of the person that changes very little over time, the friendship has very little reason to go sour—unlike the friendships based on utility and pleasure, which are unstable because they're based on inconstant things. Also—and this will be an important part of this discussion—the friends are "good in themselves," which means that are not only lovable to others, but also to themselves.

    Further, there is also the need of the passage of time and the habits formed by living together; for as the adage has it, it is not possible for people to know each other until they have eaten together the proverbial salt, nor is it possible, before this occurs, for them to accept each other and to be friends until each appears to each as lovable and is trusted. (8.3.1156b26-28)

    This seems like a lot of work to say that someone is our friend. But Aristotle wants to make sure that we don't jump headfirst into an inferior friendship that'll end in a lot of heartache.

    First requirement: friends have to spend a lot of time together. In doing so, two things happen: we become like each other (similar habits) and we learn to trust. It's also important that each person finds something stable in the other person to admire. Otherwise, we might wind up with a friendship of convenience rather than the real thing.

    Friendship appears in each of the regimes to the extent that what is just does as well. In a king in relation to those over whom he is king, friendship consists in superiority in granting benefactions, for he benefits those over whom he is king—if in fact, being good, he cares for them so that they fare well, just as does a shepherd for his sheep. (8.11.1161a10-14)

    Because friendship is intimately connected to justice, Aristotle has no problem making the leap into political relationships to see how they form under different types of rule. The king is superior of course—like the father to a son—and can't extend friendship of equality to his subjects. But in order to keep monarchy in line (i.e. away from tyranny) there has to exist some of the same affection that we have in friendships to keep the balance of power on the right side of justice.

    The friendship of a husband for a wife is the same as that in aristocracy, for it accords with virtue, and to the better person goes more of the good and to each what is suited to each. So also in the case of what is just. The friendship of brothers is like that of comrades...also resembling this friendship is the friendship pertaining to timocracy, for the citizens wish to be equals and equitable. (8.11.1161a23-27)

    Aristotle continues to map the concept of intimate friendships onto political life in order to see how these relationships work on the macrocosmic levels. What we see happening in households can be seen in society at large, as is the case in the friendship between husband and wife and brothers.

    There's no equality in marital friendship (hey, it's ancient Greece), but there is a kind of kindred nobility there, and a sense that each partner merits their own things. Brothers are the closest to total equality, like a timocracy—a polity governed by those who pay property taxes.

    ...but human beings live together not only for the sake of begetting children but also for the sake of the things that contribute to life, for the tasks involved are divided immediately, those of the husband being different from those of the wife. They assist each other, then, by putting their own things in the service of what is common. For these reasons, both what is useful and what is pleasant seem to be found in this friendship... (8.12.1162a21-24)

    Okay, we know this is not the most romantic definition of marriage, but we think that Aristotle has really hit on something in his description of marital friendship. The family home here has become a kind of self-sufficient commune, and husband and wife equal not in their capacities, but in their ability to contribute to the household. Aristotle understands that helping each other could be just about the sexiest thing that spouses can do for each other. Or perhaps that's just our reading...

  • Justice and Judgment

    For it is impossible or not easy for someone without equipment to do what is noble: many things are done through instruments, as it were—through friends, wealth, and political power. Those who are bereft of some of these...disfigure their blessedness, for a person who is altogether ugly in appearance, or of poor birth, or solitary and childless cannot really be characterized as happy... (1.8.1099b31-1099b5)

    Aristotle shows what we might consider a "modern sensibility" when it comes to his understanding of what it takes to do the right thing. He's speaking here of the advantages of privilege (i.e. having the "equipment to do what is noble") and the great disadvantages that come when a person is without. Without certain goods, a person has a much harder time being virtuous, and as a result, difficulty being completely happy. His narrow concept of what it means to be happy is both thoughtful (considering disadvantage) and a bit elitist (writing off those without privilege).

    Now, things that come about as a result of force or on account of ignorance seem to be involuntary. That which is forced is something whose origin is external, since it is the sort of thing to which the person who is acting or undergoing something contributes nothing...(3.1.1110a-3)

    Aristotle wants to discuss voluntary and involuntary behavior in order to determine what is just in judging the actions of others. It's helpful for lawgivers especially to understand what motivates behavior in assessing who/what is blame- or praiseworthy. The crucial point here is that involuntary behavior does not have its origin in the person acting. When personal agency is taken away from a person, he doesn't get to choose. Whatever happens, for better or worse, doesn't belong to that person.

