Book 1, Chapter 1. According to Aristotle, every craft, line of inquiry, action, and decision seeks some end, or “good,” but these goods differ. For example, health is the end of medicine, a boat the end of boatbuilding, and victory the end of generalship.
Aristotle begins with a discussion of four types of goal-directed pursuits. The first two pursuits are aimed at producing something beyond themselves; the latter two are pursued for their own sakes, but Aristotle will go on to argue that even these are ultimately directed toward a higher “good.”
Some of these pursuits are “subordinate” to others—for example, bridle-making is subordinate to horsemanship, and various actions in warfare are subordinate to generalship. So, Aristotle claims, the ends of these “ruling sciences” (like horsemanship or generalship) are more “choiceworthy” than their subordinate ends, because the lower ends are pursued for the sake of the higher.
With these examples, Aristotle shows how particular, concrete tasks are pursued for the sake of some higher end, preparing his audience for the idea that there is a highest end toward which all lesser aims strive.
Book 1, Chapter 2. Aristotle notes that “things achievable by action have some end that we wish for because of itself.” This end will be the best good. The knowledge of this “best good” is important for determining the best way of life, so all people should try to grasp what that good is and which is its proper science.
In this passage, Aristotle explains the aim of his inquiry in Nicomachean Ethics as a whole: to figure out the best way of life. While most of our actions are done for the sake of some higher end, there is an ultimate end beyond which we wish nothing more. When we know what this is, we’ll be better equipped to pursue the best way of life.
The “highest ruling science,” Aristotle claims, is political science. This science prescribes which sciences should be studied in cities, who should study them, and how much. Even such sciences as generalship, household management, and rhetoric are subordinate to political science.
Aristotle sees political science as the study of how to establish and preserve happiness within societies. This is part of his overall theme that the pursuit of ethics is not just relevant to individuals, but to communities as well.
Because political science uses these other sciences, its end includes the ends of the other sciences, too. This end is the human good, but the good of the city is “a greater and more complete good” than the good of an individual. Aristotle notes that even his line of inquiry is a kind of political science because it seeks this “finer and more divine” good.
Because political science is about the human good, any other science one could name ultimately serves political science. Nicomachean Ethics itself, because it seeks this highest good, can then be classified as a work of political science.
Book 1, Chapter 3. Aristotle points out that he will be satisfied “to indicate the truth roughly and in outline,” and that his claims should be accepted in that same spirit. He also argues that a young person isn’t an appropriate student of political science, because a young person is inexperienced and driven by feelings. But for students who “accord with reason in forming their desires […] knowledge of political science will be of great benefit.”
Because Nicomachean Ethics originated in Aristotle’s philosophical lectures, it’s not intended to be a comprehensive work—a fact that should be kept in mind when evaluating his ideas. Aristotle believes that political science is best studied by those who are experienced in putting reason before feelings, something that, as he will discuss later, is key to the pursuit of virtue overall.
Book 1, Chapter 4. So what is this highest good that political science seeks? Most people would agree that it is happiness, but they disagree about what happiness consists of. Aristotle says that to determine this, it’s necessary to start from what we know—and that is why it’s necessary “to have been brought up in fine habits if we are to be adequate students of fine and just things.”
Having established that there is a highest good toward which all lesser ends point, Aristotle asks what that good is. He also suggests that if someone hasn’t already been brought up in fine (correct, or admirable) ways of thinking, it will be difficult for them to undertake this inquiry well. In other words, to understand what’s good, one must be acquainted with the good already.
Book 1, Chapter 5. People generally form their understanding of the good from the type of life they lead, and there are roughly three types of lives: the lives of gratification, of political activity, and of study. Those who lead lives of gratification choose a life that’s fit “for grazing animals.” In contrast, “Cultivated people,” who choose the life of political activity, see the good as honor; but this, too, is inferior to something higher. The third life, that of study, will be discussed in what follows.
From Aristotle’s breakdown of the three types of lives, it’s not hard to guess that the life of study is the one most oriented toward the good. However, there is an ongoing tension between study and political activity in his thought; while study is best for the individual, political activity is needed in order to preserve the good for society as a whole.
Book 1, Chapter 6. Before proceeding, though, Aristotle points out that it’s best to figure out what is meant by the good. Because it is spoken of in so many different ways, we can conclude that there isn’t a single, universal good. There are goods that are pursued for the sake of something else, and things that are goods in their own right, and all of these are different. This means that goods can’t correspond to some single “Idea.”
Though he doesn’t directly say so, Aristotle is in dialogue here with Plato’s, understanding of universal “Forms,” or essences, of which earthly objects are just echoes. Plato, who was Aristotle’s mentor, might have said that there is an eternal Form of the Good, but Aristotle sees a variety of goods that don’t correspond neatly with a universal idea.
