Themes, Ideas & Arguments
Virtue and Happiness
The word happiness in the Ethics is a translation of the Greek term eudaimonia, which carries connotations of success and fulfillment. For Aristotle, this happiness is our highest goal. However, Aristotle does not say that we should aim at happiness, but rather that we do aim at happiness. His goal in the Ethics is not to tell us that we ought to live happy, successful lives, but to tell us what this life consists of. Most people think of happiness as physical pleasure or honor, but this is because they have an imperfect view of the good life.
The conception people have of happiness frequently does not line up with true happiness because people are generally deficient in virtue. Virtue is a disposition to behave in the right manner, which is inculcated from a young age. A person with the virtue of courage, for instance, will not only show confidence in the face of fear, but will think of this courage as a good thing. Behaving courageously will make the virtuous person happy and will be one part of living a generally good life. By contrast, a person who has been poorly brought up and exhibits the vice of cowardice will find happiness in the avoidance of danger and thus will have an imperfect view of the good life.
A question of high importance in any investigation of ethics is how we can teach people to be good. Aristotle is quite clear that he does not think virtue can be taught in a classroom or by means of argument. His Ethics, then, is not designed to make people good, but rather to explain what is good, why it is good, and how we might set about building societies and institutions that might inculcate this goodness.
According to Aristotle, virtue is something learned through constant practice that begins at a young age. We might understand his outlook better if we recognize the meaning of the word arete, which is rendered as “virtue” in most English translations. This term more generally means “excellence,” so a good horseman can exhibit arete in horsemanship without necessarily implying any sort of moral worth in the horseman. It should be obvious to anyone that excellence in horsemanship cannot be learned simply by reading about horsemanship and hearing reasoned arguments for how best to handle a horse. Becoming a good horseman requires steady practice: one learns to handle a horse by spending a lot of time riding horses.
For Aristotle, there is no essential distinction between the kind of excellence that marks a good horseman and the kind of excellence that marks a good person generally. Both kinds of excellence require practice first and theoretical study second, so the teaching of virtue can be only of secondary importance after the actual practice of it.
The Doctrine of the Mean
One of the most famous aspects of the Ethics is Aristotle’s doctrine that virtue exists as a mean state between the vicious extremes of excess and deficiency. For example, the virtuous mean of courage stands between the vices of rashness and cowardice, which represent excess and deficiency respectively.
For Aristotle, this is not a precise formulation. Saying that courage is a mean between rashness and cowardice does not mean that courage stands exactly in between these two extremes, nor does it mean that courage is the same for all people. Aristotle repeatedly reminds us in the Ethics that there are no general laws or exact formulations in the practical sciences. Rather, we need to approach matters case by case, informed by inculcated virtue and a fair dose of practical wisdom.
Aristotle’s claim that virtue can be learned only through constant practice implies that there are no set rules we can learn and then obey. Instead, virtue consists of learning through experience what is the mean path, relative to ourselves, between the vices we may be liable to stumble into.
The Unity of the Virtues
For Aristotle, virtue is an all-or-nothing affair. We cannot pick and choose our virtues: we cannot decide that we will be courageous and temperate but choose not to be magnificent. Nor can we call people properly virtuous if they fail to exhibit all of the virtues.
Though Aristotle lists a number of virtues, he sees them all as coming from the same source. A virtuous person is someone who is naturally disposed to exhibit all the virtues, and a naturally virtuous disposition exhibits all the virtues equally.
Our word ethics descends from the Greek word ethos, which means more properly “character.” Aristotle’s concern in the Ethics, then, is what constitutes a good character. All the virtues spring from a unified character, so no good person can exhibit some virtues without exhibiting them all.
The Importance of Friendship
Aristotle devotes two of the ten books of the Ethics to discussing friendship in all its forms. This is hardly a digression from the main line of argument. Happiness, according to Aristotle, is a public affair, not a private one, so with whom we share this happiness is of great significance.
The city-states of ancient Greece were tightly knit communities. In the Politics, Aristotle argues that we cannot fully realize our human nature outside the bounds of a Greek city-state. The bonds that tie citizens together are so important that it would be unthinkable to suggest that true happiness can be found in the life of a hermit.
The Life of Contemplation
In Book X, Aristotle ultimately concludes that contemplation is the highest human activity. This is largely a consequence of his teleological view of nature, according to which the telos, or goal, of human life is the exercise of our rational powers. In discussing the various intellectual virtues, Aristotle extols wisdom as the highest, since it deals only with unchanging, universal truths and rests on a synthesis of scientific investigation and the intuitive understanding of the first principles of nature. The activity of wisdom is contemplation, so contemplation must be the highest activity of human life.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!