Study Guide

The Nicomachean Ethics Book 10, Chapter 9 (1179a33-1181b24)

By Aristotle

Book 10, Chapter 9 (1179a33-1181b24)

  • Now that Aristotle's reached the final chapter of his work and has to bid us adieu, he's wondering if anything he's said to us about moral virtues will make us better people.
  • He understands that speech does very little to alter the behavior of other human beings, and that what we now know about the life of virtue will do us no good if we don't act.
  • Does it even matter that we've been taught to be good? Or is it more effective to have virtue by nature or through habits?
  • It helps if a person is born disposed to accept the kind of discipline that'll make him into a good person.
  • If he can then be raised with good habits, it makes teaching him a whole lot easier.
  • Aristotle says that good laws help to make a person into a good citizen. When the framework of virtuous behavior is laid out for him, he can take his early learning and turn it into good habits.
  • He says that the law is characterized in part by compulsion: it has the power to force us into sociable habits by threatening punishment or expulsion from the community.
  • If that sounds too harsh, Aristotle tells us to suck it up.
  • Even though a father wouldn't be so hard-nosed in his discipline, the law must oppose the baser impulses of people in order to guarantee a certain amount of equity in society.
  • But Aristotle laments the feeble efforts at rule-setting by cities in his day.
  • Everyone is just allowed to do whatever he wants without consequences. The horror.
  • But "public care" is the responsibility of the city and in its absence, the family has to lay down some laws so that the children grow up to be virtuous.
  • Aristotle claims that there's something to be said for an individualized and private education (as opposed to a public one). A more tailored experience might help habituate a young citizen better.
  • And if a person's interested in molding young minds, he might take up the job of legislator so that he can best teach virtue through experience, as in an art or science.
  • But that's not how things work. The politicians may practice the "political art," but they train no one. How's the next generation of legislators to come about, then?
  • Aristotle's answer has common sense, even if it's a bit vague. Those who want to be lawgivers need both practical experiences and contemplative training.
  • He inserts a few digs at the Sophists' expense, since they seem to be all about the theory of law rather than the actions associated with it.
  • They also think that choosing laws for a community is an easy thing, which makes Aristotle laugh.
  • He knows that it requires serious thought and expertise to encode just the right virtues.
  • Since there's no particular course of study to train new lawgivers, Aristotle suggests that the young study laws and government, contemplating how to apply precedents to particular cases.
  • He ends his study of virtue and happiness with a segue into how best to preserve the political art (which will appear in his work, Politics).