ISBN: 0199213615

I recently attempted to tackle The Nicomachean Ethics, one of Aristotle’s most important works. In tough language it describes happiness, virtue, justice, reasoning, and living.

The beginning of the book starts off with happiness, which Aristotle describes as a finite point where you are self-sufficient and lacking in nothing (accumulation beyond that point would be excess). This can only come from living with virtue, something you gain through learning and training. The virtuous man will always be happy because “he will do and contemplate what is excellent, and he will bear the chances of life most nobly and altogether decorously, if he is ‘truly good’ and ‘foursquare beyond reproach’.”

If activities are, as we said, what determines the character of life, no blessed man can become miserable; for he will never do the acts that are hateful and mean. For the man who is truly good and wise, we think , bears all the chances of life becomingly and always makes the best of circumstances, as a good general makes the best military use of the army at his command, and a good shoemaker makes the best shoes out of the hides that are given him; and so with all other craftsmen. And if this is the case, the happy man can never become miserable— though he will not reach blessedness, if he meet with fortunes like those of Priam.

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…none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance the stone which by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times;

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…the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

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…temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

A virtuous man derives pleasure or happiness from doing virtuous acts, such as exhibiting bravery or temperance. In fact, you know you have virtue when you don’t get happiness from doing unvirtuous acts. You only feel good for doing the right thing. One sign that your virtue is growing is when you feel guilt of shame for unvirtuous things which gave you pleasure in the past.

It’s clear that Aristotle did not agree with the progressive view that we are all equal since virtue takes training to implement. Those who have not done this training are thus not virtuous and should not be praised.

It’s important to note that Aristotle doesn’t say not to experience pleasure, but to be temperate and seek a mean, since self-indulgence is not virtuous. He describes the mean for some length:

…every art does its work well—by looking to the intermediate and judging its works by this standard (so that we often say of good works of art that it is not possible either to take away or to add anything, implying that excess and defect destroy the goodness of works of art, while the mean preserves it; and good artists, as we say, look to this in their work), and if, further, virtue is more exact and better than any art, as nature also is, then virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate.

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…both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people , with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue.

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With regard to honour and dishonour the mean is proper pride, the excess is known as a sort of ‘empty vanity’, and the deficiency is undue humility;

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For the brave man appears rash relatively to the coward, and cowardly relatively to the rash man; and similarly the temperate man appears self-indulgent relatively to the insensible man, insensible relatively to the self-indulgent , and the liberal man prodigal relatively to the mean man, mean relatively to the prodigal. Hence also the people at the extremes push the intermediate man each over to the other, and the brave man is called rash by the coward, cowardly by the rash man, and correspondingly in the other cases.

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…anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

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…the intermediate state is in all things to be praised, but that we must incline sometimes towards the excess, sometimes towards the deficiency; for so shall we most easily hit the intermediate and what is right.

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Men, then, as well as beasts, suffer pain when they are angry, and are pleased when they exact their revenge; those who fight for these reasons, however, are pugnacious but not brave; for they do not act for the sake of the noble nor as reason directs, but from strength of feeling;

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…the self-indulgent man is so called because he is pained more than he ought at not getting pleasant things (even his pain being caused by pleasure), and the temperate man is so called because he is not pained at the absence of what is pleasant and at his abstinence from it.

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The temperate man occupies a middle position with regard to these objects. For he neither enjoys the things that the self-indulgent man enjoys most— but rather dislikes them—nor in general the things that he should not, nor anything of this sort to excess, nor does he feel pain or craving when they are absent, or does so only to a moderate degree, and not more than he should, nor when he should not, and so on;

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…the proud man is concerned with honours; yet he will also bear himself with moderation towards wealth and power and all good or evil fortune, whatever may befall him, and will be neither overjoyed by good fortune nor over-pained by evil.

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We call bad-tempered those who are angry at the wrong things, more than is right, and longer, and cannot be appeased until they inflict vengeance or punishment.

Some thoughts on actions and fear:

For the man who has done something by reason of ignorance, and feels not the least vexation at his action, has not acted voluntarily, since he did not know what he was doing, nor yet involuntarily, since he is not pained.

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…the incontinent man acts with appetite, but not with choice; while the continent man on the contrary acts with choice, but not with appetite.

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…everyone does evil acts through ignorance of the end, thinking that by these he will get what is best,

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Now we fear all evils, e.g. disgrace, poverty, disease, friendlessness, death, but the brave man is not thought to be concerned with all; for to fear some things is even right and noble , and it is base not to fear them— e.g. disgrace; he who fears this is good and modest, and he who does not is shameless.

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Poverty and disease we perhaps ought not to fear, nor in general the things that do not proceed from vice and are not due to a man himself.

Two more excerpts I found interesting:

For to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with reason, knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit.

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The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else. And so one might rather take the aforenamed objects to be ends; for they are loved for themselves.

This book is by no means easy to read. Here’s a sample passage that may take you some time to decode:

Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.

You can’t just read through this like any other book. It’s meant to be studied and re-read carefully. I wasn’t prepared to make such a commitment so I stopped halfway through. You won’t get much value reading this book in isolation without the accompanying context from preceding works. It should be one of many books you read as part of a classical study program, instead of one in which you randomly pluck out from the bookstore while browsing, or else your level of comprehension will be low. In effect, you need some prior training to get the most out of this text. For that reason, I don’t think it will be useful to most men.

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