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Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics


One of the most important developments in ethics since the late 20th century has been the renewed interest in centering ethics on teachings about virtue.  This development has brought back into the spotlight Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, one of the most influential texts in the history of western philosophical ethics.


The Nicomachean Ethics: An introduction

Aristotle's purpose is to help the reader/hearer to understand and cultivate a mature, well-balanced, many-sided, active, happy life.  The principal component of happiness upon which Aristotle concentrates is virtuous activity.  In the model of excellence set forth here, action is prompted by well-cultivated desire and is guided by a variety of thinking skills, including discernment sensitive to the situation.  The agent chooses the appropriate means to the end properly indicated by well-cultivated desire.  Moral character secures action from being derailed by fear or by the pursuit of pleasure, or by unbalanced relationships with others.  A hallmark of a truly virtuous action is that one positively enjoys performing it--just for the nobility (beauty) of the action (though Aristotle recognizes that there may be pain in accomplishing a virtuous sacrifice).  Aristotle examines the norms of social and economic relationships, family life, and different kinds of friendships. 

I will refer to parts of the text either I.2.2 (Book I, chapter 2, paragraph 2 (in addition, I might even number a particular sentence in the paragraph), or else by reference to the pagination and line numbers in the standard Bekker edition, given in the margins, e.g., 1161a13-25. 


1.  The first section of this text, Books I-III, chapter 5, sets forth the central concepts in terms of which to understand how the excellent person actualizes his potentials as a human being in society.  (Note: in conveying the ideas of this text it seems less unacceptable to speak of "man" and to refer to individuals as "he," since Aristotle did write primarily of men and for men; courage [andreia], for example, literally means manliness; Aristotle's sexism, however noticeable today [1160b33; 1161a23], is nevertheless moderated [1162a25; 1180a28], and he refers to a mother's love for her child as a model of "friendship" [1166a8]) 

2.  Book III, chapter 6, through the end of Book V discusses moral virtues: courage and self-mastery (Book III); generosity, magnificence, magnanimity ("highmindedness"), self-respect, gentleness, pleasant speech, honesty, wit, good humor, appropriate sensitivity to the shame of one's misdeeds (Book IV); and justice (Book V). 

3.  Book VI deals with intellectual virtues, the excellences of thinking as applied to theoretical, technical, and practical affairs. 

4.  Book VII deepens the discussion of pleasure and self-mastery. 

5.  Book VIII and IX discuss friendship. 

6.  Book X gives a concluding discussion of pleasure, sets forth the supreme satisfactions of the life of theoretical activity, and finally makes a transition to the Politics, the companion text to be read along with the Nicomachean Ethics.


Books I-III.v.  Goods, happiness, virtue, formation of dispositions, actions resulting from deliberation

Books III.vi-  Courage and temperance (sophrosune, "self-control")

Book IV.  Virtues pertaining to wealth, honor, social conversation, and humor

Book V.  Types of justice

Book VI.  Intellectual virtues, the excellences of thinking, especially practical wisdom

Book VII.  Pleasure

Book VIII-IX.  Friendship

Book X.  Pleasure, theoretical activity, and transition to the Politics


Book I (on goods, happiness, the structure of the human being, and the virtues that pertain to the two relevant levels of human nature)


Study questions

Book I, chapter 1.  Every craft (techne--technique, skill, art, applied science) every systematic investigation, and every action and choice aims at what?

Is the good one or many (or does it at least include many ends [or goals])? 

What examples of specific ends does Aristotle give?  (To act rationally involves choosing this means rather than that means to achieve an end or goal.)

Chapter I.2:  Give an example of an end that you choose for the sake of something else.

Give an example of an end that you choose for its own sake.

Why is it necessary that there be some end(s) not chosen simply as a means to something else, but chosen for itself?

Ch. I.3: Why is it impossible for ethics to have the precision of geometry?

What does this imply about ethical rules?

Ch I.4: What is the common definition of happiness?

What clear and obvious goods are identified with happiness by many common people?

What good is posited by "some thinkers" [including Plato]?

Why is a proper upbringing in moral conduct important for the study of ethics? 

Ch I.5: What are the various views on the highest good and associated type of life?

Why is honor not the supreme good?

Why is excellence (arete, virtue) not the supreme good?

Why is money not the supreme good?

Which type of life does Aristotle defer for later examination?

Ch I.6, last few paragraphs: Give at least two reasons why [Plato's] appeal to absolute goodness (the good "in itself and by itself") is inadequate for ethics. 

I.7: What is "always chosen as an end in itself and never as a means" (I.7)? 

Give examples of goods that are chosen partly for themselves and partly for the sake of happiness (I.7).

In what sense is happiness self-sufficient (I.7)?

What do you think of the very idea of there being such a proper function of man?  What is the proper function of man (I.7)?  Does Aristotle have this right?

What structure of the human being is implied in this account (I.7)?

Why is it important to add that the good of man is an activity of the soul in accord with excellence/virtue in a complete life (I.7)?

I.8:  What external goods are needed for happiness (I.8)?

What is the difference between happiness in the contemporary sense of "feeling good" and happiness for Aristotle?

Why is virtuous activity intrinsically enjoyable (I.8)?

I.9:  Why should happiness not be regarded as a gift of the gods?

I.10: What kind of stability does the excellent person manifest? 

I.12.  How do we respond differently to virtue and happiness?

I.13.  What experience indicates that there is something in the soul besides the rational part?

What is the structure of the human being (that living being having reason who finds fulfillment in community), and how does that structure find expression in the corresponding classification of the virtues (I.13)?  What list of virtues would another conception of the human being support?

