Study Guide

The Nicomachean Ethics Themes

By Aristotle

  • Happiness

    Aristotle uses the term eudaimonia to talk about happiness in the Ethics. While the word often translates as "happiness," it really means something closer to "flourishing" or "thriving" as human beings. In order to thrive, we must pursue (and achieve) the greatest human good, which Aristotle defines as something "complete."

    This means that no other good can ever make it any better; we chase this greatest good for itself and nothing else.

    Aristotle tells us that humans can only achieve happiness through the exercise of virtue. By behaving ourselves as good girls and boys and contributing positively to our communities, we gain many goods: honor, friendship—even money, if we play our cards right. But there are things that can mar our happiness: moral corruption, injustice, compulsion, ignorance, lack of self-restraint. It's a delicate balance to achieve the Best Thing.

    That ultimate thing—the activity that makes human happiness possible—is, ironically, the thing that makes the gods blissful: contemplation. By living a life of the mind, we exercise the virtues and capacities that are uniquely human and that allow us the leisure to think about how happy we are.
    And that is a win-win situation.

    Questions About Happiness

    1. What is eudaimonia and why is it so important for human existence?
    2. Why does Aristotle say that the contemplative life is the best for humans?
    3. How do the virtues help us to live a happy life?
    4. Who (if anyone) is excluded from Aristotle's scheme of happiness?

    Chew on This

    On the most basic level, simply acknowledging the pleasure of being alive is the best thing that we can do as humans.

    Aristotle's definition of happiness and his suggestions concerning how to achieve it are hugely elitist and exclusionary.

  • Society and Class

    Aristotle's attached to the idea of humans as political creatures (that live in community with each other), so he focuses less on socio-economic status than on our standing as moral beings. Aristotle recognizes a social system that ranges from the noble (in terms of virtue and wealth) to the corrupt (lacking moral virtue, base). Class may be based on birth and wealth, but happiness (which is based on virtue) is not, except incidentally.

    Aristotle's observations of society in Nicomachean Ethics are based on his thoughts about justice. The justice pertaining to class is "distributive" and requires that each person receive not the same thing, but the goods (i.e. money, honor, position) proportionate to his contribution to the common good.

    It's a system based first on merit, which can be problematic on a bunch of levels. But Aristotle imagines this system working optimally to create a just and equitable society that's conducive to human happiness.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Why does Aristotle say that humans are "political beings"?
    2. In what ways does Aristotle believe that wealth is advantageous in the pursuit of happiness? In what ways is it an impediment?
    3. What virtues are limited to certain classes of people? Why?
    4. What is "distributive justice"?

    Chew on This

    While a great souled person might accomplish much and have a powerful position in society, Aristotle doesn't think that this type of person is the best member of the community.

    Aristotle accepts that justice is something earned by our level of contribution to society and not an inherent human right.

  • Principles

    A bit of a warning: when we at Shmoop talk about principles, we're heading into moral territory: virtues, codes of honor, that kind of thing. For Aristotle, "principles" may mean the beginning of something or the first thing that motivates or sets something into action. In this sense, virtue is a principle, in that it's the origin of right actions.

    The virtues Aristotle speaks of in Nicomachean Ethics are both intellectual and moral, and they appear in people first as a result of nature. Through education and "habituation," our "characteristics" (or virtues) become active and result in just behavior. Though virtues belong to individuals, Aristotle discusses them as they pertain to humans in relation to each other.

    That's because humans are political creatures. As such, the good that we aim for through the exercise of our virtues is social in nature.

    Questions About Principles

    1. What is the "mean" or the "golden mean" in regards to virtues and vices?
    2. Which of the virtues does Aristotle consider to be the most important? Why?
    3. How do virtues apply to the pursuit of happiness? What role do they play?
    4. Why does Aristotle say that lawmakers need to understand about pleasures and pains? How does knowledge help them to make laws?

    Chew on This

    Moral virtues have to be cultivated through education and habituation, but the intellectual virtue of comprehension is something we're born with—or not.

