Nicomachean Ethics

by

Aristotle

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The City Symbol Analysis

The City Symbol Icon

In Nicomachean Ethics, the city takes on several layers of symbolic significance. Because Aristotle is concerned both with the individual’s cultivation of virtue and the community’s, he sometimes draws comparisons between the human soul and the political life of the city. For example, in his discussion of incontinence, or lack of self-restraint, he says that “The incontinent person is like a city that votes for all the right decrees and has excellent laws, but does not apply them.” In this instance, the city represents the individual who struggles to govern themselves effectively—they know how to act virtuously, but they don’t actually act on that knowledge. Aristotle also draws comparisons between various kinds of human relationships and the political structures found in cities—for example, kingship is like a father’s relationship to his children, and a timocracy (rule by property-holders) can be likened to the relationship between brothers. By tying the individual practice of virtues to the overall wellbeing of human society, Aristotle shows how the individual and the community are tightly connected.

The City Quotes in Nicomachean Ethics

The Nicomachean Ethics quotes below all refer to the symbol of The City. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Nature and Pursuit of Happiness Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Hackett edition of Nicomachean Ethics published in 1999.
Book 7 Quotes

In fact the incontinent person is like a city that votes for all the right decrees and has excellent laws, but does not apply them, as in Anaxandrides' taunt, 'The city willed it, that cares nothing for laws'. The base person, by contrast, is like a city that applies its laws, but applies bad ones.[…] The [impetuous] type of incontinence found in volatile people is more easily cured than the [weak] type of incontinence found in those who deliberate but do not abide by it. And incontinents through habituation are more easily cured than the natural incontinents; for habit is easier than nature to change.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Related Symbols: The City
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:
Book 8 Quotes

Moreover, friendship would seem to hold cities together, and legislators would seem to be more concerned about it than about justice. For concord would seem to be similar to friendship, and they aim at concord among all, while they try above all to expel civil conflict, which is enmity. Further, if people are friends, they have no need of justice, but if they are just they need friendship in addition; and the justice that is most just seems to belong to friendship.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Related Symbols: The City
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:
Book 10 Quotes

Since, then, our predecessors have left the area of legislation uncharted, it is presumably better to examine it ourselves instead, and indeed to examine political systems in general, and so to complete the philosophy of human affairs, as far as we are able. First, then, let us try to review any sound remarks our predecessors have made on particular topics. Then let us study the collected political systems, to see from them what sorts of things preserve and destroy cities, and political systems of different types; and what causes some cities to conduct politics well, and some badly. For when we have studied these questions, we will perhaps grasp better what sort of political system is best; how each political system should be organized so as to be best and what habits and laws it should follow. Let us discuss this, then, starting from the beginning.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Related Symbols: The City
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:
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The City Symbol Timeline in Nicomachean Ethics

The timeline below shows where the symbol The City appears in Nicomachean Ethics. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book 1
The Nature and Pursuit of Happiness Theme Icon
Virtue and Community Life Theme Icon
The Political Life vs. the Contemplative Life Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Book 5
Virtues and the Mean Theme Icon
Virtue and Community Life Theme Icon
...has more and given to the one who has less. There is also justice in exchange—reciprocity—which holds cities together; currency helps maintain this kind of justice. Political justice pertains more broadly... (full context)
Book 7
Virtues and the Mean Theme Icon
Virtue and Community Life Theme Icon
...someone who is asleep or drunk. Aristotle explains that “The incontinent person is like a city that votes for all the right decrees and has excellent laws, but does not apply... (full context)
Book 8
Virtues and the Mean Theme Icon
Virtue and Community Life Theme Icon
Friendship holds cities together, and legislators seem to be even more concerned about friendship than about justice. That’s... (full context)
Virtues and the Mean Theme Icon
Virtue and Community Life Theme Icon
...political community, since they seek “advantage[s] close at hand,” while the broader political community (the city) seeks the good of all. (full context)
Book 9
Virtues and the Mean Theme Icon
Virtue and Community Life Theme Icon
...another feature of friendship. Concord applies more specifically to political friendship—like among citizens of a city—because it’s concerned with questions about big things affecting society. (full context)