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Nicomachean Ethics Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle.
The Nicomachean Ethics, written around 350 BC, is a classic philosophical work by Aristotle. In this book, Aristotle considers the nature of happiness, and how important it is to live a virtuous life. The Nicomachean Ethics has shaped Western schools of thought on ethical matters for centuries, and it is widely regarded as one of Aristotle’s most important works. Recognized as one of the greatest philosophers of all time, his works continue to influence philosophical debates. Although Aristotle is the author of many works, most of them have been lost to antiquity.
In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle considers a question first asked by Socrates—how men should best live their lives. Aristotle aims to answer this by giving us not only an explanation, but advice on how to live well. The work is supposed to stimulate discussion and debate as much as provide answers.
Although we may have different opinions on ethical issues, we have a basic understanding of right and wrong; it is this common standard which should be our starting point. We can then consider how to improve ourselves based on these standards. By working from a timeless set of moral values, Aristotle has ensured his work is still relevant all these centuries later.
According to Aristotle, we all want to be happy. As a result, everything we do is in pursuit of this happiness. Our actions are a means to this larger purpose of fulfillment. If happiness is our main goal, then it is our greatest human mission. We don’t pursue happiness in the hope of gaining something more. We pursue happiness for its own sake. This means that activities that fulfill us and give us happiness are examples of the highest good.
If we are aiming for happiness, then we need a path to get there. Happiness is the goal, but we have to decide what we will do to achieve it. This question depends on our virtue, because it is the virtuous man who will find happiness. The problem is that virtue is hard to define, and it is often subjective.
Aristotle attempts to define virtue. Virtue is about living a temperate life—for example, somewhere between poverty and excess. What makes an act virtuous depends on both the situation and the reaction, and how people with a basic understanding of right and wrong would view the act.
It is important, then, that we understand one of the most important virtues—education. If we are educated, then we have the skills to think for ourselves and make consciously virtuous decisions. This allows us to work towards happiness. We can’t make a rationally virtuous or good choice if we don’t know how to reason or consider different outcomes. Aristotle implores everyone to get an education.
To be virtuous is to want to do virtuous things because they make us happy. We must be conscious of our decision to act virtuously, linking back to this need for an education. We can only be praised for our virtue if we know we are pursuing something good, and this act of goodness gives us happiness. Aristotle attempts to define the boundary between good and bad, and right and wrong, but he admits this is subjective. The closest we will ever get to understanding this boundary is appreciating that it exists, and we’re all intrinsically aware of this.
It is also important that we separate voluntary and involuntary actions. For example, if we do something sinful with the knowledge that it is morally wrong, this is blameworthy. However, if we do the same thing without realizing that it is wrong because we don’t have all the facts, then we have involuntarily committed a sin. This does not affect our virtue or our chances of finding happiness.
What does affect our chances of finding happiness is justice. Justice is at the heart of everything. To be a just person means having the full range of virtues and living a temperate life. We should be distributing money and prestige to the people who deserve it according to their virtue and what they have achieved. This is a fair society. It is not socialist or capitalist, but merit-based.
To be happy, and to love others as we are intended to do, means loving ourselves. It is not selfish to love ourselves. Self-love lets us care for other people, which we must do if we are to be a functioning, virtuous society. By caring for other people, we are just and fair, and therefore, virtuous.
Ultimately, we need to be our own best friend. Once we are our own best friend, we can form deep friendships with other people. True friendships are based on affection for each other as opposed to material gain. Friendships are virtuous and an example of the highest good.
For Aristotle, the human condition is complex but also simple. We should pursue two things—education and friendship. Once we have achieved these things, we are consciously pursuing happiness and living a virtuous life, which is the highest good.