Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
we desire), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of
something else (which means the process of desiring would go on
to infinity, rendering our desires empty and vain)—if this is the
case, then clearly this end or purpose must be the good and the chief
good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on
life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more
likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in a general
outline at least, to determine what this most precious purpose is.
And we must determine which of the sciences or branches of
knowledge are concerned with this final end, or final purpose (for
which everything else is desired). It would seem to belong to the
most authoritative art, the most comprehensive art, and that which
is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this
nature; for it politics this that ordains which of the sciences (and
arts) should be studied in a state, and it politics which determines
what each class of citizens should learn and do and what they
should not learn and not do. And we see even the most highly
esteemed capacities—the most honorable pursuits—fall under the
political: e.g. military strategy, economics, rhetoric (that is, legal
speech or Law)
Ch. 1 The Good as the aim of every action
For every art and every inquiry, for every science and investigation,
and similarly for every action and pursuit and choice, there seems
to be some good which is aimed at; and for this reason the good has
rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But it is
clear that there is a certain difference to be found among the various
ends, or purposes, at which we aim; some ends, or purposes, are
activities. Others are products apart from the activities that produce
them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of
the products to be better than the activities.
Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their are also
many ends (or purposes); the end of the medical art is health, that of
shipbuilding a vessel, that of military strategy victory, that of
economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single
capacity—as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the
horse equipment fall under the art of riding or as every military
action under the capacity of military strategy or in the same way
other arts fall under more general capacities—in all of these the
ends of the master arts, the more general arts, are to be preferred to
all of those different subordinate ends. For it is for the sake of the
former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether
the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something
else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just
Now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it
legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from,
the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this
end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a
single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events
something greater and more complete whether to attain or to
preserve; though it is worthwhile to attain the end merely for one
man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for citystates. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it
is political science, in one sense of that term.
Ch. 2 Politics as the master science of the good
Ch. 4 Happiness is the Good
but many views are held about it
If, then, there is some end or purpose, in the realm of action, which
we desire for its own sake (and which determines everything else
Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all
For the “fact”—what is known without argumentation—is the
starting-point, and if these “starting facts” are sufficiently plain to
him, he will not at the start need the reason or agruemnts for these
facts. So the man who has been well brought up can easily get the
starting points.
knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we
say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods
achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for
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; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and
the “many” do not give the same account as the wise. For the many
think happiness is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure,
wealth, or honour; they differ, however, from one another- and
often even the same man identifies it with different things, with
health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor; but, conscious of
their ignorance, they admire those who proclaim some great ideal
that is above their comprehension.
And as for him who neither has nor can get the starting points—the
known facts—let him hear the words of Hesiod:
Far best is he who knows all things himself;
Good, he that is attentive when the wise men counsel right;
But he who neither knows, nor desires to hear
Another's wisdom: he is as useless a weight.
Now some thought that apart from these many goods there is
another which is self-subsistent and causes the goodness of all these
as well. To examine all the opinions that have been held would be
somewhat fruitless; it is enough to examine those that are most
prevalent or that seem to be plausible.
Ch. 5 Various views on the highest good
Let us, however, resume our discussion from the point at which we
digressed. To judge from the sort of lives that men in this world
actually lead—most men, and men of the most vulgar type, seem
(not without some basis) to identify the Good, or happiness, with
pleasure. This is the reason why they love the life of enjoyment. For
there are, we may say, three prominent types of life, three
prominent “ways-of-being”: the “vulgar life of pleasure,” which we
just mentioned, and the “political life,” and, thirdly, the
“contemplative life.”
Let us not fail to notice, however, that there is a difference between
arguments from fundamental principles and arguments leading to
fundamental principles. Plato was right in raising this question and
asking, as he used to do, “are we on the way from or to the first
There is a difference, as there is in a race-course, between running
from the judges to the far end of the track, and running back again.
For, we must begin with what is “known,” But this term has two
connotations: what is known to use and what is known “pure and
simple.” Presumably, then, we must begin with things known to us.
Now the masses of mankind are evidently quite slavish and vulgar
in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts. But they get some
justification for their view of life from the fact that many of those in
very high places share these sorts of tastes—the tastes of
Sardanapallus [He, apparently, was a sex-crazed King of Assyria].
