Nicomachean Ethics

by

Aristotle

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Nicomachean Ethics: Book 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Book 3, Chapter 1. Aristotle discusses the preconditions of virtue. He begins by explaining that when we talk about virtue, we’re talking about voluntary action, not involuntary action, which is forced or caused by ignorance.
Now that he’s established what virtue is, Aristotle discusses various requirements for virtue. First of all, it must be voluntary.
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Book 3, Chapter 2. Decision—as opposed to mere appetite, wish, or belief—is also proper to virtue. Because decision involves reason and thought, what is decided must first have been deliberated.
Here, Aristotle emphasizes that we must decide to act, and before we decide, we must deliberate.
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Book 3, Chapter 3. According to Aristotle, deliberation typically concerns situations of uncertain outcome, when one must discern the right way to act. One “[lays] down the end” toward which one is striving (for example, a doctor aiming to cure, or an orator looking to persuade), “and then examine the ways and means to achieve it.” If there are various possible means to an end, one must determine which way will be the easiest and finest. Deliberation comes to an end when we arrive at a definite decision on how to act.
Deliberation is a process of inquiry and analysis. It only applies in situations where there are multiple viable alternatives. To arrive at a decision, one must first be clear about one’s aim, then consider the alternative ways of achieving it and which of these is best. Aristotle also notes that partners in deliberation are often needed “when we distrust our own ability to discern” without help.
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Book 3, Chapters 4-5. Aristotle sums up the discussion thus: “We have found, then, that we wish for the end, and deliberate and decide about things that promote it; hence the actions concerned with things that promote the end are in accord with decision and are voluntary. The activities of the virtues are concerned with these things [that promote the end].” The upshot of this conclusion is that virtue (and vice) are up to us.
The voluntary nature of virtue has ramifications not just for the individual pursuit of virtue, but for communities and hence for law. According to Aristotle’s approach, legislators must also determine the ends they desire and deliberate on the best ways to compel virtue and discourage vice by shaping people’s decision-making.
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Book 3, Chapters 6-7. Next Aristotle discusses individual virtues in turn, starting with bravery. Bravery is a mean between cowardice and rashness. A brave person may be afraid under the appropriate circumstances, but will stand firm in the face of fear “for the sake of the fine, since this is the end aimed at by virtue.” While a cowardly person, a rash person, and a brave person are all concerned with the same things, then, they “have different states related to them; the others are excessive or defective,” but the brave person achieves the mean.
In this part of the work, Aristotle undertakes more detailed discussions of specific virtues. Bravery is a good example of how virtues are more than just feelings. Being brave doesn’t mean that someone isn’t afraid, but one manages to maintain the proper state relative to fear, acting courageously without giving in to extremes of boldness or timidity.
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Book 3, Chapters 8-9. There is also a difference between those who seem brave and those who are genuinely brave. For instance, a person who is confident and hopeful that they can achieve a good outcome may seem brave, but really they just “think they are stronger and nothing could happen to them.” In contrast, a brave person will willingly endure pain and suffering and will actually feel “more pain” “at the prospect of death.”
Aristotle continues to add nuance to his discussion of the mean, showing how what may look like the mean—in this case, bravery—isn’t always the mean.
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Related Quotes
Book 3, Chapters 10-12. The virtue of temperance has to do with bodily pleasures. A temperate person finds no pleasure in the wrong things; in fact, he doesn’t take intense pleasure in any bodily things, doesn’t suffer pain in their absence, and has no more than a moderate appetite for them. In contrast, an intemperate person is driven by “appetite and desire.”
Temperance doesn’t mean that someone has no desire for things like food or sex, but that he has total mastery over his appetite and never overindulges. He has a moderate desire for things that don’t detract from health, don’t deviate from the fine, and don’t exceed his means.
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