Study Guide

The Nicomachean Ethics Summary

By Aristotle

The Nicomachean Ethics Summary

Fasten your seatbelts. Make sure the shoulder harness clicks into place. Get your crash helmet on. You're about to go for a several-thousand-year-old ride…and Aristotle ain't going to make it easy for you.

(That's what we're here for.)

Basically, we're going to get deep into the heart of what Aristotle thought made people good. And bad. And, well, not ugly—there were some differences between Aristotle and Clint Eastwood—but morally gray.

Book 1

Aristotle begins by laying down the investigation at hand: what is the highest human good? He determines that it's happiness (because this is the most complete good) and has to thrash out what this means in practical terms. Toward the end of this book, he turns to the subject of virtue, since it's in virtuous action that humans find happiness in life. Good to know.

Book 2

We get an overview of virtue—both intellectual and moral—and learn that we aren't really born with moral virtues. While we may have natural dispositions toward particular "characteristics," we need education and habituation to make them stick.

Aristotle warns us that this is no theoretical discussion—he's going to teach us how to be good. Thanks, A.

He describes virtue in terms of a "mean" or "middle way" between two extremes (excess and deficiency, both of which are vices) and gives a quick run-down of traits according to this spectrum. We learn that it's hard to be virtuous because it takes a lot of work to find the mean of each characteristic.

Book 3

Aristotle opens with a discussion of voluntary/involuntary behavior, which segues into an explication of choice. He describes choice as voluntary, originating within ourselves, and as a product of deliberation.

Choice is different from "wish," which is a kind of longing or desire.

In each of these cases, we have to apply virtue and reason to make correct choices and to do good things. While there are certain conditions that get us off the hook—like ignorance—it's only a temporary excuse from personal responsibility for our actions. Aristotle here begins in-depth coverage of each moral virtue, starting with courage and moderation and including the vices that oppose 'em.

Book 4

Aristotle deals with virtues concerning money here: liberality and magnificence. Liberality refers to the inclination to spend money properly and on the right things: being open-handed for good reason.

Magnificence is like liberality, but on a grand scale—a magnificent person has coin and isn't afraid to spend lots of it on something for the common good.

The "professional" virtues are next: greatness of soul and ambition. Both are considered people who know their own worth, even if others don't generally find them pleasant. But those who possess gentleness and friendliness are pleasant, because they're moderate in temper and open to people (respectively). Aristotle closes with an examination of good speaking: truthfulness (plain-speaking) and wittiness (appropriate and pleasant humor).

Book 5

This book is dedicated entirely to justice, the crown jewel of virtues.

After defining what and who is just/unjust, Aristotle delineates two types of justice: corrective and distributive—and explains why justice only exists for people who live in community with each other.

He introduces the necessity of equality, proportion, and commensurability in the economy of a community, and how they make mutual exchange (and therefore life) possible.

Aristotle defines what it means to be a just/unjust: performing these acts voluntarily and as a product of prior deliberation. The book ends on a discussion of the differences between equity and the equitable and whether or not we can commit injustices to ourselves.

Congrats—you've made it halfway through. (Deep breath.)

Book 6

We move into the intellectual virtues: art (craftsmanship or skill), science (hardcore knowledge), prudence, wisdom, and intellect (reason). He defines each virtue, beginning with prudence—the ability to deliberate well. Wisdom is the comprehension of universal and unchanging knowledge.

Aristotle also introduces related intellectual virtues: comprehension (the ability to grasp things), judgment (making equitable, fair decisions), and cleverness (which can go wrong very quickly). He ends this book with the assertion that intellect perfects our other virtues.

Book 7

Aristotle devotes this book to a discussion of self-restraint (or lack thereof). He opens with difficult questions: Can a good person lack self-restraint? Can they be "knowers"? Does self-restraint apply to all pleasures or just some? He concludes that self-restraint applies to pleasures and pains, or to the same things as licentiousness does.

But lack of self-restraint is only error, not vice— people can who lack self-restraint can be cured by effort. (Phew.)

Aristotle concludes that it's important for lawgivers to understand about pain and pleasure, since they have to respond to those who transgress in response to these things. He also briefly opens discussion about pleasure.

Book 8

This is all about friendship, which Aristotle first defines and then breaks down into three types: the useful, the pleasant, and the complete.

He explains what is necessary for complete friendship to exist, including the need for friends to "live together" in order to see what is lovable in each other and to become more alike. Aww, that sounds sweet.

Aristotle introduces the concept of the unequal friendship (ruler/subject, father/son), whether or not the wicked can be/have friends, and friendships in families. He theorizes that the level of justice in any political regime determines the types and quantities of friendships between individuals in that society.

Finally, Aristotle addresses how the inferior forms of friendship run into trouble and dissolve. He even advises us—all Dear Abby-like—on how best to get out of a nasty friendship break-up with our dignity and honor intact. This is a useful section, y'all.

Book 9

There's more drama to be had in friendships, especially when the people involved expect different things from each other—and neither is satisfied. Aristotle also addresses the difficulty of giving people things—gifts, trust, respect—as they deserve, and of what happens when your friend changes for the worse.

Aristotle emphasizes the importance of loving yourself first in order to be good friends to others and shows us how to recognize friendship when we see it (good will vs. friendly affection and like-mindedness). He discusses the value of a gift, and how a friend is a second self.

And, finally, he determines that, yeppers—happy people do need friends, while the rest of us need them both in times of fortune and misfortune.

Book 10

Aristotle wraps up with the importance of pleasure and how it might, in fact, be a pretty great good.

He points out that everything in nature tends toward it (and away from pain). Although it can be difficult to figure out the right things to enjoy and the right amounts to enjoy them, pleasure is a necessary part of happy existence.

And speaking of happiness...Aristotle finally gets down to it. He defines it as an activity of the best part of a human being (i.e. the mind) and the virtue connected with it is wisdom. In which case, the best activity is contemplation. That's right: the philosophical life is the very best for human happiness. Aristotle musters his arguments to support this.

He claims that we do have to mix pleasure in with happiness…because who are we kidding? Life wouldn't be worth living without it. At the end of this book, Aristotle segues into a discussion about lawmaking, in preparation for his lectures on politics. But that's another work entirely.