Diagram the structure of the human "soul" (psyche, mind).  How does this structure correspond with the classification of virtues?



Book I.  [How does happiness involve virtue and diverse goods?] 


            Book I.  Aristotle opens with an inquiry into the good, the goal of every action and skill (art, techne).  To act rationally involves using this means rather than that means to achieve some end.  Some goods are means to others; they are instrumental goods, not chosen for themselves.  Intrinsic goods, however, are chosen for themselves.  And some goods are chosen for themselves and also as part of more encompassing projects envisioning more complete, all-encompassing goods.  The truly complete good for each individual is a happy life; happiness involves "living well and doing well."  Today we use the term happiness to mean "feeling good"; one can be momentarily happy.  Aristotle's notion of eudaimonia (happiness) involves self-actualization and human fulfillment in action.  Such happiness is the supreme good.  It is intrinsically good, chosen for itself; and it includes all other goods which are chosen for themselves.  Happiness includes:

1. Activity in accord with virtue (1099b27).  There are two types of virtue corresponding to the two levels of the human soul.  Part of human nature is shared with plants (the nutritive "soul" or psyche) and animals (the sensitive "soul"); but reason (logos, intellect, the capacity to think/speak) belongs uniquely to humankind.  Accordingly, there are two classes of virtues--excellences of thinking and virtues that express the governance of reason over the lower aspects of human nature: the realms of emotion (thumos, the energetic part that seeks victory, honor, good reputation, a good position, and money) and appetite (epithumia, the pleasure-seeking part). 

2. An adequate amount of external goods (1099a31..), e.g., friends, wealth, political power, good birth, good children, beauty.

3. These virtuous activities and blessings must persist for roughly the whole of one's life (1100a).

            Also of special importance in Book I: (1) every activity is directed toward some good or goal ("end")(1094a1-2); unless there is some goal that is chosen for its own sake, desire is "empty and futile," and will "go on without limit" (1094a18-22); (2) "we need to have been brought up in fine habits if we are to be adequate students of what is fine and just" 1095b4-5) (hence the notion of education in feeling is conceivable for Aristotle alongside education in thinking and education in doing); (3) there is no benefit to be derived from seeking for a unifying Good on the transcendent level of the Platonic form (1096a17-1097a13); (4) the specific work/function/achievement proper to a human being involves activity in accord with virtue (1097b24-1098a18); (5) a virtuous person enjoys fine actions (1099a8-18).

Here is a diagram that expresses the structure of the human being for Aristotle, with the middle part of the soul capable of being classified both with the rational and with the irrational parts.


The human being is a composite of body and soul (enmattered form, informed matter). 



Reason is capable of intellectual virtues (theoretical knowledge (including mathematics and theology), technical know-how, and practical wisdom)



This "part" may be classified under both the rational--at least in virtuous persons, in whom this part “listens to reason”--and also the irrational; capable of moral virtues of character, such as courage, temperance, justice, etc.



The "vegetative soul," that aspect of psyche shared with all living things, including plants, that makes nutrition and growth possible.



Happiness and Character

            We all have emotions.  We have—in varying degrees—a wide variety of emotions, including the following: fear; procrastination, equivocation, insincerity, problem avoidance, unfairness, and ease seeking; vanity (including pride, ambition, and honor); the desire for food and property; sex hunger, the maternal instinct, and the higher tender emotions; and religious emotions (awe, reverence, humility, gratitude).

            If we cannot basically alter our inherited urges, what shall we do?

Is it possible to change our responses to these urges?  Can education lead us to discover how to achieve the happiness that results from (1) discovering better ways to gratify these urges and (2) unifying these enhanced responses in a strong character?

Happiness does not depend much on the surrounding environment, even though pleasing surroundings can greatly add to happiness.

            We acquire good habits—virtues—essential to strong character by consistently making good choices.  Actions that complete good decisions provide the lever of growth.

            Aristotle analyzes action in terms of the “good” that is the goal or end of action.  Some ends are chosen as means to further ends.  Thus we have three kinds of ends: (1) goods that we choose merely because they lead to something else we desire; (2) goods we choose simply for themselves, for their own sake; we find them intrinsically worthwhile; (3) and some goods we do things partly with a further end in view and also for their own sake. 

We choose to develop the virtues of strong character for their own sake and also because of the role they play in a happy life.  Indeed, action in the fullest sense flows from a decision in which the doer finds the action (1) intrinsically worthwhile and (2) part of a happy life.



Exercise on Intrinsic and Instrumental Value


List some activities that you do. 



Pick one.


I.  Explore the value of this activity as a means to an end.  Why do you do it?  Because it leads to something else you value?  If so, then write down the value of this activity as a means to an end--its instrumental value.



If you value the activity mostly as a means to something else, is that next goal an instrumental or intrinsic good for you?  If the next goal is mostly a means to something else, what is the still further goal?  Keep writing down goods until you come to something with intrinsic value to you.



II.  Explore the value of this activity as something worthwhile in itself.  Is this activity of intrinsic value to you?  If so, try to put this value into words.



Is this activity part of a happy life?  Say why.



Repeat this reflection on other activities.





Book II (on habit formation and a sense of proportion) 


Study questions



1.  What is the purpose of studying ethics?


2.  TRUE OR FALSE?  We learn virtues by doing virtuous actions. 


3.  TRUE OR FALSE?  Virtue is basically a matter of following certain rules.


4.  According to Aristotle, virtues have to do with (a) actions and emotions; (b) actions but not emotions; (c) emotions but not actions. 


