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Nicomachean Ethics | Book 1 | Summary

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Aristotle did not typically divide his work into sections or chapters or give chapter titles. Translators and editors added the divisions later for clarity and organization.

Summary

Section 1

To kick off his discussion about happiness, Aristotle begins by asserting "every craft ... line of inquiry, and ... every action ... seek[s] some good" in the same way every craft, activity, and action seeks an ultimate end or goal. For instance, medicine's goal is health, and a boat builder's goal is a completed boat. Nevertheless, he also explains that within categories (of what he calls "the ruling sciences"), some pursuits are better than others, giving the example that "horsemanship" is superior to bridle making. Pursuing the higher end is better, but pursuing actions supporting the higher goal is also good.

Section 2

What the good ends (outcomes) are for individuals who seek "the best good" in their specific areas of interest will logically also be the good ends that are "the best good[s]" for a city, or community at large. Therefore, Aristotle considers political science "the highest ruling science," since every other science or area of study is "subordinate to it" because it covers all the others within it. It is also more powerful and helpful because "it legislates"—or makes laws—in a practical way, giving guidance for what people should or should not do. The goals of individuals will automatically fall under the goals political science aims for when it aims for the good of the community.

Section 3

In this section Aristotle explains who should study political science and "how [Aristotle's] claims [ought] to be accepted." He specifies that his discussion will include only "the truth roughly and in outline." The principles will be as exact as possible but not universally applicable—particularly in regard to what can be defined as good; something good for one person may not be good for another. He gives the example of someone being destroyed because of wealth.

As far as who should study political science, Aristotle explains how individuals who are experts in their area of interest are "good judge[s]" in that area, but "the unqualifiedly good judge is the person educated in every area." This is why it is better for older and more experienced people to study political science. Young people are driven by emotions while older people have likely learned to "accord with reason in forming their desires." The end goal of studying political science "is action, not knowledge," so studying it will benefit those who are likely to act on their knowledge. However, Aristotle admits that it is not so much about age as it is about character and maturity.

Section 4

Most people, both "the many and the cultivated"—everyday, uneducated people and wise people with expertise—agree that the greatest good is happiness. However, they do not agree on the definition of happiness. For some it is pleasure and wealth; for others it is whatever they lack. For the readers to have common ground, they need to have a similar understanding of basic principles. A principle is a fundamental belief providing a foundation for further discovery. Aristotle is writing specifically to the wise, or those who have been "brought up in fine habits." If readers start with a common understanding of what the truth is, they do not need to know the reason for the truth yet. They can discover the reason later on.

Section 5

Aristotle lists three different concepts of happy lives: lives of gratification, political activity, or study. Average or "vulgar" people find happiness in gratification. More educated and politically active people find happiness in honor, since honor is the point of political life. Nevertheless, honor is too dependent on others' opinions to be the true good. Even virtue itself cannot be the true good, since a virtuous person could still be "asleep or inactive throughout his life," or suffer misfortune.

Section 6

So what is the universal good? Aristotle acknowledges he is disagreeing with his friends, Plato and other scholars of Plato, by dismissing Plato's theory of ideal Forms. The true good, according to Aristotle, is more complicated. It needs to apply to real situations in life, to different virtues, and in different amounts. The good cannot be "some common and single universal" and it does not need to last eternally. Besides, some goods are "goods in their own right" and some are only "useful" as means to achieve a goal. In addition, the good has to be achievable by humans, since the "Idea" of good is beyond human reach.

Section 7

Aristotle returns to the topic he introduced earlier: What is the best good in life? Aristotle explains how the good he's searching for must be complete—"an end pursued in its own right" not for some other reason—just like an end is more complete than the actions taken to reach an end. The most complete good seems to be happiness, since happiness is self-sufficient, meaning a person does not seek happiness to try to accomplish something else. In fact, people choose most of the things they choose because they are actually seeking happiness. (Aristotle also mentions he is discussing the good as it applies to human beings, not to plants or animals.)

To determine the highest good for a human being, Aristotle says he needs to discuss the human function. As organs of the body each have a function, what is the function of a person as a whole—beyond what characteristics humans share with animals? Unlike animals, humans have souls that can reason and the ability of "obeying reason," meaning humans can make themselves do what they think they should—not just follow their instincts as animals do. Aristotle concludes that the function of a human being "is activity of the soul in accord with reason." Someone who performs this function well, or "in accord with virtue," has achieved the highest human good. Aristotle's further discussion will explore what the "good" really means. He wants to show how human beings, by using reason, can grow closer to the truth. He will start by defining the principles or fundamental beliefs humans need to start seeking the truth.

