PHL 206
Instructor: Dr. Bob Zunjic


The Nicomachean Ethics

Books 1 & 2

An Outline

The Nicomachean Ethics is one of the most important books in the whole history of Ethics and certainly the most influential work of Aristotle. We do not know much about the origin of the Nicomachean Ethics and we do not possess a satisfactory explanation of its current structure. 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 homogenious exposition. This circumstance should account for many repetitions, sketchy remarks, obvious interpolations, etc.

Notwithstanding all textual imperfections the Nichomachean Ethics displays both the scope and the depth of a great philosophic project (A. MacIntyre calls it rightly "the most brilliant set of lecture notes ever written"). It deals with almost all notions and concepts people assume when they talk about virtue and the good life. Aristotle does not limit his discussion to the questions of morality but tackles practical reasoning in its entire political and social setting. Needless to say, this "logic of moral practice" was executed from the historical viewpoint of the social morality that was realized in the city-states of Ancient Greece. Within that specific historical framework Aristotle provides an account of what constitutes the good life and how society should be organized to make such a life possible.
This outline covers selected chapters from the first and the second book of the Nicomachean Ethics that deal with the ethical issues of good life and virtuous action (I, 1,4,5,7; II, 1,2,4,5,6,8,9).

BK. 1: I Teleology of Actions

Title: The title of the book (ta ethika tou Nicomacheiou) is itself a big puzzle: we do not know whether it is a reference to Aristotle's own son or to a namesake of his son who might have edited Aristotle's manuscript and thus for ever associated his name with the work? What we know is that ta ethika denotes the studies in the ethe (morals) of a society striving to make ossible the good life for the state and happiness for its citizens.
  Note: NE has a dual status that may cause some confusion: it is both a theoretical and practical treatise. Insofar as it studies the concepts taken from a certain moral order it is clearly a theoretical undertaking, but in developing ideas that are supposed to assist students to attain the objective of the good life and in fostering that goal it proves to be an eminently practical endeavor.
General Observation As in many other treatises Aristotle starts with a universal statement: "Every art and every scientific inquiry, and similarly every action and decision, may be said (according to general view) to aim at some good." This statement, based on a wide acceptance of teleologically regulated striving, lists four main areas of human endeavor:
Art techne
Inquiry methodos
Action praxis
Decision prohairesis
All activities within these areas strive to attain certain good. For Aristotle, this means two things:
(1) Every human activity aims at "some good" (ti agathon).

(2) Every human activity aims at some end (telos).
For Aristotle, the two statements are virtually identical.

In order to explain this identity we need to bear in mind that in Aristotle's eyes the two following questions coincide:
What is this good for? = What is the end of this?
This leads to the equation: good = end.

Terms: The good is the object of an action in a neutral sense - by simply being the expected end, or its purpose (not necessarily in terms of evaluation or moral appraisal).
of action = end, that for the sake of which the action is being performed.
Note: The phrase "aim at some good" is meant in the sense of being goal-oriented, no matter whether the goal itself is morally good or not. Of course, some goods in the sense of ends are not really "good" (for instance, actions leading to a crime). But if we take the mentioned activities as token types then the claim is justified in its universality no matter whether it purports to be analytic or general (inductive).
Rationality In other words, human actions are not haphazard, random, gratuitous, purposeless. On the contrary, purposefulness is the distinctive mark of human rationality as opposed to the instictiveness of animal conduct or unmotivated unfolding of natural events. Humans seek appropriate means to attain their goals.
General Rule: In order to figure out why do we do something we do one needs to find out the end of that action. Remember, human actions are goal -(end)- oriented.
Inference: If the end x is the 'goodness' of x for something else, we can say, by generalization, that the good is that at which all things aim in their respective realms. While all human actions, insofar as they are rational, aim at some good (1), this does not mean that all human things and activities aim at one and the same great good ("the good" in the Platonic sense", transcendent and absolute), but that some good is that what they all aim at.
Note: "The good all things aim at" is obviously just a formula, not a specifically defined good or an overarching good valid for everything that exists ("some one good thing").
Specific Rule: In fact, the good is different in every realm of human activity.
Various actions - various ends.
(Health is the end of the medical art, victory of strategy, wealth of economy.) Ends are action specific, not abstract or arbitrary. Yet they do not form a single overarching good (as Plato believed).
Action Its Good / End
Medicine => Health
Shipbuilding => Boat
Strategy => Victory
Economy => Wealth

The good of the above activities is "objective" - as envisioned by the society, not necessarily by the agents of the activities. Morality is not a matter of feelings and consciousness, but of ascertainable qualities of our deeds.






Ends - Actions

All human actions are purposive in the sense of having a purpose, but this purpose (end) could assume different positions with regard to the action itself. The shifting position of ends is the basis for another distinction in the end-means structure of different activities.
Some actions are being intrinsically pursued (in that case their purpose lies in them), some are instrumental for desired ends (their ends lie beyond them), while some actions are both intrinsic and instrumental with regard to their ends.
We can represent this tripartite division of actions in the following way:

(A) Actions desired for their results (These activities are only instrumental ends.)
(B) Actions desired for themselves (These activities are intrinsic ends.)



Actions desired both for themselves and their results (These activities are both intrinsic and instrumental.)


Variety of Teleological Linkages:

(A) Deliberate actions done for the sake of achieving or making something. Example: exercising for the sake of fitness or health.

(B) Actions desired only for the sake of themselves. Example: making love.

(C) Actions desired both for the sake of themselves and as a means for certain results. Example: playing poker.

Coordination: Human actions are coordinated, not chaotic and isolated. Furthermore they build chains of means-end relations. Starting from basic activities they merge into activities of higher order and higher ends.

The Pyramid of Ends:


Master Arts (= higher level aims)



Subordinate Arts (= first level aims)

Chains and Combinations of Arts:

(a) Single enterprise: Making bridles, Horsemanship, Military practice, etc., all for Strategy (cf. Plato, Polit., 304b - 305e).

(b) General enterprise: Strategy + other sciences => Statesmanship.


Evaluation: In general, goals (ends) are 'better' (more valuable) than what leads to them or produces them (means).
If some arts and sciences are pursued for the sake of others, then the latter, being the ends, are 'better' and more desirable (valuable).
The ends of the master arts "are more desirable than those of subordinate arts". (What is more desirable is regarded as higher in rank.)
This establishes a hierarchy of human actions and arts.
  Note: "It makes no difference to the argument whether the activities themselves are the ends of the action, or something beyond the activities, as in the above mentioned sciences." This is obviously one of those editorial additions that rather comment on the text than contribute to the point. The remark makes sense only if it refers to the superior sciences and arts as opposed to the subordinate. Otherwise the chain of coordination would be broken already at the level of a subordinate art that would be also pursued for its own sake. Anyway, the principle that higher skills and sciences are more valuable still holds.



II The Supreme Good

Ultimate End(s):

If human beings actively pursue many ends throughout their lives, it makes sense to ask whether human nature includes some specific good and decisive end?
In other words, is there one supreme end (in the sense of the "best end") of human actions or are there several or even many separate goals that we strive to attain?

Unity of Purposes: Aristotle believes that there could be many different goals in a human life but all these should be guided by one best end. A life unified by a commitment to one best end (ariston) and in that sense ultimate goal is preferable to a life which lacks unity of desires and objectives.
But does such an end exist?
  Aristotle proves that there is such an end by means of a hypothetical reasoning. His argument is very compressed:
(1) If we do not wish everything for the sake of something else (since an infinite progress is untenable),
(2) If there is something we wish for its own sake,
(which is a fact),
(3) If it is something for the sake of which we wish everything else (a big conditional),

(4) Then this end will be the "the best good" (= ultimate, supreme end).


