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Nicomachean Ethics | Context


What Are Ethics?

The Nicomachean Ethics is the Greek world's first recognized ethical treatise, but Aristotle was not the first to tackle the weighty topic of ethics. Ethics is the discipline or field of study concerned with concepts of right and wrong behavior. It is sometimes called moral philosophy. The word ethics comes from the Greek ethikos meaning "moral, showing moral character." While morals emphasize practical decision-making based on theories of right action and human well-being, ethics considers the theories themselves. The discipline tackles both universal moral concepts and specific cultural codes.

Ancient societies may have written down ethical codes as early as 3000 BCE, when a list of guidelines dictated behavior for boys in Egypt's ruling class. More famous sets of rules followed, including Babylon's Code of Hammurabi (c. 1754 BCE), the Vedas and Upanishads (c. 1700–500 BCE) in India, the Ten Commandments (c. 1446–1290 BCE) in Israel's Hebrew Bible, and the work of Chinese moral philosophers Laozi and Confucius.

The flourishing of academic culture in ancient Greece included the beginnings of a unified written tradition of philosophical ethics in the West. Plato's dialogue Protagoras, written around 428–427 BCE, includes a myth in which Zeus gives humans a sense of justice and morality, allowing them to cooperate in communities. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle themselves took inspiration from the moral precepts of earlier poets. Aristotle differs from earlier Western writers in that he claims no divine inspiration for his concepts, working instead from what he considers a rational basis.

Modern philosophers divide ethical studies into four general areas: normative or prescriptive ethics, descriptive or comparative ethics, metaethics, and applied ethics. Normative or prescriptive ethics examines practical moral standards for good conduct. Descriptive or comparative ethics explores how beliefs about right and wrong differ in individuals and groups. Metaethics investigates the concept of morality itself. Applied ethics tackles specific controversial subjects.

The Nicomachean Ethics falls into the category of normative ethics, discussing how Aristotle believes humans should act. It is also a prominent text in virtue ethics, a type of normative ethics focusing on how people can develop good character qualities. The earliest known written examples of virtue ethics come from Plato and Aristotle in the West and Chinese philosophers Mencius and Confucius in the East. Plato identified four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Aristotle expanded on this idea, saying daily practice of the virtues was necessary for a life of eudaimonia, the Greek word for happiness and well-being. Aristotle's approach to ethics held a prominent place in Western moral philosophy until the 18th century. His idea of the golden mean, or the ideal intermediate state between excess and deficiency of a character trait, resembles the "middle path" of Buddhism and is still referenced in ethical thought.

Greek thinkers, particularly Aristotle, also connected ethics and philosophy to politics. They felt in order to live an ethical life humans need to be governed by law. However, while politicians may be invested in personal interests, philosophers pursue only the truth. Therefore philosophers can bring a crucial element of reason to political debate. Likewise, Aristotle believed, any student of ethics should study political science too. He collected a series of constitutions at the Lyceum as part of his political curriculum.

From Socrates to Aristotle: Ancient Greek Thought

In classical Greece, people experimented with a new type of governmental system called democracy, in which representatives governed both themselves and thousands of citizens and noncitizens, necessitating broad and deep political discussions. Athens's new democracy struggled to reconcile the interests of the upper-class minority with those of the working-class majority. To do so, they needed to be well educated and to learn the art of public speaking. To a certain extent, Aristotle's predecessors, Socrates and Plato, had allowed mixed politics, philosophy, and rhetoric to exist side by side. In addition, the life of the polis, or the city, interested Aristotle as both a philosopher and a citizen, but he recognized the ways in which the life of philosophy and the life of politics were distinct. He had seen the respected philosopher Socrates conflict with the citizens of Athens through his engagement in public life and face execution for it. Moreover, while Plato wrote on topics such as justice and the city-state in The Republic (c. 381 BCE), he and Aristotle focused on the study of nature and existence, not exclusively on human affairs.

Meanwhile, as Aristotle was establishing his reputation in philosophy, he wanted to respond to other ethical theories circulating in Athens. A group of debate teachers called the Sophists sought wealthy students, promising them rhetorical mastery and powerful government positions. What the Sophists really taught, according to Plato and Aristotle, was ethical relativism—how to make a weak argument sound strong. The Sophists felt good and evil depended on personal choice, not fact.