Section 8

He divides goods into three types: "external goods," "goods of the soul," and "goods of the body." There are some truths that are not disputable, such as goods of the soul are the best goods, and a happy person "lives well and does well." That is why the ultimate good will be found in "actions or activities." It is not enough to know the best way to live, but to do what is best.

Aristotle then examines how thoughtful people define happiness. Some think happiness is virtue, some think it is prudence, and some think it is wisdom. They are all partially right. Virtuous actions will be pleasant for the virtuous person, and be their own reward. Nevertheless, happiness also requires resources like health, wealth, friends, and family because they help a virtuous person engage in virtuous actions.

Section 9

How does someone achieve happiness? It requires "learning and attention." People become happy through effort, not just through fortune, which cannot be trusted to sustain happiness. They need "both complete virtue and a complete life" because a life that ends miserably will not be happy.

Section 10

Can someone achieve happiness during his lifetime, since fortunes change? Yes, Aristotle decides, if he maintains a good character and does virtuous actions all his life. "A truly good and prudent person" will do the best he can regardless of his fortune.

Section 11

Aristotle briefly addresses how someone's legacy can change after death. While the fortunes of a person's descendants may affect their happiness after they die, the effect will be too small to cause worry.

Section 12

Is happiness praiseworthy or honorable? People are praised for their achievements, actions, and characters. Happiness is not praised, but it is congratulated and admired, similar to the way men admire the gods, since a happy person appears blessed. So happiness must be "better and more godlike" than other virtues, and more complete. Instead of an action, happiness is "a principle," a recognizable truth, that people aim for in their actions.

Section 13

Since happiness requires virtue and virtue is "an activity of the soul," Aristotle will examine virtue of the soul next. First, he breaks down the two parts of the soul into rational and nonrational. The nonrational soul also has two parts, including a "plantlike" element, which is the capacity for "nutrition and growth" shared with every living being, and an impulse, somewhat like reason, that controls appetites and desires. The rational part of the soul includes both an intrinsic element people are born with (related to character) and a cultivated element, which can be taught "by listening to reason as to a father" (related to thought).

Then Aristotle categorizes some of the virtues he will discuss in the next section. They can be either virtues of thought or virtues of character.

Analysis

Aristotle views ethics as a necessary part of political science. Both topics discuss the good for the individual and the community. Aristotle feels individuals and communities are inseparable, whether the community is a family, a tribe, or a city. He justifies this belief by arguing that if the community is in disharmony, so will the person be.

The Ethics is grounded in Aristotle's belief that every living thing has a function—similar to a purpose for being. Unless someone is fulfilling their function, they will not be living their best life. Human beings are rational agents, a higher life form than plants or animals. Moreover, if humans have a capacity or capability, they need to use it. Aristotle does not believe anyone with unfulfilled potential can be happy. Humans can reason, and they should not let the gift go to waste.

Aristotle will discuss his views on pleasure more thoroughly in Book 10. He emphasizes the importance of pleasure but distinguishes it from the good. Pleasure does not allow rational activity, so it cannot fulfill the human function completely. He refers throughout the Ethics to "the many," meaning the majority of people who are uneducated and politically inactive. Aristotle is aware his students may believe the majority's pervasive misconceptions about happiness and virtue. In Section 5 Aristotle distinguishes the many from the "cultivated people," or the "wise," educated people devoted to the life of the mind. He assumes his reader—or listener, since the Ethics is a series of lectures written to be delivered at the Lyceum—will be one of the cultivated people, interested in and curious about improving their life.

Happiness means something different to Aristotle than it might to the modern reader. He does not consider happiness a mood or an emotion. He considers it an activity or a way to live life. Even if someone's life has moments of pain and misfortune, they can still be happy. Eudaimonia, the Greek word for happiness, also means something similar to "living well" or "acting well," and Aristotle thinks it is a constant state, much like the Hindu concept of karma: the constant striving to marry one's actions with one's character.

Socrates believed virtue was sufficient for happiness. Aristotle learned a lot from Socrates through Plato, and he emphasizes virtue's central role in a happy life. Arete, the Greek word for virtue and excellence, encompasses both good character and good thought. However, Aristotle thinks Socrates's view is incomplete. A truly happy person will not live a solitary life in poverty or illness. Virtue is the best of all the "external goods," though, and the only one worth giving up other goods to keep.

