What, according to Aristotle, is virtue

Summary of The Nicomachean Ethics

The greatest good

Ethics is to be understood as part of political science. It is also part of practical philosophy: it is not about theoretical knowledge, but about acting through practical wisdom in such a way that the highest good, happiness, is attained. This can only be achieved by the educated, mature, male members of the polis (Greek city-state).

The highest good is what all strives for, the ultimate purpose of all human endeavors: bliss. This is at the same time perfect and self-sufficient because it is the goal of our actions and because it is striven for for itself and not because it would serve an even higher purpose. We humans all want to be happy. This happiness is a product of the activity of the soul according to its highest and best abilities. Human happiness is therefore not an idle quality, because otherwise we could sleep all our lives or suffer a multitude of strokes of fate and would still be happy. Instead, bliss lies in virtue of acting. We are happy to the extent that we realize what is humanly best in us.

The virtues of character

The soul contains an intellectual and an irrational, inherently virtuous part. Virtue can be promoted through a mind-controlled education of the irrational part of the soul. It is the ability by which we can fulfill our highest destiny as human beings. So z. For example, a son who is not yet virtuous can exercise virtue through obedience to the more mature, virtuous father.

Every art and every doctrine, every act and every decision seems to strive for some good. That is why one has rightly called the good that which everything strives for. "(P. 9)

There are two types of virtues: the intellectual virtues of the mind (such as wisdom, prudence, or discernment), which can be enhanced through teaching, and the ethical virtues of character (such as generosity or prudence), which are developed through habituation to proper behavior .

The ethical virtues are not given to us by nature. They are qualities that we acquire by developing the appropriate right habits through right action. So we learn virtue by practicing it. A good state constitution and good laws are characterized by the fact that they promote the virtuous behavior of the citizens.

The majority of the people and the rudest choose lust. That is why they also value the life of pleasure. There are mainly three salient forms of life, the one just mentioned, the political and the contemplative. "(P. 13)

The ethical virtues are optimally developed when we habitually adhere to the right measure, the "golden mean", in all of our activities. Extreme in both directions - too much or too little - are detrimental to our character development.

Bravery, for example, is the middle measure between cowardice and recklessness. With regard to enjoyment, prudence is considered to be mediocre: this virtue is opposed to licentiousness or excess on the one hand, and dullness on the other. The extremes that flank the mediocrity of generosity are pettiness and greed on the one hand, and waste on the other.

We can only act virtuously where we have a corresponding free will. Succumbing to temptation is not an excuse. Only what is really completely beyond our power or is beyond our knowledge cannot later be criticized as a moral defect. In general, our volition can determine our goals and the means of attaining them. Accordingly, it is also in our power to choose between virtue and wickedness.

Justice

A virtue that is very important for human coexistence is justice. A violation of them can manifest itself in illegality or inequality, for example. Laws usually serve the common good; whoever disregards them is acting unfairly. Equally unjust is those who claim an unequal share of the good and bad things in life.

So happiness seems to be the perfect and self-sufficient good and the ultimate goal of action. ”(P. 18)

In terms of distributive justice, it is important that unequal people are not given equal. Everyone should receive that of honor and material goods of which he is worthy and what is appropriate to him. Distributive justice is not a question of equality, but of appropriateness and proportionality.

In addition, a balancing justice is important. It applies, for example, to legal transactions or the punishment of legal offenses. So it must not legally make a difference whether a decent person deprives a bad person or vice versa.

The four parts of the soul

The human soul has four different parts: The vegetative part of the soul is responsible for maintaining the vital functions and is common to humans and animals. This part of the soul functions without our conscious involvement and cannot be influenced by us. The irrational part of the soul develops virtue by getting used to doing the right thing; it is the domain of ethical virtues. The rational soul part is in turn divided into two parts: It contains a speculative-theoretical and a deliberative-practical faculty. With the speculative-theoretical faculty we fathom the imperishable, eternal, unchangeable being. This is the domain of science and philosophy. With our practical-theoretical ability, on the other hand, we consider the ephemeral and changeable aspects of our being. This is the area of ​​our everyday life where we can make decisions, make plans, and behave either virtuously or badly.

