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Nicomachean Ethics | Quotes


The human good proves to be activity of the soul in accord with virtue.

Narrator, Book 1

Aristotle will spend the rest of the Ethics proving this statement. Humanity's ideal function or "good" involves the soul, which makes humans uniquely capable of reason. In addition, reason, at its best, enables virtuous or fine actions. Although virtue alone will not ensure happiness, it is the only component of happiness never worth sacrificing, and the only one humans can master through control.


Virtue of character is a mean ... between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency.

Narrator, Book 2

This quote explains the role of moderation in virtue. Character traits or qualities can serve people well only if they are expressed in the right way. By showing how several vices are an "excess" or "deficiency" of a certain positive quality, Aristotle gives readers a blueprint for transforming these vices into virtues.


Our decisions to do good and bad actions, not our beliefs, form the characters we have.

Narrator, Book 3

This statement encapsulates Aristotle's view of moral responsibility and is remarkably similar to a much later and far more controversial philosophy—existentialism. Decisions require "reason and thought," part of a human's rational purpose, while beliefs involve only speculation. While beliefs can be correct or incorrect based on facts, decisions rely on moral judgment. Someone can have correct beliefs but still make the wrong decision, which brings them no closer to virtue. This belief is one of the primary distinguishing factors between Aristotle and Plato, who believed in abstract Forms or Ideals and thought the good consisted of striving after them.


It is more proper to virtue to do good than to receive good.

Narrator, Book 4

A good person is a public citizen, someone who thinks of others' needs. A good person also enjoys giving to others, as Aristotle explains through the virtues of generosity and magnanimity. Although there is a right way to be a recipient of good deeds, receiving is more passive, while giving is active—a true sign of good character.


Justice is the only virtue that seems to be another person's good.

Narrator, Book 5

Aristotle considers justice to be the virtue central to civic life. Other virtues involve personal decisions and actions for the betterment of self. Justice benefits the community, not the individual. However, humans cannot have a good life apart from their communities. By elevating justice to "supreme among the virtues" Aristotle emphasizes the importance of fair laws and civil society to human happiness.


No community without exchange, no exchange without equality, no equality without commensuration.

Narrator, Book 5

A just community needs a thriving economy. Aristotle uses commensuration to mean appropriate in proportion; commensuration is a way of equalizing different items, like currency and services.


We allow only reason, not a human being, to be ruler.

Narrator, Book 5

Aristotle recognizes the potential of power to corrupt. Laws exist only because people can and will be unjust without them, even people in leadership positions. Ideally, he believes laws will encourage justice, but not all manmade laws are perfect. Legislation dictated by "reason" will be as close to perfect as possible.


An act of justice is different from the unjust, and an act of justice from the just.

Narrator, Book 5

This quote makes the important distinction between actions and states of being. A law can be just, but it becomes an act of justice only when it is enforced. Aristotle argues for universal or "natural" concepts of justice, which actions and laws can interpret correctly or incorrectly.


Decision is either understanding combined with desire or desire combined with thought.

Narrator, Book 6

Decision is a crucial aspect of virtuous behavior. A person's decisions will both form and reveal their character. Virtuous people fully understand and consider what they are about to do before taking action. Aristotle uses decision's intersection with desire to examine aspects of human psychology. When should people give in to their desires, and when should they deny themselves? A reasoned perspective is critical.


Wisdom is understanding plus scientific knowledge.

Narrator, Book 6

In Book 10 Aristotle will identify wisdom, achieved through study, as the highest human good. The truly educated person will enjoy learning more about the world. Their study will go beyond the memorization of facts to a true understanding of principles. Ideally, sophia, or the intellectual wisdom learned from scholarship, will combine with phronesis or prudence.


Virtue preserves the principle, whereas vice corrupts it; and in actions the end we act for is the principle.

Narrator, Book 7

Aristotle believes intemperance, more than other vices, destroys principles or moral guidelines. If someone pursues excessive pleasure often enough, he will become convinced he is doing the right thing, and his sense of right and wrong will be permanently corrupted. He will pursue the wrong end or goal in his actions. Just as practicing virtue can make someone better, practicing vice can make someone worse.


Habit is easier than nature to change.

Narrator, Book 7

There is hope for someone who has developed incontinent habits, Aristotle thinks. A person with a natural inclination to vice may always be evil. Someone whose repeated actions have become habit is not easy to cure, but many incontinent people still have the innate desire to practice virtuous restraint.


Most people wish for what is fine, but decide to do what is beneficial.

Narrator, Book 8

Aristotle's deft analysis of human psychology warns the reader to beware their natural desire for the "beneficial." Here he is discussing disagreements in friendships. Although everyone may want a virtuous friendship, they prefer to receive good deeds than to do good to others. This is human nature, but Aristotle thinks good friends should fight against this tendency.


The activity of understanding ... is superior in excellence.

Narrator, Book 10

Aristotle describes understanding as an activity. Unlike a passive state, an activity requires constant participation. Understanding and wisdom are lifelong projects, but the effort will be worth it.


Knowing about virtue is not enough ... we must also try to possess and exercise virtue.

Narrator, Book 10

The Nicomachean Ethics is an action-oriented work meant to give the reader practical advice for living a good life, similar to a modern self-help book. Aristotle reverences study, but he thinks the student needs to use what they have learned and apply it. No one is only a scholar—people are family members, friends, and citizens too. Aristotle addresses his reader as a complete human being with multiple roles.

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