Ancient May-hem: A Stunning Start with Aristotle’s Ethics (Book I)

Almost a week into the Ancient May-hem Reading Challenge, and I have an announcement to make: I am crawling through the challenge at a reeeeeally sloooooow paaaaaaaace.

No, seriously.

EthicsSo far, I’ve only managed to get through Book I of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (more commonly known as the Ethics). That’s not a lot of reading being done. However, there’s been a lot of thinking being done, and that has been incredible. Need a distinction between quantity and quality? Look no further.

I decided to make this special post because I was so inspired by what I’ve read and learnt so far that I wanted to share it with you, and because, oh boy, my mind has been blown, and I feel my life is about to be changed.


Firstly, I want to say that I’ve only read a few tiny bits from the Ethics before now, and was previously introduced to some of its concepts in (not-so-)casual conversation. But I want to stress that prior knowledge is not necessary for you to embark on this journey. All you need is a copy of the book, an open mind, and the peace and quiet (whether internally, externally, or both) required for some serious reading and contemplation.

My copy is translated by Terence Irwin (Hackett, 1999), and contains some very detailed notes that take up half the book. Read the notes, because they will help you understand Aristotle’s finer points of argument. This is not to say that Aristotle’s writing is complex or difficult—it is actually quite simple and clear. (I am reminded of my MA dissertation supervisor, who once told me to write more simply. I paraphrase: “Simple writing does not mean your concepts are simplistic; simple writing allows you to express and explore complex issues.”) So, although Aristotle’s writing is quite simple, his concepts require quite a deal of consideration—but don’t let that put you off. I feel the beginnings of positive transformation in my life as a result of having read just Book I of the Ethics, and I believe it can do the same for you.

Here’s a summary of what I’ve learnt from Book I. I’ve read this not as a philosopher, academic, or glorified woman of learning—I’ve read it as a layperson (out on the porch, while trying to soak up the Sydney sun). My summary is bound to be incomplete or even mildly inaccurate in places, but this serves as a reference for me as much as a brief introduction for you. Ultimately, I hope that you will one day decide to pick up the book for yourself.

And, uh…spoiler alert?

Notes from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics — Book I

  • Definitions of the “good”—the purposes of each object or profession. E.g., the good of the eye is to see; the good of the knife is to cut.
  • For something (or someone) to fulfil this “good”—to fulfil its function—is to be the “best good”.
  • The “best good” for humans is happiness.
  • Happiness is defined as something that is achieved by possessing and exercising what Aristotle calls “virtues”.
  • Actions are not universally the same—they depend on several things, such as the situation, the quantity, etc.
  • Because happiness is a behaviour (achieved by fulfilling human functions through exercising virtues), it can be unaffected by the external factors of fortunes and misfortunes. By exercising the virtues and exercising them well, one can be happy despite misfortunes. (Even though great misfortunes can be detrimental, if one can recover, albeit slowly, and continue on, they can still lead an ultimately happy life.)
  • Happiness is not fleeting, because it is the result of continuous action, not external factors. Happiness takes a lifetime to achieve.
  • Humans with different professions have different kinds of functions: good flautists play well; good shoemakers make good shoes. But what about the function of a human being? What is the inherent “good” of a person?
  • Everything has a purpose—what is the purpose of a human, as opposed to plants and animals? Aristotle’s answer is “reason”. If we can act according to reason, then we are acting well.
  • The “complete” good is an action that is carried out for itself, and not in order to achieve something more, i.e. overall happiness. However, doing the action in and of itself will eventually lead to happiness. (You shouldn’t be kind to a friend just for the sake of your own happiness—you should be kind for the sake of being kind, and in doing so, you will be happy.)
  • Something that is “choiceworthy” is chosen for itself; something that is “most choiceworthy” is not one choice among many, but the best choice because it is chosen for itself, and also because it will inherently serve the best good, i.e. happiness.
  • A virtue is praiseworthy (when one does well a work that is in accordance with the virtues), but happiness itself is divine and to be congratulated.
  • There are two parts of a human soul: rational and non-rational. The latter can be further divided into two parts: the “non-human”, which is at work during sleep and at which point it is difficult to determine one’s virtues, and the part that can listen to reason in some way.
  • Hence, Aristotle gives us two types of virtues: virtues of thought (requiring the rational part of the soul) and virtues of character (requiring the non-rational part that can listen to reason).

Book II begins to look at virtues of character, and I am very much looking forward to delving into it. But first, another cup of tea.

* Okay, so I’ve been making good progress on my Grey’s Anatomy re-watch—I need something to counterbalance the Aristotle!

Have you ever read Aristotle’s Ethics? Do you have any thoughts and/or advice to share? If you haven’t read the Ethics, would you ever consider giving it a go? I would love to know!

2 thoughts on “Ancient May-hem: A Stunning Start with Aristotle’s Ethics (Book I)

  1. Ooh this would generate so much thinking based on your summary. I’d really like to give Aristotle a go one day… Maybe that will be next year’s Ancient May-hem book. ;)

  2. Pingback: 2014 Reading Extravaganza and Challenges | Samantha Lin

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