Historical Context for Nicomachan Ethics: The Greek World at the Time of Aristotle

The Greek world of Aristotle’s time was made up of small city-states, each with its own autonomous government. The city-state consisted of slaves, noncitizen manual laborers, children, women, aliens, and citizens. The citizens were adult males, most of whom had been born to citizen parents. The citizens governed the city, while the slaves, laborers, and women did all the work to provide the necessary food, shelter, and equipment. Because they were freed from the necessity of meeting day-to-day needs, citizens enjoyed a great deal of freedom and luxury. The leisure they enjoyed was highly valued and made possible one of the greatest periods of intellectual energy in human history. That this system was exploitative is hardly debatable, but it also produced an incredible array of philosophy, drama, art, and architecture. Aristotle’s students were young citizens whose tuition was meant to prepare them for a life of civic duty.

There were few enough citizens that everyone in a given city would at least recognize, if not know, one another, and all citizens were expected to take part in public office. Unlike our modern system of representative democracy, where we simply elect officials to speak for us, all Greek citizens were expected to voice their own opinions in large deliberative and judicial assemblies. There was a strong bond of kinship created in citizenship, as the same people lived together, governed together, served in the army together, and enjoyed leisure time together.

The age of the city-state came to a close within Aristotle’s lifetime, however, due to the efforts of his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great. Alexander came to power in the northern kingdom of Macedonia and within a decade had established one of the largest empires the world has ever seen. After the death of Alexander in 323 BCE, Greece once more became fragmented, but the fierce independence of the city-states was a thing of the past. Greek culture was on the decline, and within a few hundred years, it would be swallowed up by the burgeoning Roman Empire.

Philosophical Context for Nicomachan Ethics: The Teleology of Nature

In  terms of impact on Nicomachan Ethics, perhaps Aristotle’s most significant concept is that of the teleology of nature. According to Aristotle, nature works toward a telos, or end goal. His biological work aims constantly at the question of what purpose different aspects of plants and animals serve. He classifies humans as “rational animals,” meaning that our telos is rational. In other words, our function in life is to realize our full potential as rational beings. If we are not fully rational, we are falling short of our true nature.

This teleological view gives Nicomachan Ethics a clear sense of direction. Our goal in life is to achieve our true nature, and this true nature consists essentially of rationality. The purpose of a moral education, then, is to teach us how we may become perfectly rational and immune to the temptations of our lower animalistic parts.

Ethics is just one of a number of fields that Aristotle classifies as “practical science.” Unlike the natural sciences, which examine the world around us, these sciences deal with the practical aspects of human society and how best to arrange this society. The practical sciences are all closely connected, and Aristotle frequently expounds on the connection between the good life for the individual and the kind of state that could make this good life possible. Hence, Aristotle’s Politics is an important companion and sequel to Nicomachan Ethics.