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Aristotle's School, a painting from the 1880s by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg.

The Nicomachean Ethics: How to Approach the Ethical Musings of Aristotle


Aristotle spoke thoughtfully as he strolled along the natural pathways of the Lyceum and his companions were entranced by their teacher’s words. His philosophical musings seemed to intertwine perfectly with the pensive feelings elicited by the green landscape, racing waters, and shady caves. The world was their classroom and the guide leading them through it was one of the best. One of the means by which the famed philosopher’s musings have been passed down to us is in the form of the Nicomachean Ethics.

Practical Philosophy

The Nicomachean Ethics (Ethics) is a seminal text that has for centuries influenced the study of ethics all over the world. It’s the first part of Aristotle’s philosophy of human affairs; the second is Politics. The Ethics is about individual excellence, an essential prerequisite for the good life in the city. It’s a work of practical philosophy, not because it doesn’t include theory or argument, but because, as the philosopher says, the aim of his analysis isn’t theory but practice - the essence isn’t to learn about the virtues but to do virtuous actions. Behavior is what matters.

The Ethics is a long text divided into ten books most probably by later editors rather than by Aristotle himself. The same with the title - Nicomachean Ethics wasn’t a title Aristotle used. Probably it was given either in the name of his father Nicomachus, or because his son Nicomachus edited the text.

First page of a 1566 edition of the ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ in Greek and Latin.

First page of a 1566 edition of the Nicomachean Ethics’ in Greek and Latin. ( Public Domain )

A Work in Progress

We need to approach the Ethics as a work in progress, as a series of lectures that Aristotle gave in the Lyceum while walking with his students, as if the teacher is talking to us. Why? Because it takes several readings to gain insight into subtle meanings and puzzling contradictions, repetitions, questions Aristotle leaves unexplored, assumptions he turns into facts, popular opinions he presents and then rejects as inadequate, references he makes to other individuals, and cultural idiosyncrasies he mentions, that come to us from another time and era.

The School of Aristotle (The Lyceum).

The School of Aristotle (The Lyceum) . ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

Throughout this work, Aristotle refers to other philosophers, like Plato, or to mythical figures, like Priam. He turns to the gods and the power of divine intervention in people’s life. He gives examples of excellence in arts and crafts. He speaks about the souls of animals and plants. He warns against the passions of young and immature people. He calls for character education from a young age. He explains the role of chance and the possibility of misfortune. And in doing so, he builds his argument about human excellence and the best way to live, the good life and eudaimonia - the state or act of living this good life.

It takes quite a while to read and fully understand the Ethics. And it takes an open mind to challenge, reflect, and learn from it. But eventually, we come to appreciate listening to Aristotle teaching on the highest good for human beings, the virtues of character and intellect, and eudaimonia, even if many points are open to interpretation. The value of his ideas is gradually revealed to us, not only because his is a work of profound wisdom, but also because it gives us insights into eternal questions of human existence that still concern us today.

Neoptolemus killing Priam.

Neoptolemus killing Priam. (Public Domain ) W ould it be wrong to call Priam unhappy because his last years were unhappy ? Aristotle believed so.

A Theory of Virtue Ethics

The Ethics is a systematic inquiry into human character. Aristotle analyzes individual excellence that for him depended on who we are as persons, on personal responsibility and agency, on practice and effort, and on the good habits we develop. And, ultimately, on how all this is expressed in the activity of eudaimonia over a lifetime. The Ethics is a systematic study into the best life. The philosopher tells us, not that we should aim for eudaimonia, but rather that we do aim at it; not that we ought to live a life of eudaimonia, but rather what this life consists in. As such, he doesn’t speak about morality. His is a theory of virtue ethics, composed of character and intellect, driven by rational judgement, and aiming at a good life.

The path towards human excellence goes beyond theory- the philosopher intends it to be practical, relevant to our real experience and to the goals we can achieve. He mainly focuses on action, not knowledge or teaching – on how we can deliberately choose our actions and the way to perform them; he stresses practice, not mere possession of the virtues - to live well means to repeatedly do well; he calls on emotions, not only on behavior - to be virtuous means to feel good about our actions; he refers to our social self - we aren’t self-sufficient beings, we can only actualize our excellence with others. And overall, individual excellence spans a whole life - until the end- in the activity of contemplation that calls on the divine element within us.

An artist’s imagined portrait of Aristotle by Francesco Hayez.

An artist’s imagined portrait of Aristotle by Francesco Hayez. ( Public Domain )

Aristotle uses the term ēthē. The Greek word ēthos, the root of ethics, means character, and Ta Ethika (the Ethics) is the study of matters dealing with character. Character must be cultivated so that the whole person grows; it’s not enough to acquire skills and perform individual actions. Character education should start from a young age aiming not only at individual excellence but at a society in which people can live a good life. But it can’t last forever, no lifelong learning concept is involved in his thought. Once a person develops a good character, there is no reversal, no way back to a previous stage - a good character is stable.

The Lasting Impact of Aristotle’s Ethical Theory

The value of Aristotle’s ethical theory, and the main reason for its lasting impact, despite contradictions, lies in the practical framework it suggests that can help us reflect how we can fulfill our human nature. And this framework is intended to be closer to our real experience than other alternative theories of how we ought to live.

In the ten books of the Ethics, the philosopher analyzes: The Goal of Human Life and Eudaimonia; Choice and Character Virtues; Justice; Intellectual Virtues; Self-control and self-indulgence; Friendship; Pleasure and Eudaimonia as contemplation.

Head of Aristotle. Copy of the Imperial era (1st or 2nd century) lost bronze sculpture made by Lysippos.

Head of Aristotle. Copy of the Imperial era (1st or 2nd century) lost bronze sculpture made by Lysippos. ( CC BY SA 2.5 )

Top Image: Aristotle's School, a painting from the 1880s by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg. Source: Public Domain

By Dr. Sophia Protopapa

Author’s Note : If you decide to read the Nicomachean Ethics, you will find that in all languages and editions, they begin with page 1094, column a, line 1. This is the Bekker numbering used for the edition of the complete works of Aristotle in the Prussian Academy of Sciences. August Immanuel Bekker (1785-1871), a classical philologist, was the editor of the works. I hope you will enjoy reading the articles that will follow on the Ethics and that you will find personal meaning in the ideas and principles the great philosopher is teaching us. Because to my mind, this is how we should listen to Aristotle in our quest for excellence and the good life - as our teacher in our personal Lyceum.

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