It is obvious that the whole argument depends on the truth of the first and third premise (the second one is firmly grounded in facts).
The truth of the first premise is secured only negatively - Aristotle dismisses the possibility of infinite progress not on logical and factual grounds but rather on psychological and ontological. He reasons in this way:
(1) If there is anything desired for something else, and there is a plentiful of those (instrumental) things, then there must be something desired for itself which ends the series of those things that we desire only for the sake of others.
Corollary: Aristotle's argument is a practical reversal of the cosmological argument (infinite regress) which by virtue of the same reasoning comes to the conclusion that there must be a starting point of the world if we look backward from the present. Now he claims that there must be a final point in human striving for satisfaction. Infinite progress of only instrumental links is psychologically and existentially unbearable because it creates the sense of futility (or a deprivation of satisfaction) by perpetually postponing the final gratification. When looking forward we want to envision the final point of our strivings and desires. This may be true, but it does not logically exclude an infinite progress.

(2) If there is only one thing desired for itself, it would be the most precious thing and the knowledge of it would be very important for the conduct of life.
Now, based on his conviction that infinite series are ontologically impossible, Aristotle asserts:

(3) Not only that there is something we wish for its own sake. There is something we wish for its own sake and for the sake of which we wish everything else. It is the ultimate (= best) end.
Note: This could be the case, but this does not mean that there is only one ultimate end (a single end for all actions). From the statement that all sequences must stop somewhere, we cannot conclude correctly that there is a point where they all end, let alone identify that point.

Supreme Good:

Obviously the whole argument hinges on the above three "ifs". If they are fulfilled then we can conditionally accept the conclusion (see below how Aristotle meets the crucial condition that there is an ultimate point that coincides with one single best end).

One End: Dedication to one end may be exceptional in real life, but Aristotle thinks that those who give unity and continuity to their lives have all chances to live wisely and happily. The strongest point made here is the contention that the good life for man is a unitary life based on a hierarchy of goods, while the life which is not centered around one ultimate goal (= the best good) either inevitably dissipates in moments or remains for ever unfulfilled.
Knowledge: The knowledge of the best good could serve as the guidance in life the way a mark determines the direction for an archer. Therefore it is useful to define the goal and to identify the science which deals with it. (The study of the best good now takes a clearly practical turn.)


Multitude of Purposes: Human individuals live in a society. Therefore it is in vain to look for a special good that would be sought in isolation from other people and the communal life. Since people already interact among themselves it could only contribute to their well-being if individual lives and purposes of men are coordinated and socially organized. If men can be good and can feel good only in a good society this requires that we take care both of a comprehensive good for the state and the good of individuals.
The Whole: In regard to the society as a whole we can therefore ask the same question that we have posed with regard to an individual: "What is such a good for a society consisting of many individuals and how do we learn about it?"
Science: One would expect that the science in charge with the ultimate good that pertains to man should be ethics. But Aristotle says it is the one which determines what "people may do and what they may not do" in a state. It is the "most authoritative science" = politics. This is how his reasoning proceeds:

(1) The best good is the all-inclusive end.
(2) The all-inclusive end is the end of political science.
(3) Therefore the best good is the end of political science.

Rule: The "most authoritative science" should deal with the most inclusive good. This good is the ultimate good that determines all subordinate ends.
Objective: The statesman is supposed to secure the conditions for good life and to determine the priority of different claims.
Note: For Aristotle, politics apparently was not a partisan politics focused solely on means to maintain power but an effort to define the common good. The objective of the classical science of politics was to make people become good and feel good, not to control the whole social system. This is very different from the ambition of modern politics: to find out what are the most expedient means for whatever goals we choose while leaving the objective of feeling content (and doing well) to human individual pursuit (subjectivity).

The object of political science (= statesmanship) "comprehends the ends of the other sciences" (strategy, economics, rhetoric). They are subordinate to politics which makes use of them. The science of politics determines which goods will be pursued in the state, to which extent and how (by means of what resources and skills). In other words, political science rules what people should do in a city.
Therefore the single end which is the good and the best good is the subject matter of statesmanship or political science. It represents "the good of mankind".

Note: The subsumption of ethics under politics could be explained in two ways: historically and systematically. On the one hand, Aristotle followed the pattern of Plato who used to derive moral principles from the principles of ideal political order. On the other hand, he acknowledged that the more comprehensive approach of politics is based on the social nature of man that ethics compliments by adding a moral quality to the ability of mere survival or gregarious living. The "comprehensiveness" of the political science does not contradict the previous assertion that there is no overarching or identical good/end in all areas of human endeavor. It only makes case for the externalization of morality. However, it shifts the meaning of the supreme end from the dominant to the most comprehensive end.


The good of a state or of a nation is greater (bigger) and more complete (because more comprehensive) than the good of a single man even though they are the same in nature.

Note: It is not exactly clear in which sense the good of a nation is "nobler and more divine" than the good of an individual. (F. Sparshott theorizes that these lines could be an indirect approbation of Alexander the Great and his policies, but it is hard to believe that Aristotle would even remotely go beyond the city-state framework of his political experience.)

Presuppositions: In order to behave or act morally one needs to:
(a) interact with others (it is not possible to be an isolated moral individual);
(b) interact in a well-organized and civilized community (human potentials could not be realized without the security, the economic resources and educational institutions of a politically organized society);
(c) shape individuals' lives in conformity with the life of the community (arranging individuals' lives is of the same kind as arranging the life of a community, except that the scale is different).
Note: In positing conditions a - c, Aristotle's ethics performs an operation that in contrast to Christian internalization of moral consciousness could be called the "externalization of morality". One needs to bear in mind that for the Greeks the state was the defining framework of their lives. The Greeks were avid achievers but there was no accomplishment or success in "private" life. This explains why they regarded exile as the most severe punishment for a man - it surely prevented the individual of achieving his human purpose as a successful and respected citizen within his native country and own culture.
Qualification: Politics may be the superior science of human good, but political institutions are not ends in themselves; they exist to secure the conditions for individuals to live flourishing lives.
Ethico-Politics: Ethics and politics compliment each other because the good of man (ethical goal) could be achieved only in a polis (political community). The city state is the necessary framework to exhibit the virtues of human life. But without real people who feel good and happy politics becomes a self-serving endeavor. This necessitates the input of ethics. Starting from the concept of individual human ends ethics turns into a study of how many individual ends are to be achieved within society and what are those ends. This brings a perspective to individual striving to the supreme end. A discussion of the ultimate goal is necessary to show the citizens what is the content of fulfilled lives.
Dilemma: Given this dual character of Aristotle's approach it is tempting to ask: Is the ultimate human good an inclusive (comprehensive) or exclusive (paramount) good? Does it presuppose a reasonable plan for all actions or a concentration on a highest end? Aristotle is not clear cut on this as we would like him to be. Some formulations suggest that he conceives the ultimate goal as consisting in one ultimate activity which makes life worthwhile and explains why do we desire everything else. Other passages indicate that the ultimate (best) good is rather a totality of conditions or a package of (mutually unrelated?) activities. Book 10 supports the former interpretation by pointing to the activity of rational thought (contemplation being understood as active consideration of human, social and cosmic nature relevant for our practical orientation). But it would be wrong to disregard differently phrased places and to impute to Aristotle the view that the most fulfilled life is equal to one-dimensional life of theoretical investigations. Aristotle believed in a hierarchy of goods which ends up in an ultimate good which is at the same time a multifaceted good.