What are the requirements for virtuous actions?

            The act must be of a certain sort

            The agent must

                        know what he is doing

                        choose to act the way he does

                        choose the action for its own sake

               and the act must spring from a firm and unchangeable character


How do we acquire virtue?

            By doing the same sorts of acts a virtuous person would do

            . . . from childhood

            our capacity for virtue increases each time we do something right


How do we discern the mean ("median")?

            avoid excess and deficiency

            the mean is not an arithmetical in-between

            the mean is closer to either the excess or the deficiency

            adjust for distortions of perspective

            adjust for personal variables

            choose what the man of practical wisdom would choose


Why is virtue classified as a characteristic, not an emotion or capacity?

            (a) it is not an emotion, since we do not choose emotions, and we do not praise and blame people for their emotions

            (b) it is not a capacity, since capacities are natural, and we do not praise or blame people for capacities

            (c) (there is no other alternative; virtue and vice are the object of praise and blame.)


Book II.  What is a virtue and how do we acquire one? 

1.  We acquire virtues by habituation, doing the kinds of actions that a virtuous person would do. II.i

2.  Acquiring a virtue involves learning to take pleasure in the right things. II.ii.

3.  A virtue is a disposition ("habit" is a better translation for hexis [“state”], but “habit” may misleadingly give the wrong impression.  For Aristotle, continuing mental alertness (rather than going on “automatic pilot” is necessary for the exercise of virtue). II.v

4.  A virtue is a mean between two extremes (relative to the agent--not the same for everyone--as determined by reason). II.vi

5.  A virtuous action involves decision. II.vi

6.  A moral virtue involves having feelings to the right degree, at the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way. II.vi



We build virtues by right actions (which must express right attitudes) until we acquire a permanent disposition (hexis [Greek], habitus [Latin], habit), such that we enjoy acting rightly.

            Virtues are often exercised in a psychic environment of feelings (pathe, [Latin patio, passio, passion, suffer], with implications of passivity): "appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, love [philia, as distinguished from eros and from agape, the New Testament word for love], hate, longing, jealousy, pity, in general whatever implies pleasure or pain" (1105b21).

            A virtuous act proceeds from a (remote or proximate) decision (1105a30).  In other words, it is not necessary for a decision to be taken immediately prior to each action for it to express virtue.  For example, a brave act done on the spur of the moment expresses virtue more than a brave act done when the person has be able to prepare deliberately for a challenging situation.  Virtue, generally, is a mean between extremes.  The mean is not the same for everyone; nor is it a quantitative mean (courage, for example, is closer to rashness than to cowardice).  (Mathematical thinking is not what is crucial in ethics.)  The view of the mean will be distorted from either extreme.  Beware of the distorting influence of pleasure.  A right action is done at the right times toward the right people, for the right purpose, in the right way.


Book III (on voluntary action and choice; courage and self-control) 

Book III.i-v.  In forming our character (for which we are responsible) through voluntary actions, what is the role of deliberation, decision, and the standard of the excellent person? 

1.  Action is involuntary when it is forced or caused by ignorance; voluntary action has its origin within the agent, when he knows what he is doing.  III.i

2.  Decision chooses one action over another as a result of deliberation. III.ii

3.  Deliberation (when needed) reflects on the best means to a given end. III.iii.

4.  When we trace the steps required to achieve our end back to ourselves, we come to the "deliberative desire," the decision. III.iii.

5.  The excellent person is a sort of standard and measure of what is noble and pleasant, since he sees what is true in each case. III.iv

6.  We are responsible for our character, since we are responsible for the actions that form it. III.v


            Faced with a situation calling for a choice of what to do, we have desires oriented toward diverse possible actions.  (Desire, orexis, arousal).  As we deliberate on some of those possibilities, they lose their appeal.  The one choiceworthy action is that for which the desire survives the deliberation.  Notice that on this account (as best I can make out Aristotle's statements and implications thus far) we do not have to manufacture the motivation for right action on the basis of rational reflection.  Rather (especially for well brought-up people) the appropriate desire is there, just waiting to be disengaged from others whenever deliberation may be required. 

            In a voluntary action (1111a22), the agent knows what s/he is doing and intends what s/he does.  (1) the origin of the act is in the agent (if Sam and Joe are joking, and Sam pushes Joe through a fence, we would not say that the origin of the action was in Joe; Joe did not voluntarily break the fence); and (2) the agent knows the particulars (if Jane wants to avoid eating specimens of endangered species and eats an X, not knowing that X's are nearly extinct, we can say that Jane was ignorant of the particulars; if Jane could care less about gobbling up endangered species, we would not say that her action was involuntary--rather she lacks the virtue implied in the universal statement that "members of endangered species are not to be eaten").

            There are two-categories of non-voluntary action.  If an action is caused by ignorance, it is non-voluntary.  (Sam and Joe are shooting pool; someone comes in and notifies them that they have just missed the lecture on plasma physics.  They could care less.)  If an action is caused by ignorance and is regretted, than the action is involuntary.  (Sam and Joe, told that they have just missed dinner, regret having played pool so long.  Note: today we might say that their action was voluntary under one description [playing pool], non-voluntary under another description [missing the lecture], and involuntary under a third description [missing dinner]).   

            We are responsible for what we do voluntarily, even under duress.  We are responsible for our character and for some types of ignorance that arise through negligence.