    [The tactful or witty person] will not do just anything or everything, of course, since a joke is a kind of slander and legislators prohibit the slandering of some things, but they perhaps ought also to prohibit joking about some things. The refined and liberal person, then, is disposed in this way, he being like a law unto himself. (4.8.1128a29-31)

    Two different views of "judgment" are active in this passage. First, there's the correct reason of the witty or tactful person that allows him to judge how properly to joke and please his friends. Then, there's the more legalistic meaning, in which a person might be subject to the law if he lacks tact and moral judgment. It makes perfect sense, then, that the person who uses correct reason can be judge of the situation (i.e. "a law unto himself"), since he knows how to walk the line between amusement and slander.

    The just, therefore, is what is lawful and what is equal; the unjust is what is unlawful and what is unequal. (5.1.1129b1)

    Aristotle defines the just and the unjust in two ways here. First, according to the law: the just embrace legal code, whereas the unjust are lawbreakers. Then, he brings in the societal component: the unjust always grasp for more than their share of the pie (and are therefore "unequal"). This understanding of what's just and unjust will be important later, when Aristotle talks about the different kinds of justice (i.e. corrective and distributive).

    The laws pronounce on all things, in their aiming at the common advantage, either for all persons or for the best or for those who have authority, either in accord with virtue or in some other such way. As a result, we say that those things apt to produce and preserve happiness and its parts for the political community are in a manner just. (5.1.1129b15-19)

    Aristotle sees the law as the main preserver of equity and peace in society. It's the job of lawgivers to look into all aspects of human behavior and life in order to make the kinds of laws that will produce good citizens (by setting clear and reasonable boundaries) and promote justice (correcting inequalities, punishing lawbreakers).

    Worst, then, is he who treats both himself and his friends in a corrupt way, but best is he who makes use of virtue not in relation to himself but in relation to another. For this is a difficult task. This justice, then, is not a part of virtue but the whole of virtue, and the injustice opposed to it is not a part of vice but the whole of vice. (5.1.1130a6-11)

    Aristotle makes sure we understand how incredibly different it is to be just. We have to set aside self-interest and consider others as we would consider ourselves. Because it's so extraordinarily hard, justice requires extraordinary powers of goodness. But the effort's worth it, because the alternative is frankly quite terrifying. Giving in to unjust behavior makes us into one nasty piece of work.

    One form of partial justice...is found in the distributions of honor or money or any of the other things divisible among those who share in the regime (for in these things it is possible for one person to have a share that is either unequal or equal to another's). The other form of such justice is the corrective one involved in transactions...(5.2.1130b30-1131a1)

    This "partial" type of justice is different from justice as a whole—which Aristotle defines as the whole of virtue in relation to others—and deals specifically with equality. Distributive justice ensures that everyone in a community has access to goods held in common. Corrective justice applies to interactions between people, whether they're voluntary (where both parties agree to interact) or involuntary (where one party doesn't agree, as in assault). In both cases, the law intervenes to maintain balance in society.

    Hence when people dispute with one another, they find refuge before a judge. To go to a judge is to go to the just, for a judge wishes to be, as it were, the just ensouled. And people seek a judge as the middle way, and some call them mediators, on the grounds that, if they hit the middle term, they will have hit on the just. (5.4.1132a20-24)

    In his thinking about justice, Aristotle shows how corrective justice aims to re-distribute the harm done in a dispute so that each party has a more equal share of it. The judge's job, then, is to inflict loss on the person who tries to gain more than his fair share of something from someone.

    We're not speaking only in terms of money here; "gain" might mean injuring someone and gratifying our passions by doing so. While the judge can't take away the injury, he can strike down the unjust person in some way, so that the hurt's equal on both sides. But it takes a right-thinking person to be able to find that balance, so the judge really does have to be a model of correct reason and just behavior.

    The just exists for those for whom there is also law pertaining to them, and law exists among those for whom there is injustice. For justice is a judgment about the just and the unjust. (5.6.1134a30-33)

    You've probably never gotten this basic in your thinking about justice, but Aristotle challenges us to think about that molecular political unit that makes both law and justice a Thing: the community. If we don't live together (i.e. share a life in common), there would be no need to regulate anything. Without laws, there are no lawbreakers. While we might disagree (people can still hurt others, even in the absence of laws), Aristotle's correct in an absolute sense: justice and injustice in a specific sense can only exist when we group up and agree on the terms of living together.