IV Eudaimonia = Happiness

Identification: Aristotle now raises the question: What is "the good at which political science aims"?
In keeping with the principle of harmony between the good of the individual and the State he contends that this good will be the highest of all goods "achievable by action" for man.
General Agreement: As to the name all agree: it is eudaimonia = happiness.
Note: The circumstance that all people point to one end as the supreme good is just an empirical (linguistic) indication that the previously stated conditional argument (a series of "ifs") on the possibility of the supreme end is firmly grounded on some facts.
Meaning: Literally, eudaimonia means "good (guiding) spirit". But it is neither an emotional condition nor an externally induced state (luck). Eudaimonia denotes "doing well", blessedness, prosperity, in brief, it is a positive answer to the question "how do you do?" Rather than just a feeling of contentment it is an active state of well-being, being-well, doing well (eu zen kai prattein).
Practical Matter Note: Happiness was a matter of living properly, not a matter of feeling happy. A person who is happy (eudaimon) is not simply enjoying life but is enjoying life by living it to the fullest, that is to say, by living successfully under stable conditions rather than trying everything anew. Therefore, the verdict of posterity could at least in certain aspects change the character of somebody's life which does not make sense if we understand happiness as one's emotional state of fulfillment.
Content oriented Happiness (eudaimonia) now replaces "the best good" (ariston) which was a pretty abstract and formal concept devoid of any material content. Happiness should lead us to an explication of the best good in terms of the best content. Still the word "happiness" is just an empty formula.
Nominal Agreement: Or better to say, it is still just an empty formula because it is saturated with different content. This sounds contradicory, but is an outright consequence of the fact that different people disagree as to its content (nature). When asked what is the best good they agree that it is happiness but they give different answers to the question what constitutes happiness.
Relativism: The answers of the masses vary contingent upon the changing conditions of their lives:
Illness Health
Poverty Wealth
Ignorance Knowledge
Range of Answers: In general, the content of happiness is defined according to the social position and educational level of the individuals. The range of answers stretches from something visible (palpable) to something invisible (intellectual).
The following chart represents the initial classification of Aristotle that he subsequently refines and compliments:
Popular Views Objective: Proponents:
  (a) Pleasure The Multitude
  (b) Wealth Poor People
  (c) Honor Energetic People
Philosophical Views (d) Absolute Good Plato
(e) Virtue Socrates
Elimination: (a) The majority of people identify the life of enjoyment with happiness. But the life of sensual pleasures is slavish (addictive) and more appropriate to brute beasts than to humans. That which is enjoyable is not necessarily worthwhile.
(b) Money is coveted by almost all people. But the life of money making is a life of constraint (one needs to follow the rules of profit); wealth is good only as a means to something else.
(c) "Honor is the general end of political life." But the life of honor depends on the approval of the masses or of the sages. The opinion of the former is very volatile, the latter praise only virtue. Hence honor does not necessarily relate with the person's merit although it should be payed based on the demonstrated virtues.
(d) Some regard virtue as happiness. In fact, virtue is more valuable than honor for we claim honor on the ground of virtue (by principle of gradation).
But a good man can be inactive (just having good thoughts) or can experience "the greatest calamities and misfortunes". If this happens he cannot be regarded as a happy person despite all his virtues. Thus virtue appears not to be sufficient for happiness, unless we want to maintain a "paradox" (Socrates was inclined to identify happiness with virtue at all costs; cf. Plato, Gorg., 470e, 507c).
(e) The Platonic view that good life should draw on the knowledge of the Form of the Good is rejected by Aristotle on two grounds: the transcendent Good of this kind does not have any value for practical affairs because it is (1) unattainable, and (2) useless in real life (without practical bearing).

V Types of Lives

Supposition: We can glean how people conceive of good and happiness from the way how they live their lives. Life styles reveal the underlying values and ends (much more than verbal proclamations) as the ends, on the other hand, show the character of every person.
Life Styles
Life Values
(a) Sensual Pleasure
(b) Acquisitive Wealth
(c) Political Honor
(d) Moral / Practical Virtue
(e) Contemplative Insight



Precondition: Life styles (a) through (e) are refuted based on obvious (and slightly simplified) deficiences. Later on Aristotle will try to extract the kernel of truth in each of the positions that are now being rejected. But a positive answer to the question what is happiness is being withheld at this point. It could be reached only if we first determine the criteria of happiness and define its nature accordingly.
  If happiness is the best good it must meet certain requirements to be the best good. Conversely, we can use these requirements to evaluate different contentbound happiness concepts as to their suitability to assume the position of the best good.  


Criteria for Happiness:


Greek Terms
for the Best Good
Must be something specifically human.
Must be our own achievement.
Must be an activity (includes interaction).
Must be self-sufficient (nothing essential is missing throughout life).
Must be perfect, final and complete.
(a) perfect: choice-worthy as it is.
(b) final: desirable as the ultimate end.
(c) complete: includes relationships and external goods.


Distinctiveness: Eudaimonia must be something distinctly human, something humans do not share with animals. This excludes the identity of happiness and bodily pleasures. As Aristotle shows later, pleasures are an imortanat part of happiness but they do not in themselves make a life happy. They complete activities as spices, but they are not life's main course.  
Possession: Eudaimonia must be something we ourselves accomplish, not just something happening to us. Thus it includes virtue both in the sense of excellence and moral prowess. But personal virtue is not a sufficient condition for happiness especially if it is not exercised as an activity. Happiness is an activity (energeia), not a state of mind, an emotional state or a moral state (disposition).  
Activity: Eudaimonia is not equal to the possession of a good character or having virtues. One can have a good character and very noble inclinations without being happy simply because he or she is not engaged in any activity and thus not distinguishable from inert, passive objects. For Aristotle, happiness does not consist in avoidance of all actions lest somebody be hurt (sanctity). It is not a state of inaction or extinction of desires (nirvana), but the most appropriate activity.
Note: In the Poetics (II, 1) Aristotle asserts that "the end for which we live is a certain kind of activity, not a quality". Quality is manifested in the character, but we are happy or unhappy in our actions not in a state of mind or moral state.
Completenes The activity that brings about happiness must be teleion - pursued for its own sake. If there are several activities that are pursued for their own sake the one that is more "endy" (Kenny), i.e. pursued only for its own sake will be more of the nature that we attribute to happiness. For instance, pleasure is more "endy" than wealth, beacuse it is desirable in itself. But pleasure is also desirable for the sake of happiness whereas happiness is pursued only for its own sake. Thus it is not only more "endy" but more final as well and in itself complete.  
Self-Sufficiency Self-sufficiency follows from the completeness of eudaimonia. The completeness does not necessarily mean that happiness includes all the ends that we may wish for their own sake. What it states is that happiness is not a kind of end that allows to think of anything else as lacking and consequently as additionally desirable. Insofar as it fulfills human striving for good living the self-sufficiency of happiness could be rendered as the sense of fulfillment.
Note: In support of this formulation Ursula Wolf (p. 36) points to the Eudemian Ethics in which the fulfillment of human striving is explicitly mentioned (EE 1215b18).
External Factors: External circumstances are also relevant for happiness; they cannot define the sufficient conditions of happiness but they may determine the negative factors of happiness, that is to say those conditions under which happiness cannot take place.  
Luck: It is impossible to call somebody happy who experiences great misfortunes and personal tragedies. Happiness is not the same with luck but it depends on its presence or absence. Thus good luck becomes morally relevant.  



