Thursday, June 17, 2010

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: a milestone in the exploration of virtue, community, and the end of man

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle develops a framework from which to explore morality, human happiness, and man’s purpose. Some have suggested that Aristotle’s framework for ethics was less rigid than that of his predecessor Plato, who took a deductive approach that began with the forms. Although Aristotle’s form begins with the particulars in a more inductive fashion, his Ethics demonstrates that he is as much as a absolutist as Plato was. He concludes that there are certain values, such as courage or generosity, that are absolutely good, though they may manifest themselves in each individual differently.

Book I. Happiness
The ultimate purpose behind each person’s existence is the attainment of happiness, which Aristotle defines as the contemplation of universal truth. Happiness is not for Aristotle a subjective feeling but rather an objective state that comes about when the soul engages in activity that accords with virtue.
In order to determine what this state of happiness looks like, Aristotle must define virtue. He first equates virtue with excellence in furthering man’s purpose. Just as sharpness is the quality that makes a knife excellent because it furthers the knife’s purpose, so too must we look to man’s purpose in order to determine the qualities that further it. Aristotle holds that man’s purpose is to lead a life of reason and deliberation. Happiness is thus equated with the rational activity of the soul that seeks to contemplate and understand reality. Virtue furthers this purpose and leads to a more complete life.

Books II, III, IV. Virtue of Character and the Preconditions of Virtue
What are the virtues that enabled man to fulfill his purpose? Aristotle defines moral virtue is a “mean” between the extremes of excess and deficiency. It is not an “average” between extremes, but rather, a central, balanced position. Moderation is the key to the virtues. For example, courage is a virtue that is the mean between cowardice and rashness: whereas the cowardly will not act at all, the rash will rush into imprudent and risky action. The courageous, in contrast, act at the right time and to the right extent in undertaking the right degree of risk. Similarly, pride is the mean between vanity and humility and gentleness is the mean between irascibility and spiritlessness.
In matters of wealth, the two extremes are prodigality, which leads to waste, and meanness or stinginess, which attaches too much importance on wealth. Generosity or liberality, in contrast, is the mean in matters pertaining to wealth. Wealth is therefore best used by the generous man, who spends for the sake of the noble and right; he will give the right amount to the right people at the right time.
Among the other virtues, Aristotle discusses magnanimity, temperance, truthfulness, justice, and wit. All of these virtues manifest themselves differently in each individual, but they always hold the characteristic of moderation between extremes. The more the individual acts out with knowledge and self-discipline in accordance with these virtues by making moral choices for the good, the more the individual will acquire virtue and true happiness.

Book VII. Incontinence
Aristotle distinguishes between three bad moral states—vice, incontinence, and brutishness—and their contrary states—virtue, continence, and superhuman virtue. He focuses his discussion on continence and incontinence. Whereas incontinence is weakness of will that impedes an individual from acting according to what he knows to be good, continence is the strength to do as he knows to be good and successfully resist the passions.
When one commits a vice, he acts immorally according to his choice. When he acts incontinently, however, he acts against what he knows to be the moral good, and thus acts against what his mind wills. Incontinent action is therefore not vice in the strict sense, and one may be consciously aware that he is committing an incontinent act while he is in the act of committing it.
The pleasures that may lead to incontinency revolve around three kinds of activities: (i) unnecessary pleasures, such as honor and wealth; (ii) things worthy of avoidance; and (iii) the necessary functions for life, such as food and sexual intercourse. An incontinent man is unable to abide by his resolutions to resist these desires.

Book VIII. Friendship and Community
Although a life of intellectual virtue is man’s highest state of happiness, it involves a level of isolation that is not completely possible for man. Because man is a social creature, a necessary part of his life involves community and friendship, the relationship where a man acts out for the good of another and tastes his joys and shares his sorrows as though they were his own. Yet while man engages in friendship and community, his decisions should be governed by the intellect in accordance with virtue. It is the purpose of politics and the city to enable the framework from which men can realize this vision and thus live the good life.

Book X. Pleasure
As for pleasure, Aristotle does not equate it with the hedonistic sense that it has come to acquire in our modern day. Rather, pleasure is for Aristotle the ultimate good that results from virtuous action. Because virtue is inextricably tied up to happiness, the virtuous man leads the most pleasant life. Although the end or purpose of virtue is not pleasure, the virtuous man, because he engages in virtue for its own sake, will experience pleasure as a natural consequence of his nature.

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