            Are actions caused by appetite or emotion voluntary?  Yes, they seem no less human than other actions.  Actions done on the spur of the moment are voluntary, but are not said to express decision (except for cases where a prior decision is enacted).  A decision is not appetite or emotion or wish or belief.  Decision involves deliberation (especially when the outcome is unclear and the right way to act is undefined).  We do not deliberate about the end (e.g., a politician's commitment to work for a good order) but only about the means!  (Does this disclose an Aristotelian assumption of a community of shared, unquestioned values?) 

            The relativists ("sophists") had said that the good is simply relative to the culture (polis, the political community, the “city-state” in Aristotle’s time) that evaluates; we have no access to any standard that transcends our particular culture.  Plato had said that only the eternal, perfect, unchanging Good, the heavenly pattern for everything else that participates in it--is the standard.  For Aristotle, such an ideal "form of the good," tells us nothing helpful regarding the issues of ethics; rather, the excellent person is the standard.  [Question: Is X right because the excellent person chooses it or does the excellent person choose it because s/he discerns it to be right?]


Book III.vi-12.  Virtues pertaining to fear and pleasure, the non-rational parts of the psyche.

1.  The courageous person stands firm against the right things (especially in war) in the right way, as prescribed by reason, for the sake of what is noble (beautiful, fine) (to be distinguished from approximations). III.vi-viii

2.  The temperate person is moderate regarding the pleasures of touch and taste, finding no pleasure in wrong things, experiencing no intense (bodily) pleasure, suffering no pain in the absence of pleasure, desiring moderately what is conducive to health and fitness. III.xi


Book IV (on diverse social virtues)

1.  Generosity (for people without great wealth)


2.  Magnificence (for people with great wealth)


3.  Magnanimity (for people of complete virtue who deserve great honor)


4.  Appropriate desire for honor (for people of lesser attainments)


5.  Gentleness (the mean regarding anger)


6.  Giving appropriate pleasure in social conversation and conduct


7.  Speaking and acting truthfully


8.  Wit (the mean pertaining to humor)


9.  Shame, on occasion, to an appropriate degree


The cluster of social virtues (cf. Bk II.7) are liberality in giving money, giving money on a large scale, great-souledness ("magnanimity," megalapsychia), proper ambition, good temper, sociability in conversation, giving an appropriate impression of one's merits, appropriate humor in social recreation, and appropriate sense of shame regarding one's own wrongdoing.

            Is it better to do good or to receive good?  (1120a12)  Is it better to do beautiful (“noble”) acts than not to do shameful ones?

            Will the "magnificent" person (wealthy and making virtuous use of the wealth) spend lavishly for personal luxuries or rather for the public good?

            The discussion of the "magnanimous" person (of superb character who knows his greatness and acts so as to command respect as such from others) presupposes that there are basic inequalities in human worthiness (1123b2-11).  (What factors in our society support such a tendency of thought?)  One component in magnanimity is superb self-respect.  (Should we regard this as within the reach of everyone?)

            In the context of his discussion of anger, Aristotle writes, "Evil destroys itself as well as other things, and if it is present as a whole it becomes unbearable" (1126a13).  (Do we observe this to be so?  What is the distinction between anger and righteous indignation?)

            In social life, we are to be friendly but not too supportive; sometimes it is necessary to be frank.  We are neither to boast nor to deprecate ourselves; we are to be truthful in what we say and how we live.



Book IV.  Various virtues pertaining to wealth, honor, and social relations

1.  A generous person aims at what is noble, takes pleasure in giving, does not waste money, and also takes the right amounts from the right sources. IV.i

2.  A magnificent person is a wealthy person who uses his wealth for great public goods, without luxurious display. IV.ii

3.  A magnanimous ("great-souled") person commands the respect due to an outstanding person. IV.iii

4.  Regarding small honors, a virtuous person is neither indifferent nor greedy. IV.iv

5.  A mild person is appropriately angry, neither too much nor too little. IV.v

6.  A friendly person aims to give neither too much nor too little pleasure when meeting people. IV.vi

7.  A truthful person (in word and deed) is neither excessively frank nor operates from an ulterior motive. IV.vii

8.  A witty person jokes and laughs at jokes without excess or deficiency. IV.viii

9.  Shame is a feeling appropriate to young persons, recognizing disgrace. IV.ix


What are the characteristics of the high-minded person?   Note the logic that explains these characteristics: being the best and making sure to appear to be the best.  Is it the case that some people are definitely and evidently superior, not just in some particular ability, but in general?  Discuss some passages that offend many modern readers, and observe how Aristotle moderates his judgments about superiority and inferiority.

“Insignificant people do not expect to be friends of the best and wisest men.” VIII.8, 1159a2

Some people naturally lack reason (VII.5, 1149a9-12)

On women read VIII.1, 1158b13.

On slaves read VIII.11, 1161a34-1161b8.

On natural friendship among all human beings see VIII.1, 1155a16-22.


BOOK IV, CHAPTER 3 on magnanimity.  Definition: a man is regarded as magnanimous when he things he deserves great things and actually does deserve them.  Honor is great, due not to noble birth, power, or wealth, but to complete virtue. Such a one faces great risks, does good, is reluctant to accept favors, returns greater goods for favors received, wishes to be superior, shows his stature only among eminent people, does not go in for common pursuits, must be first, actions are few, slow to act—except for great deeds—open in hate and in love, unafraid, looks down upon others, adjusts his life only for a friend, finds nothing admirable, bears no grudges, does not remember wrongs, does not gossip, does not lament in misfortune, prefers beautiful and profitless objects, is comparatively self-sufficient, walks slowly and speaks deliberately in a deep voice.