Socrates, unlike the Sophists, believed in universal ethical principles. He pioneered the philosophical method of inquiry, engaging opponents like the Sophists in dialogue. He and his student Plato agreed on the link between knowing good and doing good. Plato's written dialogues investigate the questions Socrates posed by portraying Socrates engaged in debate. The Republic, Plato's best-known dialogue, includes the example of the ring of Gyges, a ring said to magically make its wearer invisible. If no one could see him, Plato asks, would the wearer still have any reason to act morally? The example poses a deeper question. Do people do the right thing only because they fear the consequences otherwise?

Plato's response to this question includes his belief that goodness goes beyond individual actions to a more general "Form" of the Good. He believed Forms, or abstract properties, lived in a transcendent, unchanging realm beyond the material world of objects. Aristotle's philosophy of the good was more practical. Even if someone knew about goodness and justice, Aristotle believed, they were not virtuous or wise unless they applied this knowledge to their actions.

Of the three prominent philosophers of ancient Greece, Aristotle was the most scientific. He loved to list, classify, and code. He also invented the logical syllogism, an argument in which major and minor premises lead to a conclusion. Where Plato was more focused on ideals, Aristotle dealt in realities.

Plato and Aristotle also differ in style. Plato used a dialectic style, whereby two or more people engage in dialogue to arrive at a conclusion about an idea. They do not debate; rather, they present the truth as they understand it. Aristotle preferred a more logical, linear approach to philosophy, giving his students steps to follow. Therefore, the Nicomachean Ethics frequently lists and classifies the virtues, and employs syllogisms to clarify definitions or prove points.

Although Aristotle differed from Plato in major areas, such as rejecting the theory of Forms, he respected his teacher's work. His writing is usually considered an expansion rather than a refutation of Plato. Both philosophers believed a virtuous life was the highest form of human existence. Aristotle also agreed with Plato's idea of integrating moral thinking with human emotion and desire.

Aristotle wrote two ethical treatises covering similar topics: the Eudemian Ethics (believed to have been written before Nicomachean Ethics), edited by Lyceum scholar Eudemus, and the Nicomachean Ethics, possibly edited by Aristotle's son, Nicomachus. The Nicomachean Ethics is more thorough, with an extensive discussion of politics missing from the Eudemian Ethics. For this reason it is sometimes considered a later, more complete edition of the Eudemian Ethics.

Impact of Nicomachean Ethics as a Philosophical Touchstone

Aristotle was the first thinker to write about ethics in the form of a treatise, which is a methodical, systematic argument involving facts and a conclusion. His ethical works were lost for years after his death, until Andronicus of Rhodes collected and edited them along with Aristotle's other writings in 30 BCE. Aristotle's canon quickly spread through the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian worlds. His methods of logic and scientific inquiry were revolutionary in a world that instead relied heavily on spiritual authorities and precedents for reasoning.

The Nicomachean Ethics experienced a resurgence in the 13th century, during the late Middle Ages. When Aristotle's Ethics and Politics were translated into Latin, medieval Europe had a new basis for political philosophy, one focused on reason. The official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church centered on Aristotle's ethical thought. Aristotle had a heavy influence in the medieval religious philosophy of Scholasticism, a system that used faith to solve philosophical problems.

In addition to the Ten Commandments, the discussion of distributive and reparative justice in Book 5 of the Ethics has been the starting point for almost all Western justice theories. However, Aristotle added the concept of virtue and vice as those things, not which we do to one another, but which we cultivate in ourselves. This inward approach to moral character shifted religious and ethical thinking for centuries. However, while Aristotle's concept of pride or "greatness of soul" as a necessary aspect of self-awareness and self-confidence for the virtuous person was eschewed by medieval Christians who favored humility, modern philosophers see its value in helping a person attain both personal and social fulfillment.

The Nicomachean Ethics continues to be a central text in philosophy and political science. Both medieval works like Italian priest Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica (1265–74) and more contemporary works like American philosopher Leo Strauss's "On Classical Political Philosophy" (1945) acknowledge a debt to Aristotle. Thomas believed the Nicomachean Ethics held everything humans need for happiness in this life.

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