The virtues of the mind

In addition to the ethical virtues acquired through habituation to proper behavior, the virtues of the mind are necessary for attaining a happy and fulfilling life. Right knowledge and right action are inextricably linked, because only through right insight can we recognize the virtuous middle between excess and lack.

Just as it is not the most beautiful and strongest who are crowned in the Olympic Games, but those who fight (for among these are the winners), those who do the right things will also win the beautiful and good things in life.

The outstanding virtues of the rational part of the soul are wisdom and prudence. The wise man - a scientist or a philosopher - fathoms and knows the eternal laws of life. This alone makes a decisive contribution to his happiness. However, only a few people have the necessary wisdom.

For a virtuous life, however, it suffices to be prudent which shows us what the right, virtuous mediocrity is in our actions. Through all virtues we strive for the right goals, but only prudence shows us the way in which we can achieve these goals in the right way.

For the legislators make the citizens virtuous by habituation, and this is the aim of every legislator; if you don't do this skillfully, you make a mistake, and this is precisely where a good constitution differs from a bad one. "(p. 34)

Further virtues of the intellect are well-advisedness, the ability to draw up good plans, and understanding, which helps us to judge correctly in different situations.

Forms of ethical imperfection

Opposite to the good life are badness, unrestrainedness and rudeness. Iniquity is overcome through virtue, and insolence through self-control. Rudeness occurs above all among the cultureless barbarians (i.e. among the non-Greeks) or among people with certain illnesses and injuries or among particularly bad people.

Those who are extraordinarily virtuous are ascribed a godlike character. But only man can be virtuous. The gods are above virtue, they are perfect. The animals are below this category, so they too cannot be measured by the standards of virtue.

Friendship

Man is by nature a community, so friendship is particularly important for happiness in life. Even the rich and powerful need friends.

So virtue is in our power and so is wickedness. Because where doing is in our power, it also applies to not doing, and where we say no, yes is also with us. "(P. 59)

Friendships can be based on different needs. Where the usefulness and the pleasantness of friends are in the foreground, friendship tends to be coincidental and only of limited duration, because as soon as someone is no longer useful or pleasant, friendship also ends. Real, lasting friendship can only exist between the virtuous. They wish each other well because they want the friend to do well for his own sake. Such friendship lasts as long as both are virtuous. Both are then good for themselves and good for the friend. At the same time, they are useful and pleasant to one another. It is a need of the virtuous to have people around whom he can do good.

In the political arena, friendship is the mainstay of the community. Successful political communities are characterized by a general, friendly benevolence among citizens. In the same way, friendship also promotes unity among states.

The three forms of life

There are basically three different ways of life that humans can choose:

  • The lust-related life: This is chosen by the rudest and most primitive people and corresponds to the aims of animals. It's all about physical enjoyment and sensual pleasure. These people do not know what is good for them and look in vain for happiness through reprehensible lusts.
  • Political life: Here people strive for a positive and fruitful coexistence with others in a political community. This way of life is more appropriate to the human being, because he is already by nature a political being. Some form of bliss in human life can be achieved through ethical virtue. This way of life requires cleverness and getting used to virtuous behavior and corresponds to the educated, mature citizen.
  • The contemplative life of the philosopher: This is the highest form of life, because it represents a life according to reason, deals with the eternal, imperishable things and leads to perfect bliss. It is the most enjoyable activity a person can do. When we live this way, we come closest to the divine. For this life, however, the intellectual virtue of wisdom is required, and that is why man can usually only realize this form of life to a limited extent.

The goal of state legislation

Sensible people may be led to virtuous lives by admonition. The great majority of people, however, tend to live according to their natural desires and can only be deterred from evil by punishment. This is, of course, a question of having the right legislation. It is therefore at the core of political science and the responsibility of the statesman to know what legislation is appropriate and how best to increase the virtue of the community through laws.

The greatest good

Ethics is to be understood as part of political science. It is also part of practical philosophy: it is not about theoretical knowledge, but about acting through practical wisdom in such a way that the highest good, happiness, is attained. This can only be achieved by the educated, mature, male members of the polis (Greek city-state).

