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

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

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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.

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