Different Goods: Good is different in different activities and arts. There is no unitary concept of good.
Note: Aristotle resumes again the topic that he has already broached at the very beginning of his discussion.
Common Ground: The only thing which is common to all instances of good is "that for the sake of which all else is done". In every activity it is the end which makes the action good for a particular purpose or it is the good for the sake of which the action is being taken.
Question: Is there (a) one best end, or (b) several?
Resolution: If there is only one end, it will be the object we are in search of. If there are several best ends, we are interested in the most final among them.
Aristotle didn't believe in a Buridan's balance of different goals. If men pursue several ends then their coordination will be the final end (cf. Ursula Wolf, Aristoteles' Nikomachische Ethik, p. 30).
Absolutely Final: The most final end would be the one which is always desired for itself and never as a means to something else. Pleasure, honor, wealth, intelligence, and virtue, although valuable in themselves, are being sought for the sake of something else. Therefore they belong to the actions of 1 through 3 type, not to type 4 (see the chart).
1 Sought after for a certain end Instrumental (means for something)
2 Sought after for a certain end and for its own sake Instrumental and Intrinsic
3 Sought after only for its own sake Intrinsic and Final
4 Always sought after for its own sake and never as a means Absolutely Final
Requirement: Happiness alone meets requirement 4, not pleasure, honor, intelligence or even virtue. Happiness is "the most desirable of all things, and that not merely as one good thing among others." It is the absolutely best end = the supreme good.  
Finality: The logical demonstration that such a supreme end really exists and that happiness is exactly that end follows from the impossibility of naming any higher purpose for the sake of which people want to be happy. It does not make sense to ask further - why do you want to be happy. ("Nor is it there any need to ask why a man desires happiness: the answer is already final." Symp. 205a)
Note: From the true statement that "the highest good is clearly something final" we cannot derive correctly the conclusion that "there is only one final end". Also, if there is more than one final end it does not follow that there will be one which is "the most final" among them .
Inference Happiness is the final end but also an inclusive one. The latter not in the sense that happiness is the sum total of all ends but rather in the sense of being their organisational principle and their ultimate end at once. Therefore no additional good would make happiness more desirable than it is.
However, man can be happy only under certain circumstances. Aristotle formulates several internal and external conditions of happiness:
Virtue Possessions Noble Descent
Contentment Friends Natural Beauty
Health Power Good Children
Minimum: The minimal condition for happiness is to live with other men; the optimal, to live with other men in an organized society, possibly in a city-state (polis).
Social Animal: Fortunately, the first condition is already a part of human nature. Man is naturally a social being (political animal). To be "social" in the sense of "gregarious" is almost a biological determination of human species. But animal sociale (zoon politikon) is also an anthropological definition of human life in the sense of leading a politically articulated life that surpasses mere gregariousness by creating great institutions of education and study.
Self-sufficiency: The best good is self-sufficient (autarkeia). This means two things:
(1) it is something which "when taken even by itself, makes life desirable", and
(2) it is "wanting nothing at all".

Self-sufficiency is not to be confused with a solitary life, separated from everything other people do.
(a) It requires a complex web of relations with others.

Self-fulfillment includes not only intellectual pursuits but family life, friendship and interaction with fellow citizens.
Limits: (b) However, certain limits to our pursuit of happiness need to be set.
Distant relatives, descendants, friends of friends are not among those whose well-being directly determines one's happiness.
Formal Definition: "Happiness is something
(a) final and
(b) self-sufficient and
(c) the end of all actions."
Completeness: Happiness is the "most desirable of all things" and in that sense it is final and absolutely final. But it is also the most complete end because it cannot become more desirable than it is. The addition of any good does not increase its desirableness. In that sense it is the most complete and the most self-sufficient good. The two characterizations largely coincide.

VII Function of Man

Commonplace: Everyone strives for accomplishment and personal fulfillment. Happiness professes to be that accomplishment and to bring that fulfillment. But what is its nature? What is a fulfilled life?
Open Question Despite all formal qualifications of happiness (they are by all means very helpful in discriminating between different ideas of good living) and despite all reasonable external (material) conditions that make happiness practically possible in the first place, the question what is the best good and where is happiness to be sought remains unanswered. Aristotle does not tell us what is its content. To be sure, happiness has not been defined substantially for good reasons. It is not one single thing or pattern of conduct. Still we need to know something about its real nature and certainly more than a list of ormal and mterial conditions.
Strategy: Aristotle feels that he ows an answer but he knows that answer cannot be given in a dogmatic manner. This is the reason why at this point he takes an analytic detour. If happiness is the best end for man we can presumably explain its nature better by determining the ultimate end of its bearer, which is man. If happiness exists only in human life and applies only to man it could be that this method is in fact the only viable approach: find out first what is the end of man and then see what befits that end in a most complete manner and whether it matches our idea of the best end (that is to say, the established criteria). This path should not only resolve the remaining dilemmas about the nature of happiness but also unify the foregoing considerations on the teleological constitution of human actions with their determination by the best good for man.
Function: Thus Aristotle asks: "What is the function (ergon) of man?"
This question may suggest that man has a use, that he is an instrument designed for some extraneous use or goal. In allowing these implications Aristotle does not mean to say that man could be used for something else (society or the gods) but rather that he must have the activity that displays human character best.

Note: In other words, the question what is the function of man means pretty much the same as the questions: What is man good for? What does his goodness consist in? How does human goodness manifest itself as a fulfillment? Or simply, what is the proper activity for man?
Accomplishment: The "function" could refer both to an end-result and/or to an action that is proper for the agent, but in this case the latter meaning is preferable. Aristotle is looking for a defining human activity that is also an end in itself. The question of function is closely linked with the question of the end and the best good. The function denotes namely a specific accomplishment, a specific activity or result that is determined by the specific end or the good for the agent. This allows Aristotle to shift his starting and action based perspective (intrinsic or extrinsic) to the agent determined perspective while still retaining the idea that the good is what is desirable and what setsthe action off.
Analogy 1:

To prove his point that man has a function Aristotle makes use of two analogies:
(a) We say that men with special competence have special functions. (For instance, the function of a sculptor is to sculpture a statue or a flute player to play the flute.) By the same token, we just need to find out what is the unnamed function of man (as such).
Note 1: We can speak in the sense of (a) because we single out one aspect of being man (for instance, a sculptor or a flute player) and we ground this aspect or capacity on a specific function. There is no difficulty in talking about the function of a man that performs a specific role while doing what he is by definition supposed to do. But man as such, as some might contend, is a purposeless being (functionless), good for nothing (specific). Only if there is a Designer-God, man has a specific function in the scheme of all beings. Otherwise his value is unlimited precisely because he does not have any (external) purpose, which does not mean that man cannot accomplish many different things.

Analogy 2:

(b) We say that body parts have special functions within the body. But they are organs of a whole. If all organs have a function the whole must have it as well. What is the function of the whole (organism)?

Note 2: Yes, bodily organs could be viewed in analogy with instruments. The very word "organ" (tool) implies the idea of a whole that represents a functional system. But the whole does not necessarily have any purpose even if its parts are functionally organized. Therefore it is unjustified to talk about the end of man based on the functional character of his organs (otherwise we'll be committing the 'fallacy of composition').

Answer: It is a fact that biological organisms have purposeful internal organization. They are organized in this manner in order to be able to perform certain functions. Their well-being consists in the integrated exercise of capabilities that perform those functions. By the same token, humans are organisms and they have a function and an objective. The purpose of all living organisms is life.
Purpose: Man is a living being and his end (telos) must be life as well. But man is not just an animal and he has some higher potentials and powers that nothing else can display and realize better than him. This necessitates to examine thoroughly all levels of his being and that is exactly what Aristotle does in what follows. In discussing the three main levels of humanness he is looking for the defining acitivity of man.

Possible Functions
Just to live (growth, nutrition)
Shared with plants.
To sense (sensory perception, feelings)
Shared with animals.
To live an active life in accordance with reason
Specifically human.

Answer: The function of man is to act rationally (not to be confused with "reasonably").
As we see, the purpose of man is not something beyond him, imposed from without, but his "goodness" which consists in exercising the potential of rationality peculiar to him. The function of man is thus not just a sum of special functions but a special paramount function that characterizes being human most.
Soul "The function of man then is activity of soul in accordance with reason, or not apart from reason."
All of a sudden Aristotle resorts to a very loaded term "soul". In order to understand the meaning of this recourse one needs to bear in mind that the soul, for Aristotle, denotes the "form" of a living being, its moving and defining principle. Soul internally organizes the life functions of man. But it is itself a complex notion encompassing two main "parts" with their own "powers":
/ \
Ethical Virtues Dianoethical Virtues
  The above components are the general determinants of human existence - rationality being its highest and universal characteristic. The rational part of human existence is itself a complex that Aristotle explicates in the following manner:

Obedient to Reason _____ Rational Part of Soul_____ Possessing Reason
_____Active life____
State of Character
Activity Itself


  Obviously, there is a strong parallel between the possession (exercise) of reason and activity and Aristotle does not fail to stress it or his own purposes.
Goodness Aristotle defines the function of man as active exercise of reason in the sense of the right column (above). However, Aristotle is not satisfied with the function of man in general or of an average man. Rationality is the highest ability of man but it is stated here objectively and descriptively as holding for all men, not as a norm that needs to be attained by the best. And this is precisely what would be relevant for eudaimonia. Not all people do well and attain the exellence of living. Hence Aristotle wants to find out what is the end of the best specimen of our species - the good man - and what are the qualities (virtues) he can develop. After all, one can live with reason good or less good.
Rule: Aristotle first notes that the difference between average and good human existence, important as it may be, is one of degree: it occurs within the same kind. "The function of a man of a certain kind and of a man who is good of that kind are the same in kind."
Addition: Therefore, superior excellence is only an addition to the function, not a totally different quality.


