Nichomachean Ethics, decoded

BOOK 1

We choose everything for the sake of happiness. Happiness is the only thing we choose for itself. Of course, this sounds quite empty—it has not answered the important question, what is happiness?

A man is happy when he fulfills his function.

Yes, man has a function. Life is common to many things, like plants and animals, so the human purpose is not merely to survive. Perception, too, is common; so our purpose is not merely to wander around perceiving. We are the only creature that has a rational element. Our function, then, is the activity of soul which follows the rational principle. A good man is a man that functions well.

Complete Works of Aristotle, Vol. 1Of course, we must add ‘in a complete life’. For one swallow does not make a summer. Being a good person takes time.

Still, let this be a rough outline. Smart people do not ask for more detail than the subject matter allows, and this subject will only allow rough outlines.

The best people find good things to be pleasant. Good activities are not good because they are pleasant; they are pleasant (to a good person) because they are good.

Of course, even though the good life is simple, it requires some external effects. It may be impossible for someone who is suffering to be good. A solitary, ugly, childless person will find it very hard. Happiness seems to require some modest amount of prosperity.

Happiness and good functioning comes from habituation. It can be won through study and care. In fact, this is the only way to be truly happy. A boy is not happy. No animal is happy. Happiness requires not only complete virtue, but a complete life.

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Happiness then, is a life of activity and excellence.

We are growing close, but we must discover, then, what the nature of excellenceis. Plato said that one part of the soul is irrational and one part is rational. I agree. The irrational part is also divided into the nutritive and willful. All animals have the nutritive element; they know how to eat and grow. The willful part is the part that rebels against the rational part of the soul. It has something in common with the intellect, but it is not quite rational; sometimes it seems to even spite the rational element, as when we might tell a paralyzed limb to move to the left only to find it turn contrary to our will to the right.

Excellence is divided similarly. There are two kinds of excellence: intellectual and moral.

BOOK 2

Intellectual excellence comes from birth, and it grows from teaching. It requires experience and time. Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. None of the moral excellences is in us naturally; we do not need to practice what comes naturally. Nothing that is natural can be changed. A stone cannot be made to fall up by throwing it ten thousand times. No, nature gives us the capacity to develop excellences, but we develop them through habit.

Just as someone becomes a guitar player by playing guitar, so too do we become good by doing good things. People become good or bad by behaving well or badly. We become courageous by facing danger, and temperate by facing temptations. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.

Of course, while this may answer how one becomes good, it does not explain what a good act is. Let us consider that next.

Things are destroyed by excess and defect, as we see in strength and health. Too much exercise destroys strength. Too little does as well. Too much food destroys health. Too little does as well. A person needs just the right amount. It is the same with all the other excellences. A man who always runs away becomes a coward. A man who always stands his ground becomes rash. A woman who indulges every pleasure becomes self-indulgent. A woman who indulges none becomes a boor. All excellences are destroyed by excess and defect and preserved by the mean.

We can judge a person’s character by the pleasure or pain she receives from an act. A woman who is pained by going to work is lazy. A woman who takes too much delight may be a busybody. Moral excellence is concerned with developing the right pleasures and pains. We do bad things on account of the pleasure they bring us. We abstain from good ones because (until we develop) they cause us pain. And, because it is especially hard to fight with pleasure, we should structure our politics to encourage taking pleasure from good activities.

What I say seems strange, I know. I say men become just by doing just acts and temperate by doing temperate acts. Surely they are already just and temperate if they do these things. A person acting in accordance with grammar is grammatical, and behaving musically is musical, so surely a person behaving justly is already just.

Not so. A person can be grammatical by accident or by monkeying someone else. A woman will be a grammarian only if she does something grammatical and does it grammatically. She must do it with knowledge of grammar. Likewise, a person truly behaving well must be behaving with knowledge of what she is doing.

Moreover, a man must act in a certain condition. He must have knowledge. He must choose his acts, and, most importantly, his action must come from a firm and unchangeable character.

Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such as the just or the temperate man would do. A man is not good if he simply does good acts; he must also do them as a good man does them. A good man is made by doing good.

Most people find it too hard to be good. They talk about doing good but do not do it. They call themselves philosophers and think that they will be good by discussing theory. It is somewhat like a person who listens to her doctor but does not follow the instructions.

Again, good actions are those between an excess and a defect. This is the mean. The arithmetic mean is equidistant from two extremes; 6 is the mean of 10 and 2. But the mean relative to us is not taken so. While 10 pounds is too much food and 2 too little, 6 may be too much for me and too little for Chuck Liddell. The good person avoids what is too much and too little relative to herself, the good teacher relative to her pupil.

All arts are the same. Nothing can be taken away nor added to a great work of art. Likewise, moral excellence aims at the intermediate. Fear and confidence, pleasure and pain, indulgence and restraint: all may be felt too much and too little. The good person feels them at the right times in the right amount, with reference to the right things, toward the right people, and with the right motive. Moderation is characteristic of excellence. Excellence aims at the moderate.

It is possible to fail in many ways, though, for evil is unlimited and goodness is limited. Failure is easy, and success is difficult.

Excellence, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us. The mean is determined by a rational principle, as a man of practical wisdom would determine it.

Some actions do not have means. Spite, shamelessness, envy, adultery, theft, murder and so on are always bad. It is not possible to strike a mean about these things; one is always wrong. One cannot commit adultery with the right woman at the right time and in the right way.

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Here are a few examples of excellence. With regard to fear, courage is the mean. Rashness is the excess and cowardliness the deficiency. With regard to money, the mean is liberality. Prodigality is the excess and cheapness the defect. With regard to honour and dishonour, proper pride is the mean. Undue humility is as bad as empty vanity.

It is, as I said, easy to go wrong. Sometimes we find the mean through experimentation and through aiming at the second best. Some of us tend towards one error and must be dragged away from it.

Pleasure is particularly dangerous. We should dismiss it. We would be less likely to err.

A person who errs a little is not blamed, nor is one who errs infrequently. Up to what point a person is allowed to err is not easy to determine. The judgment will depend, as these things do, on the circumstances of the case.