All human beings by nature desire to know

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Aristotle’s Ethics

All human beings by nature desire to know.”

Aristotle (384-322 bce), Metaphysics

At the age of seventeen, Aristotle (384-322 bce) traveled from northern Greece to Athens where he hoped to study at Plato’s famous Academy. He must have liked what he found, since he stayed for nineteen years, eventually becoming one of the teachers. He left Athens and the Academy when Plato died in 347, but returned in 335 to open his own school at the Lyceum (a gymnasium and garden located near the temple of Apollo Lyceus). Aristotle is reported to have written dia­logues after the manner of Plato, as well as the extensive lecture notes that he used in the classroom, and ancient read­ers of his dialogues claim that he was an exceptionally gifted writer. Unfortunately none of these dialogues have sur­vived the ravages of the cen­turies, and all that we have had available of Aristotle’s writ­ings (at least for the last two thousand years or so) are his lecture notes. Some of these notes are highly polished, while others are rough and rather schematic, and much of their ordering was introduced later by ancient editors. But regardless of their literary merit, their philoso­phical and scientif­ic import­ance is unsurpassed, and has affected the nature and growth of the western intellectual world in untold ways. Ari­stotle was a great scholar, scientist, and teacher, a giant of the past whose thoughts still move as a living force among us.

Two separate sets of his lecture notes on ethics have survived — the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics. The for­mer is by far the more developed and more important of the two; it has been widely read through­out the cen­turies, and is still a com­mon text in undergraduate curricula around the world. Like so much of what Aris­totle wrote, it is the first systematic discussion of ethics in recorded history. Much of interest is discussed in the ten books comprising the Ni­co­mach­ean Ethics: the good, virtue and vice, justice, friendship, weak­ness of the will, pleasure and happiness. Per­haps it is be­cause human nature has changed so little in the last twenty-five centuries that Aristotle’s ob­servations in moral psy­chology still sound wholly familiar. In the following, I will outline a few themes from Books I and II of the Nico­mach­ean Ethics.

Ethics as the Science of Human Flourishing

Science is a systematic body of true beliefs, according to Aristotle, and all knowledge, in order to be knowledge, must be part of some science or other. To know something (for example, that water freezes at 0° Celsius) is not merely to entertain a true belief, but also to know why it is true; only then does one have episteme (the Greek word typically translated as “knowledge” but some­times also as “science”). Aristotle viewed all of human knowl­edge as divided into three kinds of science: theoretical, practical, and productive. The productive sciences are those con­cerned with making something (such as the science of making pots, or of farming, or of writing poetry). The practi­cal sciences concern how we are to behave among ourselves (two prominent examples here are political science and ethics). The theoretical sciences are concerned neither with pro­duction, nor with human action, but rather with truth, and Aristotle believed that the vast majority of science was theo­retical, which he further divided into three subdivisions: mathematics, natural science, and theology. But we must leave these divisions and return to the sci­ence of ethics.

Ethics is the systematic study of how humans ought to behave. The standard meaning of the Greek word ethika, as found in the title of Aristot­le’s work, is “matters to do with character” — and we find in reading the Ethics that much of it is in­deed devoted to character and the ways in which a character might be virtuous or vicious.

Arete and eudaimonia are two other Greek words whose translation merits some discussion. Arete is typically translated as “virtue,” but it is often bet­ter translated as “excellence.” For in­stance, one can speak meaningfully of a knife hav­ing arete, but a “virtuous knife” sounds distinct­ly odd in English; what is meant here is that the knife is excellent, that it performs its function well. So when Aristotle speaks of human virtue, remem­ber that he has human excellence in mind. Finally, eudaimonia is typi­cally translated as hap­piness, but this translation can also be mis­leading since happi­ness, among other things, is some­times un­derstood as a mere state of mind — and eudai­monia is never merely that. Per­haps a better trans­lation of eu­dai­monia is “human flourishing.” When Aristotle considers the meaning of happi­ness, he is really con­sid­ering what it means to flourish, to be success­ful in one’s life.

