Nicomachean Ethics - Book I Summary & Analysis

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Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics begins with a simple premise, which is that everyone wants to be happy. The best way to become happy takes up much of the rest of the work, as Aristotle examines the nature of happiness what sort of actions lead to it. He is not solely interested in happiness for the individual, but also for the community. Aristotle concludes that to be truly happy one must live a virtuous life, and he discusses several specific virtues and how they are best realized. At the root of all virtue, he claims, is the decision to be virtuous. This decision is based on understanding and reason. Study, he concludes, is the most important activity, then, for it leads to understanding and ultimately to the greatest form of happiness. Aristotle concludes his work with a proposal to examine how political systems affect the virtue of their citizens in order to construct a system that would best serve its members by encouraging and enforcing a life of study, virtue and happiness.

Aristotle begins with a discussion of ends and goods. Every craft aims at a certain end, and every decision a person makes is directed toward a desired outcome. These ultimate outcomes, or ends, are goods in the sense of being good things. Each good is specific to the craft that leads toward it, leading to many different goods. For the bridle-maker, for instance, the end is a bridle.

This bridle is used by a horseman, however, whose aim is horsemanship. Thus, Aristotle explains, some pursuits are superior to others. Many things, which people think of as desirable, are desirable because they lead to something else. A person might desire money, for instance. However, the reason they want money is to buy other things that are also desirable. Those desirable things may be desired for yet another reason. This chain would seem to go on forever, Aristotle suggests, unless there is something superior to all of these desires, which is desired for its own sake, and not because it leads to something else. There must be such a thing, Aristotle claims, otherwise all human pursuits would ultimately be empty. This ultimate thing he calls the "best good." (p. 1)

Having established that such a "best good" exists, Aristotle suggests that its nature be examined so that it might be pursued. The field of inquiry best suited to pursue the nature of this good is political science, he suggests, because it is the study of what is best for individuals and for groups of people. Aristotle warns against expecting exact answers from political science, because it deals with what is "usually" true and does not aim at determining universal truths. It is also a field that is best left to experienced people, not youth, he claims.

With this, Aristotle asks what this "best good" is, and rapidly concludes that both common and educated people would say that it is happiness. Each group has different ideas of happiness, however. The common people might think that honor or wealth are equated with happiness, while among educated people, or "the wise" as Aristotle calls them, some once believed that there is some ultimate good that makes all these other goods worthwhile. Here, Aristotle is referring to Plato's idea of a Form of the good, which he will reject later in this book.

Aristotle dismisses the idea of trying to examine all these ideas of happiness, suggesting it would be better to only examine those which are know to be widely-held, or which seem to have some evidence supporting them. Which ideas these are exactly is a problematic question, because those asking must be in a position to recognize them. In other words, they must have been brought up with "fine habits" in order to properly examine questions of political science. People derive their ideas of happiness from the kinds of lives they live.

Aristotle returns to the question of happiness, and defines three types of lives that are most desirable. These are the lives of "gratification," "political activity," and "study." (p. 4) Common people usually pursue the life of gratification, of mere pleasure, Aristotle claims. This makes them not much higher than animals. Not only common people pursue only gratification, however, he adds. Some well-known people in power are legendary in their pursuits of pleasure.

More cultivated people pursue politically active lives in order to receive honor from others. This ideal of happiness is incomplete, Aristotle suggests, because it relies on other people bestowing honor more than the actions of the individual. In addition, what these people wish to be honored for is their virtue, which means that virtue is, or should be, their actual aim.

Aristotle puts off the discussion of the life of study until later in the book. He remarks one common pursuit he has not included among the three, that of moneymaking. Since the desire for money is ultimately because of the other things it can purchase, he dismisses it from the types of lives that might be aimed at happiness.

Aristotle returns to the question of the Platonic idea of one superior Form of good. He repeats his contention that there are many different kinds of good, some that seem to be desirable for themselves, and some that lead to other goods. All of these goods have something in common, he admits, because they are not all simply called the same thing by mere chance, but whether this is out of analogy to some common ideal of good or not is beyond the scope of what he wishes to examine. If there is a Form of good, as Plato put forth, it is not something that can be reached practically by a person and so is not important to the pursuit of political science.

Aristotle reiterates the question of whether happiness is the "best good." He offers further support for this idea by pointing out that happiness is not desired because it leads to other things, but that other pursuits, such as gratification and honor, are sought because they lead to happiness. It is also "self-sufficient" in that it is not included as one of many similar things. There are many different kinds of goods, for instance, but just one kind of happiness.

Aristotle proposes going further into this assertion by asking whether humans have a function, as a carpenter has a function of building things for instance and a harpist has a function of playing the harp well. The most basic function of a human would seem to be simply to live and grow, but this function is shared with plants and animals also, so it cannot be distinctly human. Reason is what distinguishes people from plants and animals, and so to reason well must be the function of humans, he concludes. This function cannot be fulfilled in a short time, he adds, but must be judged over a lifetime.

Aristotle steps back and asks if his description of the good fits with the common views. It is important to make this evaluation, he says, because these views are relevant to the pursuit of political science. He concludes that his description fits with common ideas about the different kinds of goods. It also accounts for the different ideas of happiness and shows them to be at least partly correct. He goes on to present an idea he will develop more completely at the end of the work, which is that happiness requires things outside itself to exist, such as a certain level of prosperity.

Aristotle asks how it is that happiness can be achieved, whether it is by cultivation of some kind, or if it a matter of chance. He concludes that happiness reached through cultivation is better than that obtained by mere fortune, and for that reason it must the best kind of happiness. Furthermore, if it is a matter of cultivation then it is available to every person to be happy.

Aristotle returns to the discussion of whether a person can be called truly happy before he has lived his entire life. He refers to a saying by Solon, which says that no man can be called happy until he is dead. What Solon means by this, Aristotle says, is that a man's life cannot be judged a happy one until he has lived it entirely. This is perhaps true under on conception of happiness, Aristotle admits, but not necessarily if one connects happiness with virtue. If a man lives a virtuous life, then external misfortunes do not destroy his happiness. This means that happiness can be stable in a person's life, even when his life's circumstances are unstable, and therefore it is possible to call a man "happy" while he is still alive.

The place of virtue in relation to happiness is examined next by Aristotle. He suggests that virtue is inferior to happiness because it is something that is praised in others. Aristotle means, for instance, that a man might be congratulated and praised for being virtuous, but he is not celebrated for being happy. This Aristotle takes as evidence that happiness is more complete and perfect than virtue, and therefore superior to it.

Nevertheless, Aristotle continues, since happiness comes from living according to virtue, it is important to examine virtue in order to perhaps know more about happiness. To talk about virtue, he says, one must talk about the soul.

The soul seems to have two parts, a rational and a non-rational part. The non-rational part that controls the basic life functions goes on without our awareness, so it is not important to the discussion. Another part of the non-rational part is where simple desires reside. This non-rational part can come into conflict with the rational part. It is the rational part of the soul where the most important functions related to virtue are found. Each part of the soul has different kinds of virtue, and the balance between the rational and non-rational parts of the soul is important for living according to virtue.

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