The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle's most important study of personal morality and the ends of human life, has for many centuries been a widely-read and influential book. Though written more than 2,000 years ago, it offers the modern reader many valuable insights into human needs and conduct. Among its most outstanding features are Aristotle's insistence that there are no known absolute moral standards and that any ethical theory must be based in part on an understanding of psychology and firmly grounded in the realities of human nature and daily life. In addition, the book vividly reflects Aristotle's achievements in other areas of philosophy and is a good example of his analytical method, which must be considered the ultimate basis of all modern scientific research.
People have not changed significantly in the many years since Aristotle first lectured on ethics at the Lyceum in Athens. The human types and problems he discusses are familiar to everyone. The rules of conduct and explanations of virtue and goodness that he proposes can all help modern man to attain a fuller and more satisying understanding of his responsibilities as a member of society and the purpose of his existence. For this alone Aristotle's book is still worth reading.
Main Points of Aristotle's Ethical Philosophy
- The highest good and the end toward which all human activity is directed is happiness, which can be defined as continuous contemplation of eternal and universal truth.
- One attains happiness by a virtuous life and the development of reason and the faculty of theoretical wisdom. For this one requires sufficient external goods to ensure health, leisure, and the opportunity for virtuous action.
- Moral virtue is a relative mean between extremes of excess and deficiency, and in general the moral life is one of moderation in all things except virtue. No human appetite or desire is bad if it is controlled by reason according to a moral principle. Moral virtue is acquired by a combination of knowledge, habituation, and self-discipline.
- Virtuous acts require conscious choice and moral purpose or motivation. Man has personal moral responsibility for his actions.
- Moral virtue cannot be achieved abstractly — it requires moral action in a social environment. Ethics and politics are closely related, for politics is the science of creating a society in which men can live the good life and develop their full potential.
Subjects Covered in The Nicomachean Ethics
Book I, Chap. 1-3: Nature of Ethics and methods of studying Ethics.
Book I, Chap. 4-12: Discussion of Happiness and the good as the ends of human life.
Book II, Chap. 1-4: Discussion of Moral Virtue.
Book II, Chap. 5-9: The Doctrine of the Mean.
Book III, Chap. 1-5: Moral purpose and moral responsibility.
Book III, Chap. 6-12, and Book IV: Discussion of particular moral virtues.
Book V: Discussion of Justice.
Book VI: The Intellectual Virtues.
Book VII: Continence and Incontinence.
Books VIII and IX: Friendship.
Book X, Chap. 1-5: Further discussion of Pleasure.
Book X, Chap. 6-8: Happiness, the end of human life.
Book X, Chap. 9: Relationship of Ethics and Politics.