Aristotle and the Good Life a brief Sketch of the Nicomachean Ethics



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Aristotle and the Good Life

A Brief Sketch of the Nicomachean Ethics

Dr. Ari Santas
Three Paths of Excellence
In Book I Aristotle describes the good life—eudaimonia—as a fulfilling a distinctively human function, and fulfilling it with excellence (doing it well). This function involves our rationality, not only in the exercise of learning about nature, but in its application to our human nature—our appetites, conduct, and interpersonal relationships. The Greek word excellence, arête, will correspond later to the Latin term virtú, which today is what we call virtue. There are important differences between these terms, but for our purposes we can focus on the idea of the pursuit of excellence, for which Aristotle identified three kinds, or, three paths of excellence: personal excellence, intellectual excellence, and interpersonal excellence.


  1. Moral Virtue (Bks. II-IV)

-Moral Virtue, according to Aristotle, involved the idea of character development.

-These virtuous characteristics, for which we give people praise, are not fixed behavioral traits based on prohibition, like the Christian virtues, but attitudes and actions following the Greek tradition of moderation.

-These properties of character involve a disposition to choose a middle ground—a mean--between excess and deficiency.

-so a courageous person, for instance is one who chooses, as a matter of habit, between the extremes of too much fear and not enough

-Notice that any give virtuous act is therefore context bound, varying with not only the circumstances, but with the abilities and dispositions of the individual person.

-two courageous persons could respond differently, therefore, to the same situation and the same courageous person will respond differently as the situation varies




  1. Intellectual Virtue (Bk. VI)

-Intellectual Virtue, for Aristotle, is the same as wisdom, which, after all, is excellence in thought.

-There are two kinds of wisdom: Theoretical Wisdom—sophia--and Practical Wisdom--phronēsis.

-sophia involves formulaic reasoning with makes use of the Principle of Non-Contradiction (what we identify with mathematical reasoning)

-phronēsis involves a combination of means-ends reasoning with moral virtue: a skillful reasoner without moral virtue maybe clever, but not wise until moral virtue becomes a part of his or her character




  1. Virtuous Friendship (Bks. VIII-IX)

-Because humans are social animals as well as rational animals, full excellence must include excellence in our interaction with one another.

-There three kinds of friendly interaction—philia, which for Aristotle is always grounded in some kind of commonality bringing some form of affection or good will. This is what we might call friendship.

-Useful Friendship is a friendly interaction in which the common bond is utility or benefit.

-Here the affection is not so much for person as it is for what they bring.



-Pleasure Friendship is a friendly interaction in which the common bond is mutually felt pleasure.

-Here the affection more closely involves the person, because it is shared good feeling, but it is still more focused on the feeling than the person.



-Virtuous Friendship is a friendly interaction in which the common bond is mutual respect.

-Here the affection is the person, not what he or she brings, yet at the same time, a virtuous friend is an enduring source of both pleasure and usefulness.


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