Directions: Read to the bottom (scrolling
if necessary); then click "forward =>."

Aristotle and Plato were the greatest philosophers of ancient Greece. While his teacher Plato based moral knowledge on abstract reason, Aristotle grounded it on experience and tried to apply it more to concrete living.

Aristotle had an enormous impact on later moral philosophers, especially on St. Thomas Aquinas and other Christian philosophers. Those who follow the "Virtue Ethics" movement today also find their inspiration in Aristotle.

These summaries and problems deal with books 1-3, 6, and 10 of Aristotle's great work on ethics, the Nicomachean Ethics. These materials are copyrighted (c) 1998 by Harry J. Gensler but may be distributed freely.


Aristotle was born in northern Greece in 384 B.C. He was raised by a guardian after the death of his father, Nicomachus, who had been court physician to the king of Macedonia.

Aristotle entered Plato's Academy at age 17. After Plato's death, he supervised the education of the young Alexander the Great. He started his own school, the Lyceum, at age 49.

He fled Athens after the death of Alexander the Great, fearing an attack from the anti-Macedonians. He died in 322 B.C., at age 62.

The Nicomachean Ethics

The Nicomachean Ethics was the first book ever written on ethics, and still one of the greatest and most influential. It is meant to be practical -- to teach us to be virtuous more than to understand what virtue is.

Aristotle assumes that all our actions aim at some end or good, that our ends form a hierarchy, and that there is one ultimate end. The highest good is that at which all actions aim; it must be an end-in-itself, self-sufficient, and attainable. As happiness alone satisfies these conditions, happiness alone is our highest good.


The Greek "eudaimonia," which we translate as "happiness," more precisely means "excellence" or "living well." Happiness is our highest good.

Happiness is virtuous activity that fulfills our proper function. Such activity is satisfying and brings pleasure. But our ultimate end isn't pleasure; if it were, we'd be no better than the beasts. Physical pleasures, indeed, can tempt us with excesses and lead us away from virtue and happiness.


The distinct human function that separates us from other beings is reason. Thus our highest good (happiness) must involve reason.

The harpist's function is to play the harp and to play it well, and the heart's function is to pump blood and to pump it well. So also our function is to use reason and to use it well. As we do this, we fulfill the natural end to which we are oriented.

Our happiness consists in the excellent use of reason -- in virtue.


The virtue of a thing is its proper excellence. Our virtue consists in excellent rational activity. Virtue is a habitual way of acting -- not an emotion or a capacity. There are intellectual virtues (about thinking) and moral virtues (about character).

Virtue is a mean between excess and deficiency. For example, courage is a mean between recklessness and cowardice. We judge the mean by perception -- not by mathematical calculation.

A virtuous act requires that we do the right thing knowingly and willingly, that we act in character, and that we do the act for its own sake (and not from an ulterior motive or reward).

Moral Development

Virtue doesn't arise naturally; it requires training and habitual action -- that we keep doing the right thing with the right motivation. We become what we do; we form our moral character through our choices and actions. For example, your marriage commitment (a virtue) can be formed and nourished by daily actions that express your commitment and love.

A virtue is a habit -- but not one that is mechanical or automatic; rather, it is voluntary and purposeful. We are responsible for what we do and who we are. We cannot excuse ourselves from ignorance, weakness, or even addiction.

Practical Wisdom

A person of practical wisdom deliberates well about the proper means to the goal of happiness. This presumes a good upbringing in virtue, a wide experience of life, and an intelligent calculation of how to achieve the highest good in the concrete situation.

Socrates thought that virtue consisted in knowledge; once we know virtue, we will be virtuous. But virtue isn't knowledge, it's an habitual activity. We become virtuous by doing virtuous acts. While practical wisdom is important, we also need action.


The highest form of happiness is contemplation (philosophical wisdom). This involves scientific understanding -- the intuitive grasp of eternal first principles combined with demonstration.

Of all the pleasures in life, contemplation is the most continuous and self-sufficient. It aims at nothing outside of itself. It realizes a divine element in us. It directs our highest activity toward the highest objects. Philosophical wisdom combined with a virtuous character is complete happiness.

Most people cannot achieve this elevated form of happiness; they must settle for a life of practical virtue -- of courage, justice, and so forth.


The social good is more important than the individual good. Political science (politics), which aims at the social good, is thus the highest and most noble of the practical concerns in life.

Legislators are responsible for the proper moral upbringing of the citizens of the polis. Parents are responsible for the proper training of their children, habituating them in the virtues.

Only citizens of the city-state have adequate leisure to pursue virtue and theoretical study. So only they can achieve their proper end of complete happiness. All others must work to provide for the necessities of life.

menu | forward =>
This set has 33 problems.