Matt's Reviews > Nicomachean Ethics

Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
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Jun 06, 2010

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Read from June 06 to 20, 2010

Therefore, the activity of the divinity which surpasses all others in bliss must be a contemplative activity, and the human activity which is most closely akin to it is, therefore, most conducive to happiness{…}So happiness is coextensive with study, and the greater the opportunity for studying, the greater the happiness, not as an incidental effect but as inherent in study; for study is in itself worthy of honor. Pg. 293.
Eudaimon, generally translated as “Happiness”, is the goal of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. His scientific empiricist nature clearly manifests as he formulates an ethical code to reach what he believes the human goal is; happiness. Unlike his predecessor, Plato, Aristotle does not seek out value beyond his experience. Aristotle adopts the accepted values in Athens and practically addresses how to achieve them. This results in what has later been termed his Doctrine of the Mean. Most of Book IV is devoted to this idea. Be generous, but not extravagant nor stingy. Be high-minded, but not vain nor petty. Be friendly, but not obsequious nor grouchy. You get the gist.

Of course, Aristotle cannot, and does not try, to articulate what the limits are for behavior. It depends on the person and situation. In the end, this is practical philosophy. It’s about drawing awareness to behavior that may pull you from the mean. It’s probably the first self-help book in Western literature.

But Aristotle is a teleological fellow. Just as in his view of science that all physical phenomena are designed for purpose, so is the virtuous mean designed for a purpose as well. Happiness. Through virtuous action and discerning decision-making, the wise will find happiness. From moderation in physical pleasure to moderation in maintaining worthy friends, Aristotle works through the superfluous pleasures of amusement to obtain true Pleasure. Such Pleasure is found in the contemplative life of study. However,
“Must we not rather abide by the maxim that in matters of action the end is not to study and attain knowledge of the particular things to be done, but rather do them. Surely knowing about excellence or virtue is not enough: we must try to possess it and use it, or find some other way in which we may become good.” Pg.295.
So as Aristotle ends Nicomachean Ethics, he opens the discussion into what will become his Politics.

Which all seems somewhat of a shell game.

If the virtuous life is to obtain happiness through Pleasure, and that Pleasure is in contemplative study to become wise, why is it virtuous to forsake that Pleasure to engage in legislation? I think the answer to this is in the values of classical Greece that intertwines the personal and public life of its citizens. This particular virtue, however, is not discussed in Nicomachean Ethics.

Aristotle’s analysis of correct living merely using the mores of Athens as a measure seems to be a clear break in form from Plato, but it is inevitably rooted in the same presuppositions that plague his mentor. Even so, it’s an interesting read to help recalibrate yourself to once again focus on what is the purpose for most of our actions.
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