Ancient May-hem: Finishing Aristotle’s Ethics

I finished the Nichomachean Ethics over the weekend, and have continued to process it throughout the week. It’s just such a tremendous work, and I can see myself revisiting it quite regularly in the future. I’ve already recommended it to a whole bunch of my friends, and I hope they—and you—will give it a go, because it’s really quite eye opening!

So, after the stunning introduction in Book I, Aristotle goes on to talk about the virtues of character and virtues of thought, and gives a very good idea of what each is and does.

In his introduction to the virtues, Aristotle argues that pleasure and pain are the two main forces that drive our behaviour, and are hence linked to our virtuous (or vicious) actions. Although all humans have an instinct to move towards pleasure and away from pain, we must sometimes resist those urges in order to be virtuous. (For example, in order to be properly brave, we must stand firm in the face of danger, even if doing so is painful/downright scary.)

Aristotle then talks about the “mean” of any particular virtue (which is the middle-ground what we’re aiming for), and the extreme states (of deficiency and excess, which we want to avoid), and how it’s important to consider the virtues in relation to these quantities as well as the context (time, place, person). When all this is established, he goes on to discuss each virtue in depth.

Here’s a list of the virtues of character (also known as moral virtues):

  • Bravery
  • Temperance
  • Generosity
  • Magnificence
  • Magnanimity
  • Mildness
  • Friendliness
  • Truthfulness
  • Wit
  • Shame

There is then a special section on justice, which, according to Aristotle, is the finest virtue of character, because it is the one that is formed by your relationship with and treatment of other people.

Aristotle moves onto the virtues of thought:

  • Scientific knowledge
  • Craft knowledge
  • Prudence
  • Understanding
  • Wisdom

I loved the sections on the virtues of character, but was a little underwhelmed by the virtues of thought—I got the sense that Aristotle hadn’t fully developed his ideas, and was being a little disorganised about it (though it’s still pretty damn amazing for disorganised thoughts).

The next big bulk is a discussion of incontinence, which I loved—basically, Aristotle distinguished between someone who is wilfully vicious (e.g. an intemperate person who chooses to seek pleasure without regard for anything else) and someone who is incontinent (e.g. someone who knows that something is bad for them, but does it anyway because his pleasure-seeking/pain-avoiding impulses are too strong). Although both are bad, it is less bad to be incontinent than to be vicious, because incontinence can be corrected, whereas vice will require tons of rewiring. An example of incontinence with which I’m sure most of us can relate: staying up too late and procrastinating when we know it’s not good for us, but then Tumblr and YouTube beckons and omg how is it 3am already uuuugggghhhh why why why am I so failtastic?! Fortunately, Aristotle says that we are not beyond help.

The penultimate section is on friendship, where Aristotle discusses the necessity of friendship, and, more importantly, the necessity of “complete” friendship for one’s happiness. He does this by talking about the two types of “incomplete” friendship, which are friendship for utility and friendship for pleasure.

Finally, Aristotle returns to the ideas of pleasure, the good, and happiness, which nicely sums up his Ethics. The book finishes with the question of how we can most effectively provide moral education in a society, so that the “many” can be virtuous, happy, and contribute to a better society.

How, indeed? Well, Aristotle answers this question in what’s considered to be the second half of his Nicomachean Ethics: the Politics.


 

This blog post is a very bare summary at best, but I honestly got so much out of the Ethics, and I really, really think everyone should read it. For the most part, the book is aligned with my beliefs and values (thank you, Sailormoon, for your teachings), but it was so extraordinary to see everything laid out in the clear and concise way that Aristotle has done. Really, do yourself a favour and give it a go!

Inspired by this post and the summary of the Ethics? Or have you already read it and have some thoughts to share? Let me know in the comments!

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