Nicomachean Ethics | Study Guide


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Nicomachean Ethics | 10 Things You Didn't Know


The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote during his lifetime on everything from the natural world to the political arena. His Nicomachean Ethics, believed to have been written c. 335–25 BCE, was a treatise on moral philosophy. The text is a framework for an ethical life, and it has been a foundation of moral thought for millennia.

In order to determine the best way to live, Aristotle seeks to define happiness, goodness, and justice in the Nicomachean Ethics. Building off the work of his Greek mentor, Plato, and the famous Greek philosophical orator Socrates, Aristotle examines ethics in a notably scientific manner, attempting to define everything he advocates. Thus Nicomachean Ethics is viewed as one of the most concrete and influential works of moral philosophy ever written. In addition to being used as a staple of philosophical education for years, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics inspired philosophers in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the modern era.

1. Modern scholars often grapple with Aristotle's clear and persistent sexism.

In texts such as Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, Aristotle claims that there are substantial differences between men and women that make equality between the sexes impossible. He even goes so far as to consider men "psychologically superior" to women and explicitly advocates for only men to be considered true citizens of a political community. Aristotle considers females to be "deformed males," which presents obstacles to many contemporary scholars defending his philosophical framework. However, some have argued that Aristotle's philosophical treatises leave his views on women rather ambiguous, and that some of his principles of rationality, emotion, and care—particularly in Nicomachean Ethics—are actually in line with the views of feminist philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries.

2. Some of the books in the Nicomachean Ethics are taken verbatim from an earlier work by Aristotle.

The Nicomachean Ethics, as it is read today, cannot be considered a completely original work of Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics is based on Aristotle's earlier work, titled Eudemian Ethics, most of which he completely reworked and rewrote over the course of his life. Eudemian Ethics is generally considered to be the precursor to Nicomachean Ethics, but not all the books underwent substantial revisions. Books IV, V, and VI of Eudemian Ethics appear as Books V, VI, and VII of Nicomachean Ethics, respectively, without any changes. When Aristotle wrote Nicomachean Ethics, his main goal was to integrate his political thought more heavily into a treatise of moral philosophy—a point of view that was mostly missing in the original.

3. Alexander the Great allegedly helped Aristotle collect exotic animals.

Aristotle had a close relationship with the rulers of Macedonia: Philip II of Macedon, who ruled northern Greece from 382–36 BCE, and his son, Alexander the Great, one of the ancient world's most famous conquerors. When Alexander was 13, Philip hired Aristotle to be the boy's private tutor. Aristotle held the position, considered a great honor, for five years before returning to Athens. Once Alexander the Great began traveling and conquering distant lands, he provided Aristotle with both slaves and animal specimens from abroad. These collections allowed Aristotle to compose treatises on nature and biology and granted him exposure to wildlife far beyond the reaches of the Greek peninsula. Some historians believe that these accounts of Alexander's "gifts" to Aristotle have been highly exaggerated, but it is clear that the ruler had a close relationship with the philosopher.

4. The Greek word Aristotle uses for happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics actually refers to demons.

Throughout Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses the word eudaimonia to mean "happiness." This Greek word didn't originally refer to an emotion or state of being, however, but to a demon. The literal translation of eudaimonia is "a good spirit or demon." The term gradually shifted to mean "blessed" or "good-spirited," and Aristotle uses it primarily to mean "living well."

5. Aristotle fled Athens so he wouldn't be executed like Socrates.

Aristotle was aware of the dangers that prominent philosophers faced in Athens and knew very well that his popularity could earn him the same fate as Socrates. He learned from Socrates's execution for impiety, or offense toward the gods, and the corruption of youth in 399 BCE that, if ever a charge was brought against him, the best course of action would be to leave immediately. After Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, Aristotle's connection with the Macedonian conqueror left him very unpopular in Athens, whose populace hadn't appreciated being occupied by the Macedonians. Aristotle suddenly faced the same charge as Socrates—"impiety"—and fled the city as quickly as he could. He allegedly claimed:

I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy.

Aristotle retired to a small island where he lived for another year in peace before his death.

6. Scholars argue about Aristotle's complex relationship with one of his slaves.

Aristotle had a complicated—and extremely ambiguous—relationship with one of his slaves, named Herpyllis. Some historians believe Herpyllis was the handmaiden of Aristotle's first wife, Pythias, while others believe she was the concubine of one of the philosopher's friends. It's also unclear whether Aristotle freed and later married Herpyllis. The Greek version of Aristotle's will states that, at the time of Aristotle's death, Herpyllis had been freed and was lawfully married to the philosopher. The Arabic translation of the will, however, describes her only as a favored servant. Whether or not the two ever married, it is believed that Herpyllis was the mother of Aristotle's son, Nicomachus, whom Aristotle named his Nicomachean Ethics after.

7. Aristotle's followers simply referred to him as The Philosopher.

Aristotle's contributions to philosophy were so vast and varied that the prolific thinker is often referred to simply as The Philosopher. This honor was first bestowed during the Middle Ages, when Aristotle's work was rediscovered by medieval scholars and became a benchmark for a philosophical education. At this time he was also famously referred to as "the master of them that know." In many medieval circles, Aristotle's work was held in the highest esteem, with the exception of any passages that may have contradicted the Bible.

8. Aristotle founded one of the first Western universities—the ruins of which were discovered accidentally.

Aristotle was responsible for founding one of the first true universities in the ancient world: the Athenian Lyceum. Originally a gymnasium—a training facility for competitors in public games—the Lyceum was a meeting place for philosophers since before the time of Socrates, but Aristotle organized it as a true educational institution in 335 BCE. Aristotle taught in the Lyceum, kept a library, and wrote many of his philosophical treatises within its walls. In 1997 the foundation of the Lyceum was discovered, accidentally, by construction workers in Athens. The construction project for the Athens Museum of Modern Art had to be relocated once the hallowed ruins were discovered. Archaeologists had searched for the exact location of Aristotle's Lyceum for more than a century beforehand.

9. The Nicomachean Ethics was named after Aristotle's son—as well as his father.

Nicomachus was a very important name in Aristotle's family. Aristotle's grandfather, father, and son were all named Nicomachus, and Aristotle titled his ethical treatise after one—or all—of them. Most scholars believe that the Nicomachean Ethics was dedicated to his son since this was a typical naming convention for literary works in ancient Greece. Many scholars believe Aristotle's son also assisted in editing the Nicomachean Ethics.

10. Much of Aristotle's writing would've been lost if it wasn't for the work of Arabic translators.

Although the Roman Empire is often considered the direct successor to ancient Greece, many of the classic Greek texts we know today actually ended up in Egypt. The famous Library of Alexandria acquired many documents from Greek city-states, including the works of Aristotle. During the early Middle Ages, Aristotle's work was popular with Islamic scholars and was translated into Arabic. As Western Europe experienced the 10th-century Dark Ages, during which transmission of scholarly texts was difficult and works by pagan authors were frowned upon, Islamic scholars had unprecedented access to the works of Greek philosophers. The philosopher al-Kindi is often credited for his role in preserving the Greek philosophical tradition by translating numerous Greek works, many of which may have been lost without this contribution.

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