The third analogy between a harpist and a good harpist is the most appropriate. It illuminates the difference between a man and a good man as a difference in quality, not in the kind.


Harpist To play harp.
Purpose 1:



To play harp.

Good harpist To play harp well.


  Man To act in accordance with reason.
Purpose 2:
  > To act in accordance with reason.
  Good Man To act with excellence (virtuously) in accordance with reason.


Consequences: While the function of all men is the same those who are good excel in it - in this sense they are virtuous (virtue = excellence).
This helps us define human "function" both in general and for a good man:
Human function in general = active exercise of soul's (life's) faculties in accordance with reason.
Function of a good man = active exercise of soul's (life's) faculties in accordance with virtue (= excellence).
The proper activity for man is the activity in accordance with rational excellence.


(1) Aristotle uses the word "soul" to indicate that he is talking about man as such. Soul denotes the "livingness", the organizational principle of life and consequently of a living human being.
(2) The term "virtue" should be understood here in its original, non-moral sense of "functioning well" or "human excellence".
(3) Rational component of soul has a twofold reference: (a) that what is subject to rational commands (will), and (b) that what exercises reason (intelligence).
(4) Active life could be conceived of in two ways: (a) as denoting a state of character, and (b) as denoting the activity itself. Aristotle thinks that the "true meaning" is (b). We are not happy or miserable as such, but because of something.

Can moral conclusions be derived from the facts about human nature? Aristotle was convinced that human nature reveals the implicit norm of human life.
Note: Does he commit a naturalistic fallacy by deriving values from descriptive statements? Strictly speaking he does not claim that we have to live an active life of reason because we have reason, only that the activity of soul in accordance with reason is higher than other activities. The crux of his reasoning is the transition from good activity to the highest good via the specific activity of man.

Reasoning: (1) If the function of man is the activity of soul in accordance with reason,
(2) If the function of a man of certain kind and of a man who is good of that kind are the same,
(3) If the function of a good man is such activity of a good (excellent) kind,
(4) Then the good of man is the activity of soul in accordance with virtue (excellence).
  This good is happiness. A man who is doing well in this sense (attaining its good) must be happy even though a good man is not necessarily happy. To be happy means to exercise the faculties of soul (life powers) in accordance with virtue. The most succint representation of this argument reads as follows:
The ultimate (final) human end is happiness. (Major)
The end of good man is the activity of soul in accordance with virtue. (Minor)
Therefore, happiness is the activity of soul in accordance with virtue.

To say that the ultimate goal of man is a fulfilled life (happiness) does not mean that a fulfilled life is equal to a life consisting of acting well just according to natural human capacities.

But living a fulfilled life means to act well according to our natural capacities. A fulfilled life is a life lived in accordance with virtue, which means that our specifically human abilities are realized. This requires both the best and the most complete virtue (exercised in a complete life = whole and/or fulfilled).


The answer to the question 'What is happiness?' is that it is an activity of soul's rational part in accordance with perfect virtue. This sounds like a combination of the two answers that have been already discussed and criticized: the (moral) life of virtue and contemplative life of theory. But Aristotle does not simply combine these two life styles in his notion of happiness. He corrects them both to the effect that they need to add continuous activity and a whole host of external conditions that are stressed in other life types (ranging from pleasures and certain possessions to having children, friends, access to educational institutions and luck).


BK. 2: VIII Becoming Virtuous

Next Step: If happiness is defined through virtue as an excellently active life it is necessary to consider what is human virtue as a kind of excellence. What is virtuous in living in accordance with reason?
Meaning: Virtue (arete) denotes certain quality, skill or excellence (to be virtuous = to be good at something). For Aristotle, that something is the obedience to reason. Virtues are those good character qualities that enable an individual to achieve happiness while obeying to the commands of reason. But they are not just instrumental for happiness. The exercise of virtues as constitutive for the good character constitutes the good life that we call happiness.
There are two kinds of virtues that in their turn make up two types of human wisdom - the practical and the theoretical.


Moral Virtues /
\ Intellectual Virtues
(acquired through habit)
(acquired through teaching)
Philosophical Wisdom


Difference: Two kinds of virtues pertain to the volitive and rational parts of soul respectively (see the chart in the previous section). Intellectual (dianoethical) virtues are generated and fostered through conscious process of teaching, whereas moral (ethical) virtues are not (strictly speaking) generated but rather displayed as routinized (though not blind) ways of behavior. There is a connection though, because moral virtue is at its best when it is conjoined with the working of the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom (phronesis), but these two kinds of virtues could be conceptually separated.
Note: In suggesting this division Aristotle does not take into account the fact that intellectual virtues also require practice while moral virtues require some learning process (he concedes this later himself in stressing the importance of upbringing in developing good habits). His point here is that sheer knowledge about virtues or what is good does not make anybody virtuous.
Non-natural: Virtues in general do not emerge by nature - we are not born with them. How do we acquire them? The logical conclusion is then that they are generated through teaching and cultivation. However, Aristotle accepts this conclusion only for intellectual virtues. This leaves moral virtues out of the standard division: nature - art. What are then they? They belong to a third category of coming to be: moral virtues are qualities developed by habituation.


How do they emerge? How are they possible? Moral virtues are not natural endowments. But they are based on natural human abilities: otherwise we could not habituate ourselves to them. And the other way round, what is natural (by nature) cannot be changed by habituation. Habits could be acquired or changed precisely because they are not naturally inherited (they are not "by nature"). But they do not oppose natural tendencies either. Of course, if virtues were against nature it would not be possible to make them permanent.
Note: Aristotle thinks that falling down is the "nature" of stone as going upwards is the "nature" of fire; from the point of view of modern science we would prefer his second formulation to the effect that a thrown stone falls down and fire goes upwards due to a natural law.

Consequence: When we hear that there is no natural tendency to be virtuous, this may sound a bit disappointing. In fact this makes virtues worthy of human acievement. If virtues were natural their acquisition would not require any effort. Fortunately, there is nothing insurmountale in nature that would oppose the effort to acquire virtue. "It is neither by nature nor in defiance of nature that virtues grow in us." In other words: Man is by nature neither good nor bad, neither courageous nor cowardly.
Two Natures: (First) nature gives us the capacity to develop virtues, but that capacity is perfected by habit (that may become our second nature).
  Comparison with Natural Faculties and Skills:
Difference: Since we do not acquire moral virtues through teaching and instruction there must be something natural in their source as is the case with the senses. Aristotle dismisses the analogy by pointing out that we do not possess previous faculties for virtues (as we possess the powers for sensing). Otherwise practice would be unnecessary even less than teaching.
Qualities Natural Powers Moral Powers
Source Priority Faculties
Practice Habit
Outcome Displaying Activities Virtues
Similarity: We get virtues by practising them (as we do in the arts). We become just by performing just acts as we become harpists by playing the harp. A doctor who does not practice medicine is a doctor only by name (or diploma). But the difference between moral actions and artistic production remains that the practice in the arts is more like instruction than exercise.
Kind of Virtue Method of Acquisition Destruction
Arts (technai) Instruction and Training Practice and Execution
Moral (ethikai) Upbringing and Exercise Practice and Interaction
Legislative Model: Good citizens are made by training in good habits. The laws should be set up to foster this goal. In general, legislators succeed to the extent they produce conditions that foster good habits, that is to say, good habits are the measure of their success.
Rule: States of character are the results of activities (moral conduct). Character is defined by the totality of dispositions (dispositions = hexeis) and these depend in their turn on the quality of our actions.
Consistency: "It is our duty therefore tokeep a certain character in our activities..." Keeping a certain character in our activities means that we stick to a certain pattern of conduct. The difference in the way how we act determines the quality of moral states (dispositions).
Sameness of Actions: The causes and the means of production and destruction of virtues are the same: virtues and vices are formed by taking actions in response to the same stimuli, the only difference being how do we perform them (in a good or bad way). Danger makes men either brave or fearful, pleasure leads to either temperance or intemperance. Inaction is not even a sufficient condition for the elimination of a virtue although the absence of any activity can in the long run make it more difficult to acquire a virtue or can even contribute to its loss.
Source: We become virtuous by doing just acts in interaction with other people as we become good musicians by performing well on instruments.

