Aristotle’s Ethics
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Aristotle was born in 384 BC in Stagira, a small town in North-East Greece. His father died when he was very young, and he was brought up by his rich and learned uncle Proxenus. Nothing is recorded about his early life, but one might guess that Aristotle received the excellent education of most high-born Greeks.
At the age of seventeen, Aristotle joined Plato’s Academy in Athens. Plato’s own work was in philosophy and Aristotle learned a lot about philosophy directly from Plato. Plato, although not a mathematician or scientist, also made sure his pupils learned geometry, astronomy, and physics. The Academy also taught rhetoric, at which Aristotle excelled.
There are few, poorly supported, facts that have come down to us about Aristotle’s character and appearance. These suggest that he was…
• a fashionable dresser;
• arrogant (according to his enemies!);
• a witty lecturer and conversationalist;
• of poor digestion and spindle-shanked;
• generous to friends and relatives.
Although hardly anything is known about Aristotle’s personal life, his intellectual life is well documented. His surviving works alone provide us with a good record of his philosophical, scientific, and cultural thinking.
The range and volume of Aristotle’s work show that he was driven by the desire for knowledge. For him, this desire was fundamental to human nature. His central beliefs are summed up by two quotes from him:
• “All men by nature desire to know”.
• “A fully human life is the activity of the mind”.
During Aristotle’s lifetime, Philip II of Macedonia, and his son, Alexander the Great, dominated Greece. This led to the loss of independence of city-states like Athens. Not surprisingly, many in the city-states resented anyone associated with Macedonia. Aristotle’s father, Nicomachus, had been a physician at the Macedonian court. In 343, Philip invited Aristotle to tutor Alexander, and Aristotle remained in this position for several years. Between his first period in Athens and his last, Aristotle’s scientific work proceeded apace.
Aristotle spent the thirteen years from 335 in Athens, and taught regularly at the Lyceum. This is when Aristotle pursued most of his political studies. Aristotle’s researches were often conducted in a team, and always communicated to others. For Aristotle, teaching was the best proof and manifestation of knowledge.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that the greatest happiness is to be found in a life of intellectual activity. Such activity produces the mental state in which men produce the truest form of their self realization, and the highest levels of flourishing.
(321Books Aristotle Biography)
Aristotle proposes three criteria to distinguish virtuous people from people who behave in the right way by accident: first, virtuous people know they are behaving in the right way; second, they choose to behave in the right way for the sake of being virtuous; and third, their behavior manifests itself as part of a fixed, virtuous disposition.
He suggests three practical rules of conduct: first, avoid the extreme that is farther from the mean; second, notice what errors we are particularly susceptible to and avoid them diligently; and third, be wary of pleasure, as it often impedes our judgment.
Virtuous person sees truly and judges rightly, since beautiful things appear as they truly are only to a person of good character. It is only in the middle ground between habits of acting and principles of action that the soul can allow right desire and right reason to make their appearance, as the direct and natural response of a free human being to the sight of the beautiful.
We all start out life governed by desires and impulses. Unlike the habits, which are passive but lasting conditions, desires and impulses are passive and momentary, but they are very strong. Listen to a child who can’t live without some object of appetite or greed, or who makes you think you are a murderer if you try to leave her alone in a dark room. How can such powerful influences be overcome? To expect a child to let go of the desire or fear that grips her may seem as hopeless as Aristotle’s example of training a stone to fall upward, were it not for the fact that we all know that we have somehow, for the most part, broken the power of these tyrannical feelings. We don’t expel them altogether, but we do get the upper hand; an adult who has temper tantrums like those of a two-year old has to live in an institution, and not in the adult world. But the impulses and desires don’t weaken; it is rather the case that we get stronger.
There is such a thing as bad character, and this is what Aristotle means by vice, as distinct from bad habits or weakness. It is possible for someone with full responsibility and the free use of intellect to choose always to yield to bodily pleasure or to greed.
( Excerpt from ‘Aristotle: Ethics’, by Joe Sachs, St. John’s College at IEP)
Aristotle divides actions into three categories: voluntary, involuntary (unwilling), and no voluntary actions. “Now, praise or blame is given only to what is voluntary; that which is involuntary receives pardon, and sometimes even pity.” Virtues are based on voluntary actions.