    The just peculiar to a slave master and to a father are not the same as these [political senses] of justice, though they are similar. For there is no injustice in an unqualified sense toward one's own things, but one's property or offspring...is like a part of oneself, and nobody chooses to harm himself. (5.6.1134b9-12)

    Aristotle's declaration regarding both slaves and offspring (and one can add wife to this list) highlights the very narrow application of the concept of justice in this work. While justice as a general concept doesn't encompass these relationships, Aristotle believes that there's a more natural sense of justice that should regulate virtuous behavior toward these marginalized human beings.

    Of course, without the application of general or particular justice in these cases, it means that the law won't legislate concerning them—which means that there's no sense that these people can ever be wronged (and so: no justice if they are).

    This is in fact the nature of the equitable: a correction of law in the respect in which it is deficient because of its being general. For this is the cause also fo the fact that all things are not in accord with law: it is impossible to set down a law in some matters, so that one must have recourse to a specific decree instead. (5.10.1137b27-29)

    Aristotle understands that the law isn't perfect in its interpretation of what's just or unjust and lays the blame for that at the feet of non-specificity. Because lawgivers can't always legislate for every specific case that might come before them, there's bound to be a moment when the law fails to do what is right.

    This is where the concept of equity comes in. Note that "equity" is not the same as "equality": while equality ensures that people have the proper proportion of the good, equity is the principle that perfects justice. It's the back door that allows an equitable person to make corrections to the law to restore the balance of society in specific cases.

  • Community

    [...] for the complete good is held to be self-sufficient. We do not mean by self-sufficient what suffices for someone by himself, living a solitary life, but what is sufficient also with respect to parents, offspring, a wife, and, in general, one's friends and fellow citizens, since by nature a human being is political. (1.7.1097b7-11)

    Here, Aristotle tackles the concept of the greatest good, which is happiness. It's the thing that motivates all human behavior and is, all by itself, perfectly satisfying and sustaining. But Aristotle's no fool; he understands that humans can't find happiness in total solitude because we're social beings. His declaration that a "human being is political" means that we are meant to live in community, interacting with and supporting the common good.

    And so, in a word, the characteristics come into being as a result of the activities akin to them. Hence we must make our activities be of a certain quality...It makes no small difference, then, whether one is habituated in this way or that way straight from childhood but a very great difference—or rather the whole difference. (2.1.1103b21-25)

    Aristotle speaks here about the necessity to raise a child up in way that will help him develop his "characteristics" (i.e. virtues). He believes that although we may be receptive to such an education from birth, we're not simply born with the virtues up and running. The task of such habituation falls not only to the family, but also to the political community and to lawgivers who enshrine desirable virtues in the laws that they write.

    As for private expenditures, there are all those that occur just once (such as a wedding or anything of this sort) and anything the whole city or people of worth take seriously, as well as anything connected with the receiving and sending off of foreign guests or the giving and reciprocating of gifts. For the magnificent person is lavish not on himself but on the common affairs... (4.2.1123a1-5)

    All virtues benefit the common good through the actions of good people. In this case, it's the magnificent person (one who spends a lot of his own money to improve the community) who sees to the things that ought to be done to ensure social stability.

    Note that even private expenditures (i.e. weddings) have an impact on the community. Aristotle says that even the furnishings in the magnificent person's house have to be excellent, since it's his duty to stimulate the local economy and receive important civic leaders in style.

    For he who rules is already in relation to another and within the community. And on account of this same thing too, justice alone of the virtues is held to be another's good, because it relates to another. For it does what is advantageous to another, either to a ruler or to someone who shares in the community. (5.1.1130a2-5)

    Justice can only exist in community. Aristotle will make a big deal out of this in his Ethics, especially when he discusses the possibility of committing an injustice to oneself (which he says we can't do). Justice only exists in community because it only exists for people governed by law.

    For roughly speaking the majority of the lawful things are those commanded on the basis of the whole of virtue: the law commands us to live in accord with each virtue and forbids us to live in accord with each corruption. Things productive of the whole of virtue are all those legislative acts pertaining to the education to the common good. (5.2.130b23-26)

    Aristotle tells us that the law exists not just for the correction of injustice after the fact. It also aims to create the model citizen through an encoding of virtue into law. This "education" can be coercive (note the language: "commands" and "forbids"), which highlights the urgency of conforming to virtuous behavior when living together as a community.