IX METHODOLOGY of Ethical Study

Practical Intent:

This study is not purely theoretical, although it is executed theoretically. It provides a theoretical support for moral education of mature citizens who want to be good members of a good community.

Objective: To become good, not just to know what virtue is. For the former one needs a good character, for the latter one needs to understand properly the nature of ethical study.
Difference: The first thing to realize is that practical reasoning is not the same as scientific reasoning. Therefore it cannot be measured by the same rigors of exactness.
The level of exactness depends both on (a) the nature of the object and (b) the character of the study.
Sketch Mathematical exactness is virtually impossible in treating particular ethical and political issues. Even in the sciences, especially those that deal with ever changing objects of experience (biology, medicine), it is not always possible to formulate absolutely necessary statements that will apply to all cases indiscriminately. This kind of knowledge is not desirable either because it could not be but inadequate.
General Reasoning No hard and fast rules
Particular Cases No scientific exactitude
Nature: The ethical inquiry must be in accord with the concreteness and contingency of human actions.

(a) The subject matter is very complex and variable.
(b) Particular moral cases do not fall under any law.
(c) Practical rules always allow exceptions.
(d) Circumstances have to be taken into account.
(e) There is a variety and fluctuation of opinions.

Parallels: The ethical study must conform to the character of practical reasoning as well. Aristotle compares the nature of ethical reasoning with the way how decisions are made in the art of medicine and navigation. One could also add the art of adjudicating justice or referring in sports. In all these areas and disciplines we have to use good judgment in assesing the individual case that resists a simple subsumtion under universal rules.
Conclusion: Hard and fast rules are not appropriate for the questions of conduct. Given the complexity of human condition sketchy remarks and approximations are more suitable.
Character building requires a sensible deliberation of many factors rather than formulating rigid commandments and precepts.
Note: Aristotle provides rather an explication of the good actions in a particular context (of the polis) than a universal evaluation of certain kinds of actions.

X Moderation (sophrosyne)

Guidance: Although there are no hard and fast rules in the realm of morality there are some guiding principles and parameters.


Acting in accordance with right reason (proportion) is a common general principle. To judge according to the right reason is to judge about the more or the less and the ways how to avoid both.

Parameters: Excess and deficiency are the boundaries that should be discerned in each and every activity. By identifying them we can find the right way in otherwise perpetually shifting conditions and opinions.
Moderation: Moderation consists in establishing a balanced set of desires that pertain mostly to fundamental urges (nourishment, sex). Moderation is not about abstinence or reduction of needs, but about the striking the right measure.
Preliminary: Deficiency and excess are detrimental for morality (virtues) as for any other human condition (cf. the excesses of low carb and low fat diet).
Examples: (1) A person who avoids everything and faces nothing is a coward; a person who is not afraid of anything becomes foolhardy.
(2) He who enjoys every pleasure and abstains from none is licentious (profligate), he who refuses all pleasures, like a boor, is an insensible sort of person.
(3) He who gives out excessively is liberal, he who does not give out is stingy.
Too much confidence

Too little fear
The mean
The mean
Too much fear

Too little confidence
Enjoying everything

No abstention
The mean
The mean
Rigid abstention

No enjoyment

No control
The mean
The mean

No emotion

Indicators: Pleasure and pain accompany actions or induce action and inaction. But they are not ends as such nor should they be given the guiding authority. In themselves they do not have moral value (they acquire it depending on the conditions). In this sense they could at best serve as "a test of a person's dispositions" in correlation with the quality of the action. Pleasures from virtuous actions indicate a good disposition while pains reveal the opposite. It is also the kind of pleasure that matters (or pain) we choose (pleasures from bodily appetites as opposed to those stemming from virtuous actions).
Negative Relevance: Moral virtue must be concerned with pleasures and pains, at least in order to prevent them not to take the upper hand. Aristotle was aware that these indicators could lead astray.
"It is pleasure which makes us do what is base, and pain which makes us abstain from doing what is noble."
Moral Satisfaction: "He who abstains from physical pleasures and feels pleasure in so doing is temperate." Virtuous person is the one who is temperate rather than continent (the one who has to battle inclination to pleasures).
Identity: The causes and agencies of production and destruction of virtue is the same as "the field of their activity" - this phrase means that the agencies of producing virtue and the ways of their activation are the same. We acquire and exercise virtue by doing the same.
Double Bind: (a) By abstaining from pleasure we become temperate, and, once temperate, we are best able to abstain from pleasures.
(b) Strength is produced by taking food and exercising, and a strong man is the one who takes most food and undergoes most exertion.
(c) By facing dangers we become courageous and those who are courageous are best able to to face dangers.
Cause and agencies Food and exercise => Strength
Field of activity Strength => Most food and exercise
Education: It is not enough to be able to feel pleasure and pain; one needs to educate senses "so that we may feel pleasure and pain at the right objects".
The first step is to get pleasure from virtuous actions (as a kind of reward), but Aristotle expects a virtuous man to take pleasure from the sheer fact that the action was virtuous.
In accord with Plato, he stresses "the importance of having a certain training from very early days…" As Plato realized, family upbringing is as important for morality as the right social setting.

XI Habituation (ethismos)

Correlation: Aristotle contends that a just and temperate person is the one who acts justly and in a temperate way. He also claims that we can become just and temperate only by doing what is just and temperate. (This was a common doctrine in Plato's Academy - cf. Rep., 444d.)
Paradox Does this mean that in order to act justly and moderately one needs to be a just and moderate person and that if we act justly and moderately we are already just and moderate? If we affirm this in terms of habituated practice it seems that we undermine the very possibility or the need of becoming virtuous. How can I become virtuous if I am not virtuous? Somebody can easily object that if one does what is just and temperate that person must be already just and temperate (= virtuous). Or if he is not he cannot act justly and temperately. Becoming virtuous is then either an impossible circle or a leap. The dilemma thus amounts to a paradox. Virtue is not inborn and now we see it cannot be acquired either.
Problem How to solve this pardox, that is to say, how to become just and temperate if you are not already such a kind of person? For many, this is not possible if we need to be virtuous before we can act virtuously. They claim that the same precodnition determines the ability to prefom artistically. If ou are not a grammarian you cannot speak correctly. And the other way round: if you speak correctly you are a grammarian.
Objection Speaking grammatically => being grammarian.
Acting justly => being just.


Aristotle warns not to rush with such a reasoning. He defuses the tension between the priority of acting in a certain manner and the priority of being virtuous in that manner by examining the paralel situation in the arts. He claims that the priority of acting remains unaffected by the objection. Is it any different in the arts? Do we really say in the arts that people who play an instrument or speak correctly are eo ipso musicians and grammarian? In other words, do we automatically obtain the virtue of being musicians and grammarians by simply producing good sounds and words in a certain situation? And how do we acquire the ability to produce them, by nature or through a leap?

