Nicomachean Ethics

by

Aristotle

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Nicomachean Ethics: Book 10 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Book 10, Chapters 1-5. Aristotle next discusses pleasure, because “enjoying and hating the right things seems to be most important for virtue of character.” People decide on pleasant things and avoid painful things throughout their lives. He rehashes many of the points he made earlier about pleasure, concluding that pleasure in and of itself isn’t the ultimate good, that not every pleasure is “choiceworthy,” and that some pleasures are choiceworthy in themselves. Pleasure is not a process, but something that is complete at any time. It arises through some activity and completes every activity. The most fully human pleasures are those which “complete the activities of the complete and blessedly happy man.”
Aristotle has discussed pleasure earlier in the Ethics. Here he underscores the importance of people’s attitudes about pleasures and pains for the development of virtue. Pleasures aren’t necessarily good in and of themselves, but when people have a virtuous attitude about them, they enhance one’s happiness.
Themes
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Book 10, Chapter 6. Since happiness is the end of human striving, it’s necessary to discuss the nature of happiness a bit further. First, happiness is an activity, not a state. It is choiceworthy in its own right, if nothing further apart from happiness is sought. The most choiceworthy activities for the blessed person are those concerning virtue. From this, we know that happiness isn’t to be found in mere amusement, but in activities in accord with virtue.
Happiness is something a person does. For the virtuous person, all activities according with reason also promote happiness. This contrasts with the average person’s conflation of happiness with pleasure or amusement.
Themes
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Virtue and Community Life Theme Icon
Aristotle notes that since it’s the case that happiness is activity in accord with virtue, it must accord with the supreme virtue, which is understanding, particularly understanding of the fine and divine—hence the greatest happiness is found in study. Study is something which is enjoyed for its own sake, and it aims at no higher aim; it’s characterized by leisure, and it deepens one’s pleasure the more it is pursued. So complete happiness is to be found in this activity.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Aristotle turns from his discussion of friendship to the claim that philosophical study is actually life’s highest pleasure. But there’s not necessarily a conflict here; as the founder of a philosophical school, Aristotle certainly didn’t believe that study should be pursued alone.
Themes
The Nature and Pursuit of Happiness Theme Icon
Virtue and Community Life Theme Icon
The Political Life vs. the Contemplative Life Theme Icon
Book 10, Chapter 7. Aristotle suggests that someone who lives a life of study “has a divine element in him.” Even though we are mortal, we should seek to live in accord with our immortal element as much as we can. But understanding is also the controlling element of a human being, so from this perspective, too, the life of study is the supreme and happiest life. The person “whose activity accords with understanding,” then, would seem to have the happiest life and also to be loved by the gods.
Understanding is the pinnacle of human reason and also the element of humanity that most closely connects them to the gods, Aristotle thinks. This is why study makes for the happiest life.
Themes
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The Political Life vs. the Contemplative Life Theme Icon
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Book 10, Chapter 8. Having said this, Aristotle can’t end his discussion here, because it isn’t enough to study virtue, but to act on what one has learned. Aristotle explains that mere arguments about virtue aren’t enough to make people behave decently. Most people live by their feelings, pursuing pleasures and avoiding pains, and they don’t have a taste for the fine and truly pleasant. Argument alone can’t reform people with such ingrained habits.
Aristotle explains that most people can’t achieve the kind of virtuous life he’s spent the entire work outlining; they don’t have an intrinsic taste for it. Argument can only do so much for people who live according to their feelings instead of their reason.
Themes
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The Political Life vs. the Contemplative Life Theme Icon
Book 10, Chapter 9. While nature plays a role in making people good, and teaching has an impact on some, the soul of any student “needs to have been prepared by habit for enjoying or hating finely, like ground that is to nourish seed.” After all, someone who’s accustomed to living according to his feelings won’t listen to or even understand an argument, much less be persuaded to change. In other words, to attain virtue, “we must already in some way have a character […] fond of what is fine and objecting to what is shameful.”
Aristotle reiterates that in order for a person to become virtuous, their soul already needs to have been primed for virtue through appreciation of what’s fine and rejection of what’s shameful. Without that preparation of the “soil” of the soul, arguments are of no avail.
Themes
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The Political Life vs. the Contemplative Life Theme Icon
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Someone will not have been trained in such a character, however, if he hasn’t been brought up under appropriate laws. Laws, then, must “prescribe their upbringing and practices,” so that, from their youth, people will grow accustomed to virtue and won’t find it painful. But, from Aristotle’s perspective, obeying these laws in youth isn’t enough; habituation to virtue is still needed as people become adults, so laws are needed throughout life.
Throughout the Ethics, Aristotle has repeatedly touched on the importance of virtue for the flourishing of society, not just the individual. Now he explains that, in order for people’s souls to be prepared for virtue throughout their lives, appropriate laws must be imposed and enforced.
Themes
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The Political Life vs. the Contemplative Life Theme Icon
This is why it’s the job of legislators to “urge people toward virtue and exhort them to aim at the fine,” and to impose corrective treatments and penalties on anyone who disobeys or lacks the right nature to obey. They must also expel those who are incurable. Someone who’s brought up, habituated, and who follows decent practices throughout life can become good.
While not everyone will prove themselves capable of responding to the formative power of law—the irredeemable few will need to be removed from society, in fact—Aristotle believes that most people who are brought up under a system of sound law can be successfully guided toward virtue.
Themes
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The Political Life vs. the Contemplative Life Theme Icon
Aristotle argues that law can compel in a way that a parent’s or teacher’s instructions can’t. So it makes sense for the community to pay attention to people’s upbringing. Therefore it’s necessary to know how to create excellent laws. Even though individual treatment is needed in order for people to grow in virtue, one can’t attend to particulars without understanding universals. So someone who wishes to make people good should study legislative science. This is done by studying collections of laws and political systems—determining which system is best, how best it should be organized, “and what habits and laws it should follow.” “Let us discuss this,” Aristotle concludes, “from the beginning.”
Nicomachean Ethics ends with Aristotle’s charge to study legislative science—really a subset of political science—in order to create communities that are oriented toward virtue, goodness, and happiness. Though the text ends somewhat abruptly, this is because Aristotle intended to follow up his lectures on ethics with lectures evaluating laws and political systems—as in fact he did, in the companion treatise, Politics.
Themes
The Nature and Pursuit of Happiness Theme Icon
Virtue and Community Life Theme Icon
The Political Life vs. the Contemplative Life Theme Icon
Related Quotes