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Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle - Notes
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RickyGP Offline
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Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle - Notes
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I just got through what is considered one of the foundation texts for all of Western philosophy. It is also a foundational texts for politics, theology. 2400 years after it was first written, it is still relevant and profound.

It is, however, a very dense text. It is written in such a way that requires full attention. I often found myself having to re-read paragraphs in order to understand just what Aristotle was trying to communicate. Sometimes, out of laziness I admit, if I didn't understand after re-reading several times in a row I would give up and move on.

I used this audio course as a study guide:
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This audio course helps clarify some of the denser arguments and ties it to later philosophers.

As I was reading, I often found myself thinking, "That makes sense.' or even 'that's pretty obvious.' After letting everything about this dense book sink in, it is pretty mind-blowing if only because of how it forms an intricate web of common sense that is actionable and applicable.

Here are my notes. Take them with a grain of salt, as I admit that I might have missed the point at times, and may even have a few errors:

Book I: Happiness
Happiness is the ultimate goal in life. All that we do, all our choices, actions, we do in order to increase our happiness.

Many believe that happiness is a product of pleasure, honor, and wealth. But these goods should instead be viewed as products of an end(said end being lasting and sustainable fulfillment) instead of ends themselves.

These are goods that are subordinate to actions and circumstances. Aristotle suggests we aim at a good that creates a happiness that is based on universality and objectivity.

It isn't to say that we should be without good things like reasonable health, material prosperity, friends, family, etc. But, once again, these should be by-products in our pursuit of fulfillment.
For happiness does not lack anything, but is self-sufficient.

We must look to human nature in order to properly identify human fulfillment. Humans make choices and acquire practical wisdom(or prudence); happiness is closely tied to our choices and our knowledge.

It is only through the proper development of rationality that humans will find fulfilment and happiness.
For it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just as far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.

Happiness isn't just for ourselves, but for our community. Aristotle viewed ethics as a part of politics and social life. Happiness, as a goal, must be pursued in accordance with humans' social nature.

Therefore, we derive our happiness not just from ourselves and our own pursuit of excellence and glory, but from other human beings. A modern approach would involve balancing the demands of individual life with the (legitimate) demands of a larger community.

Book II: Virtue of Character
When Aristotle mentions virtue, he is referring to moral excellence in humans. Virtue has different definitions based on cultural context so it is important to keep this broad definition in mind.

Virtue is the product of habits, choice, and the mean between extremes.

Virtue is something that has to be practiced constantly until it becomes automatic.
Thus, in one word, states of character arises out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a great difference, or rather all the difference.

Habits are actions that are done automatically with little to no thought or will power. It is the development of good habits (or habits of mastery) that help us make better, more moral, and more intelligent choices. Negative habits, like addictions, will have the opposite effects. There is no golden mean for outright vices like ill-will, envy, adultery, and theft.
For this reason, then, our whole inquiry must be about these; for to feel delight and pain rightly or wrongly has no small effect on our actions.

A moral virtue is found in a happy middle, or a golden mean.

The happy middle is different depending on the action, desire or emotion. Take courage for example - the extremes are foolish rashness and cowardice. With courage, being rash is closer to the happy medium. With drinking, being a teetotaler is closer to the happy medium than being a drunkard.
Thus a master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this - the intermediate not in the object but relative to us.

It's also relative depending on the individual, the golden mean will be different for each person.

In order to know the golden mean in different actions, desires, emotions, and situations; it takes self-control and prudence.

Aristotle was not a fan of hedonism, and views the blind pursuit of pleasure as a vice not conducive to moral virtue:
We ought, then , to feel towards pleasure as the elders of the people felt towards Helen, and in all circumstances repeat their saying; for if we dismiss pleasure thus we are less likely to go astray. It is by doing this, then, (to sum the matter up) that we shall best be able to hit the mean.

People need role models who are good examples of moral virtue - Christians sometimes ask themselves 'What Would Jesus Do?'

Moral virtue is neither natural nor unnatural, but acquired as a habit through repetition. Virtue is something that has to be practiced constantly until it becomes automatic.


Book III: Preconditions of Virtue
We are responsible for our choices and our actions. In order to accept responsibility for actions, you have to do them voluntarily, not under compulsion; with relevant knowledge, and not have done an action blindingly, unthinkingly, or because of ignorance.

