Books I & II
Let us again return to the good we are seeking, and ask what it can be. It seems different in different actions and arts; it is different in medicine, in strategy, and in the other arts likewise. What then is the good of each? Surely that for whose sake everything else is done. In medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house, in any other sphere something else, and in every action and pursuit the end; for it is for the sake of this that all men do whatever else they do. Therefore, if there is an end for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and if there are more than one, these will be the goods achievable by action.
. . . Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these (e.g. wealth, flutes, and in general instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.
Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves . . . but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.
In less than thirteen years, a young man named Alexander conquered every kingdom between Greece and Egypt, defeated the Persian army and created an empire that stretched all the way to India. In his masterful book The Written World, Martin Puchner argues that his success was due in part to a book he kept under his pillow – a copy of Homer’s Iliad annotated by hand by Aristotle, his teacher. He was said to have been buried with this treasure. Perhaps the annotations were too subtle for Alexander to see what Dante realized: He was, quite simply, “il maestro di color che sanno— master of those who know” (Dante’s encomium to Aristotle in Inferno IV: 131).
Aristotle would have lamented his student’s eventual end. In his book The Great Books Reader, John Mark Reynolds said:
Aristotle’s student, Alexander, became “the Great” in the eyes of history but not by the standards of Aristotle. Alexander was good at everything he tried except flourishing as a man. Conquering the world turned out to be easier for the godlike Alexander than vanquishing his inner demons and learning to control his excesses and passions.
The Ethics would have prevented Alexander’s failure as a man, if he had been willing to listen to his teacher’s ethics. Aristotle would have pointed his brilliant student to mastery of the soul instead of mastery of nations. The teacher assumed the superiority of the small community for human happiness, but Alexander preferred grandiose palaces and great empires. Aristotle urged men to be moderate; Alexander lived large.
Is moderation always superior?
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
D I G D E E P E R
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
One of the founders of Western philosophy, Aristotle wrote many treatises on a wide variety of topics, including natural science, poetics, rhetoric, logic, and philosophy. Among these works, his Nicomachean Ethics has had a profound and enduring influence upon ethical reasoning in the Western tradition, as well as an incalculable influence on Christian moral thought in particular.
Like Socrates and Plato before him, Aristotle understood the moral life to consist in caring for one’s soul. He sought to answer fundamental moral questions: What is the purpose of life? How do we become good? How do we determine what is right in any given situation? Aristotle’s account is no ivory-tower philosophy, removed from common experience; rather, he engages our moral common sense from the beginning and uses it to come to solid, real-world conclusions about how we ought to live.
Aristotle begins the Ethics by determining the highest human good. In other words, what do we desire always for its own sake and never as a means to something else? He contends that man’s highest good is eudaimonia, a Greek word typically translated “happiness.” While this rendering is adequate, however, we should bear in mind that Aristotle’s essential meaning is “complete well-being” or “human flourishing.”
Now, while all people tend to agree that happiness is the highest good, there is certainly disagreement over that in which happiness consists. Is it pleasure? Honor? Wealth? Something else? In order to answer, Aristotle identifies man’s “function”—i.e., the activity that is proper to his nature. The specific difference of human nature, or what distinguishes him from other species, is his rationality. Thus, happiness must consist in rational activity, which involves both knowing and choosing.
Aristotle defines happiness as “the activity of the soul in accordance with [complete] virtue.” By “virtue” he means human excellence; since rational activity, again, involves both knowing and choosing, there are both intellectual and moral virtues.
After establishing the general context in Book I, Aristotle gives a more detailed account of moral virtue in Book II. A moral virtue is a deliberately chosen habit that’s typically a “mean” between “extremes” of excess and deficiency; for example, the virtue of courage is the mean between the vices of rashness and cowardice. So, for Aristotle, it’s not enough simply to act in accordance with reason once in a while. We must cultivate habits of virtue that develop into a firmly established moral character over a lifetime.
Furthermore, Aristotle is convinced that perfect moral virtue is difficult to acquire, at least in part because many particulars must be considered. As he puts it, “Anyone can get angry; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy.”
After spending the first half of Book III arguing that we’re responsible for those actions we voluntarily choose, Aristotle begins an account of specific moral virtues (starting with courage and temperance) that continues through Books IV and V; he takes up intellectual virtues, such as wisdom, art, and prudence, in Book VI.
In Book VII, Aristotle addresses the reality of moral weakness in the struggle to do what is right. Unlike the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues, Aristotle does not view moral failure as simply an intellectual mistake; even if we know what’s right, we may still fail to do it. He concludes Book VII with a discussion of pleasure.
Books VIII and IX concern friendship, which Aristotle considers necessary for happiness. He identifies two imperfect kinds of friendship—those of pleasure and of utility—and a perfect kind, a friendship of virtue. In Book X he returns to a treatment of pleasure and then concludes by making a new claim regarding happiness, namely that the happiness involved in the life of contemplation is superior to the happiness of an active life. This is not to say, however, that the active life is unnecessary. We must live with others, and the life of moral virtue is an indispensable part of happiness.
Nicomachean Ethics is one of the few “great books” that’s always near the top of anyone’s list. Given its influence on the Western tradition, reading the Ethics is essential to understanding the Great Conversation that continues to unfold through the centuries. And as for Christian moral reasoning, there is certainly no other work by a non-Christian author that has had so profound an impact on the way we think about morality.
The Ethics is filled with pearls of ethical wisdom and provides a detailed, orderly account of what happiness is and how to pursue it. It’s also invaluable for the questions it provokes: Is Aristotle’s account of moral failure adequate? How does the difficulty of attaining virtue, of which he speaks, point to original sin (a primeval wounding of human nature) and to our need for grace to help us become good? Is his general account of human happiness true, as far as it goes? Is the contemplative life superior to the active life? How does the happiness of which Aristotle speaks relate to the happiness the Christian desires to enjoy in heaven?
Jeffrey S. Lehman is a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. He is also a fellow of the Center for Thomas More Studies and holds a PhD in philosophy from the Institute of Philosophic Studies at the University of Dallas.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).