Study Guide

The Nicomachean Ethics Principles

By Aristotle

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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.

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