This notion of the voluntary action does not take into account one's individual freedom like later philosophers, theologians, and politicians have come to understand it. In order for our choices to be virtuous, they have to made on the basis of deliberation and rationality.
This is plain also from the ancient constitutions, which Homer represented; for the kings announced their choices to the people. The object of choice being of things in our own power which is desired after deliberation, choice will deliberate desire of things in our own power which is decided after deliberation, choice will deliberate desire of things in our own power; for when we have decided as a result of deliberation, we desire in accordance with our deliberation.

Courage and temperance are virtues that, besides having corresponding vices, are ideally found in a happy medium. Courage is about dealing with our fears of pain and poverty, not necessarily the elimination of those fears.
Hence also courage involves pain, and is justly praised; for it is harder to face what is painful than to abstain from what is pleasant.

Temperance is ultimately about having a good handle on deferring gratification, since yielding to pleasure is self-indulgent and even destructive.
So too to the unjust and to the self-indulgent man it was open at the beginning not to become men of this kind, and so they are unjust and self indulgent voluntarily; but now they have become so that it is not possible for them to be so.

Hence the appetitive element in a temperate man should harmonize with the rational principle; for the noble is the mark at which both aim, and the temperate man craves for the things he ought, as he ought, as when he ought; and this is what rational principle directs.


Book IV: Individual Virtues of Character
This book covers the social virtues and the proper allocation of wealth and resources. Wealth, and the corresponding virtues with their respective golden means.

Liberality is a virtue that stands between prodigality and meanness.

Magnificence is somewhere between vulgarity and niggardliness; it is a virtue that puts money and resources towards work that benefit the public good - magnificent people in Aristotle's day would sponsor theatrical productions and offer generous sacrifices during religious festivals.

Honor is made up of a few virtues, those being pride and industriousness.

Pride in this case is a virtue in terms of its golden mean and not its excesses. In modern terms based on a history of Christian values, pride is thought of as a vice. Aristotle is referring to that state of pride that lies between vanity and false modesty.

Industriousness is the happy middle between too much ambition and not caring (e.g. a lazy, unmotivated stoner).

Good temper is a virtue corresponding to anger. Anger should be controlled, but there are times when anger is justified and righteous. Good temper isn't just about burying your anger and passions but of being mindful of anger and passion and deciding, with deliberation, when and how to channel your anger. To never act on anger will make you too timid and others will think of you as a pushover.

Friendliness comes between flattery and being a jerk.
He must be unable to make his life revolve around another, unless it be a friend; for this is slavish, and for this reason all flatterers are servile and people lacking in self-respect are flatterers... Nor is he a gossip; for he speaks neither about himself nor about another, since he cares not to be praised nor for others to be blame; nor again is he given to praise; and for the same reason he is not an evil-speaker, even about his enemies, except from haughtiness.

Truthfulness comes between exaggerating/boasting about your accomplishments, and humble-bragging.
But each man speaks and acts and lives in accordance with his character, if he is not acting for some ulterior object. And falsehood is in itself mean and culpable, and truth noble and worthy of praise. Thus the truthful man is another case of a man who, being in the mean, is worthy of praise, and both forms of untruthful man are culpable, and particularly the boastful man.

A ready wit, or good sense of humor, comes between buffoonery(never taking anything seriously) and boorishness(this where you find puritans and SJWs)
The buffoon, on the other hand, is the slave of his sense of humor, and spares neither himself nor others if he can raise a laugh, and says things none of which a man of refinement would say, and to some of which he would not even listen. The boor, again, is useless for such social intercourse; for he contributes nothing and finds fault with everything.

Shame/modesty comes between bashfulness and shamelessness.

Excesses and deficiencies in charty goodness:

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Book V: Justice
Justice is a complex virtue because of all the types of justice. In this book, Aristotle distinguishes between what is permissible, what is obligatory and what is forbidden.

What is legal is not necessarily fair and equitable. Law-abiding people are just, but the laws of society don't represent what justice ultimately aims for. Natural justice, which to Aristotle is an ideal, fair, and equitable justice, is the standard by which human laws should ideally stand.
This, then, is what the just is - the proportional; the unjust is what violates the proportional.

Justice, in terms of fairness, is subdivided into rectificatory and distributive justice. In both, justice must be used for correction.

Rectificatory, or corrective, justice is about making an equal compensation between parties; eye for an eye style of compensation.

Distributive justice takes into account each party's status and is not about making things equal in terms of compensation. Relative factors, such as relative need or merit, are taken into consideration. For example, our modern system of progressive wage and tax structures are based on Aristotle's ideas of distributive justice.

