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Nicomachean Ethics | Book 4 | Summary



Section 1

This section discusses other virtues of character.

Generosity concerns "the giving and taking of wealth." An ungenerous person takes his own wealth too seriously. A wasteful person is someone who causes the destruction of his own property and well-being.

The most important feature of the generous person is giving to the right people in the right ways. Where he gets his money is less important, since virtue is more about doing the right thing than avoiding the wrong thing. Nevertheless, the virtuous person still gets wealth from the right sources and gathers wealth so he can give more. His character is more important than the amount he gives. Someone with less to give, but who gives more of what he has, is more generous than a richer person who makes larger donations. In fact generous people rarely grow rich.

Wastefulness involves giving too much and taking too little. Ungenerosity involves giving too little and taking too much. The wasteful person is more easily cured, since he may grow old and poor and reach the intermediate condition of generosity. However, he still takes from and gives to the wrong sources, spending too much money on pleasures. Ungenerous people are impossible to cure. They are also more common, since "the many are money-lovers." There are several variations of ungenerosity. Misers do not give enough, but they do not steal. Robbers, usurers, gamblers, and those in "degrading occupations" take from the wrong sources.

Section 2

Magnificence also involves wealth, but only in large expenses and donations. A magnificent person "spends the worthy amount on a large purpose." Not all generous people are magnificent. The expense must achieve a worthy result. Expenses honoring the gods or promoting the common good, such as civic events, are examples. The gifts resemble dedications. Magnificent people also spend a fitting amount on themselves, like "a house befitting [their] riches."

A vulgar person spends more than he should on inappropriate displays of wealth. A stingy person spends as little as possible. Nevertheless, neither vice does much harm to others.

Section 3

Magnanimity is the virtue of a person who correctly believes they are "worthy of great things." They know their worth and have the right perspective about honor, "the greatest of external goods." They accept great honors from good people and disdain small honors and dishonors, since they are less than what a magnanimous person deserves. The truly magnanimous person has earned greatness in every virtue, a difficult state to achieve. Although they need virtue to be honorable, noble birth and wealth also help. A magnanimous person faces dangers only for great causes but will give their life if necessary. Magnanimous people do many good deeds and remember them but are rarely the recipient of good deeds themselves, since they do not need help. Magnanimous people are modest around inferior people and more concerned with the truth than with the opinions of others. They are open and honest and do not gossip or complain.

The pusillanimous or timid person is worthy but does not realize their own worth. This person's lack of self-knowledge makes them worse than the vain person. Vain people show off their good fortune but do not actually deserve honor.

Section 4

Desiring small honors the right way and in the right amount is a smaller scale version of magnanimity. People can love honor too much or be too indifferent about pursuing it. However, the person who achieves the "nameless mean concerned with honor" wants respect from the right people, in the right way, and for the right things.

Section 5

Mildness does not mean an absence of anger, but anger at the right times and for the right reasons. In general the mild person will be "undisturbed, not led by feeling" and not eager to cast blame. The mild person will lean more in the direction of anger deficiency. The deficient person, however, will accept insults without defending themselves. Several types of people have an excess of anger. Irascible people have quick tempers but do not stay angry long. Choleric people get angry about everything. Bitter people hold grudges, and irritable people get upset about the wrong things for too long. It is hard to tell how much anger is too much, so it is best to judge on a case-by-case basis.

Section 6

Friendliness is the mean between ingratiation and quarrelsomeness. Friendliness is different from friendship—it refers to treating strangers in the right way. A friendly person will treat everyone appropriately. He will not grant any request that will cause harm, even if he offends someone by refusing. He will give proper respect to his friends and to people of great worth. Ingratiating people try too hard to please others, and quarrelsome people object to everything.

Section 7

Aristotle homes in on the type of people who are "truthful and false" in their "words and actions" instead of the kinds of virtue and vice that center on pleasure and pain. The boaster and the self-deprecator are the kinds of people who fall into this category of true and false, and both are types who choose to be false. The boaster claims qualities that either they do not have or they have less of than they say they do, while the self-deprecator minimizes the qualities they have. However, the boaster is more of a liar. In addition, if someone boasts to gain something—for example money or reputation—they are worse for having an ulterior motive.

The virtuous person in this category is the truthful person who is straightforward and does not "exaggerate" or "belittle" their qualities. Self-deprecation, pretending to be not as qualified or skilled as a person actually is, in other words false humility, can appear like boasting in a way because the same type of motivation is underneath it—to gain reputation or respect. Aristotle will talk about this in terms of justice in a later discussion, but he points out that the person who is truthful when there is nothing to gain or when there is nothing at stake will likely be truthful when there is something at stake. That is why the person who is truthful is praiseworthy while the other types of people are base and blameworthy.

Section 8

Wit involves a person's attitude toward relaxation and amusement. The witty person jokes in appropriate ways and at the right times. The mentally dexterous person enjoys the entertainment of "the decent and civilized person." An example Aristotle gives is comedy that utilizes innuendo for laughs instead of abusive language. The virtuous person in this regard will be discriminating in what they say and hear. Vulgar people or buffoons will do anything for a laugh. Boorish or stiff people do not like amusement at all, even if others engage in it.

