Ethics Study Guide: Aristotle

"Every individual man and all men in common aim at a certain end which determines what they choose and what they avoid. This end, to sum it up briefly, is happiness and its constituents."

Aristotle was born in 384 BC in the northern Greek town of Stageira. His father Nicomachus served as court physician to King Amyntas of Macedon, and Aristotle probably spent much of his youth at the royal court. In 367 Aristotle traveled to Athens, the intellectual center of Greece at the time, where he spent the next twenty years in Plato’s Academy, first as a student and subsequently as a teacher. Studying with Plato had an enormous impact on Aristotle’s intellectual development, and the influence of Plato’s ideas is evident throughout Aristotle’s writings, even when (as in many cases) he is struggling against them.

Upon Plato’s death in 347, Aristotle left Athens for Assos, in Asia Minor -- some have speculated, out of pique at not being chosen the next president of the Academy. But it is unlikely that relations between Aristotle and the Academy were strained in any such way, since Aristotle continued to be regarded as an Academic during his years abroad, and was even once more considered for the presidency some years later. Moreover, Aristotle moved to Assos in the company of his Academic colleague Xenocrates, to join the Academy’s delegation to the court of Hermeias, ruler of Atarneus (whose niece he was to marry); thus Aristotle was still carrying on the Academy’s mission. Anti-Macedonian feeling in Athens is a likelier reason for Aristotle’s departure.

In 343, after several years of study (including extensive biological research) in Assos and elsewhere in Asia Minor, Aristotle was invited by King Philip, Amyntas’ successor, to return to Macedonia to serve as tutor to Philip’s son, the future Alexander the Great. Much has been made of this association between the fourth century’s greatest philosophical genius and its greatest military genius, but precise influences are hard to identify. Aristotle’s departure from the Academic delegation at Atarneus was fortunate for him, however, for in 341 the area was conquered by the Persian Empire and Hermeias was tortured to death, an incident that may have contributed to Aristotle’s hostility toward “barbarians,” i.e., non-Greeks A surviving poem composed by Aristotle praises Hermeias as having died a martyr to virtue.

In 338 Athens, along with the rest of Greece, lost its independence and fell under the yoke of the Macedonian Empire. Three years later, King Philip died, and Alexander ascended the throne. Having proven his military prowess already during the conquest of Greece, Alexander marched off to conquer Greece’s ancient foe Persia, leaving Aristotle’s friend Antipater behind as governor of Greece. It was at this time, around 335, that Aristotle returned to Athens to found his own school, called variously the Peripatos (after the peripatos or colonnade where the school met) or the Lyceum (after the public grove of Apollo Lykeios, where the gymnasium housing the peripatos was located). Here he would spend nearly the rest of his life, teaching and writing under Macedonian patronage.

Aristotle’s precise reason for deciding to found a new school rather than rejoin the Academy is uncertain. Some ancient sources describe the Peripatos as from the beginning a hostile rival to the Academy, others as a friendly extension of it. In either case, however, it seems likely that Aristotle’s approach to philosophy, with its greater emphasis on empirical research, had become sufficiently different from the methods dominating the Academy that he felt more comfortable in an independent institution whose organization and outlook he could shape as he saw fit.

Upon Alexander’s death in 323, longstanding Athenian resentment against Macedonian rule began to be vented more freely, and Aristotle, in peril thanks to his Macedonian connections, fled Athens “to spare the Athenians a second crime against philosophy,” as he phrased it in a reference to the execution of Socrates. He died a year later, of an intestinal disorder, at his estate in Chalcis, leaving the Peripatos in the capable hands of his brilliant student Theophrastus.

Aristotle’s philosophical and scientific interests were wide-ranging. During his years at the Peripatos Aristotle composed some of the most important works ever written in logic, metaphysics, epistemology, physics, astronomy, biology, zoology, psychology, history, ethics, politics, rhetoric, and aesthetics, while his pupils Theophrastus and Aristoxenus wrote pioneering works in botany and music theory respectively. Aristotle and his students also assembled and edited a vast collection of manuscripts, believed by many scholars to have formed the original nucleus of the famous Library of Alexandria.

But Aristotle’s scholarly aims were not purely theoretical. The Peripatos, like the Academy, resembled not only a modern research university, devoted to knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but also a public policy institute or “think tank” with the practical aim of influencing legislation and constitutional reform. Such an ambition was by no means quixotic: the philosophical schools of Athens boasted princes and statesmen among their graduates, and philosophers were often called upon to play an advisory role in drawing up legal codes. Moreover, the founding of new colonies was a fairly frequent phenomenon in the Greek world, so even the prospect of designing a new political system from scratch was by no means unrealistic.