    A person who is courageous is less virtuous than a person who is moderate.

  • Friendship

    We know from experience that friendship—true friendship—isn't for everyone: some people are jerks. Aristotle understood this, too. In order to be a good friend, he says, we have to possess the "characteristic" or virtue for it.

    We have to be lovable, which means that we have to have something admirable about us, something that other people can love. And what's more, we have to be more interested in loving than being loved. Selfishness isn't going to cut it in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

    Aristotle details three types of friendships—of usefulness, of pleasure, and complete friendship. Of these three, only complete friendship is the real thing. In it, each person sees himself reflected in the other. Justice exists perfectly between them. The friends love each other for what they are, not for any external goods they can give.

    It's a rare thing, since most people can't meet these criteria…but we have to try for it since the pleasure of a good friendship is absolutely necessary for ultimate human happiness.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. What are the types of friendship outlined by Aristotle?
    2. Can corrupt people be/have friends?
    3. Why is it important for friends to love themselves first?
    4. What's the correlation between the level of justice in a regime to the types of friendships that can flourish in them?

    Chew on This

    Complete friendship is rare because it is really impossible to achieve, according to Aristotelian standards.

    Friendship is the basis for all relationships in Aristotle's concept of society.

  • Justice and Judgment

    Aristotle understands justice in terms of balance. In both "distributive" and "corrective" justice, he says that we have to be concerned with preserving what is both lawful and equal. To be equal, those who deal in law and life seek the "middle term," the point at which loss and gain are neutralized.

    In terms of people, justice (or to be just) describes the virtue that makes us take exactly our share of the good and bad out of the common pot. A just person doesn't grab for more than his fair share of what's good. When we do, we're unjust and deserve to undergo corrective judgment, in which a judge will inflict loss to set the balance of society straight again.

    In Nicomachean Ethics, justice is a necessity for a thriving society…and it's not a matter of emotion. He expresses it as both an arithmetical equation and a geometric proportion, just to make sure we don't muddle it up with bias. When the law is insufficient to deal justly, we have recourse to another virtue—equity—which helps us to perfect law and bring us to a higher level of justice.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Why is it difficult for someone who is ignorant to be just or unjust?
    2. What are the two types of justice that Aristotle speaks of? How are they different from each other?
    3. What is the difference between "equity" and "equality"?
    4. Why is justice necessary for a community?

    Chew on This

    Justice is the most crucial attribute of any society.

    An unjust person may do just things.

  • Community

    When Aristotle talks about community in Nicomachean Ethics, he's got several things in mind at once. (Typical Artistotle.) The basic unit of community is the family, but we also participate in communities when we step out the door (our workplaces, the municipality in which we live, etc). Humans are political creatures, says Aristotle, and that means living together, sharing goods in common, and being ruled by common virtues (encoded in the law).

    It's because of this that justice only exists when we live in community with each other (i.e. because we live under a common law that defines what is lawful). The point of living in this way is to become self-sufficient and in doing so, achieving happiness. But this self-sufficiency doesn't mean living alone: it means having what we need to support ourselves, our families, and the community as a whole.

    When communities aim toward what's just, everyone thrives. When each person has what he needs to live, it means that the common good has been attained. While Aristotle knows this to be the greatest societal good, he readily admits that it's difficult to do the right thing by everyone.

    Questions About Community

    1. Why is community so important for human beings?
    2. Can happiness exist only on the level of the individual? Or is it always wrapped up in the idea of the political?
    3. Why does Aristotle discuss types of rule in the middle of a discussion about friendship? How does the state of the regime affect the state of the people in it?
    4. Why does Aristotle say that justice only applies to people who live in community?

    Chew on This

    Community can provide the context for human happiness, but it also has the potential to be coercive and exclusionary—even on its good days.

    Justice exists only for people who live in community not just because they share a common code of law, but also because they have to live with each other.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    Spoiler alert: Aristotle thinks that wisdom is the virtue that leads to ultimate human happiness. There. We've said it.