Precision in Ethics

Insofar as humans should act so as to flourish, ethics is the science of human flourishing. And what exactly should we expect from this science of human flourishing? Guidance, but not with mathematical precision. As Ar­istotle famously points out,

precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions…. It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject ad­mits; it is equally foolish to accept probable reason­ing from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs. [Bk. 1, ch. 3]

That we lack mathematical precision in ethics does not make it all a matter of opinion, without hopes of becom­ing a science (that is, a well-ordered body of knowledge). Consider the analogy of cabinet-making and framing a house. Expert cabinet-making might require keeping your measurements to the nearest 1/32nd of an inch, but expert framing does not demand such precision; the nearest ¼ inch is all that is needed or desired. Being more precise will not re­sult in a better house, and striving for such accuracy is not the mark of an expert craftsman, but rather one who mis­understands his craft. Just as we can build a fine house without measuring each wall stud to the nearest 1/32nd of an inch, we can construct a perfectly useable science of morality, even though we lack the precision of a geometric proof.

Different Ways of Desiring the Good

Aristotle begins his discussion of ethics with the observation that “every art and every inquiry, and simi­larly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim” [Bk. I, ch. 1]. In other words, the good is what we desire, and we desire various ends (both as products and as activities). Insofar as we desire them, they are good in some sense: If we desire them for their own sake, then they are final goods; if we desire them for the sake of obtaining something else, then they are in­strumental goods.

As it turns out, there seems to be one good that we all desire for its own sake, and never for the sake of another, and that is eudaimonia (happiness, flour­ishing): “both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is hap­piness, and iden­tify living well and doing well with being happy” [Bk. I, ch. 4]. But what is happiness? Here we find great disagreement: some say pleasure, others honor, and still others knowledge [ch. 5]. De­termining the nature of happiness occupies a major portion of the Ethics — but then this topic is no small matter. Aristotle is asking here perhaps the most important ques­tion of our lives, a question with several forms but one subject: What is the successful human life? What is the good life? How ought I to live?

Happiness, Function, and Virtue

The final good is chosen for its own sake and is self-sufficient (it doesn’t need or desire anything else), and it turns out that happiness is both of these [ch. 7]; but what, exactly, is the nature of happiness? If we ask what it means for “a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist” to flourish or be successful, we find that in answering this we must first answer what it is that flute-players, sculptors, and artists are supposed to do — that is, we must first know what their function is. For them to be successful, they need to be able to per­form their function well. So, before we can determine what counts as our happiness or flourishing, we must first determine our function — and not the function of this man or that woman, but the function common to all humans.

The function peculiar to humans will need to be some sort of activity natural to us that isn’t found in other kinds of beings. Aristotle works through his standard list of functions for living things (what he calls “souls” in his trea­tise, On the Soul): nutrition and growth, perception, reasoning. It is with this last activ­ity that Aristotle feels he has found some­thing unique to human beings. “The function of man is an activ­ity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle” [Bk. I, ch. 7]. What Aristotle seems to mean by this is that our function is to order our lives according to reason.

Having located the human function, Aristotle concludes that human happiness consists in perform­ing this func­tion well, that is, to do it in an excellent or virtuous manner. Thus, human good is “an activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete” [ch. 7]; and again, “happi­ness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue” [ch. 13].

Virtue and the Parts of the Soul

Kind of Virtue

As an excel­lence in the:

Acquired through:

Aiming at:



Moral (character)

practical sphere


intelligent conduct


liberality, temperance


theoretical sphere


discovering truth

experience and time

sophia, phronesis

Once Aristotle finds that virtue concerns the func­tioning of the soul, he turns to consid­er the soul’s na­ture and finds that it has two parts or prin­cip­les, one rational and the other irrational. The irrational part is itself divided in two: the nutritive part concerns the body’s nutrition and growth, and the appetitive part concerns our desires. These two irra­tional parts differ also in that the appetitive part is susceptible to the influence of reason, “in so far as it lis­tens to and obeys it” [ch. 13]. This suggests that reason plays two different roles in our lives, one practical and the other theoretical. Practi­cal reason guides our appetites and emotions with correct principles of action, while theo­retical reason works on its own, seeking truth.