Thinking alone does not move anything, only purposeful and practical thinking. ”(P. 125)

The highest good is what all strives for, the ultimate purpose of all human endeavors: bliss. This is at the same time perfect and self-sufficient because it is the goal of our actions and because it is striven for for itself and not because it would serve an even higher purpose. We humans all want to be happy. This happiness is a product of the activity of the soul according to its highest and best abilities. Human happiness is therefore not an idle quality, because otherwise we could sleep all our lives or suffer a multitude of strokes of fate and would still be happy. Instead, bliss resides in virtuous action. We are happy to the extent that we realize what is humanly best in us.

The virtues of character

The soul contains an intellectual and an irrational, inherently virtuous part. Virtue can be promoted through a mind-controlled education of the irrational part of the soul. It is the ability by which we can fulfill our highest destiny as human beings. So z. For example, a son who is not yet virtuous can exercise virtue through obedience to the more mature, virtuous father.

There are two types of virtues: the intellectual virtues of the mind (such as wisdom, prudence, or discernment), which can be enhanced through teaching, and the ethical virtues of character (such as generosity or prudence), which are developed through habituation to proper behavior .

Because virtue makes the goal right, and prudence that the way to it becomes right ”(p. 137)

The ethical virtues are not given to us by nature. They are qualities that we acquire by developing the appropriate right habits through right action. So we learn virtue by practicing it. A good state constitution and good laws are characterized by the fact that they promote the virtuous behavior of the citizens.

The ethical virtues are optimally developed when we habitually adhere to the right measure, the "golden mean", in all of our activities. Extreme in both directions - too much or too little - are detrimental to our character development.

Bravery, for example, is the middle measure between cowardice and recklessness. When it comes to enjoyment, prudence is considered mediocre: this virtue is opposed to licentiousness or excess on the one hand, and dullness on the other. The extremes that flank the mediocrity of generosity are pettiness and greed on the one hand, and waste on the other.

It follows from what has been said that one cannot be good in an essential sense without prudence, nor wise without ethical virtue. "(P. 139)

We can only act virtuously where we have a corresponding free will. Succumbing to temptation is not an excuse. Only what is really completely beyond our power or is beyond our knowledge cannot later be criticized as a moral defect. In general, our volition can determine our goals and the means of attaining them. Accordingly, it is also in our power to choose between virtue and wickedness.

Justice

A virtue that is very important for human coexistence is justice. A violation of them can manifest itself in illegality or inequality, for example. Laws usually serve the common good; whoever disregards them is acting unfairly. Equally unjust is those who claim an unequal share of the good and bad things in life.

In terms of distributive justice, it is important that unequal people are not given equal. Everyone should receive that of honor and material goods of which he is worthy and what is appropriate to him. Distributive justice is not a question of equality, but of appropriateness and proportionality.

After that we will probably have to talk about friendship. Because it is a virtue, or at least connected with virtue; besides, it is one of the essentials in life. Because nobody wants to live without friends, even if they have all the other goods. "(P. 166)

In addition, a balancing justice is important. It applies, for example, to legal transactions or the punishment of legal offenses. So it must not legally make a difference whether a decent person deprives a bad person or vice versa.

The four parts of the soul

The human soul has four different parts: The vegetative part of the soul is responsible for maintaining the vital functions and is common to humans and animals. This part of the soul functions without our conscious involvement and cannot be influenced by us. The irrational part of the soul develops virtue by getting used to doing the right thing; it is the domain of ethical virtues.The rational soul part is in turn divided into two parts: It contains a speculative-theoretical and a deliberative-practical faculty. With the speculative-theoretical faculty we fathom the imperishable, eternal, unchangeable being. This is the domain of science and philosophy. With our practical-theoretical ability, on the other hand, we consider the ephemeral and changeable aspects of our being. This is the area of ​​our everyday life where we can make decisions, make plans, and behave either virtuously or badly.

The virtues of the mind

In addition to the ethical virtues acquired through habituation to proper behavior, the virtues of the mind are necessary for attaining a happy and fulfilling life. Right knowledge and right action are inextricably linked, because only through right insight can we recognize the virtuous middle between excess and lack.

The outstanding virtues of the rational part of the soul are wisdom and prudence. The wise man - a scientist or a philosopher - fathoms and knows the eternal laws of life. This alone makes a decisive contribution to his happiness. However, only a few people have the necessary wisdom.