Aristotle wrote a number of philosophical works aimed at the general reader and praised in antiquity for their graceful, polished style. Apart from a few fragments, none of these works has survived. The Aristotelean writings we possess probably represent his lectures for advanced students. In all likelihood, none of them were intended for publication, at least in their current form. And no one would describe these crabbed, highly compressed writings as graceful or polished. Thomas Gray describes them well in one of his letters:

In the first place he is the hardest author by far I ever meddled with. Then he has a dry conciseness that makes one imagine one is perusing a table of contents rather than a book; it tastes for all the world like chopped hay, or rather like chopped logic; for he has a violent affection to that art, being in some sort his own invention; so that he often loses himself in little trifling distinctions and verbal niceties, and what is worse, leaves you to extricate yourself as you can. Thirdly, he has suffered vastly by his transcribers, as all authors of great brevity necessarily must. Fourthly and lastly, he has abundance of fine, uncommon things, which make him well worth the pains he gives one. You see what you have to expect.

Yet one of Aristotle’s more recent admirers finds his works inspiring despite their prosaic style:

His great aim in life was to understand -- to understand the world in which the Greeks found themselves. This was Aristotle’s all-consuming passion. Indeed, his may well be the most passionate mind in history: it shines through every page, almost every line. His crabbed documents exhibit, not “cold thought,” but the passionate search for passionless truth. For him, there is no “mean,” no moderation, in intellectual excellence. The “theoretical life” is not for him the life of quiet “contemplation,” serene and unemotional, but the life ... of intelligence, burning, immoderate, without bounds or limits. There is in him a tremendous energy, an indefatigable industry, a sheer power of thought, that fascinates anyone who takes the trouble to understand what he is doing.

Dante called Aristotle il maestro di color che sanno, the master of them that know. He is the first of the great “Knowers” in the Western tradition. ... Recent scholarship ... has made clear that our older picture of Aristotle as an industrious, conscientious, plodding fellow, who could not understand Plato, and could not feel Plato’s imaginative power, his yearning and aspiration, his Eros, his poetry, was all wrong. In reality, as a young fellow Aristotle seems to have been caught by Plato, and to have been inspired by Plato’s vision of truth. He got all that Plato had to offer, and thirsted for more: the whole of plato was not enough for him. That is, Aristotle now appears as not less but more than Plato -- he possesses more of understanding. ...

Aristotle aimed to understand Greece: he never forgot that aim. He did not aim to understand something else -- the Heavenly Beauty in the sky, the moral order in the universe, the divine creator of the world -- any of those things which men would like to find in the world, but which so far as the evidence goes, are not there. Aristotle tried to understand the world of Greece, that was there. He started with that overwhelming fact, with that subject matter. ... To understand the world of Greece meant for Aristotle three things: it meant an understanding of living, of knowing, and of talking. ...

To understand the world of Greece meant, first, an understanding of human life as something lived in human groups set in a physical environment. That is what men are encountered as being. They are not encountered as fallen angels, as wanderers from another realm. And they are not encountered as mere lumps of atoms, mere collections of electrons in motion. ... Groups of men in their natural setting -- what the Greeks called "cities," poleis -- formed the most insistent fact in the Greek world. ...

They are beings endowed also with intelligence, with nous -- they are "rational animals," "rational and political animals." ... During modern times ... it has been the accepted view that intelligence and knowing present a problem to be solved. ... Why, men have asked, is "mind," and thinking, added to what is quite perfect and complete without them? ... In such a world, "How is knowing possible?" For Aristotle, that would be a wholly unintelligible question. Knowing is for him an obvious fact. ... the world is the kind of world that can be talked about, in which things can be distinguished and defined, in which we can "reason" from one statement to another. The world lends itself to the grasp of language, it has a "logical" or "discursive" character, a systematic structure. Knowledge can find that structure, and express it in words and discourse .... "Knowing" is a matter of language, of stating; it is not a "having of sensations" or "sense data." ... Knowledge and language are a flowering of the world, an operation of its power to be understood and expressed.

-- John Herman Randall, Aristotle, pp. 1-7.

