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Nicomachean Ethics | Summary

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Summary

Book 1

Aristotle wants to find the highest human good for individuals and communities. This good will be self-sufficient and capable of guiding humans throughout their lives. He begins by examining happiness, which is commonly believed to be humans' highest goal or ultimate good. Everyone seeks happiness. However, the only way to achieve complete happiness is to acquire virtue or excellent character. The Nicomachean Ethics will explain why and how humans can achieve their highest good. Since humans have rational souls their function is to live a life of reason, seeking the truth. They should not simply fulfill their desires, but they should cultivate virtue with the help of rational thought.

Book 2

To be happy, people can strive for virtues of character, which they cultivate through habit. Virtue requires the right approach to pleasure and pain. Aristotle also distinguishes between the state of virtue and the actions of the virtuous person.

Many virtues are "mean" or intermediate states between an excess or a deficiency of a character trait. Bravery, for example, is the mean or intermediate state between being too rash and being a coward. The mean is challenging to achieve, and individuals may tend toward different extreme states, depending on their natural inclinations. They should avoid their natural extremes and be cautious about pursuing pleasure.

Books 3 and 4

Right actions help people achieve virtuous states. Decision is essential to taking the right actions, and people make good decisions through deliberation. People have the power to choose virtue or vice, but they must start with the correct internal principles.

Perfecting an individual virtue consists of doing the right thing at the right time, in the right way, and with the right mindset until it becomes habit. Aristotle discusses the virtues of bravery and temperance in Book 3. He analyzes other virtues of character, such as generosity, magnificence, and friendliness, in Book 4.

Book 5

Virtue in a political community takes the form of justice. Humans and communities can both achieve the state of justice through their actions.

Laws and principles of fairness can bring justice to a society with good rulers. Aristotle distinguishes between several different types of justice and injustice. Special justice concerns fairness in individual situations. Distributive justice gives everyone what they deserve according to their worth. Rectificatory justice rights wrongs by balancing gain and loss between two parties. Justice in exchange governs economic transactions between different goods and services.

Individual acts can be just or unjust, but these actions are distinct from a just and unjust character. Aristotle explores different questions related to justice, including the possibility of involuntary injustice, the distinction between natural and legal justice, and the role of decency.

Book 6

Expanding on his discussion of virtue, Aristotle explores virtues of thought, which come from the rational or reasoning part of the soul. He examines the relationship between thought, action, and decision. In order to make good decisions, humans need to deliberate well, and this deliberation requires correct thought processes. Virtues of thought include scientific knowledge, craft, comprehension, and consideration. Nevertheless, the most significant virtues of thought, which enhance all the others, are wisdom, understanding, and prudence. Prudence is a practical, applied version of wisdom required for "full virtue" and right action.

Book 7

After explaining virtues of thought in the previous book, Aristotle goes into detail about vices to avoid. He distinguishes vice from the condition of incontinence or lack of restraint in pursuing physical desires. He examines how incontinence can be caused by spirit or appetite, and compares and contrasts incontinence with a seemingly similar vice, intemperance. Book 7 also discusses good, moderate approaches to pleasure, and how to pursue bodily pleasures responsibly in a happy life.

Books 8 and 9

Books 8 and 9 show how friendships contribute to a good life. While some friends are only for utility or pleasure, the most lasting friendships will be based on virtue. Incomplete friendships, or those based on utility or pleasure, have their own merits and drawbacks. However, virtuous friendships between good people enhance both friends' lives in many ways. Since virtuous people always seek the good, an excellent friend is an essential good in their lives.

Book 8 explores the requirements of each type of friendship. It also describes friendships between people of unequal status and how to handle conflicts between friends. Books 8 and 9 relate friendship to citizenship in the larger political community. Book 8 discusses friendship within the dynamics of a family and within different systems of government. In Book 9 Aristotle answers more specific questions about friendship, such as when to dissolve a friendship and whether a good person can be a friend to himself or herself.

Book 10

After his examination of virtue, Aristotle returns to the role of pleasure in happiness. Pleasure is a good, he determines, and a necessary completion to any good activity. However, it is not self-sufficient enough to be the best possible good. The highest good, which leads to the happiest life, is study in the pursuit of wisdom. Study and understanding meet all of Aristotle's criteria for the ultimate good, and allow humans to approach the state of the divine.

Aristotle concludes by asserting the importance of moral education for happiness. He discusses how law and political science are essential for a just community, and introduces his political treatise Politics, which will explore different systems of law.

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