In terms of voluntary exchange, justice must take into account the proportion between objects or services being exchanged and their costs in terms of labor involved, risk taken, and other bits which may be quantified. For this kind of justice to work, math, arithmetic, and rigor are required.

In terms of justice as a virtue, justice is also achieved through a golden mean. It is a habit of choosing to render or receive the right amount at the right time, and choosing the right course of action.
Therefore, the just is intermediate between a sort of gain and a sort of loss, viz. Those which are involuntary; it consists in having an equal amount before and after the transaction.

Equity is a unique kind of virtue in that it requires that a judge must consider a situation carefully and make exceptions not usually allowed under the most strict administration of justice. This is when a judge can be tough but fair.

Justice is also a personal struggle:
Metaphorically and in virtue of a certain resemblance there is justice, not indeed between a man and himself, but between certain parts of him...for these are ratios in which part of the soul that has a rational principle stands to the irrational part; and it is with a view to these parts that people also think a man can be unjust to himself.

Book VI: Virtues of Thought
This book covers the virtue of prudence, or practical wisdom, which is the intellectual and moral virtue of right reasoning in matters of securing ends and goals of life.

Prudence is set in the context of intellectual virtues. Aristotle distinguishes two spheres of intellectual activity and their objects - the object of the contemplative (speculative) intellect is truth; in this case, it is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The object of the practical (calculative) intellect is the correlation of right desire with truth.

Aristotle is a realist - he believes that one's mind must adhere to reality, make decisions based on reality, and make practical use of our intellect and rational faculties in reality.

He identifies five major intellectual virtues: science, art, prudence, intuitive reasoning, and philosophic wisdom.

Science is knowledge based on objective, observable reality. It concerns itself with what is necessary and eternal, and to explain cause-and-effect in reality and nature.
Scientific knowledge, then, is a state of capacity to demonstrate...for it is when a man believes in a certain way and the starting-points are known to him that he has scientific knowledge, since if they are not better known to him than the conclusion, he will have his knowledge only incidentally.

Art, in this case referring to technical mastery and not necessarily the performing or fine arts, is the habit of producing or being good at trades or skills.

Prudence or practical wisdom, as aforementioned, is achieved through proper deliberation- not too much nor too little.
Therefore, since scientific knowledge involves demonstration, but there is no demonstration of things whose first principles are variable (for all such things might actually be otherwise) and since it is impossible to deliberate about things that are of necessity, practical wisdom cannot be scientific knowledge nor art; not science because that which can be done is capable of being otherwise, not art because action and making are different kinds of things.

Excellence in deliberation in the unqualified sense, then, is that which succeeds with reference to what is the end in the unqualified sense, and excellence in deliberation in a particular sense is that which succeeds relatively to a particular end, If, then, it is characteristic of men of practical wisdom to have deliberated well, excellence in deliberation will be correctness with regard to what conduces to the end of which practical wisdom is the true apprehension.

Intuitive reason, or intuition of first principles, is about grasping the foundational principles from which all other virtues and their corresponding actions stem from. This first principle is that good must be pursued and that evil is avoided.

Wisdom (translated from the greek word sophia, one of the root words for philosophy) is the combination of intuitive reason with science in order to demonstrate the link between effects and their causes. Wisdom, which requires both philosophical and practical wisdom, is required to achieve happiness.
Again, the work of man is achieved only in accordance with practical wisdom as well as with moral virtue; for virtue makes us aim at the right ark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means.

Prudence is required to know how to act in any and all situations in life, and to know how to act morally, with virtue, and with common sense. It is also takes a certain amount of intelligence to grasp.
There is a faculty which is called cleverness; and this is such as to be able to do things that tend towards the mark we have set before ourselves, and to hit it. Now if the mark be noble, the cleverness is laudable, but if the mark be bad, the cleverness is mere smartness; hence we call even men of practical wisdom clever or smart. Practical wisdom is not the faculty, but it does not exist without this faculty.

It is only through prudence that you will find the golden mean in any choice or action; trial-and-error and a long timeline are necessary for the proper development of prudence.
This is possible in respect of the natural virtues, but not in respect of those in respect of which a man is called without qualification good; for with the presence of the one quality, practical wisdom, will be given all the virtues.

One big caveat to wisdom - merely knowing what is the right course of action does not always guarantee that one will always do the right thing.


Book VII: Continence and Incontinence
This books deals with the problems presented by the relation between knowledge and virtue. Aristotle believes that we are persuaded by the good, and that if we should know that the good will be achieved by moral virtues, we will then, ideally, act in accordance with that virtue. This isn't always the case.

