Nicomachean Ethics

by

Aristotle

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Themes and Colors
The Nature and Pursuit of Happiness Theme Icon
Virtues and the Mean Theme Icon
Virtue and Community Life Theme Icon
The Political Life vs. the Contemplative Life Theme Icon
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Virtues and the Mean Theme Icon

To live a happy life, Aristotle claims, it’s necessary to know which virtues one must put into practice in order to attain happiness. Aristotle identifies two types of virtue—virtues of thought, which are associated with the rational part of the soul (these include prudence, understanding, and deliberation), and virtues of character, which are associated with the cooperation of the nonrational parts of the soul with reason (these include bravery, temperance, generosity, and truthfulness, among a number of others). But becoming virtuous is much more than simply knowing what the virtues are. Aristotle’s larger argument in Nicomachean Ethics is that practicing virtues involves determining the “mean” (the intermediate) between an excess and a deficiency, and that this determination requires wisdom, not a mechanical application of a method.

According to Aristotle, a virtue is a state of something whereby it performs its intended function well. Such a state is achieved when someone determines the “mean” between two extremes. A state is formed by repeated activity—or “habituation”—and consists of a disposition to do a certain thing on the appropriate occasion. Because of this formation through training, a state is something more than a mere feeling or capacity. A person who has habituated herself to bravery, for example, will be inclined to behave bravely when it’s appropriate even when she feels fear.

A virtue must also be a “mean” between an excess and a deficiency. Virtues must be exercised “at the right times, about the right things, toward the right people, for the right end, and in the right ways.” This “intermediate and best condition” “is proper to virtue.” Virtues, in other words, should not only be practiced at the appropriate times, but in the appropriate amount—and determining that amount requires wisdom.

The practice of virtue, then, isn’t a matter of simply following rules; it requires discernment. The fact that virtue “aims at what is intermediate” doesn’t mean one should simply be moderate all the time. For example, in his discussion of anger, Aristotle explains that “the person who is angry at the right things and toward the right people, and also in the right way, at the right time, and for the right length of time, is praised.” Virtue likewise doesn’t mean simply that our actions should be appropriate to our circumstances. For example, someone who is brave is not fearless; someone who is overconfident about frightening things is considered to be rash, and someone who is excessively fearful is cowardly; the person who exercises the virtue of bravery feels the appropriate level of fear under the circumstances, but stands firm “in the right way, as reason prescribes, for the sake of the fine.” Virtue, then, is more like a map than a precise spectrum, and it’s not like calculating an arithmetic mean, which never varies. Aristotle’s discussion of the virtues is heavily generalized, because much of virtue consists in understanding how the “mean” should be observed under a specific set of circumstances.

A person seeking to develop virtues of character, therefore, must exercise certain intellectual virtues, such as prudence, and the state of continence (self-restraint) is a prerequisite to virtue as well. First, since determining the mean requires the intellectual virtue of prudence, Aristotle links virtue of intellect to virtue of character. A prudent person doesn’t make a mechanical application of rules to situations; prudence is a development of one’s perception or understanding to meet particular situations. When prudence is developed, a person is equipped to determine what’s proportionate in a given circumstance. And there’s no straightforward procedure governing this decision-making process; Aristotle’s theory offers guidance, not an infallible method.

Continence is also vital in putting virtue into practice. Virtue isn’t simply a question of determining the right way to act—an “incontinent” person (one who lacks self-restraint) draws the right conclusions and even makes the right decision about the “mean,” but his nonrational desires overpower his rational ones, and he acts against his right decision. Therefore self-restraint must be cultivated alongside one’s ability to determine the mean. As Aristotle’s discussion of virtue suggests, attaining the mean isn’t necessarily a straightforward process—it’s difficult, requiring more than just knowledge or practice. This accords with the nature of Nicomachean Ethics—the work isn’t intended to be a how-to guide, but to sketch an outline of the virtuous life and teach people to ask the right questions as they pursue that life.

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Virtues and the Mean Quotes in Nicomachean Ethics

Below you will find the important quotes in Nicomachean Ethics related to the theme of Virtues and the Mean.
Book 1 Quotes

Suppose, then, that the things achievable by action have some end that we wish for because of itself, and because of which we wish for the other things, and that we do not choose everything because of something else—for if we do, it will go on without limit, so that desire will prove to be empty and futile. Clearly, this end will be the good, that is to say, the best good.

Then does knowledge of this good carry great weight for [our] way of life, and would it make us better able, like archers who have a target to aim at, to hit the right mark? If so, we should try to grasp, in outline at any rate, what the good is, and which is its proper science or capacity.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:
Book 2 Quotes

Virtue, then, is of two sorts, virtue of thought and virtue of character. Virtue of thought arises and grows mostly from teaching; that is why it needs experience and time. Virtue of character results from habit; hence its name “ethical,” slightly varied from “ethos.”

