Study Guide

The Nicomachean Ethics Book 1, Chapter 6 (1096a11-1096b14)

By Aristotle

Book 1, Chapter 6 (1096a11-1096b14)

  • Aristotle thinks it'll be best to tackle the elephant in the room: what is the universal good?
  • He thinks this partially because everyone is so fond of Plato and his followers, who banged on about "forms"—which gave each thing its general character.
  • But Aristotle politely sidesteps his predecessor by saying, basically, that you have to "kill your darlings" for the sake of truth.
  • He's going to spend the chapter dealing with these "forms."
  • Finding one idea of good is tricky. If we speak in categories (i.e. what it is or the right moment to cultivate it), it's clear that it's not possible for the good to be common and universal.
  • There's another argument against one good: there is no single science of good things.
  • There are many categories of good sciences (bodies of knowledge), and it changes according to circumstance (i.e. in illness, medicine; in war, generalship).
  • Now hold onto your hats, folks, because Aristotle is going to turn on the philosophy-speak in order to explain how good is good, no matter how long-lasting or specific (or not).
  • Just like an individual person is both a unique individual and part of the human race, so "good" is both specific (for a certain situation and category) and general (ideal, universal good).
  • But something that is good in a specific situation is still categorized as good under the larger genus of Good Things.
  • Those who like the idea of "forms" also posit two types of goods: things that are good in themselves, and things that are good because of these.
  • Aristotle wants to examine each of these categories for now, to determine if the goods that are means (not ends) really refer back to one, single idea of goodness.
  • So what might be good in itself? Can virtues be good on their own, or do they all come from a larger "idea"?
  • But, Aristotle says, if only this ideal form of good is the epitome of good things by itself, then it's useless.
  • If it's abstracted away from all other good things, what does it serve?
  • If the virtues are then goods in themselves, they would appear to be the same in all cases.
  • But that's not the case. Point? All good things don't refer back to a single idea.
  • So now what? How then do we know that good things are good, if we don't have something to judge it against?
  • Do all good things flow from One Thing, or do they contribute to it, like a dot that makes up a larger pointillist painting? (That's our analogy, not Aristotle's).
  • If there's one idea, it hardly matters in practical terms. We can't act on an abstraction, nor can we "have" it.
  • Aristotle decides we should let this conversation go—but he doesn't. He still wants to pick at the argument that there's a universal good.
  • Couldn't we just posit it for convenience's sake, so that we might at least figure out what things are good for us? It's attractive, but not really part of scientific inquiry.
  • For all categories of knowledge are about some good and seek to fill gaps, but don't concern themselves with some abstract form of good and what it is.
  • Aristotle says that practitioners of any craft (i.e. a weaver or doctor) wouldn't really benefit from understanding an ideal form of good, since it wouldn't improve their craft in practical ways.
  • He wants us to hang on to this discussion of the impracticality of a universal good while he moves on to another point.