It is often said that Aristotle’s ethical and political writings simply reflect the prejudices common among Greek (or, it is sometimes even said, Athenian) gentlemen of his day. This is far from true. Although Aristotle is more concerned than was his teacher, Plato, to accommodate ordinary beliefs, Aristotle’s positions are highly revisionary. He does not passively endorse exisitng Greek opinions (much less Athenian ones -- Aristotle is highly critical of the central values of Athenian society, e.g., democratic freedom, acquisitive commerce, and military conquest). His proposed system of public education, for example, has no Greek precedent (apart from the Spartan system, which Aristotle vigorously rejects). Aristotle believes that most of his fellow Greeks are mistaken about the nature of the human good, identifying it with wealth or power rather than with virtuous activity. And his ethical outlook, which denies the possibility of conflict between the common good and the individual good, certainly does not reflect the views of average Greeks, at least not if we are to judge by the rampant civil strife and aggressively self-seeking class conflict that characterized much of this period. The fantasy, popular with many today, that ancient Greeks did not view themselves as individuals with identities and interests distinct from the community, is difficult to reconcile with the reports of Greek historians like Thucydides -- or for that matter with Aristotle’s own hard-headed assessment in the middle books of his Politics. Aristotle’s theories have been seen as a mere transcription of existing mores only because modern scholars have mistakenly read Aristotle’s outlook back into the mores that he is in fact criticizing.

Nor are Aristotle’s political values a blind reflection of his own personal situation. Despite being a “metic” (a resident alien, without political rights), he celebrates participatory citizen governance. Despite being a client of the Macedonian Empire, he celebrates the autonomous city-state. Aristotle is sometimes criticized for his lack of awareness that the age of independent Greek communities was coming to an end, to be replaced by sprawling military empires like Macedon and, later, Rome. But a careful reading of his works shows that Aristotle was keenly aware of, and bitterly opposed to, the centralizing political trends of his day. Too explicit a criticism of his Macedonian patrons would no doubt have been unwise; Athens was under Macedonian rule during Aristotle’s entire career at the Peripatos. But Aristotle makes his own view clear enough: an empire is too large to be a proper political community (Pol. VII. iv. 1326 a 34-b 13), and imperialistic domination is an unjust goal in any case (Pol. VII. ii. 1324 b 23-1325 a 8). As for the Macedonian monarchy, Aristotle remarks tersely -- without naming names -- that all kings nowadays are tyrants. (Pol. V. viii. 1313 a 4-5.)

Aristotle’s method is dialectical. He believes that inquiry should start from, and attempt to harmonize and explain, the “appearances” (phainomena) -- i.e., what initially seems plausible -- where this includes not only the data of sense-perception, but also the “reputable beliefs” (endoxa) of other people. (NE I. iv, viii, VII. I; EE I. vi; Topics I.) Not all beliefs are equally reputable. The reputability of a belief is a function of the number of its adherents and the wisdom of its adherents. Hence endoxa are also referred to as the opinions of the many and of the wise. Plato had regarded only the views of the wise, not those of the many, as reputable; but Aristotle believes that the collective wisdom of the many can sometime be greater than that of a single wise individual. (That is one reason that Aristotle is less hostile to democracy than Plato was.)

If there is a central theme of Aristotle’s philosophy, it is the importance of avoiding one-sidedness. Aristotle thinks that people tend to seize on one side of the truth and treat it as the entire truth. Indeed, Aristotle believes that the wise and the many tend to make opposite mistakes; the wise tend to lose touch with reality by spinning out webs of theory, and need to be brought back down to earth by the views of the many, while the many, in turn, tend to be too materialistic and narrow-minded, and need to be awakened to the higher truths perceived by the wise. The correct approach, then, is to steer between the extremes by finding the aspect of truth in each side.

While Aristotle was deeply influenced by his teacher, he was no slavish follower of Plato, but broke away from him on a number of important points. In particular, Aristotle had no sympathy for the theory of Forms. For Aristotle, what is fundamentally real and basic is individual particular things, and universal properties exist merely as aspects of those things; so from his perspective Plato is guilty of turning reality upside-down by making universal properties fundamental. Aristotle also rejects the Platonic view that virtue alone is sufficient for happiness; this treats human beings as disembodied souls and ignores their fleshly aspects. Yet the crude Calliclean view that human well-being is solely a matter of pleasure and worldly success is one that Aristotle rejects also. Human beings are less than gods, but more than animals. To treat humans as animals and ignore their divine side is a mistake of the many; to treat humans as gods and ignore their animal side is a mistake of the wise.

In some ways Aristotle’s method is not so very different from Plato’s. Both begin from common beliefs, and try to work out the contradictions among them in order to reach a coherent account. The difference is that Plato thinks common beliefs are radically wrong, and need thorough revision in order to approach the truth. Aristotle, by contrast, thinks common beliefs are on the right track, and while they need revision, the revision will not need to be as through as Plato supposed. (One might say that Aristotle is seeking a middle path between Plato and Protagoras on this issue.)