Rebuttal: His answer is that there is no real paradox here. In the arts we regard somebody artist if s/he performs and has constancy in performing well. He points out that somebody can perform some artistic activity well either by chance or by following the instructions, but contends that correct speaking or playing does not in itself qualify anybody to be called a grammarian or a musician. What is needed for an artistic virtue is a competence and the appropriate character of the action ("the manner"). A grammarian is not somebody who just speaks correctly in a given situation, but a person who possesses grammatical competence (knowledge) for repeated good performances. Grammatical competence is inconceivable without regularity and knowledge that could be manifested in particular applications, whereas a particular correct performance does not warrant the presence of the acquired skill. However, every correct case of grammatical use remains a correct case of grammatical art.
Accomplishment: Thus it is possible to reach the stage of artistry in the arts by learning how to perform and by performing even though we do not start as musicians or grammarians. We can speak and write correctly even though we are not grammarians yet. We start playing music before we become musicians. But in order to be musicians and grammarians we must possess appropriate knowledge and be able to perform routinely.
Insufficiency: By the same token, a virtuous person is the one who not only does the right thing in one situation but somebody who possesses virtue, acts virtuously and acts in that way because he/she is virtuous. Constancy and regularity are required to call somebody virtuous with regard to their moral actions. Moreover, just performing one's function is not sufficient to call a person good. The person must possess certain qualities as a moral agent.
Note: To be sure, in our culture we do not care whether a person is virtuous as long he/she behaves and does the right thing. But Aristotle does not accept this perspective because it focuses only on the external acts (this is an important corrective to his overall externalization of morality).
Difference: In the arts and crafts the goodness lies indeed only in the product. The result demonstrates the quality of knowledge the artist possesses. Even if the excellence was achieved by chance the quality of the products remains intact. The products of the arts, once executed by artists, have their excellence in themselves (independent from the artist). However, virtuous acts cannot be properly assessed independent from the quality of the agent. They must meet some other requirements in addition to stemming from the right state: the act must express virtue and the agent must be in a certain state as well.

(1) The doer must act in full consciousness and must know (eidos) that he is performing a virtuous action.
(2) He must deliberately choose (prohairoumenos) the act for its own sake.
(3) His action must come from a firm and immutable character.

Comparison: (1) is important in the arts as well, but (2) and (3) are irrelevant. In moral conduct, however, (2) and (3) are of paramount importance.
Type of Actions Good
Chance Beginning Competence
Artistic Results Possible Trial and Error Knowledge Consistency
Impossible Emulating Knowledge Consistency Character
Acts-Agents: Although acts are called just or temperate when they are such as a just and temperate person would do, a just and temperate person is not merely one who does these acts but one who does them the way a just and temperate person would do. Therefore, we can assess actions as virtuous if they are like those virtuous people would perform, but even if the actions are admittedly virtuous we can not be sure that the agent is virtuous unless we demonstrate that the action was done the way a virtuous person would do it. This means that the correlation between virtuous actions and virtuous agents does not amount to a sheer circle in reasoning (or in action).
Solution Constancy and pattern are only indicators, not the essence of virtue. Aristotle regards them as manifestations of virtue. How then the paradox could be resolved that we are not born as just and temperate although we want to act justly and temperately? The only way to break the circle is to realize that initially we can perform actions that are strictly speaking not just and temperate but just and temeperate only in the sense of resembling the actions of the just and temperate people. By habituating ourselves to this kind of actions we develop a just character that in turn enables us to act consistently in a just and temperate manner. But at the beginning we must try to perform just actions (by analogy with the just person) without being just yet.
Simile: The point is that we must both know what is just and act accordingly. Those who find refuge only in cognitive arguments instead of acting properly are like patients who attentively listen to their doctors but never follow their advice. They will not become virtuous any more than those who do not follow medical advice will become healthy.
Note: For Aristotle, the crucial question is what kind of man I am going to be rather than what shall I do. The "healthy state of the soul" is reminiscent of Socrates' concern for an uncorrupted state of the soul (see the Gorgias).

XII The Nature of Virtue


We have been using the term 'virtue' in a very broad sense of excellence. Now Aristotle wants to determine it categorially by defining the nature of virtue. Based on what has been established we know that virtue has something to do with the soul (human existence, human psychic constitution). But into which "property of the soul" should we place virtue?
Aristotle considers three "moments" of the soul in order to determine the nature of virtue:


(a) Passions (pathe): feelings that are caused by certain condition and attended by the feeling of pleasure or pain, (anger, fear, pride, envy, joy, love, hatred, regret, etc.).
(b) Faculties (dynameis): capacities through which we are capable of experiencing emotions (getting angry, feeling pity etc.)
(c) Dispositions (hexeis): the manner how we experience emotions, so that we are well or ill disposed in them (for instance, being violently, slightly, or moderately angry).


(1) Virtues are not passions (or affections):
(a) We are not praised or blamed for our emotions but for our virtues or vices.
(b) We become emotional without deliberate purpose (they overcome us), while virtues require deliberate purpose.
(c) We can be moved by emotions (passions) but not by virtues.


(2) Virtues are not faculties:
(a) We are not praised or blamed for having a simple capacity for emotions (an ability does not necessarily entail action).
(b) Faculties are obtained by nature, while virtues need to be habituated (see above).

Conclusion: Neither emotions nor faculties could be morally evaluated. Virtues are something whose presence deserves praise while absence could be criticized.
Thus by elimination Aristotle comes to the conclusion that virtues must be dispositions (hexeis).
Properties of the soul Evaluation   Virtue
Emotions, passions No
Faculties, capacities No
Dispositions, habits Yes


Determination: Virtue is an acquired dispositional quality of our psychological constitution which manifests itself in certain types of conduct. Disposition is a kind of demeanor that recognizably defines our reactions in different situations.
Genus: By ascertaining that virtue is a state of character we have determined what kind of thing is virtue. But we need to define its nature more specifically, not just by pointing to a higher class that may include some non-virtous subclasses.
Note: Aristotle wants to define virtue in the best possible way: by genus and specific difference.
Cognitive Emotions: Aristotle does not take into account thoughts, memories, images, skills and other contents of the mind because he focuses solely on those contents that are tied to emotions. This adds to his previous predominantly objective discussion of happiness. Subjective feelings are directly relevant for happiness though they are not sufficient to warrant it. Emotions are states of mind that involve certain feeling, but as these conditions involve cognitive aspects, they could be rationally influenced which is crucial for determining the course of virtuous actions leading to happiness.  


Right reason determines the right occasion, the right extent, the right relation, the right object, the right person, etc.

XIII Specifying Virtue


Now we have the answer to the question what kind of thing is virtue: it is a moral state (disposition) to act and feel in a certain way.
But what sort of moral state is virtue and how does it differ from other members of the same class, specifically from vice (vice being a "bad" disposition)?

General Explication: Every virtue puts into good condition that of which it is excellence. This is almost a (tauto)logical elucidation of the term "virtue" in the sense of excellence.
Specific Application: Excellence of the horse, for instance, makes a horse excellent itself as well as excellent at racing, at carrying its rider, etc.
By the same token, "the virtue of man is such a moral state as makes a man good and able to perform his proper function well."
(Notice that this definition proceeds per genus = a disposition, and specific difference = performing well.)
Quantification: The function of man has been already specified as living actively in accordance with virtue. How to accomplish such a living? By taking action and feeling according to the right reason (proportion). What does that mean? Aristotle now offers an answer in terms of his theory of distinguishing between magnitutes as more or less than something (that is, "too much" or "too little").
Assumption: Of everything, whether it be continuous or divisible, it is possible to take a greater, a smaller or an equal amount, and this either,
(a) in terms of the thing itself, or (b) in relation to ourselves.
Parallel: There is an analogy between the numerical magnitudes and human assessment of different relations. However, there is also a big difference in the nature and the position of the extremes parts within a continuum and its middle depending on whether they are viewed purely objectively (and expressed numerically) or determined in regard to us (human measures).