    The just in this sense [the corrective] has a different form the previous one, for the just in the distribution of things held in common always accords with the proportion spoken of. And in fact if the distribution comes out of common resources, it will accord with the same ratio that the contributions have toward each other. (5.4.1131b26-28)

    It's no surprise that community is at the heart of all conversations of justice in Aristotle's Ethics. If you recall, justice can only exist between people who live together in a society governed by laws. Without this communal life, there would be little opportunity to interact, for better or worse.

    For a just society to exist, then, the good belonging to everyone needs to be shared out equitably. But that doesn't mean that everyone deserves to get the same amount. Aristotle proposes the idea of an equitable proportion for all, in which we get back the same proportion of good that we contribute to society. There may be many problems with this concept, but it's at least reasonable on the surface.

    For no community comes into existence out of two doctors but rather out of a doctor and a farmer and, in general, out of those who are different and not equal. But these [differing types] must be equalized. (5.5.1133a16-18)

    It takes all kinds to make the world go 'round. This isn't a new thought, even in Aristotle's time. He understands that a community is something built on mutual exchange, which cannot exist without a variety of goods and services (i.e. a diversity of people) available to the citizens.

    In order for this exchange to work, however, there has to be an equitable way of assessing the value of each thing to be exchanged. Aristotle tells us a little later on that the greatest equalizer of all is money. While some have more and some less, currency allows people in society to get what they need, regardless of what product they have to offer.

    Hence all things ought to have a value assigned to them; for in this way there will always be exchange, and if there is exchange, then there will be community. Hence by making these things commensurate, money, just like a measure, equalizes them. For there is no community if there is no exchange, or exchange if there is no equality, or equality if there is no commensurability. (5.5.1133b15-18)

    Aristotle defines community essentially as an economic, political unit. In this place, justice begins with exchange. Because exchange within a community makes life possible (because basic life needs must be met), there has to be equality/commensurability between the goods and services exchanged. He doesn't say it here, but Aristotle does talk about (proportional) equality between people in community as an important part of social justice as well. Here, money is the equalizer, keeping need stable. Between human beings, it's a sense of what's just for each person.

    But it must not escape our notice that what is being sought is also the just unqualifiedly, that is, the just in the political sense. And this exists among those who share a life in common with a view to being self-sufficient, who are free and equal, either in accord with proportion or arithmetically. As a result, for all those for whom this does not exist, there is nothing politically just in relation to one another, but only something just in a certain sense and by way of a similarity. (5.6.1134a25-29)

    Again, Aristotle sees justice tied to human community. But justice isn't a necessity simply because we have to be all up in each other's business: we need it especially to maintain the balance between communal living and what's necessary for an individual to thrive. Unqualified justice (or justice as a general, overarching concept) belongs to the political unit (i.e. the city, or a group of people being ruled by laws), where specific or particular justice exists to maintain equality between citizens.

    For in every community, something just seems to exist, and friendship as well. At any rate, people address their shipmates and fellow soldiers as friends, just as those in other communities do. And to the extent that people share in community, there is friendship, since to this extent there is also what is just. The proverb "the things of friends are in common" is correct, since friendship resides in community... (8.9.1159b27-33)

    Aristotle makes the argument that the political sphere—the regime—determines the types of friendships can thrive in it. This makes sense, since friendships are a kind of micro-community, a reflection of the larger community around them. The level of justice that exists in society, then, determines what can exist between friends. Friends also must spend their days together, which means that they will live their lives in common, wishing for and doing the same kinds of things—hence, a community of two.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    But experience of particular things seems to be courage as well. So it is that Socrates too supposed courage to be knowledge. Yet different people are experienced in different things, and in matters of war, it is the professional soldiers who are such. For there seem to be many false alarms in war, which professional soldiers especially see through. (3.8.1116b4-7)

    Aristotle has a lot of positive things to say about "knowers," or people who seem to have a head for knowing something, as an expert might. In this case, having professional knowledge (an intellectual virtue) can lead to displaying a moral virtue (courage, in this case). However, knowledge only gets you so far. For these "courageous" soldiers, things begin to fall apart when they enter into unknown territory, whenever something exceeds their experience.

    But the magnificent person resembles a knower, since he is able to contemplate what is fitting and to spend great amounts in a suitable way. (4.2.1122a35-36)

    We're getting at knowledge once again through a moral virtue. A magnificent person (one who expends large sums of money for the greater good) can't just throw his money around. He has to use his intellect (and tact) to understand where it'll best be used and how the work to be done with it will be made awesome. This requires both thought and sensitivity, something that comes from understanding the needs of the community.