Book V, on justice, sets forth three types of justice: (1) lawfulness and equity in distribution, (“distributive justice”); (2) justice in correction (in response to wrongdoing), and (3) justice exchange (in the market). 

            This book sets forth justice as a quality of character ("complete virtue in relation to another" [119]) expressed in actions and as a characteristic of appropriate laws (1129b17).  A just person lives within the law (but there is some flexibility).  Justice involves a suitable balance of benefits and harms; there is a tendency for a person to take too many benefits for oneself and assign too many burdens to others.  Note: for Plato and Aristotle and many others, it is worse to do injustice than to suffer injustice.

            Justice in distribution  presupposes that there is something to be distributed ("a pie"), that there is a criterion to be followed in making the distribution ("dividing the pie"), a person [or agency] that makes the distribution, and recipients who receive shares.  The distribution is just when the one making the distribution correctly follows the criterion governing the distribution.  Note that Aristotle does not argue for one particular criterion (e.g., an equalitarian criterion).  (What are the different positions on distributive justice that are presupposed in political debates today?)

            Justice in rectification ("corrective justice") presupposes that before some wrongdoing occurred or some injury suffered, that the parties were in a legal equilibrium.  Then came the even that requires rectification.  A judge must determine what must be done to correct the situation--for example, to pay a certain fine in recompense for a injuring someone.  When the fine is paid (or the appropriate act is completed), the proportion is restored between the two parties.

            Justice in exchange (Read especially 1132b35: "For people seek . . . ."; and 1133b16-23.

            Is there any kind of justice that Aristotle has overlooked?

1.  Justice, in general, is a quality of character: complete virtue in relation to our fellow human beings.  It includes being lawful and fair.  In legislation, justice aims to secure the good of . . .

2.  Justice, in the specific sense, pertains to shares of goods, in political and private transactions, voluntary, involuntary, and constrained.

3.  Distributive justice—getting the share one deserves according to whatever criterion is accepted as determining the fair share.

4.  Corrective justice is established by a judge to restore the putative equilibrium preceding a wrong done by one person to another.

5.  Justice in reciprocity—comparable return for benefits or harms.  Exchange brings and keeps people together.  Money is a medium in terms of which gods become commensurable; thus exchange of equals for equals is possible, so neither party to the exchange has too large or too small a share of goods.

6-7.  Justice in the political sense: among men who share a common life in order that their association bring them self-sufficiency, and who are free and equal, either proportionately (aristocracy) or arithmetically (democracy).  Justice may be conceived as depending on nature or on convention.

8-9.  The degree of responsibility is according to the degree of voluntariness.  No one suffers harm voluntarily.  The decent person takes less than his or her share.

10.  Equity adjusts for the inadequacy of law.

11.  The just and unjust always necessarily imply more than one person.


Book VI (on the intellectual virtues)





Theoretical excellences:


(a) "understanding," a grasp of first principles, axioms, among eternal truths;


(b) "scientific knowledge," drawing conclusions on the basis of those truths;


(c) wisdom uniting (a) and (b)




Technical know-how, skill, "craft," "art": involved in production, manufacturing, making (poesis)


Practical wisdom (phronesis, "intelligence"—the term “practical” here means “pertaining to action”; it does not mean “practical” in the current sense of the word) aims not at a limited, particular good but at the good life;


practical wisdom INCLUDES


good deliberation,





good sense, and





choice, deliberate desire,


                        to be carried out with cleverness. 


Let’s explore practical wisdom in more detail.




            Practical wisdom is not theoretical (which deals with that which is unchanging--theology, physics, mathematics, and logic)

. . . since it deals with what can be otherwise, what depends on us, and with universals AND particulars. (VI.iii, vi, vii)


            Practical wisdom is not productive or technical,

. . . since it is directed to the ultimate or final end, the good life. (VI.ii)  It deals with what is just, noble, and good for man (VI.xii)


            Practical wisdom focuses on what is good or advantageous for oneself (VI.v) . . .

and also with household management and politics (without which one's own good cannot exist) (VI.viii)





            Practical wisdom issues commands (VI.x) based upon

                        understanding, which passes judgments (VI.x) based upon

                        deliberation, which

                                    involves "perception"--sharpened by experience--

                                                of particulars (VI.ix)

                                    takes time

                                    involves reasoning, calculation regarding

                                                the goal, manner, and time (VI.ix)

                                    involves sympathetic understanding, fairness,

                                                and maturity (VI.xi)


            Practical wisdom requires cleverness in execution (VI.xii)





            Practical wisdom and moral virtue are interdependent:


                        Virtue indicates the end, the desired goal.

                        Practical wisdom selects the proper means to the goal.


                        Virtues in the full sense require the function of

                                    practical wisdom.


            "As soon as he possesses this single virtue of practical

                        wisdom, he will also possess all the rest." (VI.xiii)



            Consider one more description, using a somewhat different vocabulary.  Knowledge ("science") in the highest sense is a certain and satisfying grasp of truths that do not change, of eternal things and relations.  There is, on the whole, a distinction and a separation between such activities of mind and thinking about things which can be otherwise.  We deliberate only about what can be otherwise, about what will be different if we take one action rather than another.  Regarding eternal truth, "understanding" (nous) grasps the undemonstrated and indemonstrable yet self-evident axioms, the first principles of knowledge; "scientific knowledge" deduces the consequences of these axioms; and "wisdom" combines these two.