The central concept in Aristotle’s ethics is eudaimonia, usually translated as “happiness.” Literally it means “being well-favoured by the gods.” For Aristotle it is not a subjective psychological state, but a condition of overall well-being; we might think of it as “living a good life” or “flourishing as a human being.” (Remember Nozick’s argument in “The Experience Machine” to show that a good life is not just a matter of how it feels mentally.) Indeed, Aristotle even argues that what happns after our deaths -- whether our loved ones prosper or not after we’re dead -- can affect the “happiness,” i.e., the overall goodness, of our lives.

Aristotle’s conception of ethics is not one of discovering rules to live by. (In that respect he differs from later philosophers such as Immanuel Kant.) Aristotle thinks that being a virtuous person involves a kind of moral insight developed through experience but not statable in words. (Hence his interest in moral education, i.e., in specifying the social environment in which people will have the best chance of developing this skill.) One modern-day Aristotelean expresses the basic idea as follows:

A kind person can be relied upon to behave kindly when that is what the situation requires. ... A kind person has a reliable sensitivity to a certain sort of requirement that situations impose on behaviour. The deliverances of a reliable sensitivity are cases of knowledge .... The sensitivity is, we might say, a sort of perceptual capacity. ... We tend to assume that the knowledge must have a stateable propositional content .... Then the virtuous person’s reliably right judgments as to what he should do, occasion by occasion, can be explained in terms of interaction between this universal knowledge and some appropriate piece of particular knowledge about the situation at hand .... This picture fits only if the virtuous person’s views about how, in general, one should behave are susceptible of codification .... But to an unprejudiced eye it should seem quite implausible that any reasonably adult moral outlook admits of any such codification. As Aristotle consistently says, the best generalizations about how one should behave hold only for the most part. If one attempted to reduce one’s conception of what virtue requires to a set of rules, then, however subtle and thoughtful one was in drawing up the code, cases would inevitably turn up in which a mechanical application of the rules would strike one as wrong -- and not necessarily because one had changed one’s mind; rather, one’s mind on the matter was not susceptible of capture in any universal formula. ... If the question “How should one live?” could be given a direct answer in universal terms, the concept of virtue would have only a secondary place in moral philosophy. But the thesis of uncodifiability excludes a heads-on approach to the question whose urgency gives ethics its interest. Occasion by occasion, one knows what to do, if one does, not by applying universal principles but by being a certain kind of person: one who sees situations in a certain distinctive way. ... It is sometimes complained that Aristotle does not attempt to outline a decision procedure for questions about how to behave. But we have good reason to be suspicious of the assumption that there must be something to be found along the route he does not follow.

-- John McDowell, Mind, Value, and Reality, pp. 51-73.

We shall be encountering this idea again in the course when reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.


The Rhetoric is Aristotle’s handbook for making public speeches. Since arguments in public speeches, in order to succeed, must appeal to premises that will be widely accepted, it is useful for the student of rhetoric to be familiar with common beliefs. Aristotle accordingly sets out a great many common beliefs, particularly beliefs about ethics.

The views described in the Rhetoric are thus not necessarily Aristotle’s own. Nevertheless, since Aristotle’s own theory relies heavily on common beliefs, and tries to preserve them as far as it can, the Rhetoric provides us with useful guidelines to Aristotle’s views, which we shall see expressed more precisely and rigorously in the Nicomachean Ethics.

Keep in mind, incidentally, that the term translated, both there and in the Nicomachean Ethics, as “honour” means something like “being honoured,” i.e., having a good reputation.

Study Questions

1. What are Aristotle’s four definitions of happiness? (Bk. I, Ch. 5) How do they differ?

2. What are the constituents of happiness? (Bk. I, Ch. 5)

3. What are the three kinds of goods? (Bk. I, Ch. 5)

4. Which things are good? (Bk. I, Ch. 6)

5. In what ways can one good be greater, or more self-sufficing, than another good? (Bk. I, Ch. 7)

Nicomachean Ethics I

“Do you know how the ancient Greeks defined happiness? Happiness, they said, was the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.”

That quotation is from the science-fiction television show Babylon 5. It’s also a paraphrase of Aristotle’s definition of happiness in the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics -- though, oddly enough, Aristotle’s “rational” has been changed to “vital.” (Well, the speaker in the show was a villain ....)

The Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle’s best-known work on ethics, and probably his last. (Its relation to two others, the Eudemian Ethics and the Magna Moralia, is a matter of scholarly dispute.) It is not know precisely why the work is called “Nicomachean.” Nicomachus was the name of Aristotle’s father, and also of Aristotle’s son; perhaps the work was dedicated to one of them.

In Book I, Aristotle tries to define the nature of happiness by identifying the human function. (You'll recognize this as a development of Socrates' argument at the end of Republic I.) But what does it mean to speak of human beings as having a function? We tend to think that if we describe biological features as having functions -- if, say, we regard grasping and manipulating things as the function of the hand -- then that commits us to meaning either a) that God created the hand with the intention that it would be used for grasping and manipulating, or else b) that the process of evolution through natural selection favored hands because the hand's ability to grasp and manipulate promoted its possessor's survival and reproduction. But Aristotle is neither a creationist nor an evolutionist; he accepts neither (a) nor (b). Unlike creationists and evolutionists, Aristotle does not face the problem of explaining the origin of species, because he believes that the earth is infinitely old and that species have always existed. But he insists that certain features of the world, although they are the products neither of design nor of evolution, cannot be understood except in terms of their promoting certain ends; we cannot understand a hand except in terms of what it is for. And he claims the same thing about human beings themselves.

Study Questions

1. What is Aristotle’s argument for identifying political science with knowledge of the ultimate good? (Bk. I, Chs. 1-2)

2. What should a student of political science be like? (Bk. I, Chs. 3-4)

3. How does Aristotle argue against identifying happiness with pleasure? And what counter-argument does he consider? (Bk. I, Ch. 5)

4. How does Aristotle argue against identifying happiness with honour (i.e., reputation)? (Bk. I, Ch. 5)

5. How does Aristotle argue against identifying happiness with virtue? (Bk. I, Ch. 5)

6. How does Aristotle argue against identifying happiness with wealth? (Bk. I, Ch. 5)

7. How does Aristotle argue against Plato’s Form of the Good? (Bk. I, Ch. 6)

8. What is Aristotle’s end-of-action criterion of happiness? (Bk. I, Ch. 7)

9. What is Aristotle’s completeness criterion of happiness? (Bk. I, Ch. 7)

10. What is Aristotle’s self-sufficiency criterion of happiness? (Bk. I, Ch, 7)

11. What is Aristotle’s argument for saying that human beings possess a function? (Bk. I, Ch. 7)

12. How does Aristotle argue against identifying the human function with life (i.e., survival)? (Bk. I, Ch. 7)

13. How does Aristotle argue against identifying the human function with pleasure? (Bk. I, Ch. 7)

14. How does Aristotle argue for defining happiness as rational activity of the soul? (Bk. I, Ch. 7)

15. How does Aristotle argue for changing the definition of happiness to rational activity of the soul, expressive of virtue? (Bk. I, Ch. 7)

16. How does Aristotle argue for changing the definition of happiness to rational activity of the soul, expressive of virtue, in a complete life? (Bk. I, Ch. 7)

17. What are the three kinds of goods? (Bk. I, Ch. 8)

18. How does Aristotle’s definition do justice to the various competing conceptions of happiness? (Bk. I, Ch. 8)

19. Why does happiness require external goods? (Bk. I, Ch. 8)

20. To what extent does happiness depend on good luck? (Bk. I, Ch. 9)

21. To what extent does Aristotle agree or disagree with Solon’s claim that no one should be considered happy until he is still alive? (Bk. I, Ch. 10)

22. How does Aristotle argue for changing the definition of happiness to rational activity of the soul, expressive of virtue, in a complete life, with an adequate supply of external goods? (Bk. I, Ch. 10)

23. What is Aristotle’s distinction between losing happiness and becoming miserable? (Bk, I, Ch, 10)

24. Does Aristotle end up deciding for or against changing the definition of happiness to >rational activity of the soul, expressive of virtue, in a complete life, with an adequate supply of external goods, which will continue until his death? (Bk. I, Ch. 10)

25. To what extent can our happiness be affected by what happens after our deaths? (Bk. I, Chs. 10-11)

26. Is happiness praiseworthy? (Bk. I, Ch. 12)

27. What is Aristotle’s distinction between the part of the soul that is fully rational, the part of the soul that is fully nonrational, and the part of the soul that lacks reason itself but can understand and obey the rational part? (Bk. I, Ch. 13) How is Aristotle’s distinction similar to or different from Plato’s?

28. What is the difference between virtues of thought and virtues of character? (Bk. I, Ch. 13)


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