    Similarly too, people suppose that to know the just and unjust things is in no way to be wise, because it is not difficult to comprehend what the laws say (but these are not the just things, except incidentally). But how the just things are done and how they are distributed—this is indeed a greater task than to know what is conducive to health... (5.9.1137a10-4)

    Though both wisdom and comprehension are both intellectual virtues, Aristotle's pretty clear here about which one is superior. Simply grasping intellectually what lawgivers say about justice isn't enough to maintain the balance of society. True wisdom in this case requires both perception and experience to understand how justice works best on a day-to-day (and case-to-case) basis. It's not hard to imagine that Aristotle's responding to those who maybe poke fun at the "political art."

    It is clear, as a result, that the most precise of the sciences would be wisdom. The wise person, therefore, ought not only to know what proceeds from the principles but also to attain the truth about the principles. Wisdom, as a result, would be intellect and science, a science of the most honorable matters that has as it were, its capstone. (6.7.1141a16-21)

    Aristotle's describing the action of the contemplative life: to be able to understand stuff, whether how it originates or what it actually is. Though this sounds a little underwhelming, think about it for a minute. If you understood how things worked and what that meant for life on earth (without Googling it), you'd be the guru of everything.

    Hence even some who are without knowledge—those who have experience, among others—are more skilled in acting than are others who have knowledge. (6.7.1141b17-18)

    Aristotle explains to us that while those with knowledge (i.e. the wise) should be revered as having the best of intellectual virtues, quite frankly, they're sometimes worthless. This is because they don't do anything.

    That is the trap of the contemplative life: to be able to perceive the truth, but not to act on one's behalf. So the prudent have the advantage here. With experience, a person might make good decisions that make life better (i.e. happier). And since the prudent are concerned with good actions, the odds are that they'll rouse themselves from thought long enough to complete something.

    For wisdom, on the one hand, will not contemplate anything as a result of which a human being will be happy (since wisdom is not concerned with anything that is coming-into-being), while prudence, on the other hand, does pertain to this. (6.12.1143b19-22)

    The wise spend their time obtaining and contemplating universal, scientific knowledge (i.e. that which "does not admit to being otherwise). This is all very well and good, but it also means that the wise don't concern themselves with actions, or with the deliberation that has to precede choice. As a result, their lives to don't actively seek to bring the good home to them. While the wise seek to educate themselves, they don't do it for a different end; education is always for the sake of knowledge and nothing else.

    For in both children and beasts, the natural characteristics are present, but they are manifestly harmful in the absence of intellect. Yet this much does seem to be seen—that just as a strong body moving without eyesight will end up stumbling with considerable force because it is without sight, so it is also in this case [of having the natural virtues in the absence of intellect]. (6.13.1144b9-13)

    Virtues (or characteristics) are necessary for our happiness, but they can't fully blossom in us without intellect. But what is intellect in this case? It's the ability to comprehend or to grasp what is taught, surely.

    Because without this ability, we can't grasp the expectations that our community has for our behavior. Aristotle also tells us that we can't truly make choices without the ability to deliberate and make choices. So while the virtues might, after a good education and proper habituation, ensure that our desires are correct, we can't even grasp what's at issue without intellect.

    But stating the arguments that proceed from science is not a sign of anything, for even people in the grip of these passions state demonstrations and verses of Empedocles, and those who are first learning will put together arguments but not yet understand them. For one must grow naturally into the knowledge, and that requires time. (7.3.1147a18-22)

    Aristotle tells us that knowledge in itself doesn't constitute wisdom…or even prudence. In both cases, we have to contemplate "science" long enough to "have" it, to be in actual, useful possession of it. Otherwise, we're really no better than parrots. Drunk parrots, at that.

    For it is not when science in the authoritative sense seems to be present that the experience of the lack of self-restraint occurs, nor is it this science that is dragged around on account of passion, but rather that [knowledge] which is bound up with perception. (7.3.1147b16-18)

    Aristotle divides the world into two types of people: the knowers and the non-knowers.

    Non-knowers are those who lack knowledge, either through a lack of intellect or education, or from some temporary condition (i.e. drunkenness). It ought to be impossible for a knower to fall into error (i.e. lacking self-restraint).

    But humans can know certain things (universal knowledge) and still lack the knowledge of "defining boundaries," or the limits of things. When that happens, we only have partial knowledge and may not be able to see consequences of our actions. So while we may know that indulgence in fifteen doughnuts every day isn't great for us, we may still be shocked at a diagnosis of diabetes.