            Good deliberation, however, exercising phronesis ("intelligence"), focuses on action.  Phronesis perceives universals and particulars (the "last things," the particular things to be done [literally, the agenda].  Consideration softens needless rigor.  Comprehension's judgment sets the stage for right decision (prohairesis), which is to be completed in clevernessPhronesis grasps truth; the activities are to be done beautifully (and) properly oriented to what is good.  Intelligence pertains to living well and doing well.  It requires and is ingredient in the other virtues of deliberation and decision.  It pertains to the good not only of self, but also of [family and] city (community).

            In addition to phronesis, which governs doing, there is the virtue of techne ("craft" or "art") which governs making

            How does desire operate in deliberation which results in an excellent choice of an action?  Initially, it would appear, we have multiple desires oriented toward different possible courses of action.  As deliberation progresses, we come to a conclusion in which only one action seems desirable.  Thus the right motivation was there from the start; it was not created by deliberation, but rather distilled from its being commingled with other desires that, in this context, are inappropriate. 


Book VII (on pleasure and the virtue of temperance)

            (Book VII and Book X.1-4)

            Goods may be unconditionally so (e.g., virtues) or good only for some particular thing or person.  Pleasure is an end choiceworthy in itself.  Pleasure arises when we exercise a capacity.  "And not all pleasures have something else as their end, but only those in people who are being led toward the completion of their nature."  When things are in the activity (energeia) of their true ("natural") state (kata physin), there is something divine in them."

            The temperate person avoids pleasures associated with appetite and pain and bodily pleasures; on the other hand, bodily pleasures are good--some are necessary--if enjoyed to an appropriate degree in the right way.  Some pain is acceptable, too.

            Things are pleasant by nature when they produce activities of a healthy nature.  No one thing is always pleasant since our nature is not simple and hence perishable (unlike the nature of God, who needs no variety).

            Book X: Pleasure and pain are important for rearing children in virtue.  Pleasure is not the good.  Some things are valued without regard to their concomitant pleasure.  Since it may be complete at a single time, it should not be classified as a process.  Pleasure completes an activity.  "For each faculty the best activity is the activity of the subject in the best condition in relation to the best object of that faculty" (1174b17).  [Give some examples of such optimal functioning.]

            Pleasure is "present [in the activity] as a sort of consequent end, like the bloom on youths." 

            Pleasure is not continuous, since no activity is continuous; persisting overlong in a pleasurable activity, one becomes lax and careless.   Pleasure is inseparable from living. 

            An activity is impeded by an alien pleasure.

            The goodness of the activity determines the goodness of the pleasure.  The goodness of the activity is determined by the function of the (animal or) person--as measured by the virtuous person. 

            Some people live contentedly within habits of self-mastery or of hedonistic indulgence; but most people are somewhere in between.  Aristotle discerns six degrees of self-mastery.  There is a level which is superior to virtue; it is godlike or heroic self-mastery.  (No examples are given.  What might this mean?)  Then there is the level of the temperate person, who enjoys appropriate enjoyment and who enjoys the exercise of self-mastery.  Next comes the continent person who has to struggle for right conduct, but who resists wayward attractions and fears regarding potential or actual pleasures and pains . . . and succeeds in reigning in [repressing?] the appetites.  Then come the incontinent person who struggles, but fails to regulate the appetites.  Incontinence may result from nature or from habit--the latter is easier to cure.  Then comes the intemperate person who does not care for any ideal of moderation or self-control but indulges "freely" [chaotically].  Finally, there is also a level so atrocious as to be sub-human or bestial.

            How can we explain akrasia, the failure to govern oneself?  Socrates had taught that no one ever knowingly does wrong.  Aristotle's account (as Irwin [and I] reconstruct it) is subtly but importantly different.  Suppose someone knows that a certain substance S is harmful and not to be used.  But suppose further that it is pleasurable to use S.  A goes to a party where S is being used.  At first, A perceives S as harmful.  This is a knowledgeable and appropriate description of the situation.  But A also is marginally aware that using S is pleasurable.  A lets this awareness grow so as to marginalize his prior, appropriate, understanding that S is harmful.  If A uses S, then A is akratic, acting contrary to A's knowledge that S is harmful and (though pleasurable to use) not to be taken.  The weakness in question is not a question of "the force of will-power"; it is a problem in consistently maintaining a lucid understanding [or description, if we treat this topic with the vocabulary/method of analytic philosophy].  (Another illustration of Greek rationalism.)  In the moment of giving into temptation, the previous, appropriate understanding of the situation is unplugged, and new beliefs about the appeal of the object join with appetite to generate a different "logical conclusion," the unwise action.  Appropriate knowledge is disconnected; this is a kind of ignorance; to this extent, Socrates was on the right track.



I.  The highest level, beyond human excellence: divine, superhuman, or heroic virtue


II.  The virtue--temperance (sophrosune, temperance)

The virtuous person has no inner conflicts with strong, base appetites; finds no pleasure in anything that violates the dictates of reason.


III.  On the way to virtue (two levels here, which the growing person traverses):

i.  Self-control (enkrateia, continence, inner strength)

The individual has to contend with conflicting, base appetites, but is strong when (bodily) pleasure is available, tenacious in pain or danger; the person tends to abide by his deliberation, despite a struggle.

ii.  Moral weakness (akrasia, incontinence, lack of self-control)

The individual pursues bodily pleasures to excess and contrary to right reason; is soft about pains; violates choice; some lose themselves in emotion, whereas others reason but fail to abide by it (which is even worse); retains his principle and regrets his failures.


