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Nicomachean Ethics | Main Ideas


Wisdom as Happiness

"The wise person, more than anyone else, will be happy," Aristotle says confidently in Book 10. The highest good Aristotle seeks turns out to be the activity of study, which leads to the state of wisdom. Both phronesis (practical wisdom or prudence) and sophia (intellectual wisdom) play a part in the complete wisdom he advocates. Having knowledge is not enough. Wisdom requires the ability to understand, appreciate, and contemplate knowledge. This aspect of life comes closer to the pure activity of thought than anything else possible for humans, and it is closest to the divine life of the gods.

Wisdom plays a part in every individual virtue of the happy life. The wise person has the right perspective about pleasures and material goods. He can take full advantage of learning a craft or expanding his scientific knowledge. He understands how to act in different relationships. Nevertheless, even if no other virtues or goods were available, he would still choose wisdom—a state complete in and of itself.

The Golden Mean of Virtue

Qualities of character all have an intermediate state, which Aristotle compares to the mathematical mean or average of two or more numbers. To develop good habits, humans should aim for the mean. He does not divide most traits into good and bad categories. Instead, he shares how someone can have an excess or deficiency of each trait, making an otherwise virtuous quality into a vicious one. Showing a logical and linear perspective, Aristotle advises anyone with a tendency toward a certain deficiency or excess to err in the opposite direction. This error will bring them closer to the intermediate state and to virtue. Justice can also aim for the mean when dividing resources or righting wrongs, although the mean in justice often requires proportion rather than mathematical equality.

Aristotle's doctrine of the mean later came to be known as the Golden Mean, although he does not describe it in these terms. The color gold is often associated with superior qualities. The principle of the Golden Ratio is used in mathematics, art, architecture, and other fields to express "golden" or ideal proportions. In addition, the Golden Rule refers to the Christian principle of treating others as you would want to be treated, or loving another as you love yourself.

Friendship and Political Community

To Aristotle the disciplines of law, ethics, philosophy, and political science are intertwined. Every human friendship should apply principles of justice, such as justice in exchange. Every city, town, or political community relies on features of friendship, like goodwill or concord. Both individual friendships and larger groups rely on reciprocity, communication, fair transactions, and mutual understanding of social status and worth.

Aristotle believes humans are political by nature. To be virtuous and happy, people need both the positive influence of friends and the guiding regulations of the state. His discussions in Book 8 of political systems and patterns in friendships show how humans can succeed at cultivating community and how they can fail.

Humans' Ethical Responsibilities

The Nicomachean Ethics is not only about individual happiness. It is about how someone can achieve arete or excellence in character, a requirement of a truly happy life. Excellence comes with certain responsibilities to oneself and to others. Humans owe loyalties and devotions to their city, their family, and their friends. Aristotle details communal responsibilities to the city in Book 5 and to friends and family in Books 8 and 9. Virtues like bravery and magnanimity may require sacrifices for the common good, and the ethical person makes prudent decisions about when and how much to give.

Ethical people also owe themselves the best life possible. According to Aristotle's view of human function, anyone not striving for virtue through reason is depriving themselves of their birthright. Temperance ensures they maximize opportunities for pleasure without the consequences of overindulgence. Truthfulness gives them an honest assessment of their self-worth. Understanding and scientific knowledge prepare them to achieve wisdom and unlock their full potential.

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