When Aristotle refers to "craft" he includes many "types of production" in his definition—medicine and architecture as well as music and poetry. The Greek word techne, or craftsmanship, was used to refer to any skilled art or profession. The English words technical and technology come from techne. Production is a clear example of a goal-directed pursuit. Nevertheless, production cannot be the purpose of a life. What is the larger goal all human beings share? What is the "ultimate end"? Does, or should, everyone pursue the same end?

The Greek term for an ultimate end or purpose is telos. Telos is not the same as a goal, although goals can be motivated by it. Telos refers more to what someone is designed to do, or the way they are designed to live. The rest of the Ethics explains how an all-encompassing human telos is possible and why it matters.

Whatever the highest good is, it will fall under the umbrella of the "highest ruling science," political science. Aristotle does not mean only legislators and governments, although he will discuss these specifically in Books 5 and 8. He means the way human beings relate to one another, in a nation or national group (ethnos), in a city (polis), and in a family unit (oikos). He is getting back to the basic principles of politics, which are rooted in human behavior.

In Section 3, he admits the limitations of his method. He wants to provide the most useful outline possible, but there is no way his guidelines can apply to every imaginable circumstance, a caveat with which Immanuel Kant will later take issue in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). For instance, the "just" or the "fine"—the objectively best and most praiseworthy thought or action—will depend somewhat on circumstances. While it is usually right to pay off a debt, there may be a situation where paying the debt would do more harm than good. While bravery is usually a virtue, he admits that bravery has destroyed some people. Aristotle acknowledges the varieties of human behavior. Nevertheless, he maintains some things are objectively true, like scientific principles. Convention or a loose collective agreement is not a good enough basis for morals.

Plato's idea of the ultimate good comes from his theory of Forms. The Platonic form of the good exists independently of individual instances. As Aristotle ends his introduction and begins his argument in Section 4, he addresses Plato's view and the view of his followers, who believe "there is some other good that exists in its own right." In Aristotle's view, the good has to be applicable in the real world. It cannot exist outside of human states and actions, except with the gods, whom he mentions in later sections.

In Section 6 Aristotle argues against Plato's idea that goodness is a single property. Goods, whether they are possessions, actions, or ways of being, are too diverse to be distilled into one Form. His discussion of the "three lives" (gratification, political activity, study) in Section 5 emphasizes this point. A virtuous person can still fail to participate in political life. An honorable person may simply be pursuing others' good opinions at the expense of cultivating true virtue. Besides, the Form will not explain the goodness of anything other than itself. It will not help people learn what they need to do for a better life.

So how can Aristotle find a universal good, one that applies to all readers? In Section 4, he emphasizes a starting point: a good moral foundation gained from childhood upbringing. He will elaborate on the importance of education at the end of Book 10. His theory of human happiness is not egalitarian or equally available to everyone. Happiness requires a combination of nature and nurture. Besides a childhood education in right and wrong, the happy person needs some natural inclination toward goodness, which cannot be taught. In addition, as he will explain later, Aristotle thinks certain people lack the innate capabilities to achieve happiness.

In Section 7, he lists the criteria for "the good" that he will reference throughout the Ethics. "The good" is the human telos, the one key to happiness. It is complete and pursued for its own sake, self-sufficient, and always the best choice. It is good for our neighbors as well as ourselves. It uses the entire human capacity of mind and soul. The good may seem difficult to achieve, and it is. Nevertheless, Aristotle promises it is not impossible. Humans achieve happiness predominantly through their choices and actions.

Does happiness require a completely successful life, even success beyond the grave? Aristotle contends with the respected lawmaker Solon's idea that no man should be considered happy until after his death, since fortunes can always change. For instance, if happy people are defined as people who meet their goals, one such goal might be ensuring the welfare of their children. However, people may die before they see how their children fare. Aristotle argues that true happiness may be affected by fortune, but it will not rely on fortune. A central feature of happy people is their inner stability. They will continue doing virtuous actions even if bad things happen to them in life. Ancient Greek culture had an active conception of the afterlife, and dead ancestors could be affected by the actions of their descendants. Therefore, Aristotle briefly discusses the impact of descendants on someone's legacy. However, he thinks humans control whatever legacy they leave.

Section 13 explains the nonrational and rational soul as a road map for the upcoming discussion of the virtues. The two parts of the soul do not operate independently. Desire needs to yield to reason, while reason needs to recognize desire. Aristotle considers the whole human being as a thinker with goals and an animal with appetites.

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