IV.  The vice: intemperance, self-indulgence

The individual acts as a result of choice; feels no regret; not aware of his vice; cannot be corrected/cured; chronic condition; destroys natural virtue and any good habits.


V.  The most base: brutishness

Depravity; more horrifying than vice; the higher element is lacking; may be due to nature or to habituation, e.g., through childhood sexual abuse.


Books VIII and XI (on “friendship”)

Study questions

Focus on Book IX.4 and 8-9, which explains how it the (excellent) friend can be happy even if he sacrifices himself in battle for his friends (fellow-citizens).

IX.4: What are the features and advantages of the kind of inner, personal harmony that Aristotle describes in a person who loves himself or herself aright? 

IX.8: What kind of self-love has led to the term "egoist" (self-lover) becoming a derogatory expression?

IX.8: What does an excellent person take for ("assign to") himself or herself?

What kind of competition does Aristotle propose?

            IX.8:  Why can someone who assigns himself the greatest of goods ever give his life for those who are dear to him?

            Ponder: If love is a relation between persons, is it truly possible to love oneself?  If so, what sense could this notion possibly have?  If one cannot truly love oneself, is there any trustworthy source of love that fills the need that is commonly said to be filled by self-love?


            No summary is offered of VIII, since the reader is capable of interpreting it for herself.


            BOOK IX

1-2. Do your best to estimate the proper return of benefits received, in terms of the closeness of the relation, the excellence of the benefactor, and the primacy [of obligation over opportunity.]

3.  Friendship with the wicked is impossible.  Try to rehabilitate a backsliding friend. 

4.  Harmony ("friendship") with oneself is essential for friendship with another (similar) person.

5.  Mere good will (which may be inactive, spur of the moment, and superficial) lacks the intensity and desire [to do good to the friend for the friend’s sake] of true friendship.

 6.  Friends agree about important agenda.  Bad, selfish, lazy persons ruin the common good. 7.  The more actively we are devoted to others, the more we come to cherish them.  It is more enduringly satisfying to do a noble (beautiful) deed than to receive a benefit. 

8.  Noble self-love takes noble actions (sacrificing even one’s life) to bring good to those one cherishes.

9-12.  The advantages of having friends.  Friends enhance the joys of living, even in comparatively self-sufficient persons (9).  No one will have more than a few close friends (10).  Friends are valuable in good fortune and in bad (11).  Friends do things (live) together and develop their common qualities (12).


Aristotle on equality and asymmetry in human relationships


            Friendships between persons of excellent character are relationships of equality: their friendships are more enduring than friendships based on pleasure or on usefulness.  The friend wishes the other goods—for the other’s sake.  The friend is another (one)self.

            There are also asymmetrical friendships, e.g., of father and son, an older person and a younger person, a man and a woman, and any sort of ruler to the one he rules (notice a list nearly identical to that in Confucianism) (VIII.7, 1158b13).

            The inequality is redressed by the subordinate person’s loving and honoring the benefactor more than the benefactor loves and honors the subordinate.

            “Friendship seems to consist more in loving than in being loved” (VIII.8k, 1159a28).

            There are different kinds of communities, e.g., the community of soldiers, of those traveling together, religious societies, dining clubs, the political community (the community that is all-inclusive), and the family (the most natural and necessary community, prior to the city).  The role of the leader is to confer benefits on others (VIII.11).  “Friends have things in common”—a proverb that is true to the extent that there is community between them.

            Aristotle teaches the complementarity of man and woman.  In the family there is a division of function between the man and the woman: each supplies the other’s needs by contributing a special function to the common good” (VIII.12 1162a22).  Aristotle regards the man as better than the woman (1161a24), but criticizes the patriarchal man who controls everything (1160b35), “laying down the law for his children and his wife like a Cyclops” ( 1180a27).

            There is no friendship with the slave as such (a tool with a soul), but there is friendship with the slave as a human being, “for every human being seems to have some relations of justice with everyone who is capable of community in law and agreement” (VIII.11 1161b7).

            Contrast the tendency of modern western philosophical ethics (Bentham, Kant, Mill) to begin with a foundational affirmation of human equality, e.g., “Each to count for one and none for more than one”; each person as of infinite worth—dignity—an end in him- or herself.

            Aristotle and Confucius accord some recognition of something like human equality, while they emphasize concrete structures of human relationships.  Kant and Mill, in the wake of the religious emphasis on the golden rule and loving the neighbor as oneself, focus on equality and marginalize other dimensions of human relating.  How can the ethics of the future integrate these themes, with proper emphasis on each?  What are the factors in terms of which human beings are to be regarded as equal?  And how can we acknowledge human inequalities without betraying human equality?


Sexism in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics?

The following is quoted from Francis Sparshott’s commentary on the NE, Taking Life Seriously (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 21-23.

Aristotle uses the gender-neutral word anthropos to refer to human beings, and there is nothing anywhere in the Ethics that applies to one sex rather than another.  But we have seen that he acknowledges that different callings and stations in life call for different behaviour patterns, and he himself is speaking as an adult male to males in a society that excluded women from property ownership as well as from public life.  Perhaps what he assumes is generically human actually reflects male attitudes to power, a fact that escapes him because his lectures have no female input.

Aristotle’s treatment of gender is complex; I have dealt with it at length elsewhere.  He distinguishes five separate aspects of femininity, which do not necessarily go together.  They are as follows:

1/ The specific sexual differences between male and female animals (including humans) are relevant only to coition and parturition;

2/ In many animal species, the sexes are also differentiated in their general physiology and behavior patterns;

3/ Among humans, the basic unit is the family, in which the male is the hunter or gatherer and the female is the keeper, and the hunter is the head of the household; this reflects human physiology (men are less sedentary) and the needs of child rearing;

4/ in civil society generally, men and women have different ways of life which call for different manifestations of virtue;

5/ in cities, women are usually excluded from civic functions and hence from citizenship.

