Summary of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

The Nicomachean Ethics has proved to be Aristotle’s most popular work on the subject. Aptly nicknamed “The Philosopher”, Aristotle lived from 384-322 BC in ancient Greece, contributing to nearly every major field of study in his time. He studied under Plato for close to two decades before leaving Athens to become the tutor of Alexander the Great, and then later returning to Athens to start the Lyceum, the school from which his known works originated as lecture notes.

In our first post, Aristotle on Virtue, we learned that one becomes by being.

“Virtues, by contrast, we acquire, just as we acquire crafts, by having first activated them…we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.”

In our second, Aristotle’s Golden Mean, we defined virtue in relation to vice.

“Virtue… is a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency.”

In our third, Aristotle on Happiness, that our happiness depends upon the quality of our actions.

“Happiness is a certain sort of activity of the soul in accord with complete virtue.”

Lastly, in our fourth post, Aristotle on Friendship, that a fulfilling life is to be found in relationships.

“..having friends seems to be the greatest external good.”

At this time in Ancient Greece, the philosophers had begun asking questions directed at living well. They became concerned with happiness and fulfillment, and we owe much to their efforts. The purposeful exploration of happiness is a noble one and a torch we each carry to this day.

In many ways, Nicomachean Ethics can serve as a guide to live the virtuous life, and though much of it seems straight forward, I can’t help but wonder if the obviousness of the doctrine is only made possible by our education which owes much to this original teaching.

He is in many ways the first true logician. His formal study of logic resulted in a clear understanding of what it means to live the good life.

“If there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake, clearly this must be the good. Will not 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 we should? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is.”

Though his teachings come from centuries before the time of Jesus, there is a lucidity and simplicity in this treatise on living the good life that directly applies to our modern lives. By consistently taking virtuous actions, we embody the virtues which make happiness and true friendship possible. We find that the cultivation of our highest self leads to the cultivation of a joyous life.

Most importantly, we have learned that we are in the driver’s seat of our own lives. Regardless of circumstance, we can choose our best action in the face of any ordeal and consistently take steps toward our own development. Who we become, which happens to be the biggest contributor to our happiness, happens to be the one thing over which we have complete control.

…I like those odds.

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