Hence it is also clear that none of the virtues of character arises in us naturally. For if something is by nature in one condition, habituation cannot bring it into another condition. A stone, for instance, by nature moves downwards, and habituation could not make it move upwards, not even if you threw it up ten thousand times […] And so the virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and we are completed through habit.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

First, then, we should observe that these sorts of states naturally tend to be ruined by excess and deficiency […] The same is true, then, of temperance, bravery, and the other virtues. For if, for instance, someone avoids and is afraid of everything, standing firm against nothing, he becomes cowardly; if he is afraid of nothing at all and goes to face everything, he becomes rash. Similarly, if he gratifies himself with every pleasure and abstains from none, he becomes intemperate; if he avoids them all, as boors do, he becomes some sort of insensible person. Temperance and bravery, then, are ruined by excess and deficiency, but preserved by the mean.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

That is why it is also hard work to be excellent. For in each case it is hard work to find the intermediate; for instance, not everyone, but only one who knows, finds the midpoint in a circle. So also getting angry, or giving and spending money, is easy and everyone can do it; but doing it to the right person, in the right amount, at the right time, for the right end, and in the right way is no longer easy, nor can everyone do it. Hence doing these things well is rare, praiseworthy, and fine.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:
Book 3 Quotes

And so, if the same is true for bravery, the brave person will find death and wounds painful, and suffer them unwillingly, but he will endure them because that is fine or because failure is shameful. Indeed, the truer it is that he has every virtue and the happier he is, the more pain he will feel at the prospect of death. For this sort of person, more than anyone, finds it worthwhile to be alive, and knows he is being deprived of the greatest goods, and this is painful. But he is no less brave for all that; presumably, indeed, he is all the braver, because he chooses what is fine in war at the cost of all these goods. It is not true, then, in the case of every virtue that its active exercise is pleasant; it is pleasant only insofar as we attain the end.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:
Book 4 Quotes

Mildness is the mean concerned with anger. [...] The person who is angry at the right things and toward the right people, and also in the right way, at the right time, and for the right length of time, is praised. This, then, will be the mild person, if mildness is praised. For [if mildness is something to be praised,] being a mild person means being undisturbed, not led by feeling, but irritated wherever reason prescribes, and for the length of time it prescribes. And he seems to err more in the direction of deficiency, since the mild person is ready to pardon, not eager to exact a penalty.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:
Book 5 Quotes

Now the law instructs us to do the actions of a brave person—for instance, not to leave the battle-line, or to flee, or to throw away our weapons; of a temperate person—not to commit adultery or wanton aggression; of a mild person—not to strike or revile another; and similarly requires actions in accord with the other virtues, and prohibits actions in accord with the vices. The correctly established law does this correctly, and the less carefully framed one does this worse. […]

Moreover, justice is complete virtue to the highest degree because it is the complete exercise of complete virtue. And it is the complete exercise because the person who has justice is able to exercise virtue in relation to another, not only in what concerns himself; for many are able to exercise virtue in their own concerns, but unable in what relates to another.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

That is why the decent is just, and better than a certain way of being just […] And this is the nature of the decent—rectification of law insofar as the universality of law makes it deficient. This is also the reason why not everything is guided by law. For on some matters legislation is impossible, and so a decree is needed. For the standard applied to the indefinite is itself indefinite, as the lead standard is in Lesbian building, where it is not fixed, but adapts itself to the shape of the stone; similarly, a decree is adapted to fit its objects. It is clear from this what is decent, and clear that it is just, and better than a certain way of being just. It is also evident from this who the decent person is; for he is the one who decides on and does such actions, not an exact stickler for justice in the bad way, but taking less than he might even though he has the law on his side. This is the decent person, and his state is decency; it is a sort of justice, and not some state different from it.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:
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:

But complete friendship is the friendship of good people similar in virtue; for they wish goods in the same way to each other insofar as they are good, and they are good in their own right. Now those who wish goods to their friend for the friend’s own sake are friends most of all; for they have this attitude because of the friend himself, not coincidentally. Hence these people’s friendship lasts as long as they are good; and virtue is enduring.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:
Book 9 Quotes

[…] [I]t is good not to seek as many friends as possible, and good to have no more than enough for living together; indeed it even seems impossible to be an extremely close friend to many people. […] This would seem to be borne out in what people actually do. For the friendship of companions is not found in groups of many people, and the friendships celebrated in song are always between two people. By contrast, those who have many friends and treat everyone as close them seem to be friends to no one […] Certainly it is possible to have a fellow citizen’s friendship for many people, and still to be a truly decent person, not ingratiating; but it is impossible to be many people’s friend for their virtue and for themselves. We have reason to be satisfied if we can find even a few such friends.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

[…] [W]hat friends find most choiceworthy is living together. For friendship is community, and we are related to our friend as we are related to ourselves. […] Whatever someone [regards as] his being, or the end for which he chooses to be alive, that is the activity he wishes to pursue in his friend’s company. Hence some friends drink together, others play dice, while others do gymnastics and go hunting, or do philosophy. They spend their days together on whichever pursuit in life they like most; for since they want to live with their friends, they share the actions in which they find their common life.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:
Book 10 Quotes

Now some think it is nature that makes people good; some think it is habit; some that it is teaching. The [contribution] of nature clearly is not up to us, but results from some divine cause in those who have it, who are the truly fortunate ones. Arguments and teaching surely do not prevail on everyone, but the soul of the student needs to have been prepared by habits for enjoying and hating finely, like ground that is to nourish seed. For someone who lives in accord with his feelings would not even listen to an argument turning him away, or comprehend it [if he did listen]; and in that state how could he be persuaded to change? And in general feelings seem to yield to force, not to argument.

Related Characters: Aristotle (speaker)
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

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: