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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

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An Olympic discus thrower. Olympic competitions were opportunities for displays of excellence.  (Wikimedia Commons)An Olympic discus thrower. Olympic competitions were opportunities for displays of excellence. (Wikimedia Commons) As one of the central texts of moral philosophy in the Western tradition, the Nicomachean Ethics introduces terminology and methods for grappling with one of the most fundamental philosophical questions:  what does it mean to live a good life?  Or to use Aristotle's terminology, how might one achieve eudaimonia, a term understood as some combination of "happiness," "blessedness" and simply "faring well?"  Simultaneously a study of individual excellence and one of political life, Aristotle's text does not understand  "living well" as a kind of pleasant feeling or other positive psychological state.  As the Nicomachean Ethics shows over the course of its ten books, eudaimonia entails acting virtuously, almost always among others – within a family, among friends and as part of a civil society.

Within these broad claims about human excellence and the qualities of a good life, Aristotle defines methods and terms that continue to influence many aspects of contemporary ethical thinking.  For instance, Aristotle lays out his ethical philosophy as an example of "teleological" thinking, where human actions aim at the "final" and "self-sufficient" goal (or telos) of a good life.  Rejecting some goals that people often take to be the aim of a good human life – such as pleasure, health or wealth – Aristotle asserts that the true telos of human behavior is the eudaimonia of living well.  Alongside this telos-based approach, Aristotle also introduces the notion of the ideal human condition as an intermediate or "mean" between two extremes of deficiency and excess.  The virtuous behavior of courage, for example, lies between the extremes of cowardice and rashness.  Human excellence, in sum, seems to be an activity that aims at the right amount of certain virtuous traits:  the right amount of generosity, the right amount of temperance, and so forth.

All of these ethical behaviors, Aristotle argues, are best executed as a kind of "habit" that we must actively practice, and he roots these ethical habits in the concepts of deliberation and choice.  Because life presents us with questions that almost never have mathematically precise or even predictable answers, one must grapple with difficult choices, among which there may not be one obviously best option.  To take an example familiar to New Yorkers:  should we give money to subway panhandlers and if so, how much?  This ability to choose well constitutes Aristotle's notion of "practical wisdom," or phronesis, itself a virtue that Aristotle thinks we can practice.  The Ethics does not, however, recommend that we move through life in a constant state of anxiety about whether we are choosing correctly whenever we are faced with minor ethical decisions.  Rather, by setting out a fundamental distinction between performing deeds that are themselves ethical and performing deeds out of a firm, habitual ethical disposition, Aristotle wants his readers to cultivate and practice the attitudes and behaviors that render ethical choices not quite "automatic" but perhaps welcome – those we make readily out of our own inclinations and volition.

Even if Aristotle begins with topics that seem most obviously applicable to the virtuous behavior of an individual – her courage or her temperance, her dispositions or her voluntary choices, for example – the Ethics shifts over the course of its ten books to topics that are decidedly more interpersonal in nature.  In Book Five, for example, Aristotle turns to the topic of justice, an activity that he divides into two species: distributive, which considers what different classes of people deserve, and rectificatory, which considers how we might rectify those imbalanced situations in which injustices have been committed.  Also in Book Five, Aristotle turns to problems of legal equity: how, he asks, could we expect to craft a law that might apply to the varying, unpredictable events of human activity?  Not providing just one simple definition of what it means to be "just" – a central term for many texts on the Contemporary Civilization syllabus – Aristotle underscores in this discussion of equity his belief in the manifold and malleable nature of ethical reasoning.

The final books of the Ethics continue to emphasize Aristotle's interest in issues of interpersonal relationships.  Books Eight and Nine, for example, consider the importance of friendship, the only topic within the text treated with two full books.  Launching from these concerns about the best kinds of bonds between people, Aristotle moves to the broader topic of politics in his last book, often seen as a transitional discussion into the Politics, another text on the Contemporary Civilization syllabus.  Here Aristotle acknowledges that ethical behavior is difficult to achieve and that not all citizens will be able to achieve eudaimonia.  In the face of this relative inaccessibility of human excellence, he suggests that the city-state take an active role in cultivating citizen virtue – to some degree, men become good by obeying well-crafted laws. These final topics reveal the double nature of Aristotle's treatise: what begins as a discussion of personal character and habitual behaviors ultimately gestures toward the social recommendations that will dominate the Politics.

Even if Aristotle finds himself at odds with Plato in many respects, the final book of the Ethics recalls some of the themes of Plato's Republic, where the ideal city-state – in Plato, the kallipolis– sees its own excellence as one closely coupled with the excellence of each citizen.  Almost paradoxically, too, Aristotle ends the Nicomachean Ethics by suggesting that the best life is the "contemplative" one, a strange conclusion for a book devoted to a life of human activity, often emphasizing its interpersonal and social dimensions.  With its often-technical presentation of virtues and its interest in ethics as both an individual and social concern, the Nicomachean Ethics provides a view of human activity that is impossible to distill into an easy slogan or set of moral rules.  That complex, irreducibility of human ethics, as it turns out, seems to be a major element of Aristotle's argument.


Written by Charles McNarama, Core Lecturer, Classics, Columbia University