    [...] it would also be reasonable for the gods to delight in what is best and most akin to them—this would be the intellect—and to benefit in return those who cherish this above all and honor it, on the grounds that these latter are caring for what is dear to the gods...And that all these things are available to the wise person especially is not unclear. He is dearest to the gods, therefore, and it is likely that this same person is also happiest. As a result, in this way too, the wise person would be especially happy. (10.8.1179a26-32)

    And there you have it: to be wise is to be happy.

    More than that, it's to be blessed by the gods. Dang. It's interesting that Aristotle, who's been so interested in establishing what is particular to humans, should discover that the best thing for them is not to be humans but to be gods. Oh, the irony.

    But seriously, humanity is, in this philosophy, marked by a kind of divinity not available to animals. That divinity is the intellect, which can perceive itself and grasp the idea of superior ideals and beings.

  • Life, Consciousness and Existence

    [...] and we posit the work of a human being as a certain life, and this is an activity of soul and actions accompanied by reason, the work of a serious man being to do these things well and nobly, and each thing is brought to completion well in accord with the virtue proper to it—if this is so, then the human good becomes an activity of soul in accord with virtue... (1.7.1098a13-15)

    In order to figure out which characteristics belong to human happiness, Aristotle wants to decide what kind of work is proper to human beings. Hint: it's to live a life of reason, constantly acting in virtuous ways. But this isn't just the work of humans; it's the work of happy humans, since life in accordance with virtue is the highest good.

    And the most frightening thing is death, for it is a limit [or end], and there seems to be nothing else for the dead, nothing either good or bad. (3.6.1115a26-28)

    Aristotle sums up the problem of mortality in one sentence: existence, pleasant or otherwise, is so appealing because there's always the next thing to look forward to. Without life (or a sense of afterlife), we can't continue or move on. Aristotle posits that this existential fear is the basis of the virtue of courage.

    And the more he possesses complete virtue and the happier he is, the more he will be pained at the prospect of death. For to this sort of person, living is especially worthwhile, and he is deprived of the greatest goods knowingly—and this is a painful thing. (3.9.1117b10-13)

    Aristotle's speaking of courage and the paradox relating to it: though it is always pleasant to do what is right, it can sometimes be a painful thing to do. This is especially true in the most extreme case (i.e. sacrificing a good life), since we know that we won't be around to enjoy the greatest pleasure: existing. Why, then, behave virtuously? Aristotle doesn't answer that here. He does imply, however, that courage is a virtue that can be had in degrees—it's okay if we aren't willing to go all the way and die for our principles.

    And pain unhinges a person and destroys the nature of him who undergoes it, whereas pleasure does no such thing. (3.12.1119a24-25)

    This simple observation on the nature of pain reveals something larger about human existence. Though living is, in itself, a great good, our ability to be virtuous and therefore happy is dependent on several factors. We can see here that when it comes to pain, all bets are off. It can erase our virtues and our intellect, and it can take away our power to make good choices. It's because of this transformative power that Aristotle says cowardice is more forgivable than other things, since it's our fear of pain that motivates it.

    Metaphorically and in reference to a certain similarity, there is something just that pertains, not to a person in relation to himself, but to certain parts of himself...In these sorts of arguments, the part of the soul possessing reason is set apart from the nonrational; hence to those who look to these considerations, there does in fact seem to be injustice in relation to oneself, because in these parts of the soul, it is possible to suffer something contrary to their respective longings. (5.11.1138b6-13)

    Aristotle's struggled with this question throughout Ethics up to this point: can we be unjust to ourselves?

    His first answer says no: justice only exists for those who live in community, and according to laws.

    But he wants to finesse this answer a bit more—perhaps to account for self-harming behaviors. In doing so, he gets very close to a psychology or inner life of a human being: we can be internally torn and we can rebel against our own better impulses and longings. In this way, we're a community unto ourselves, and reason is meant to be the ruler.

    So let those things by which the soul attains the truth, by way of affirmation and denial, be five in number. These are art, science, prudence, wisdom, and intellect (for through conviction and opinion, one can be mistaken). (6.3.1139b15-18)

    Aristotle tells us that it's through these five capacities that we perceive the world around us and make sense out of our observations. These are the intellectual virtues, and when guided by correct reason and the moral virtues, humans have a pretty good chance of getting at what's both good and pleasant in life.