Comparison Numerical Relations Human Relations
Equal (Absolute)
Just Right (Relative)


General Rule The rule of thumb is that in every action (cognitive, productive or practical) the mean between the extremes is the right way to follow. But where and how to find the middle?
Things Themselves: The objective mean is equally distinct from both its extremes (for instance, 50 is an exact mean between 1 and 100, equally removed from both opposites). It could be easily expressed numerically (or by means of an arithmetical proportion). It is the absolute mean. The intermediate in object is therefore equidistant for every man. But it could be totally irrelevant for humans or far from being a real middleness.

Relative To Us:

The intermediate relative to us is not something fixed, but something which represents a fine line between too much and too little. It could not be expressed as an arithmetical middle or any other pre-given formula for all men. It is different for different individuals. The appropriate answer in human affairs is always somewhere between over- and under-reacting, but it could not be stated as an objective, and objectively operational criterion. It is relative, not absolute. The relative mean is equal to the amount which is right in any particular situation and this needs to be determined on a case to case basis. Thus "relative" is not arbitrary but something that needs to be determined in regards to the real situation and the moment.

Artistic Mean: The mean is crucial for the arts as well - the right measure secures excellence. (Hence it is impossible to take anything from successful works of arts or to add something to them.) Perfection is artistic counterpart to the mean in moral conduct. It exemplifies the principle of rationality and order.

Moral Validation:

Being better than art, moral virtue aims at the intermediate even more. It is the mean while aiming at the mean. But the mean is normatively the excellent, not mediocre.

Specific Difference Thus the specific difference for the disposition that defines virtue is that it is the mean and this mean should be displayed in human actions and emotions. Virtue lies in a mean (meson) between two extremes and is itself subject to the mean.
Example: Anger in itself is an emotion and just harboring anger does not have any moral merit (typically one gets angry without deliberation) no more than being poised and calm. However, being angry is not only allowed but sometimes it indicates a good disposition if it is justified (for the right cause) and expressed moderately (that is to say, not too violent or too feeble).
Quantifiers How far we go in our emotions and actions depends on our moral virtues. They mark the realm of what is right and appropriate. Therefore it is important to define the what, when, who, and how of our emotions and actions by that what is the right norm: "To feel these emotions, at the right times, for the right objects, towards the right persons, for the right motives, and in the right manner, is the mean or the best good which signifies virtue."


There are many ways of going wrong, but there is only one way of going right. As a saying reads: "Good is simple, evil is manifold." Consequently, the former is easy, the latter difficult (to attain).

Pythagorean Dictum:

Evil is infinite (indefinite), good is finite (measurable). The infinite is indeterminate, while virtue is "the determination of the determinable". Therefore the mark of the former is excess (in lacking or possessing), the mark of the latter is the mean. The mean is an indication of rationality, not only of moderation.

  Virtue is always about the quality of our actions and emotions.
Definition: Virtue is (a) a disposition (b) for deliberate moral choice, (c) consisting in a mean, (d) relative to ourselves, (e) the mean being determined by reason, or (f) as a prudent man would determine it. (While a marks the genus to which virtue belongs, the sequence of b,c,d,e,f explicates the specific characteristic mentioned earlier: "makes a man good and able to perform his proper function well"; e underscores the rationality of the right measure, f the intellectual capacity and practical viability of those who possess the right judgment.)


To say that virtue is "a state of deliberate moral choice" means (a) that is a habitual disposition giving rise to certain patterns of conduct, and (b) that it is concerned with choice, either as a spontaneous affective response or as a habit of choosing certain actions. (c) points to the ideal of right measure that makes the essence of the proverbial moderation. (d) indicates that the mean cannot be given as a simple formula one can mechanically apply. (e) underscore the importance of good judgment, whereas (e) offers an aid in the person of good role models.


XIV The Intermediate

The Mean: Virtue is a mean between two vices, one of excess one of deficiency.

The Mean

Vice of Excess-------------|-----------Vice of Deficiency


Vices: Excess and deficiency are proper to vices.


Virtue is a mean in respect to the rightness (middleness is halfway between the extremes) but viewed in its essence (opposed to vice), virtue is an extreme (the best quality).

Exclusions: Some emotions and actions do not admit of a mean.
(a) Emotions: malice, shamelessness, envy;
(b) Actions: adultery, theft, murder etc.
These emotions and actions are in themselves an extreme (that is, they are intrinsically bad). Excess and deficiency do not have a mean. Thus these are not real exceptions. Neither are other unnatural and antisocial tendencies. It is wrong to go with them even if everything else is right (the right person, the right manner, the right moment).
Extremes: Excess and deficiency do not allow a mean. A mean of excess or deficiency must be "a mean of excess and deficiency" (i.e. itself an extreme), or even worse, "an excess of excess and a deficiency of deficiency".
Intrinsically bad Mean  
Excess Excess  
Deficiency Deficiency  
Excess and Deficiency Either Excess or Deficiency  
Conversion: By definition excess and deficiency do not have a mean. On the other hand, a mean does not have excess or deficiency. Virtues do not have excess.


All three dispositions (excess, deficiency, the mean) are mutually opposed; extremes are opposed both to the mean and to each other, while the mean is opposed to the extremes.


Both extremes denounce the mean as belonging to the other extreme. The liberal man appears extravagant compared with the stingy man but stingy compared with the spendthrift.


The opposition is greater between the extremes than between an extreme and the mean. Some extremes show certain likeness to the mean (for instance, rashness to courage). In some cases it is deficiency (example: cowardice) and in others excess (example: licentiousness) which is more opposed to the mean. Therefore one of the extremes is by rule more wrong than the other (cowardice rather than rashness, licentiousness rather than insensitivity).

Reasons: The reasons for these inequalities lie (a) in the nature of the matter itself, and (b) in our own nature. As to the first, it appears that licentiousness is further removed from the mean (temperance) than insensitivity. By the same token, we contrast cowardice more with the mean than foolhardiness. A rash person has the right attitude toward fear, but goes too far in suppressing it, whereas a coward entirely lacks the proper attitude. As to the second aspect, we regard those things to which we are less inclined by nature as closer to the mean. For instance, since we are more prone to self-indulgence the mean lies closer to insensitivity than to licentiousness.


It is hard to be good because it is hard to find the mean. As every case presents a situation of its own, only some generalizations about the good are possible. Reason and good judgment are called to determine the right response in every situation. Pure theory cannot solve the problem.

Prudent Man: Appropriate responses are by rule in accord with the judgment of a particular type of person, which is a prudent man. What a person of practical wisdom would do or say is much more of a standard than an abstract rule about the mean.
Analogy: Only a man of science can find the exact center of a circle. (In practical matters, only a man of virtue can hit exactly the mean.)
Rarity: Anybody can give or spend money - but to give it to the right person, to give the right amount of it, at the right time, for the right cause and in the right way, this is not what anybody can do, nor is it easy.


We must pay attention to the weaknesses we are particularly prone to. Observing how feelings of pleasure and pain arise usually provides a very good indicator. Pleasures function as deceptive koockies. But they should not provide the motive.
Therefore, we need to resist them. By counterbalancing. We must begin by "departing from the extreme that is more contrary to the mean". Then we must drag ourselves away towards the opposite extreme while trying to determine the right distance necessary to reach the middleness.

Virtue Ethics

Emotions: To be happy one needs to become virtuous. One can be virtuous by habituating themselves into the right emotions that need to be felt in the right manner. Emotional response could be a very low key or a very intensive one depending on the characteristics of the situation and those who are involved in it.
Practical Task: The objective is to determine the right manner, objects, occasion and duration of our feelings and choose the right action. It is not easy to define in theory how far man should go in certain practices and feelings, because the mean is not fixed - it varies.
Virtuous Man: Virtue ethics focuses on the type of persons one should be. A morally virtuous person is one who shows good moral character and good moral habits.
Good Life: The goal is to live a good life, not to follow certain abstract rules.

Dispositions Developed into Habits
Nature Activity in Accordance with Virtue
Happiness (Eudaimonia)


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