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Nicomachean Ethics


Book I

Themes, Ideas & Arguments

Book I, page 2

page 1 of 3


Our account of this science will be adequate if it achieves such clarity as the subject-matter allows.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Every human activity aims at some end that we consider good. The highest ends are ends in themselves, while subordinate ends may only be means to higher ends. Those highest ends, which we pursue for their own sake, must be the supreme Good.

The study of the Good is part of political science, because politics concerns itself with securing the highest ends for human life. Politics is not a precise science, since what is best for one person may not be best for another. Consequently, we can aim at only a rough outline of the Good.

Everyone agrees that the supreme Good is happiness, but people disagree over what constitutes happiness. Common people equate happiness with sensual pleasure: this may be sufficient for animals, but human life has higher ends. Others say that receiving honors is the greatest good, but honors are conferred as recognition of goodness, so there must be a greater good that these honors reward. Plato’s Theory of Forms suggests that there is a single Form of Good and that all good things are good in the same way. This theory seems flawed when we consider the diversity of things we call “good” and the diversity of ways in which we consider goodness. Even if there were a single unifying Form of Good, our interest is in the practical question of how to be good, so we should concern ourselves not with this abstract concept but with the practical ends we can actually pursue in everyday life.

Happiness is the highest good because we choose happiness as an end sufficient in itself. Even intelligence and virtue are not good only in themselves, but good also because they make us happy.

We call people “good” if they perform their function well. For instance, a person who plays the flute well is a good flutist. Playing the flute is the flutist’s function because that is his or her distinctive activity. The distinctive activity of humans generally—what distinguishes us from plants and animals—is our rationality. Therefore, the supreme Good should be an activity of the rational soul in accordance with virtue. This definition aligns with popular views of happiness, which see the happy person as virtuous, rational, and active.

When talking about happiness, we consider a person’s life as a whole, not just brief moments of it. This raises the paradoxical suggestion that a person can be considered happy only after death, that is, once we can examine the person’s life as a whole. However, a good person will always behave in a virtuous manner. Even faced with great misfortune, a good person will bear himself or herself well and will not descend into mean-spiritedness. Once a person has died, according to Aristotle, posthumous honors or dishonors and the behavior of his descendants might affect his happiness somewhat, but to no great extent.

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by ProfessorHinkley, April 06, 2014

The author of this commentary claims that Aristotle's "concept of distributive justice is meant to ensure that the greatest privilege go to those male aristocrats who exhibit the greatest virtue rather than to those who have the greatest wealth, the greatest military strength, or the most friends." This claim is superficial and grossly misleading. We need to approach books by trying to understand them as the author understands them, and in this case Aristotle articulates a principle of justice, called merit, that transcends gender and socia


12 out of 16 people found this helpful

Good Article

by m8292, September 30, 2014

Thanks for the good article.
To the previous poster: Can you explain where you see that Aristotle's principle is meant by the author to transcend gender etc.? I am especially confused by this because you state that we should not read the book as it might be interpreted, but as the author intended it to be interpreted (if I got you right). Doesn't it seem highly unlikely that someone like Aristotle would include anyone but citizens of the polis in his considerations? Do you have any citation that would support Aristotle including women ... Read more


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by arclexico, February 23, 2015

Thank you Sparknotes for your great and concise articles. I got 95/100 on my exam.