Furthermore, it’s unclear how, say, a weaver, a carpenter, or a doctor will benefit from knowing this “Good Itself” or “Idea.” A doctor, for instance, isn’t interested in some universal idea of health, but in human health, and usually the health of one individual at a time.
Aristotle further rejects Plato’s understanding of universals, seeing it as irrelevant to actual practice. Instead, he focuses on particularities, since those are what people most often encounter and deal with in daily life.
Book 1, Chapter 7. Aristotle explains that since the good appears to be something different in medicine, generalship, and so on, then the highest good must be “that for the sake of which the other things are done,” and this good must be “something complete.” A complete good is something that is never undertaken for the sake of something else. The thing that seems complete without anything else is happiness, “for we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else.” In contrast, things like honor, pleasure, and understanding are always chosen because we believe that through them, we’ll become happy.
Aristotle searches for the “good” that isn’t chosen for the sake of anything higher than itself and concludes that it must be happiness—happiness, he argues, is what human beings strive for above all else. Everything that humans pursue, like pleasure or honor, are just lesser pursuits that are meant to lead to happiness.
In order to better grasp what the best good is, Aristotle says that it’s necessary to understand the function of a human being. While we have certain functions in common with plants (the life of nutrition and growth) and animals (sense perception), humanity’s unique function is the “life of action of the [part of the soul] that has reason.” Life is often spoken of in terms of capacity and activity, and activity more fully describes the human function. So, Aristotle explains, we can more specifically describe the human function as “activity of the soul in accord with reason or requiring reason.” Moreover, the function of the excellent person is to live this kind of life “well and finely.”
In this passage, Aristotle points out that we can’t understand the good unless we understand what human beings are for. Aristotle argues that the unique thing about human beings is our soul’s ability to reason. Because activity particularly characterizes human life, we can then say that the soul’s activity in accordance with reason is the particular function of human beings, in contrast to less sophisticated beings like plants and animals. In addition, this function should be performed “finely.”
Each function is completed well “by being completed in accord with the virtue proper [to that kind of thing].” So, Aristotle reasons, the human good is “the activity of the soul in accord with virtue”—the best and most complete virtue, in a complete life.
When Aristotle talks about virtue, he refers to a state whereby something performs its intended function well. In the coming sections, he will unpack what it means for human beings to act virtuously.
Book 1, Chapter 8. Happiness also requires the addition of certain external resources, such as friends, wealth, or political power. In the same vein, the deprivation of certain things detracts from happiness—for example, lack of beauty, spouse, or children. In other words, a certain degree of prosperity is needed for happiness.
Aristotle acknowledges that attaining happiness is made harder or easier depending on certain external advantages or the lack of them.
Book 1, Chapter 9. How is happiness acquired? Though it’s reasonable to say that happiness may be gifted by the gods in some sense, for the purposes of this discussion Aristotle says that happiness is the result of virtue and “some sort of learning or cultivation,” which is available to anyone who has the capacity for virtue.
Aristotle isn’t interested in happiness in a more metaphysical sense; he is concerned with the ways that humans can pursue happiness themselves through the active cultivation of virtue.
Book 1, Chapter 10. Aristotle takes his argument a step further by asserting that the happy person is the one whose activities not only accord with complete virtue, supported by adequate external goods, but also with a complete life.
Aristotle thinks that happiness is most likely to be found in a full or complete life. The idea of the “complete” is a thread that runs throughout the entirety of the Ethics.
Book 1, Chapter 11. While good or evil happening to one’s friends or descendants after their death can be said in some measure to affect one’s happiness, it doesn’t do so to such a degree that a happy person would be made unhappy, or vice versa.
Aristotle says that misfortunes befalling one’s acquaintances can reflect on the dead in some sense, but not in a way that ultimately detracts from the classification of a person as “happy” or not.
Book 1, Chapters 12-13. Because happiness is an activity of the soul in accord with complete virtue, Aristotle reasons that one must examine virtue in order to better understand happiness. First it’s necessary to consider the nature of the soul, which has both a rational part and a nonrational part. Even the nonrational part—particularly the part with appetites and desires—shares in reason, though it does so in better or worse ways depending on the person. The difference between the parts of the soul accords with the difference between virtues. Some virtues are called virtues of thought (like wisdom, comprehension, and prudence), and some virtues are called virtues of character (like generosity and temperance).
To understand happiness, it’s necessary to further break down the idea of virtue. The soul is both rational and nonrational, and even the nonrational parts must cooperate with the rational, to one degree or another. The rational parts can be classified as virtues of thought, and the ones that cooperate with the rational are virtues of character. These are arbitrary categorizations, of course—Aristotle’s attempt to understand the complexity and potential of human nature.