Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle on virtue and happiness

The only way to live a happy life is to live virtuously. This thesis forms the basis of ancient ethics, but what does it actually mean? What can we understand by the vague concept of virtue or the much more vague concept of happy life? Aristotle provides clear answers to this in an easily understandable version that can support us in leading a successful life.

  1. Nicomachean Ethics – First Review
  2. Virtue – The basis of ancient ethics
  3. The core thesis of virtue ethics
  4. Types and hierarchy of actions
  5. The three forms of activity
  6. What is the goal of all striving?
  7. Adaptive conception of happiness
  1. What is the Nicomachean Ethics about?
  2. What is the core question of ancient ethics?
  3. How can one sum up the requirement of virtue ethics?
  4. Which activities differentiate Aristotle?
  5. What properties must the ultimate goal of all action have?

Nicomachean Ethics – First Review

The Nicomachean Ethics is the most important ethical work of the ancient philosopher Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), who is considered one of the most outstanding philosophers and naturalists in history. In doing so, however, we must not overemphasize the designation as ethical writing.

We usually associate ethics with the study of norms, actions, and laws that are super-subjective, but that is not the main subject of this Aristotelian work.

Ancient ethics, or rather the term ethics in a broader sense, always includes the subjective position of the action (how do I act so that I have the greatest benefit?) And also the objective position of society, i.e. in relation to what we do Would call morality. It is always about the union of morality and self-interest.

For this reason, the Nicomachean Ethics has become , according to its character, a basic script that deals with, examines and shows a correct way of life. At its core are always the two questions “How do I become a good person?” And “How do I create happiness?”, Which Aristotle discusses and clarifies in ten books.

The French sociologist and philosopher Frédéric Lenoir speaks in his really successful book What is a happy life? even from the fact that the Nicomachean Ethics is one of those works that every high school graduate must have read [1]. I agree with that without exception. This introduction to Aristotle’s work is intended to be an aid based on important key concepts.

Of course, I cannot cover the entire work meaningfully in a single article. For this reason I only want to bring the first six chapters of the first book as well as possible to the point here, so that your own reading is better understood.

Virtue – The basis of ancient ethics

The ancient ethics is shaped in every respect by the concept of virtue . That is why the ethics of Aristotle in particular are called a virtue ethic. What is meant by virtue is by no means easy to explain, as some basic understanding is assumed. So before we can grasp the core of the Nicomachean Ethics , we need other aspects.

As with almost all ancient philosophers, this includes a certain understanding of morality, which as a basic assumption of a right upbringing provides the possibility of understanding ethics. A barbarian cannot understand ethics. Fortunately, through our upbringing, we have developed an understanding of morality, namely the understanding of rules and norms – an interesting process of any child development that I am discussing here .

In addition, certain philosophical arguments are necessary for Aristotle, such as the Ergon argument and the mesotes theory , which we will all clarify in a moment. The correct classification of ancient ethics is also important – what was their basic question?

Quite simply: is it possible that there is a conflict that creates a tension between morality (what is best for the community) and self-interest (what is best for me)? This problem is the starting point of all ethicists in antiquity.

It’s very easy to illustrate with questions that we all have undoubtedly asked ourselves before, such as: Why should I be fair? Why should i be good Ancient ethics tried to give an answer to such questions.

The core thesis of virtue ethics

All of the ancient philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, and others) tried to show that morality and self-interest coincide. Her thesis is therefore that one can only lead a happy life if one lives virtuously, which among other things includes the moral life.

To the above questions ‘Why should I be just?’ And ‘Why should I be good?’ The ancient ethicists would all have answered with the following simple words: You should be just and good because that’s the only way to be happy!

Types and hierarchy of actions

Right at the beginning of his writing, Aristotle begins with an investigation of the actions. This is an important basis for a happy, even for a virtuous life – what and for what do we act? The first sentence already marks a defining statement:

Every art and every doctrine, likewise every action and every decision, always seems to strive for a good, which is why the good has been appropriately called that which everything strives for [2, 1094a].

There is already an indication of Aristotle’s philosophical method here. One can describe him especially in the Nicomachean Ethics as a common-sense philosopher, that is, as someone who searches for truth in the views of the common citizen rather than with out-of-the-way theories but with common sense.

The three forms of activity

From the observation of completely trivial circumstances, as it is the everyday life of man, he gains striking insights. One of them results from the question of how our actions and our activities in general are structured depending on our intention:

  1. There are activities that are not done for their own sake, but aim to produce something or to bring about an end state. What the activity is about – its work, more precisely: a specific goal, what it revolves around – is not itself, but something else – for example a construction worker building a house.
  2. There are activities that are done for their own sake, the exercise of which is in itself the work that they are after. Such activities never have their meaning (the reason for their performance) in a result, but in the activity itself. The journey is the goal here: the activity itself creates satisfaction and fulfillment – for example dancing.
  3. A combination of a) and b), namely those activities that are done for their own sake and at the same time for their result – such as sport, because I can do it, because it gives me pleasure and I lose weight in the process.

Why does Aristotle make this distinction? We must always keep the meaning of his work in mind, namely the answer to the question of what the right way of life is. The only purpose of the hierarchy of actions is to clarify the basis for this, namely to recognize what is the highest good that we can realize in our lives. The Sagittarius metaphor explains why it is so important to us:

If there is one goal of action that we want for its own sake and the other only for its sake, and if we do not set ourselves an end because of another – for then the matter would go on indefinitely and human desire would be empty and vain – such a goal must evidently be the good and the best. Shouldn’t his knowledge also have great significance for life and help us, like Sagittarius, who have a firm goal to better hit the right? [ibid.]

What is the goal of all striving?

Aristotle rightly states that there must be activities that are done for their own sake, because otherwise our actions would be pointless. If there were no such goals, then one would always be doing something for something else, but that is not the case. If all action has an ultimate goal, what properties must it fulfill? We come to the following three aspects fairly easily:

  1. First of all, the ultimate goal of all action must be a point of convergence in all action.
  2. Furthermore, it cannot be a means to an end, an activity for something else.
  3. Finally, the ultimate goal of all actions must be pursued for oneself (end in itself).

We all already know what this primary goal of all action is, which on the one hand is completely self-sufficient and on the other hand what all actions are aimed at, we even have a name for it that Aristotle easily calls:

But we consider happiness to be something of this kind, indeed to be the most desirable thing, without it being of the same kind with other things one also desires. Because if it were, then it would obviously become even more desirable through the addition of the smallest good, since what is added means more of the good and the greater good is naturally more and more desired. So: happiness presents itself as something complete and self-sufficient, since it is the ultimate goal of all action. [2, 1097b]

In fact, we always choose happiness, or rather bliss ( εδαιμονία – eudaimonía) for its own sake and never for the sake of other things. Even if we could place a lot of value on love, family and other things in our lives, we only do so because we believe that they will make us happy!

But we won’t be finished that soon, because so far we have only mentioned the term. Aristotle states that we generally call this ultimate goal of all striving happiness, but what it actually is or how it can be achieved in life is still a long way off!

Adaptive conception of happiness

However, one thing that we can immediately deduce from the statements already made about the ultimate goal is the important statement that happiness – precisely because it has to be self-sufficient – must never depend on arbitrary, changeable states. Whether I own a Ferrari or not, luck shouldn’t depend on that.

Your own happiness must not depend on what we commonly call externalities. In this sense, an adaptive conception of happiness means that we adapt to our circumstances and perceive happiness according to these variable possibilities.

The virtue ethic is clearly characterized by the fact that one does not make oneself dependent on the numerous external things and thus shift happiness to where it can be blown by chance like the sand in the wind.


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