Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) was a Greek philosopher, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology. Together with Plato and Socrates (Plato’s teacher), Aristotle is one of the most important founding figures in Western philosophy. Aristotle’s writings were the first to create a comprehensive system of Western philosophy, encompassing morality, aesthetics, logic, science, politics, and metaphysics. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that what we seek is eudaimonia, a term translated in this reading as “happiness.” Eudaimonia is better expressed as “well-being” or “excellence of performing the proper function.” When Aristotle explains human virtue, he is not discussing what we now refer to as (Victorian) virtue. He is clarifying the peculiar excellence of human beings in the same manner as we often speak of the peculiar excellence attributable to the nature of a thing. For example, a tool is useful in virtue of the fact that it performs its function well. Aristotle’s purpose in the Nicomachean Ethics is not just to explain the philosophy of the excellence for human beings but also to demonstrate specifically how human beings can lead lives of excellence as activity in accordance with practical and theoretical reason.
Ideas of Interest from the Nicomachean Ethics:
- According to Aristotle, what is happiness (eudaimonia)? How does Aristotle’s definition of happiness differs from the account given by most people?
- What does Aristotle mean when he writes that the good for man is self-sufficient?
- How does Aristotle prove that the final good for human beings is “activity of the soul in accordance with [the best and most complete] virtue”?
- Explain and trace out some examples of Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean.
- What is the difference between theoretical and practical knowledge? Which kind is the more important for Aristotle?
- According to Aristotle, how are the habits and character of excellence in human beings attained?
- What is the relation between the passions and the virtues according to Aristotle?
- In the Nicomachean Ethics, does Aristotle trace out a method whereby human beings can change their character? If so, what are the main outlines of his program for change?
Aristotle believed that every ethical virtue or positive character trait can be described as a pleasant intermediate activity, between a painful excess and a painful deficiency. But seeing what is most pleasant and most painful in truth is not something everyone can easily do, especially if they were poorly raised and inexperienced. Aristotle’s described how people become virtuous by performing virtuous actions, which they might not have chosen themselves when young. They must develop proper habits during childhood and this usually requires help from teachers, parents, and law-makers. A good community is normally required for the development of good people. Virtue in the highest sense, in an adult who has been brought up well, will not just involve good personal habits such as courage and temperance, but also friendship and justice and intellectual virtue. Aristotle says that developing good habits can make a good human being and that practicing the use of The Golden Mean when applicable to virtues will allow a human being to live a healthy, happy life. We can summarise his idea of “Happiness” in the following lines:
- Happiness is the ultimate end and purpose of human existence
- Happiness is not pleasure, nor is it virtue. It is the exercise of virtue.
- Happiness cannot be achieved until the end of one’s life. Hence it is a goal and not a temporary state.
- Happiness is the perfection of human nature. Since man is a rational animal, human happiness depends on the exercise of his reason.
- Happiness depends on acquiring a moral character, where one displays the virtues of courage, generosity, justice, friendship, and citizenship in one’s life. These virtues involve striking a balance or “mean” between an excess and a deficiency.
Happiness requires intellectual contemplation, for this is the ultimate realization of our rational capacities.
Sources: Books, Internet.
This page is a dedication to Aristotle on his 2400th Birth Anniversary by Centre for Positive Philosophy and Interdiscipliary Studies (CPPIS) Pehowa (Kurukshetra)