We have said that bliss is not a quality. Otherwise it could also be owned by someone who sleeps all his life and lives like a plant, or even a person who is hit by the greatest misfortunes. "

For a virtuous life, however, it suffices to be prudent which shows us what the right, virtuous mediocrity is in our actions. Through all virtues we strive for the right goals, but only prudence shows us the way in which we can achieve these goals in the right way.

Further virtues of the intellect are well-advisedness, the ability to draw up good plans, and understanding, which helps us to judge correctly in different situations.

Forms of ethical imperfection

Opposite to the good life are badness, unrestrainedness and rudeness. Iniquity is overcome through virtue, and insolence through self-control. Rudeness occurs above all among the cultureless barbarians (i.e. among the non-Greeks) or among people with certain illnesses and injuries or among particularly bad people.

And so he who wants to make people better through care, whether there are many or a few, must try to become capable of legislation, insofar as we can become virtuous through laws. "(P. 234)

Those who are extraordinarily virtuous are ascribed a godlike character. But only man can be virtuous. The gods are above virtue, they are perfect. The animals are below this category, so they too cannot be measured by the standards of virtue.

Friendship

Man is by nature a community, so friendship is particularly important for happiness in life. Even the rich and powerful need friends.

Friendships can be based on different needs. Where the usefulness and the pleasantness of friends are in the foreground, friendship tends to be coincidental and only of limited duration, because as soon as someone is no longer useful or pleasant, friendship also ends. Real, lasting friendship can only exist between the virtuous. They wish each other well because they want the friend to do well for his own sake. Such friendship lasts as long as both are virtuous. Both are then good for themselves and good for the friend. At the same time, they are useful and pleasant to one another. It is a need of the virtuous to have people around whom he can do good.

In the political arena, friendship is the mainstay of the community. Successful political communities are characterized by a general, friendly benevolence among citizens. In the same way, friendship also promotes unity among states.

The three forms of life

There are basically three different ways of life that humans can choose:

  • The lust-related life: This is chosen by the rudest and most primitive people and corresponds to the aims of animals. It's all about physical enjoyment and sensual pleasure. These people do not know what is good for them and look in vain for happiness through reprehensible lusts.
  • Political life: Here people strive for a positive and fruitful coexistence with others in a political community. This way of life is more appropriate to the human being, because he is already by nature a political being. Some form of bliss in human life can be achieved through ethical virtue. This way of life requires cleverness and getting used to virtuous behavior and corresponds to the educated, mature citizen.
  • The contemplative life of the philosopher: This is the highest form of life, because it represents a life according to reason, deals with the eternal, imperishable things and leads to perfect bliss. It is the most enjoyable activity a person can do. When we live this way, we come closest to the divine. For this life, however, the intellectual virtue of wisdom is required, and that is why man can usually only realize this form of life to a limited extent.

The goal of state legislation

Sensible people may be led to virtuous lives by admonition. The great majority of people, however, tend to live according to their natural desires and can only be deterred from evil by punishment. This is, of course, a question of having the right legislation. It is therefore at the core of political science and the responsibility of the statesman to know what legislation is appropriate and how best to increase the virtue of the community through laws.

To the text

Structure and style

The Nicomachean Ethics is divided into ten books or chapters that deal systematically with the various aspects of ethics. The work probably represents a compilation of different lecture notes. At the beginning, Aristotle emphasizes that for him ethics is part of political science, which in turn falls into the field of practical philosophy. In the last book in particular, there is a clear bridge to politics, another important work of the philosopher. In this sense, The Nicomachean Ethics is to be understood as the first part of the complete work on "Science of Man", which is continued with politics. In the individual chapters, Aristotle usually first raises the essential basic questions, which he then tries to clarify in dialectical considerations and an elaboration of the relevant definitions. With the stylistic device of elimination and restriction that is characteristic of him, the attempt to get closer to the core of a matter by excluding everything inessential, Aristotle works out the aspects relevant to the topic. Linguistically, the work is characterized by the striving for clarity and logical correctness. The explanations are not unnecessarily rhetorical or complicated, on the contrary: They are astonishingly down-to-earth. This is why Aristotle is still relatively easy to read today, which distinguishes him from some of the more recent philosophers.