Since the above are only loosely related to each other, one cannot identify the differences between men and women in a given society with differences between males and females of the human species, and generalizations about ‘men’ and ‘women’ would be out of place in a treatise on the human good.  The account of phronesis [practical wisdom] and the moral virtues, no less than that of sophia [theoretical wisdom], applies equally to all humans (see Metaphysics  9).

“Aristotle was a male chauvinist, in the very precise sense that he thought that economic and physiological realities made it normal for males to exercise power, and—this is the crucial point—that to exercise power and leadership in a decision-making position is a sign of general superiority.  This is built into his whole project is deciding how to live, as if one had power over oneself, one’s destiny, one’s world.

“I take it that the profound implication of feminist thought is that the whole ideology of decision and direction is radically mistaken, needing to be supplemented or replaced by patterns of life based on acceptance and love.  From that point of view, Aristotle’s ethical philosophy is misconceived.  That being so, is there anything in the Ethics that supports the alternative viewpoint?

“Books VIII and IX of the EN represent a new approach.  In fact, they constitute a model for an alternative way of considering the values of human life, one that takes as basic the conditions of cooperation and community.  Suppose a treatise on ethics were to start there, and introduce the values of individual striving within that setting as a subsidiary theme.  The result would be a radically different perspective on human well-being: if the Ethics as it stands identifies male values with generically human values, a consideration of the same material from a perspective defined by friendship and community would yield a corresponding identification of the female with the generically human.  It is not easy to see how such a starting-point could have been either practically or theoretically accessible to anyone situated as Aristotle was; but within a few decades Epicurus, some of whose philosophical associates were women, worked out a system of ethics which effectively harmonizes both communitarian and individual values.  And one of the things this involves is abandoning what emerges as Aristotle’s highest ideal, the pursuit of theoretical truth for its own sake.”




Book X (on pleasure, divine contemplation, and the three levels of citizens)

            Book X.7ff, philosophic activity as participation in the divine life.  The highest happiness comes from "theoretical" activity.  The Greek word theorein implies contemplation.  The term was used to describe the activity of spectators at the theater.  What reasons does Aristotle give for the supreme honor accorded to the theoretical life?  What is god-like about theoretical activity, according to Aristotle?




1.  Everything we do aims at some good.  "Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has been rightly declared to be that at which all things aim.  But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them." I.i 1094a1-5

2.  There must be some goods that are desirable in themselves, not merely as a means to other goods.  "If there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the primary good. I.ii 1094a18-22

3.  A theory of a unitary, transcendent good does not help us with the concrete, varied issues of our lives as human beings. I.vi

4.  The all-encompassing good for man, desirable in itself, and not chosen in view of some further good, is happiness.  Happiness involves external goods to some extent (read I.7.1099a31-1099b8), but, in the main, it is "activity in accord with virtue."  I.vii 1098a17; I.xiii.1102a5

5.  Virtuous activity fulfills the special function of man (who, unlike the other animals, has intellect).  Virtues of action (as opposed to theoretical or technical excellences) are habits of intelligent acting in situations where reason indicates the best way to fulfill morally appropriate desires.  There are many moral virtues (as we will later explore in III.6-V).

6.  There is a rational and a non-rational side in human nature.  The intellectual virtues are excellences of thinking (in theoretical, technical, and practical things).  The moral virtues establish harmony between the intellect and desires. I.xiii

7.  Good habits are the essence of strong character.  "Anyone who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just . . . must have been brought up in good habits.  I.iii 1095b4-6; II.1.1103b24-26.

8.  A good person rejoices in noble actions.  "No one would call a man just who did not enjoy acting justly. . . .  Virtuous actions must be in themselves pleasant.  They are also good and noble [beautiful]. I.7.1099a7-30

9.  "Pleasure completes the activity not as the corresponding permanent state does, by its immanence, but as an end which supervenes as the bloom of youth does on those in the flower of their age." X.4.1174b32-35  "Each of the pleasures is bound up with the activity it completes." X.5.1175a29

10.  Virtue, generally, is a mean between extremes.  "Virtue is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it." II.6.1106b36-1107a2 

11.  Aristotle appeals to the man of practical wisdom, but not as an ultimate standard, but affirms (VI.1) that such a wise individual must follow right reason--as articulated in VI.

12.  "The origin of action . . . is choice, and that of choice is desire and reasoning with a view to an end."  VI.2.1139a32-33

13.  Moral virtue is needed in order for desire to be oriented to the proper end; intellectual virtue is needed for the proper means to be chosen. VI.2.1138a32-35.  "It is not possible to be good in the strict sense without practical wisdom, nor practically wise without moral virtue." VI.13.30-33

14.  Practical wisdom involves good deliberation about the actions that conduce to living well and doing well.  Read VI.5

15.  Ethical inquiry cannot reasonably aim for mathematical precision.  Read I.iii 1094b12-28

16.  There are three types of friendships--based on pleasure, usefulness, and virtue.  Read VIII.3.

17.  Friendship (including willingness to sacrifice oneself for those dear to one, e.g., members of one's city) is based on self-love.  Read IX.4 and IX.8.

18.  The highest activity is a thinking that participates in the divine life.  Read X.7 and X.8.