To make sense of this problem, people will fall into six psychological states -the godlike person, the bestial person, the virtuous person, the continent, the incontinent, and the vicious person.

The godlike person has all the moral virtues but is therefore either extremely rare or nonexistent.

The bestial person is the extreme opposite to the godlike; these are much more common than godlike persons.

The virtuous person is so because of the habits he practices and the years of deliberation and repeated practice.

The continent person does the right action but without virtues nor with repeated practice like the virtuous person; they are good by nature.

The incontinent person is weak-willed; to be virtuous and to practice virtues like habits is an act of extreme willpower for these people, therefore this person often fails in that struggle where the continent and virtuous succeed.
It is plain, then, that incontinent people must be said to be in a similar condition to men asleep, mad or drunk. The fact that men use the language that flows from knowledge proves nothing...so that we must suppose that the use of language by men in an incontinent state means no more than its utterance by actors on the stage.

Evidently, then, incontinence is not a vice; for incontinence is contrary to choice while vice is in accordance with choice; not but what they are similar in respect of the actions they lead to...incontinent people are not criminals, but they will do criminal acts.


The vicious person has all the wrong, evil habits; they always choose, through habit and even deliberation, the extremes or deficiencies in actions.

Going back to the continent and incontinent, Aristotle argues that these people don't possess the knowledge to do the right thing; the continent man being the more blessed, but that both will benefit from knowledge and practice of virtue.
Of incontinence one kind is impetuosity, another weakness. For some men after deliberating fail, owing to their emotion, to stand by the conclusions of their deliberation, others because they have not deliberated are led by their emotion; since some men (just as people who first tickle others are not tickled themselves), if they have first perceived and seen what is coming and have first roused themselves and their calculative faculty, are not defeated by their emotion, whether it be pleasant or painful.

People come to their state by way of their reasoning, or through practical syllogism - a logical framework with three lines of thought: a first premise, second premise, and conclusion. The drawback of this framework is that it often ends with logical fallacies(eg. All labradors are dogs, ergo all dogs are labradors).

Another problem with this kind of reasoning is that one's intellect and reasoning will be irrationally influenced by passions and desires. Therefore, people must have control of our passions and not let them control us. One can only take control of those passions and the ensuing irrationality through deliberation.The ideal is to base our actions and behavior on first principle.
For virtue and vice respectively preserve and destroy the first principle, and in actions the final cause is the first principle, as the hypotheses are in mathematics; neither in that case is it argument that teaches the first principle, nor is it so here - virtue either natural or produced by habituation is what teaches right opinion about the first principle.


Book VIII: Friendship
In this book, Aristotle covers the topic of friendship. Good friendships are essential for living a happy, fulfilled life.
But it is not only necessary but also noble; for we praise those who love their friends, and it is thought to be a fine thing to have many friends; and again we think it is the same people that are good men and are friends.

There are three kinds of friendships: friendship of pleasure, friendship of utility, and a friendship of excellence.

Friendships of pleasure happen because people seek pleasurable interactions, therefore pleasure for themselves. These tend to be short-lived and based only on good vibes.

Friendships of utility are based on mutual gain between parties. These are also short-lived since once utility and mutual benefit ceases, so does the friendship

Friendships of excellence, or perfect friendships, are based on people's' shared virtues, and on those people wishing well for each other. These friendships are rare.
Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good themselves.

For many people have goodwill to those whom they have not seen but judge to be good or useful; and one of these might return this feeling. These people seem to bear goodwill to each other; but how could one call them friends, then, they must be mutually recognized as bearing goodwill and wishing well to each other for one of the aforesaid reasons.

But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such men are rare. Further, such friendships requires time and familiarity… nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each.

There exists an inequality in friendships based on proportions and traditions that have to be observed, but it is often found in the friendships between parents and children, husband and wife, and rulers and subjects.

The essence of true friendship is found in giving love, as in the love parents express for their children, more so than receiving it.

In order for a political community to function properly and with justice, it needs to be based on solid civic friendships.

Aristotle goes over the three basic types of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and timocracy ( a form of government in which possession of property and/or honor and merit are required to hold public office).

For these types, they have their extremes: monarchy-tyranny, aristocracy-oligarchy, timocracy-democracy(this last extreme being good).
For a man is not a king unless he is sufficient to himself and excels his subjects… now tyranny is the very contrary of this; the tyrant pursues his own good. And it is clearer in the case of tyranny that it is the worst deviation-form; but it is the contrary of the best that is worst.