    And every art is concerned with the process of coming-into-being, that is, with artfully contriving and contemplating how something that admits either of existing or not existing may come into being, the origin of which lies in the person making but not in the thing made. (6.4.1140a11-14)

    When Aristotle speaks of art, he's not exclusively speaking of the kind of thing you might find in an art gallery. Art consists of a technical knowledge that produces something—shoes, houses, furniture, clothing—and coincides with our modern understanding of craft (and craftsmen). Art deals with "things that admit to being otherwise"—those things that aren't part of fixed knowledge and culminates in the creation of something, rather than simply in action. It is a way of getting at truth, and it represents how we interact with our world and interpret it.

    They define living in the case of animals as a capacity for perception, and in the case of human beings as a capacity for perception or thought. But a capacity is traced back to its activity, and what is authoritative resides in the activity. So it seems that living is, in the authoritative sense, perceiving or thinking. And living is among the things in themselves good and pleasant... (9.9.1170a16-20)

    While it seems that Aristotle is equating human perception with animal perception, that's not the case here. Human perception is marked by intellect, comprehension, and deliberation—an active engagement with the world around us. Though this is little more than contemplation (i.e. it isn't an activity in the same way that running or mountain climbing is), it is the basic thing that defines us as human and the thing that is most pleasant for us to do. Coincidence?

    The result is that if we are perceiving something, we also perceive that we are perceiving; and if we are thinking, that we are thinking. And to perceive that we are perceiving or thinking is to perceive that we exist...Moreover, perceiving that one lives belongs among the things pleasant in themselves, for life is by nature a good thing, and to perceive the good present in oneself is pleasant...(9.9.1170a32-1170b2)

    Try not to think about this one too hard. If you're familiar with René Descartes "I think, therefore I am," you've grasped the phrasing. Aristotle points to the awareness of our own existences as key to the human experience, and the greatest pleasure that we have as living creatures.

    This is because life's already a good thing—without it, there's nothing—but to the good person, existence is even better. Such a person has much to love about himself and also what he needs to be self-sufficient. To contemplate so much good, then, must be the very best pleasure of life.

    Pleasure also completes the activities, as indeed it does in being alive, which people long for. It is reasonable, then, that they aim also at pleasure, since it completes for each what it is to be alive, which is a choiceworthy thing. (10.4.1175a16-17)

    Aristotle's trying to convince us that pleasure may be the premier good thing about being alive. And he's doing a pretty good job of it. He says that life itself is a kind of activity within which we choose other activities that accord with our virtues. While each of these activities are good in themselves, they are made even better by pleasure.

    Pleasure, then, completes human activity, which means that a clever human being might, in fact, be doing the things he does specifically because pleasure is the end he's aiming for from the beginning.

  • Choice

    If, therefore, there is some end of our actions that we wish for on account of itself, the rest being things we wish for on account of this end, and if we do not choose all things on account of something else—for in this way the process will go on indefinitely such that the longing involved is empty and pointless—clearly this would be the good, that is, the best. (1.2.1094a19-23)

    Aristotle explains his idea of the most "choiceworthy" thing. He doesn't say specifically what it is at this point (why would you keep reading?), but he does make it clear that we yearn for the good that's most complete. When we stumble onto that certain something that doesn't need anything else to make it better, we should choose that as the greatest possible good in life.

    And the person lacking self-restraint acts out of desire, but he does not do so from choice; the self-restrained person, conversely, acts from choice but not out of desire. And whereas desire opposes choice, desire does not oppose desire. Desire has to do with what is pleasant and painful, whereas choice has to do with neither the painful nor the pleasant. (3.2.1111b14-17)

    Aristotle begins to narrow the scope of what is truly voluntary by defining the types of actions subject to choice. Desire, it seems, has the upper hand in each of these situations. Because desire comes from a different place than rational thought, it doesn't easily obey our intellect. And without intellect, Aristotle will later tell us, there's no real capacity to deliberate and choose.

    What sort of thing is choice, then, since it is none of the things mentioned? It indeed appears to be something voluntary, but not everything voluntary is an object of choice. But is it, therefore, at least an object of prior deliberation? For choice is accompanied by reason and thought. (3.2.1112a13-16)

    The answer is yes: choice specifically is the product of prior deliberation. He'll go further to say that we can't properly choose if we are ignorant or without virtue. While this definitely takes away some personal responsibility from those who do stupid things, it doesn't let them off the hook. The inability to choose may keep us from being truly unjust, but it doesn't make us good or honorable, and therefore excludes us from happiness.