A consideration of these prominent types of life shows that people
of superior cultivation and an active disposition identify happiness
with honour; for this is, roughly speaking, the end of the political
Hence anyone who listens intelligently to lectures about what is
noble and just, and generally, about the subjects of political science
must have been brought up in good habits.
Ch. 7 The Good is the final and self-sufficient;
happiness is defined
But an “honorable life” seems too superficial an answer, since it is
dependent on those who bestow honour rather than on he who
receives it; but the good that we are after—it must be something
that belongs properly to to a man and not easily taken from him (or
given to him).
Let us again return to the good that we have been seeking, and ask
what it can be. It seems to be different in different actions and arts;
it is one thing in medicine, another in military strategy, and so on
with the other arts.
Further, men seem to pursue honour in order that they may be
assured of their goodness; at any rate, they seek to be honored by
sensible men, by men of practical wisdom. And they seek to be
honred based on their own worth and virtue. Clearly, then, virtue is
better than honor (even according to the men who seek honor).
What then is the good of each? Surely, it must be that for whose
sake everything else is done. In medicine this is health, in military
strategy it is victory, in building it would be the production of a
house—and in any other sphere, or art, it would be something else.
But it is always, and in every art, the end (the purpose) for the sake
of which all actions are performed. Therefore, if there is some one
end, some purpose, for all that we do—well then this end or
purpose will be The Good achievable by action, and if there are
more than one, then these many ends will make up the goods
achievable by action.
Perhaps one might even suppose excellence (or virtue) to be the end
of the political life, instead of honor. But even this appears
somewhat incomplete; for possession of virtue seems actually
compatible with being asleep, or with lifelong inactivity, and,
further, with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes; but a man who
was virtuous, yet also miserable—no one would call this man
happy, unless just for argument’s sake. But enough of this. There
was the vulgar pleasure seeking life, the life of honor, and third
comes the contemplative life, but we shall only consider this later.
So, the argument has proceeded such that we have reached the same
point where we began in Ch. 2: namely, that there at least appears
to be some end, in the realm of action, that is desired for its own
sake, and which determines all other desires. But we must try to
clarify this even further. Since there are, obviously, several ends,
and since we choose some of these ends (for example, wealth,
flutes, all instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all
ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final.
Now, the life of money-making is one undertaken under
compulsion. And wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking;
for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else. And so
one might rather regard the before mentioned objects—pleasure,
honor, contemplation—to be end, or purpose, of the good life. for
they are loved and desired for themselves.
Therefore, if there is only one final end—one final purpose—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.
But it is evident that not even these are really ends; yet many
arguments have been thrown away in support of them. Let us leave
this subject, then.
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
we call 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. Therefore, what is always chosen as
an end in itself (which is never chosen as means to something else)
we call final, in an unqualied sense. It is that which is always
desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.
of as simply one good thing among others, then adding more goods
to it (in even the small goods) would improve it—because the
addition would produce an extra amount of good. And a greater
amount of good is always more desirable than a lesser amount. We
seen then that happiness [eudaimonia] is something final and selfsufficient. It is the end, or final purpose, of all our actions.
Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems
a little trite, a mere platitude. A clearer account of what happiness
is, is still desired.
Now, it appears that we are describing that which we call
“happiness” [eudaimonia]. Happiness, above all else, is held to be
this final end, that is desired for itself and nothing else. On the other
hand, consider honour, pleasure, beauty, intelligence, and every
virtue we choose indeed for themselves. We choose these virtues
for themselves, because if nothing else resulted from them we,
would still choose them. But we choose them also for the sake of
happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy.
Perhaps, this clearer account of happiness could be given, if we
could first ascertain the function [ergon] of man. For just as it is for
a flute-player, or a sculptor, or an artist—and in general, for anyone
who fulfills some function or performs some action—the good, in
all those cases, the good and the “well” seems to reside in the
proper function, if that thing has a function.
Happiness, eudaimonia, on the other hand—no one chooses for the
sake of these previous virtues. No, in general, happiness is never
chosen for anything other than itself.
Does the carpenter, then, and the tanner have certain functions or
activities, and yet man in general has none? Is man born without a
function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts of
the body evidently has a function, may one lay it down also that
man, similarly, has a function apart from all these? What then can
this function be?
From the point of view of self-sufficiency the same result seems to
follow; for the final good is thought to be self-sufficient. Now, by
“self-sufficient” we do not mean the man who lives in isolation, as
self-sufficient. We mean a man who lives with, and for, his parents,
his children, his wife, and in general who lives with and for his
friends and fellow citizens. This is because man is born for
citizenship—man is a political being.
Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is
peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and
growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems
to be common even to the horse, the ox, and every animal. There
remains, then, an active life of the element that has a rational
principle. The rational element of man has two parts: one part is
rational in the sense that it is obedient to reason and the other part is
rational in the sense that it possesses and conceives of rational rules
(it possesses and exercises thought)
But some limit must be set to this; for if we extend our requirement
to ancestors and descendants and friends of friends, then we are in
for an infinite series. Let us examine this question, however, on
another occasion.
The self-sufficiency we now have in mind is: that which taken by
itself makes life something desirable, and deficient in nothing. And
as such, we think happiness to be exactly this. Further, we think
It the most desirable of all things, without being counted as one
simply “one good thing among others.” If happiness were thought
Because the “life of the rational element” has two meanings, we
must make it clear that we mean—when we’re getting after the
… The life of men who are active in this sense—men whose
happiness is an activity, a doing—is also in itself pleasant life in
itself. For pleasure is a state of the soul, and each man is said to
derive pleasure from that which he is said to love: a lover of horses,
from horses; a lover of theater, from plays; and in the same way, a
lover of justice, from just acts; and a lover of virtue in general, from
virtuous acts.
Now for most men, their pleasures are in conflict with one another
because these pleasures are no pleasant by nature. But the lovers of
what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant.
And virtuous actions are such things. Actions which conform to
virtue are naturally pleasant, and as a result, such actions are not
only pleasant for those who love the noble, but they are also
pleasant in themselves. The life of such men, therefore, has no
further need of pleasure as added attraction, but that life contains
pleasure within itself.
function of man—a life that is determined by the activity (as
opposed to the mere possession) of the rational element of man. For
the activity, it seems, has a greater claim to be the function of man.
The proper function of man, then, is an activity of the soul which
follows or implies a rational principle or standard. And if we say
“so-and-so has a good function,”we mean that he sets a high
standard for himself. He is a “serious man” [spoudaios]. For
example the proper function of a harpist is same thing as the
function of a harpist who has set high standards for himself. The
same applies to any and every group of individuals.
Of course, the attainment of excellence must be added to the mere
function. In other worlds, the function of the harpist is to play the
harp. The function of the harpist who sets high standards for
himself is to play the harp well.
On these assumptions, if we take the proper function of man to be a
certain kind of life, and if this kind of life is an activity of the soul
and consists of actions performed in conjunction with the rational
element, and if a man of high standards is he who performs the
actions well and properly, and if a function is well performed when
it is performed in accordance with the excellence appropriate to it—
then based on all this, we reach the conclusion: that the good of
man is an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or
virtue, and if there are several virtues, then in conformity with the
best and most complete.
We may even go so far as to state that the man who does not enjoy
performing noble actions is not a good man at all. Nobody would
call a man call a man just who did not enjoy acting justly, nor any
man generous who did not enjoy generous actions; and similarly in
all other cases.
If this is true actions performed in conformity with virtue are in
themselves pleasant. Of course, it goes without saying that that
such actions are good as well as noble, and they are both in the
highest degree—if, that is, the man of high moral standards
[spoudaios] displays any right judgment about them at all. And his
judgment corresponds to our description. SO we see that happiness
is at once the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing, and these
qualities are not separate, just as the inscription at Delos makes out:
But we must add to this: “in a complete life.” For one swallow does
not make a spring, nor does one sunny day. Similarly, one day, or a
short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.
The most just is most noble, but health is best,
and to win what one loves in pleasantness
Ch. 8 Popular views about happiness
confirm our position
For the best activities encompass all these activities encompass all
these attributes, and it is in these, or in the best of one of them, that
we identify with happiness.
Yet evidently, as we said, it needs the external goods as well; for it
is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper
equipment. In many actions we use friends and riches and political
power as instruments; and there are some things the lack of which
spoils happiness,--such things as good birth, goodly children,
beauty and so on.
For the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary
and childless is not very likely to be happy, and perhaps a man
would be still less likely if he had thoroughly bad children or
friends or had lost good children or friends by death.
As we said, then, happiness seems to need this sort of prosperity in
addition; for these reasons some identify happiness with good
fortune, though others identify it with virtue.