The more successful types of political systems/constitutions tend to promote and nurture these kinds of friendships.
Therefore while in tyrannies friendship and justice hardly exist, in democracies they exist more fully; for where the citizens are equal they have much in common.

Book IX: Friendship Cont'd
At some point, people will have to break off a friendship. This will happen because of differences between people( especially in virtues). The best way to go about it is by being direct and firm.
When the interval is great this becomes most plain, eg in the case of childish friendships; if one friend remained a child in intellect while the other became a fully developed man, how could they be friends when they neither approved of the same things nor delighted in and were pained by the same things?

Self-love is the basis of all other relationships. You can't have good friends or share love and affection with others if you don't first know how to love yourself first.
Therefore, since each of these characteristics belongs to the good man in relation to himself, and he is related to his friend as himself (for his friend is another self), friendship too is thought to be one of these attributes, and those who have these attributes to be friends.

People need friends; this is because we are social creatures. Complete isolation is not in our nature nor does it do us good. Moreover, it is through solid friendships that we are able to help each other act and remain virtuous. An accountabilibuddy in virtue, as it were.

When it comes to good friends, you don't need too many to reap the benefits of quality friendships.
Therefore friends in excess of those who are sufficient for our own life are superfluous, and hindrances to the noble life; so that we have no need of them. Of friends made with a view to pleasure, also, few are enough, as a little seasoning in food is enough.

This isn't a system of ethics with an emphasis on self-reliance; it strikes a balance between dependence (since, again, humans are social and political animals) and independence.

Although there is much pleasure and joy from quality friendships, there exist in them a sense of nobility - the virtue that requires one to sometimes do painful things for the right reasons.
For this reason people of a manly nature guard against making their friends grieve with them, and, unless he be exceptionally insensible to pain, such a man cannot stand the pain that ensues for his friends, and in general does not admit fellow-mourners because he is not himself given to mourning; but when women and womanly men enjoy sympathisers in their grief, and love them in companion and sorrow.

Tying this back to Aristotle's concept of justice, we must strive to do what is equitable, even though it may require personal sacrifice.

Book X: Pleasure
In one's ethics, there is a place for pleasure. Aristotle isn't of the opinion that all pleasures, bodily or otherwise, are bad, just that they require self-control and temperance.

It is important not to confuse pleasure with happiness. Pleasures that assist in the development of our rationality and virtue are good. Those that impair our development should be controlled.
Whether, then, the perfect and supremely happy man has one or more activities, the pleasures that perfect these will be said in the strict sense to be pleasures proper to man, and the rest will be so in a secondary and fractional way, as are the activities.

Going back to virtues being habits, Aristotle notes that habits bring with them a sense of pleasure. Virtuous habits, in their constant practice to the point of becoming automatic, are also pleasurable (or at least painless) and a person will find delight in doing the right thing,.

Aristotle argues that moral maturation involves growth in feeling pleasure in some pursuits and increasing sensitivity to the ugliness or inappropriateness of other pursuits, though they may be pleasurable.

The happiness found in a contemplative life - the life of a philosopher - is the best kind of happiness.
That which is proper to each thing is by nature best and most pleasant for each thing; for man, therefore, the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man. This life is also the happiest.
04-17-2016 11:21 AM
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RE: Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle - Notes
Great thread, I enjoyed reading this
04-18-2016 03:38 AM
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RE: Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle - Notes
Read the Joe Sachs translation, it makes a world of difference. Nicomachean Ethics is perhaps the best book ever written outside scripture (if you believe in religion), and I would even advise setting aside War and Peace or Plutarch's Lives until you've read this book, that's how good it is.
05-02-2016 12:50 PM
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RE: Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle - Notes
(05-02-2016 12:50 PM)Laska Wrote:  Read the Joe Sachs translation, it makes a world of difference. Nicomachean Ethics is perhaps the best book ever written outside scripture (if you believe in religion), and I would even advise setting aside War and Peace or Plutarch's Lives until you've read this book, that's how good it is.

How'd you know I was reading War and Peace you stalkerWink
05-04-2016 08:18 AM
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RE: Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle - Notes
Isn't that a wonderful book? We shouldn't spoil the story for anyone, but the part where Anatole suduces a girl is what led me to find people like Roosh and Roissy:
"...in his behavior to women Anatole had a manner which particularly inspires in them curiosity, awe, and even love — a supercilious consciousness of his own superiority." -Leo Tolstoy.
05-04-2016 01:03 PM
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