Section 9

Shame is not a virtue, but a feeling Aristotle defines as "fear of disrepute" or fear of disgrace and a bad reputation. It is appropriate only for young people, who are guided by their feelings. Shame often keeps young people from making mistakes they might make otherwise. Virtuous people should not feel shame at all, since they will never do anything shameful. Feeling shame at the idea of doing "disgraceful action" does not make someone virtuous. Instead, it means they might willingly choose to do a shameful act, which makes them vicious even if they feel ashamed afterward.


Book 3 explored the character virtues of the "nonrational" parts of the soul, rooted in emotions and appetite. Book 4 describes the virtues of the rational parts of the soul, concerned with the way humans live in an organized society. These virtues consider external resources like money, power, friends, and intelligence. What is the best way to treat and share these resources? How can someone balance caring for themselves and caring for others? How can they reconcile a desire for others' good opinion with a loyalty to the truth?

Unlike bravery and temperance, some of the virtues in Book 4 do not apply to everyone. Only a wealthy person will have the opportunity to practice magnanimity or magnificence. The virtues dealing with money and other tangible resources—generosity, magnificence, and magnanimity—all require planning and precision. Magnificent people will resemble "a scientific expert" in their spending decisions.

The ideal character traits reflect Aristotle's views on justice and friendship, which he will discuss in Books 5, 8, and 9. Generous people will prioritize friends and neighbors in their gifts. Unlike wasteful people, they will not give to just anyone. They will give where the greatest need lies, and in accordance with their values. What's more, they will take pleasure in giving. Aristotle does give credit to motives, even if the actions show excess and deficiency. The wasteful person's desirable motive to give wealth away can be transformed (often, Aristotle implies, through poverty) into true generosity.

With practice, a generous person can acquire the judgment needed to make donations on a large scale and become a magnificent person. In Aristotle's Athens wealthy citizens paid for public services like war expenses. Although these donations were expected of the Athenian elite, only a magnificent giver would provide the public with the best resources possible, like a well-equipped ship for war. A vulgar giver might spend more money on displays of wealth that did not help the community much, like elaborate dinners, for no real purpose, and costumes for the theater.

Magnanimity, meanwhile, is more concerned with confidence and self-knowledge. In Aristotle's view, a virtuous person knows their own worth. They give honor where honor is due, including to themselves. In medieval Christian thought after Aristotle's era, the self-assurance of magnanimity became the vice or "sin" of pride. However, Aristotle believes accurate knowledge of and pleasure in one's own virtue brought a person closer to truth and wisdom. The magnanimous person is inspired to live up to their own reputation, as well, so they constantly push themselves to be better. The English word magnanimity means, "having a great soul" in Latin. Meanwhile magnanimity's deficiency, pusillanimity or timidity, is a translation of a Greek word meaning "little-souledness."

Another crucial feature of the magnanimous person is the knowledge of which fellow citizens to listen to, respect, and honor. Concern for public opinion, in the right way and the right amount, is crucial to Aristotle's view of a human being as a political animal. He believes people are meant to live in community and they should care what others think, but only to an extent. Honor or a good reputation depends on collective public opinion, which is why Aristotle points out that someone can love honor too much or not enough.

Mildness, friendliness, truthfulness, and wit all involve getting along with others on a daily basis. They deal more directly with individual relations, which require a different delicacy and nuance. Mild people will not antagonize others without reason, but they will not betray their own values for fear of offending people. Friendly people will treat everyone decently and will recognize they should be both kinder and more honest to friends than to strangers, since friends have earned a different level of respect. Friendliness does not always spare feelings either. A friendly person will cause someone pain for a "fine" and "beneficial" reason, such as telling someone a harsh truth to save them from making a mistake with big consequences. Virtuous people are not guided by rules or convention, Aristotle emphasizes, but by an inner moral compass.

By truthfulness, Aristotle means someone's honesty about themselves. He mentions the Spartans as an example of a group bragging about their disregard for material goods by wearing plain clothing. Socrates is an example of someone who may have displayed false modesty by pretending not to know much about virtues. A distaste for external goods is not always a sign of virtue, Aristotle thinks. There is nothing wrong with using wealth wisely or claiming knowledge you actually have. These ideas are closely connected to Aristotle's valuation of pride as a virtue.

Wit is appropriate behavior in relaxed social situations. Witty people use humor to bring others enjoyment, not to mock people or try to earn their favor. Aristotle's inclusion of this virtue shows the importance of social life to the well-rounded, happy person. The civilized person participates in every aspect of the community. They genuinely appreciate sharing amusements with other people and want them to enjoy their company too. However, the civilized person will always treat themselves and others with respect, even if it means avoiding certain jokes. By "shameful abuse," Aristotle may have been referring to the jokes of Greek Old Comedy plays, which often used obscenity and personal insults.

His mention of the good person as "a law unto himself" refers again to an inner moral compass. Truly virtuous people do the right thing because they know it is right, not because the law says so. This distinction becomes critical in Book 5 as Aristotle explains the role and limitations of legal justice.

The virtuous person's moral compass is so finely calibrated, in fact, that there is no place for shame in their lives. Aristotle thinks shame is possible only for someone who knows himself to be vicious—even if he feels regret afterward. The presence of shame may not indicate a desire for true virtue, but a desire to avoid punishment, a bad reputation, or "disrepute."

Punishment, or the threat of shame, is one way for a community to limit wrongdoing. However, how else can law encourage right action? In Book 5, Aristotle looks at the legal implications of virtue and vice.

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