    Since what is chosen is a certain longing, marked by deliberation, for something that is up to us, choice would in fact be a deliberative longing for things that are up to us. For in deciding something on the basis of having deliberated about it, we long for it in accord with our deliberation (3.3.1113a10-13)

    This is choice in a nutshell. Note that in order to choose properly, three things have to be present: 1) longing (preferably correct longing); 2) deliberation, or the ability to think before acting; 3) the ability to act under our own steam, not out of compulsion. If any of these are missing or incomplete, we won't act out of choice but out of compulsion, desire, or necessity.

    In this way too, it was possible at the beginning for both the unjust person and the licentious one not to become such as they are, and hence they are what they are voluntarily; but once they become such, it is no longer possible for them to be otherwise. (3.5.1114a19-22)

    Choice plays a huge role in the development of our virtues. When we're in the position to deliberate and choose our actions (i.e. what we do is voluntary) we're choosing also the type of person we are becoming. If we choose poorly, we're habituating ourselves to become bad people. And once we walk down that path, there's no turning back because eventually, our reason (and hence, our ability to choose properly) will be destroyed.

    (It is not in making having the capacity to boast but in making the choice to do so that someone is a boaster, for choice accords with one's characteristic, and he is a boaster because he is that sort of person). (4.7.1127b14-16)

    It's important to remember that characteristics or virtues can't shape our personality unless they're active in us (i.e. they are translated into action). We can't be called a good person until we actually do things that are good. It also works the same way for the annoying stuff. While we all have the capacity to boast, it's the choice to do so that motivates us to action—and therefore gets us pegged as an obnoxious exaggerator.

    Some voluntary things we do because we have chosen them, others we do though we have not chosen them: we choose all those that we deliberated about beforehand, and those not chosen are those not deliberated about beforehand. (5.8.1135b9-11)

    It's important especially for lawgivers to understand what types of actions are voluntary and which are involuntary, Aristotle says. For one thing, it isn't always easy to determine this. Even when we can categorize an action one way or another, there are often circumstances that make our actions quite a mixed bag.

    An action might be considered voluntary (i.e. having its origin within ourselves) but not be the result of pre-meditation or careful mulling over the consequences (i.e. deliberation). To call something truly voluntary, the key thing is choice: conscious deliberation about our course of action.

    But if a person harms someone from choice, he acts unjustly; and it is in reference to these acts of injustice that he who does them is himself unjust, whenever the act is contrary to what is proportional or equal. Similarly too a person is himself just whenever he performs a just act, having chosen to do so...(5.8.1136a2-3)

    Aristotle differentiates between a person who does an unjust act (but is not an unjust person) and one who does an unjust act and actually is unjust (and applies the same thinking to just acts).

    It may seem like a lot of hair-splitting, but the distinction's important. We might do something wrong that ends in harm (i.e. running a stop sign), but it doesn't mean that we acted with the intention to harm. In this case, our actions are unjust, but we aren't. Choice (or prior deliberation) is crucial in determining such intent. And it's important to remember that we can't accidentally be just or unjust people.

    It is manifest from this also who the equitable person is: he who is disposed to choose and to do these sorts of things and is not exacting to a fault about justice, but is instead disposed to take less for himself even though he has the law on his side, is equitable. (5.10.113734-1138a1)

    Aristotle admits to us that the law isn't perfect where justice is concerned, especially in specific cases that require a judgment not exactly covered by law. Equity is the characteristic (or virtue) that allows a person to be equitable—or have greater concern for Justice (with a capital "J"—general justice)—rather than legalistic. It's clear who Aristotle thinks is a more superior person.

    Of action, then, choice is the origin—that from which the motion arises but not that for the sake of which one moves; and of choice, the origin is one's longing and the reasoning that indicates what it is for the sake of which one acts. Hence there cannot be choice either in the absence of intellect and thinking or in the absence of moral characteristic, for there cannot be acting well or its contrary in action in the absence of thinking and character. (6.2.1139a31-36)

    Some might argue that we can act perfectly well without thinking. Aristotle would clearly disagree. In this chain of command, we can see that choice is rooted in both thought and virtue. We sift through opinions about a course of action when we deliberate about how best to reach the desired end—which should be shaped by virtuous longing.

    "Snap judgments" would not, then, be considered the product of proper choice. By further defining how choice works, Aristotle's also rapidly narrowing our perception of what kinds of actions are voluntary…since choice is a crucial component of intentional behavior.