Nicomachean Ethics



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Nicomachean Ethics Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Aristotle

Aristotle was the son of a doctor named Nicomachus, who served the Macedonian court. Few details are known of his life before 367 B.C., when he traveled to Athens to study at Plato’s Academy, remaining there until Plato’s death in 347. After that, Aristotle lived in Asia Minor, where he continued studying philosophy under the patronage of Hermeias, a pro-Macedonian ruler, and whose daughter, Pythias, he married. A few years later, he moved back to Macedon, where, in 343, he began tutoring the young Alexander the Great. In 334, he returned to Athens, where he founded his own philosophical school, the Lyceum. Aristotle’s philosophical teaching departed from Plato’s in important ways, especially in his rejection of Plato’s teaching on the Forms, which Aristotle saw as too abstract to be generally useful. Sometimes referred to simply as “The Philosopher,” Aristotle’s ideas have borne tremendous influence on subsequent philosophy up to the present day—not just in ancient Greece or Western Europe, but in the medieval Islamic world as well—and for centuries his thought also influenced approaches to the natural sciences, psychology, politics, and rhetoric. After his wife Pythias’s death, Aristotle had a son, Nicomachus, with a woman named Herpyllis. (The Nicomachean Ethics is probably named for Aristotle’s son and/or his father.) After Alexander the Great’s death in 323, anti-Macedonian sentiment broke out anew in Athens, so Alexander relocated once more, to the island of Euboea, where he died the following year.
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Historical Context of Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle was alive when, under Philip II and later his son Alexander the Great, the kingdom of Macedon conquered Greece and the Persian Empire. Although the Macedonians portrayed themselves as Greeks, Greeks themselves tended to view the Macedonians as foreign invaders, leading to cultural tensions. Aristotle himself wasn’t an Athenian citizen, and he had close personal connections with the court of the Macedonian kings, including leadership of the royal academy, where he taught future rulers including Alexander, Ptolemy, and Cassander. Nicomachean Ethics is based on Aristotle’s lecture notes for the Lyceum, the philosophy school he founded in Athens around 334 B.C. Aristotle lectured, wrote, and compiled a library here. After his death, the school endured for several centuries, drawing students (mainly young Athenian males) from all over the Mediterranean. The school was destroyed during the Roman general Sulla’s sack of Athens in 86 B.C., though it briefly revived under the patronage of Marcus Aurelius in the second century A.D.

Other Books Related to Nicomachean Ethics

Because Aristotle was a student of Plato, familiarity with Plato’s dialogues—especially those dealing with the Platonic idea of the Forms, including The Symposium, Phaedo, and the The Republic—is useful for understanding what Aristotle is building on and reacting against in his own writings. Within Aristotle’s own body of work, Politics may have originated as a lecture series following the Ethics, so it’s a natural point for digging deeper into Aristotle’s thought. After the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D., study of Aristotle waned throughout Europe. In the Middle Ages, the extensive Aristotelian commentaries of the Andalusian Muslim philosopher, Averroes (1126-1198), helped revive Western interest in Aristotle as well as arguing for philosophy as an Islamic pursuit. Building on this legacy a century later, the Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) attempted to synthesize Aristotelian philosophy with Christian teachings, as seen especially in his influential Summa Theologiae, and even authored a commentary specifically on Nicomachean Ethics.
Key Facts about Nicomachean Ethics
  • Full Title: Nicomachean Ethics
  • When Written: Likely after 335 B.C.
  • Where Written: Athens, Greece
  • When Published: Likely after 335 B.C.
  • Literary Period: Classical Greek
  • Genre: Philosophical treatise

Extra Credit for Nicomachean Ethics

Renaissance Portrayal. In Raphael’s famous painting, The School of Athens—painted in the early 1500s and now viewable in Vatican City—Aristotle is pictured holding a copy of Nicomachean Ethics. He appears next to his teacher, Plato. While Plato points heavenward, Aristotle gestures, palm downward, to his present surroundings—indicating their respective philosophical emphases (Plato’s teaching on the eternal Forms and Aristotle’s focus on concrete particulars).

Lecture Notes. Nicomachean Ethics, likely based on Aristotle’s lectures in the Lyceum, may have been compiled in its current form by later editors. When studying the Ethics, it’s worth keeping in mind its probable character as a general teaching outline; it’s not meant to be a comprehensive work.