    As an intellectual virtue, wisdom almost has it all. Aristotle defines it in his Nicomachean Ethics as the acquisition of "scientific knowledge" ("things that do not admit to being otherwise") and is quite different from another intellectual virtue: prudence.

    Prudence doesn't require knowledge, but is a kind of intellectual property. It uses experience in order to help us deliberate and make good choices. While wisdom is the superior of the two, prudence will help us keep the lights on and move up in the world (since it is concerned with action). Wisdom, though noble, is useless in this respect.

    And yet Aristotle says that wisdom makes us god-like and leads us to the activity that will make us most happy in life (i.e. contemplation). That's because wisdom makes us a "knower," which gives us the freedom to act well and to choose our course of action consciously. Without this, we're basically enslaved to our desires, which is no fun at all.

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. What is wisdom, according to Aristotle? Why does it rank so highly in his book?
    2. What is the difference between wisdom and prudence? Between wisdom and intellect?
    3. Why is being a "knower" such a valuable thing?
    4. In what ways is a wise person in control of or able to achieve his own happiness? In what ways does this fall beyond his capacity?

    Chew on This

    A wise person may not be able to act in favor of his own happiness, but he's concerned with the things that will make society as a whole a better place to live.

    A prudent person is actually superior to a wise person.

  • Life, Consciousness and Existence

    Since the Nicomachean Ethics is a work of philosophy, it's inevitable that we are going to get down to the nitty-gritty of existence.

    Aristotle asks some basic questions: what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be happy as a human? A defining characteristic of being human, according to Aristotle, is that we perceive and think—and in the process of thinking, we know that we are thinking (and we know that you know that he knows).

    It's an affirmation that we are self-aware, that we can acknowledge the joy of being alive. Which begs the second question: what does it mean to be happy?

    Aristotle says that human existence depends upon activity of both the soul and the body. The rational soul works to make our virtues active, so that we can do the right things (and therefore be happy). In the end, the purpose of life is happiness, which we achieve through complete virtue.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness and Existence

    1. Why is thinking considered by Aristotle to be the mark of a human being? Is this a special kind of thinking?
    2. What do all virtuous human beings live for, according to Aristotle?
    3. Why's death the worst possible thing that can happen to a human? (Hint: there's more than one reason).
    4. What's the best possible activity for human beings? In what way does it bring happiness?

    Chew on This

    Happiness may be the goal of all virtuous human beings, but it's also the aim of those who are corrupt.

    Perception is not just the mark of humanity because it proves that we're self-aware; it's also because it is an activity of reason.

  • Choice

    In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes choice as characterized by two things: it's voluntary and preceded by deliberation. Without either of these things, we wouldn't be acting on choice, but by compulsion or impulse. Deliberation allows us to mull over our options before acting, allowing us to choose the best thing or course of action.

    Choice implies that our reason is in good order, since it's the product of deliberation—but that's not always the case. We can still choose poorly even if we do so voluntarily, if our capacity to reason is out of order.

    But whenever things are working as they should, being in the position to choose something is optimal: it means that we can consciously choose the good and aren't under compulsion to do something we will regret. (Phew.)

    Because of this, when Aristotle says that something is "choiceworthy," it's a good thing. It means that it's a good option for us as virtuous beings. Since choices are deliberate, voluntary things, it is only through choice that we can be called just (or unjust), virtuous (or corrupt). If we don't deliberately choose, we can only be these things incidentally.

    Questions About Choice

    1. What's choice, exactly? What conditions are necessary for choice to happen?
    2. Why is having choice such an optimal thing, according to Aristotle?
    3. Under what circumstances are we not able to choose?
    4. Why must a just action be accompanied by choice in order for a person to be called just?

    Chew on This

    The ability to choose is the mark of a happy human being.

    The ability to deliberate may not depend on knowledge, but those who choose well are "knowers."