Interpretative approaches

  • The Nicomachean Ethics lays the foundation for Aristotle's remarks on man as a political being. For him, the work is part of political science and practical philosophy: Aristotle is not only concerned with theoretical philosophizing, but also with practice, with life and coexistence in the state.
  • By declaring the promotion of virtue to be a state goal, Aristotle offers a basis for constitutional law and for systematic legislation.
  • With the Nicomachean Ethics as the main work of his three ethical writings, Aristotle established ethics as an independent branch of philosophy. The work also represents a basic text of virtue ethics, which was to shape philosophy for centuries.
  • Friendship and justice are the two cardinal virtues for Aristotle. They are the cornerstone of a harmonious political community.
  • For Aristotle, happiness is not a property that one has or not, but the ongoing result of right action. Only the active person is therefore a potentially happy person.
  • The Nicomachean Ethics declares a happy, successful life to be the main goal of human endeavor and shows ways to achieve it. This makes the work a forerunner of all happiness and success guides that are published in large numbers today, as well as scientific happiness research.
  • Like his teacher Plato, Aristotle sets up normative ethics: the virtues he describes claim validity. However, unlike Plato, Aristotle renounces a transcendent anchoring of ethics in the realm of ideas; rather, he derives the virtues from people's real life.

Historical background

The dispute over the right conduct of life in ancient Athens

The time of Aristotle, the 4th century BC BC, was shaped by the overwhelming influence of the Sophists. These philosophers held different doctrines; z. In some cases, they considered the right of the fittest to be a natural right and, in return for appropriate payment, were happy to teach everyone how to use rhetorical tricks and political manipulation to assert their interests in the community. Accordingly, most of the Athens leadership elite were trained by the sophists. Even Socrates, Plato's teacher, was infected with his firm moral principles among the sophists and their students, who viewed opportunism and a relativistic value concept as appropriate means of lifestyle and politics. In the end, Socrates had to pay for his consistent stance with his life. As a pupil of Plato, Aristotle also rejected the manipulative techniques of the sophists. He was convinced that man is by nature a political being and can only realize his destiny in community with other people. A retreat into private life was therefore out of the question for him. At the same time, he could see from the political practice in his adopted home of Athens that arbitrariness and power struggles, which were aimed solely at asserting one's own interests, ultimately served neither the individual nor the community.

Emergence

As in all other philosophical areas, Aristotle approached the question of the best individual and collective way of life with his own systematic consistency. Since the state is made up of individual people, the first question that had to be clarified was what people should strive for in life and which paths they should take to achieve their goals. Aristotle's answer is preserved in three ethical writings, the most famous of which is The Nicomachean Ethics; the other two are The Eudemian Ethics and The Great Ethics. It has not yet been clarified whether Aristotle compiled the work himself and then dedicated it to his son Nicomachus, or whether he only collected and published the writings after his father's death; in any case, it is named after him. The work represents the most famous and most influential collection of the ethical theses of Aristotle and, with its focus on the individual happiness of man, forms the basis for his political writings, which deal with how the individual in the political community is encouraged in his pursuit of happiness can.

As a long-time student of Plato, Aristotle naturally grappled with the teachings of his master. He took over its four cardinal virtues (wisdom, bravery, moderation, justice), but placed them in a new relationship to one another and to the human soul. Aristotle largely rejected Plato's idealism. For example, he saw the "absolute good" as something that humans could neither achieve nor acquire. Plato's ideal of the state was also too far-fetched for Aristotle; for him it was about how the conditions in the real world could be improved concretely.

Impact history

The Nicomachean Ethics is a fundamental work of Western philosophy and history of ideas. Aristotle thus established ethics as an important, independent branch of philosophy.

After the fall of the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, the works of Aristotle were largely forgotten for a time. They were first rediscovered and commented on in the Arab world (especially by the philosophers Averroes and Avicenna) and then established in the West, especially by Albertus Magnus and his student Thomas Aquinas, as an integral part of medieval scholastic philosophy and Catholic moral theology. For centuries, Aristotle was simply considered "the philosopher". It was not until the 1830s that Aristotle was increasingly perceived as an independent thinker and removed from the context of theology.

The virtue ethics founded by Aristotle was pushed into the background by more recent approaches such as Immanuel Kant's ethics of duty. In view of a generally lamented loss of values, however, a renaissance of virtue ethics is now beginning again. Even today, no philosopher, political scientist, sociologist, theologian or lawyer can ignore the theses that Aristotle presented in his ethical writings.