Nicomachean Ethics Themes

This Study Guide consists of approximately 44 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Nicomachean Ethics.
This section contains 994 words
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Happiness is the thing that all humans strive toward, Aristotle proposes. In all decisions and in all things, the end goal is happiness. People may wish for other things, but these things are just a means to bring happiness. Happiness is something that is wanted for itself, not because it leads to something else, and so it is "complete."

In Book I, Aristotle bases his inquiry into ethics on the idea of happiness because it is complete in this way. It informs every decision that a rational being makes. Rationality is a distinctly human trait, so thus happiness is the proper thing on which to build an account of proper virtuous behavior. In fact, as Aristotle concludes in Book X, this rationality is what leads to the greatest happiness.

Happiness is not the same as pleasure, Aristotle claims. Pleasure is not complete, because something that is pleasing can still be improved if virtue is added to it. Anything that can be improved upon is incomplete. Simple pleasure is not guided by reason. Thus, Aristotle rejects the idea that a life devoted to pleasure will bring happiness.

However, neither will virtue alone bring happiness, Aristotle claims. External forces can invade upon the happiness of even a virtuous life and keep a person from being happy by affecting his ability to reason clearly. Nevertheless, the virtuous life based on reason is still the most likely path toward real, complete happiness. Reason and study are available to almost all people, and since they ultimately control one's happiness, they are central to Aristotle's concept of the essential function of humans.

Responsibility and Acting Voluntarily

It is not enough simply to do virtuous actions, Aristotle claims. They must be done in the correct state of mind and must be done with the correct intention. Each person, because he possesses an intellect capable of decision, must voluntarily decide to develop his character and aim his actions toward virtue. Virtue without this voluntary action is not truly virtue, and neither is vice. If we do something that appears virtuous but only because we fear some kind of punishment, we are not acting in true accordance with virtue, he claims. Also, if we are forced to perform some shameful act by another, or if someone takes hold of our hand and uses it to strike another, we are not to blame for our actions.

Blame and responsibility play an important role in Aristotle's development of the idea of virtue. Acting voluntarily is only part of the picture. Animals also act voluntarily, he notes, but they are not held responsible for their actions or assigned blame or praise. Humans differ in that they possess rational thought and so can be held responsible and blamed or praised for what they do. Aristotle extends this responsibility even to an individual's character. A person is responsible for developing his own character and reinforcing the habits in himself that will support a life of virtue. A person will ideally have the proper upbringing to start developing these habits at an early age.

While each person is held responsible for his own actions and character in Aristotle's philosophy, he seems to hold the community partly responsible for the development of the proper habits and traits in its members. At the end of Book X, he suggests that political systems should aim at supporting the upbringing of citizens who are capable of making the proper voluntary steps required to choose a virtuous path. By implication, these habits and deals cannot be forced upon them unwillingly or else they will not be personally responsible for what they do since they are not acting voluntarily.

The Mean

Ethics to Aristotle are principles that should be used to guide the actions of individuals in their actions and states in the development of their laws and political structures. As such, they should be practical. It is not merely enough to think and talk about virtue, Aristotle suggests. It is crucial to inquire into how virtue can be put into practice in everyday life.

It is not practical to try to define one specific course of action that will apply to all people in all situations, Aristotle suggests. There are many different character traits, each different, as well as different kinds of people. His solution is defining virtues of character not as specific actions, but of states that exist between two extremes. He calls this intermediate state the "mean." The virtue of bravery, for example, is the mean between cowardice and rashness. The virtue of friendliness is the mean between being quarrelsome and being ingratiating or flattering. These means are not firm points between the extremes, but represent a kind of balance between them.

Thus, a person achieves these virtues by maintaining a balance between the extremes. Never are the scales perfectly balanced, Aristotle implies, but are always tipping one way or the other. A person should constantly adjust his path toward the balance point, but if he goes to one side or the other in the process, he is not to be blamed. This definition of virtue is practical in that it provides a goal for action and does not attempt to proscribe one course of action to all. Indeed, Aristotle claims that this mean is not in the same place for all people. Some might be more naturally afraid than others, and so must steer more toward bravery. Those who are naturally brave must avoid becoming rash by steering away from that extreme. The mean is determined by each individual using prudence, which is guided by reason and understanding.

The idea of the mean also serves to connect very different virtues of character in a unifying way. Although each virtue addresses a very different character trait, each is the same kind of intermediate state, regardless of the person or the virtue. This allows Aristotle to speak in broad terms about virtue while still maintaining the practical aspects of his ethics.

This section contains 994 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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