He makes a subtle distinction between involuntary and no voluntary actions thus: “A man who has acted through ignorance, then, if he is sorry afterwards, is held to have done the deed involuntarily or unwillingly; if he is not sorry afterwards we may say (to mark the distinction) he did the deed ‘not-voluntarily;’ for, as the case is different, it is better to have a distinct name.” This ignorance is ignorance of the facts of the situation, not ignorance of what is fitting, which cannot be excused.
Aristotle doesn’t fully develop the concept of free will, and (following Socrates and Plato) does not mention the possibility of deliberate wrong-doing, only that “It is not about the ends, but about the means that we deliberate” and “choice or purpose implies calculation and reasoning”.
Aristotle also distinguishes between distributive and retributatory justice. Retributive justice, or punishment for things done wrong, is similar to criminal courts. Distributive justice is conceptually similar to civil courts and awarding financial compensation.
People should not be held accountable for involuntary actions, i.e.: things they were forced to do, or that they did in ignorance of the facts, which may be called mistakes or mishaps. Voluntary unjust actions can be divided according to whether they were premeditated or not. Crimes done due to emotion rather than reason (ex: sudden anger) are acts of injustice, but the person who does things in the heat of the moment should not be regarded as a wicked or unjust person. Premeditated unjust actions can only be done by unjust or wicked people, Aristotle thought. This may seem fairly sensible, but is an important departure from Socrates and Plato who held that people never did things which they realized were wrong, and that all evil was caused solely by ignorance.
Aristotle categorizes three different types of friendship: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, and friendships of the good. Friendships of utility are those where people are on cordial terms primarily because each person benefits from the other in some way. Business partnerships, relationships among co-workers, and classmate connections are examples. Friendships of pleasure are those where individuals seek out each other’s company because of the joy it brings. Passionate love affairs, people associating with each other due to belonging to the same hobby organization, and fishing buddies fall into this category. Most important of all are friendships of the good. These are friendships based upon mutual respect, admiration for each other’s virtues, and a strong desire to aid and assist the other person because one recognizes their essential goodness.
The first two types of friendship are relatively fragile. When the purpose for which the relationship is formed somehow changes, then these friendships tend to end. For instance, if the business partnership is dissolved or if you take another job or graduate from school, it is more than likely that no ties will be maintained with the former friend of utility. Likewise, once the love affair cools, or you take up a new hobby or give up fishing, the friends of pleasure will go their own ways.
(Abbas Raza at
Courage consists of confidence in the face of fear. Temperance consists of not giving in too easily to the pleasures of physical sensation. Liberality and magnificence consist of giving away varying amounts of money in appropriate and tasteful ways. Magnanimity and proper ambition consist of having the right disposition toward honor and knowing what is one’s due. Patience is the appropriate disposition toward anger, though it is sometimes appropriate to show some degree of anger. The three social virtues of amiability, sincerity, and wit make for pleasant and engaging interaction with others. Modesty is not properly a virtue, but an appropriate disposition toward shame, which is admirable in the young.
There are five intellectual virtues by which the soul arrives at truth. First, scientific knowledge arrives at eternal truths by means of deduction or induction. Second, art or technical skill involves production according to proper reasoning. Third, prudence or practical wisdom helps us to pursue the good life generally. Fourth, intuition helps us to grasp first principles from which we derive scientific truths. Fifth, wisdom is a combination of scientific knowledge and intuition, which helps us arrive at the highest truths of all. Political science is a species of prudence, since it involves ensuring the good life for an entire city.
The Nicomachean Ethics is one of the most important books in the whole history of Ethics and certainly the most influential work of Aristotle. Many traits point to the conclusion that the work is not a unitary treatise written in one piece, but a later collection of different lecture notes made either by Aristotle himself or taken by his students. These notes were later put together by an editor who tried to organize them as a unified treatise. However, the book is rather a patchwork of disparate materials used by Aristotle for his lectures on the issues of ‘practical’ philosophy than a continuous and homogeneous exposition. This circumstance should account for many repetitions, sketchy remarks, obvious interpolations, etc.


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