Human virtue is to attain excellence in both the practical and the theoretical areas of reason’s influence, and so we have two different sorts of virtue: moral virtue (or virtue of character), which concerns the influ­ence of reason over the appetitive part of the soul, and intellectual virtue, which concerns the actions of the rational part of the soul insofar as it seeks truth. There are only two intellectual virtues — wisdom (sophia) and prudence (phronesis) — but a whole raft of the moral kind (liberality and temperance are two examples that he provides in chapter thirteen).

How do we go about acquiring these virtues, once we decide that this truly is the path of human flour­ishing? Aris­totle turns to this question at the beginning of Book Two:

Intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires exper­i­ence and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight varia­tion from the word ethos (habit). From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance, the stone which by nature moves downwards cannot be habitu­ated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten thous­and times; nor can fire be habituated to move downwards, nor can anything else that by nature be­haves in one way be trained to be­have in another. Neither by nature, then, nor con­trary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by na­ture to receive them, and are made per­fect by habit.

The Morally Virtuous Person: Navigating between Scylla and Charybdis

The woman or man of moral virtue becomes virtuous through practice, by acting virtuously. But performing these actions is not sufficient for being virtuous. Aristotle notes that a person of virtue must also perform the action in the right way: she must know that it is the virtuous thing to do (it can’t be only coincidentally virtuous), she must choose the action for its own sake (and not as a means to some other end, such as glory, honor, pleasure, or wealth), and she must choose and act “from a firm and unchangeable character” (i.e., her virtuous actions must become habitual) [Bk. II, ch. 4]. Moral virtue, it turns out, is nei­ther a passion nor a faculty, but rather a state of character (a disposition, the way that a person behaves ha­bitually) [ch. 5]; in particular, moral virtue is that state of char­acter which aims at the inter­med­iate or mean between excess and deficiency [chs. 5-6].

In nearly all that we do and in the way that we are, our actions and passions can suffer from either the vice of defi­c­iency or the vice of excess. For instance, with respect to the passions of boldness and fear: if we fol­low bold­ness too much and fear too little, then we suffer the vice of being rash; if, on the other hand, we follow boldness to little and fear too much, we suffer the vice of being cowardly. The virtuous person aims for the intermediate between these two, which Aristotle calls courage. With respect to the desire to amuse others, wittiness is the virtue, while the vice of excess is buf­foonery, and the vice of deficiency, boorish­ness. Aristotle offers dozens of such examples. Some actions and pas­sions, however, have no mean or in­termediate state, and so are always bad — for example, spite, envy, adultery, theft, or mur­der [ch. 6].

Finally, Aristotle points out that it is not always easy to determine the proper mean:

That moral virtue is a mean…has been sufficiently stated. Hence also it is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not for every one but for him who knows; so, too, any one can get angry — that is easy — or give or spend money; 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; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble. [Bk. II, ch. 9]

Ethics does not enjoy the same level of precision as does physics or mathematics (as noted above). Also, the mean may well differ from person to person, and situation to situation. Determining this mean is an art of judgment, and to become good at this requires practice.

To help us out, Aristotle offers three rules of thumb ( Bk. II, ch. 9). First, avoid that extreme which is furthest from the mean (in other words, pursue the lesser of the two evils). Second, pay attention to that extreme to which you are most attracted, and drag yourself in the opposite direc­tion. Finally, always be on your guard against the pleasurable. While there is certainly nothing wrong with pleasure, we typically fail to judge actions impartially where pleasure is at stake, because pleasure is something that we all desire, and so the risk of error is always higher here.

The Successful Life

The successful life, the flourishing life, is the virtuous life. The virtuous life is one where we excel in our being human, and what distinguishes us as human beings is the rational part of our souls. We have seen that this rational part of the soul — reason — is both practical and theoretical: practical insofar as it restrains our appetites and guides our conduct, and theoretical insofar as it participates in the theoretical sci­ences (seeking truth regardless of practical applica­tion). Because the theoretical use of reason is the most pure use (since it is reason operating all alone, and not mixing with the appetites), the most flourishing life of all is one devoted to the intellectual virtues — a life, in other words, devoted to learning. This may not strike the average college student as a point of comfort — that what they are doing right now is the best that any human could ever hope for — but that’s how Aristotle viewed the matter

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