Summary and Info
I read this book for a graduate seminar on Aristotle. I think Aristotle's ethics is his most seminal work in philosophy. In the early 1960's virtue ethics came to fore. It is a retrieval of Aristotle. It has very close parallels to the ancient Chinese philosophy of Confucius and the modern philosophy espoused in the 1970's called Communitarianism.
For Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics, (EN) is about human life in an embodied state. Area of inquirery for EN is "good" this is his phenomenology. What does "good" mean? He suggests good means "a desired end." Something desirable. Means towards these ends. Such as money is good, so one can buy food to eat because "eating is good." In moral philosophy distinction between "intrinsic good" vs. "instrumental good." Instrumental good towards a desire is "instrumental good" like money. Thus, money is an "instrumental good" for another purpose because it produces something beyond itself. Instrumental good means because it further produces a good, "intrinsic good" is a good for itself, "for the sake of" an object like money. "Intrinsic good" for him is "Eudemonia=happiness." This is what ethics and virtues are for the sake of the organizing principle. Eudemonia=happiness. Today we think of happiness as a feeling. It is not a feeling for Aristotle. Best translation for eudaimonia is "flourishing" or "living well." It is an active term and way of living for him thus, "excellence." Ultimate "intrinsic good" of "for the sake of." Eudaimonia is the last word for Aristotle. Can also mean fulfillment. Idea of nature was thought to be fixed in Greece convention is a variation. What he means is ethics is loose like "wealth is good but some people are ruined by wealth." EN isn't formula but a rough outline. Ethics is not precise; the nature of subject won't allow it. When you become a "good person" you don't think it out, you just do it out of habit!
You can have ethics without religion for Aristotle. Nothing in his EN is about the afterlife. He doesn't believe in the universal good for all people at all times like Plato and Socrates. The way he thought about character of agent, "thinking about the good." In addition, Aristotle talked about character traits. Good qualities of a person who would act well. Difference between benevolent acts and a benevolent person. If you have good character, you don't need to follow rules. Aretç=virtue, in Greek not religious connotation but anything across the board meaning "excellence" high level of functioning, a peak. Like a musical virtuoso. Ethical virtue is ethical excellence, which is the "good like." In Plato, ethics has to do with quality of soul defining what to do instead of body like desires and reason. For Aristotle these are not two separate entities.
To be good is how we live with other people, not just focus on one individual. Virtue can't be a separate or individual trait. Socrates said same the thing. Important concept for Aristotle, good upbringing for children is paramount if you don't have it, you are a lost cause. Being raised well is "good fortune" a child can't choose their upbringing. Happenstance is a matter of chance.
Pleasure cannot be an ultimate good. Part of the "good life" involves external goods like money, one can't attain "good life" if one is poor and always working. Socrates said material goods don't matter, then he always mooched off of his friends! Aristotle surmises that the highest form of happiness is contemplation. In Aristotle's Rhetoric, he lists several ingredients for attaining eudaimonia. Prosperity, self-sufficiency, etc., is important, thus, if you are not subject to other, competing needs. A long interesting list. It is common for the hoi polloi to say pleasure=happiness. Aristotle does not deny pleasure is good; however, it is part of a package of goods. Pleasure is a condition of the soul. In the animal world, biological beings react to pleasure and pain as usual. Humans as reasoning beings must pursue knowledge to fulfill human nature. It must be pleasurable to seek knowledge and other virtues and if it is not there is something wrong according to Aristotle. These are the higher pleasures and so you may have to put off lower pleasures for the sake of attaining "higher pleasures."
Phronçsis= "intelligence," really better to say "practical wisdom." The word practical helps here because the word Phronçsis for Aristotle is a term having to do with ethics, the choices that are made for the good. As a human being, you have to face choices about what to do and not to do. Phronçsis is going to be that capacity that power of the soul that when it is operating well will enable us to turn out well and that is why it is called practical wisdom. The practically wise person is somebody who knows how to live in such a way so that their life will turn out well, in a full package of "goods." For Aristotle, Phronçsis is not deductive or inductive knowledge like episteme; Phronçsis is not a kind of rational knowledge where you operate in either deduction or induction, you don't go thru "steps" to arrive at the conclusion. Therefore, Phronçsis is a special kind of capacity that Aristotle thinks operates in ethics. Only if you understand what Aristotle means by phronesis do you get a hold on the concept. My way of organizing it, it is Phronçsis that is a capacity that enables the virtues to manifest themselves.
What are the virtues? Phronçsis is the capacity of the soul that will enable the virtues to fulfill themselves. Virtue ethics is the characteristics of a person that will bring about a certain kind of moral living, and that is exactly what the virtues are. The virtues are capacities of a person to act well. All of the virtues can be organized by way of this basic power of the soul called Phronçsis. There are different virtues, but it is the capacity of Phronçsis that enables these virtues to become activated. Basic issue is to find the "mean" between extremes; this is how Aristotle defines virtues.
Humans are not born with the virtues; we learn them and practice them habitually. "We reach our complete perfection through habit." Aristotle says we have a natural potential to be virtuous and through learning and habit, we attain them. Learn by doing according to Aristotle and John Dewey. Then it becomes habitual like playing a harp. Learning by doing is important for Aristotle. Hexis= "state," "having possession." Theoria= "study." The idea is not to know what virtue is but to become "good." Emphasis on finding the balance of the mean. Each virtue involves four basic points.
1. Action or circumstance. Such as risk of losing one's life.
2. Relevant emotion or capacity. Such as fear and pain.
3. Vices of excess and vices of deficiency in the emotions or the capacities. Such as cowardice is the excess vice of fear, recklessness is the excess deficiency.
4. Virtue as a "mean" between the vices and deficiencies. Such as courage as the "mean."
No formal rule or "mean" it depends on the situation and is different for different people as well. For example--one should eat 3,000 calories a day. Well depends on the health and girth of the person, and what activity they are engaged in. It is relative to us individually.
All Aristotle's qualifications are based on individual situations and done with knowledge of experience. Some things are not able to have a "mean" like murder and adultery because these are not "goods."
Akrasia= "incontinence" really "weakness of the will. Socrates thought that all virtues are instances of intelligence or Phronçsis. Aristotle criticizes Socrates idea of virtue, virtue is not caused by state of knowledge it is more complicated. Aristotle does not think you have to have a reasoned principle in the mind and then do what is right, they go together.
The distinctions between continent and incontinent persons, and moderate (virtue) and immoderate (not virtuous) persons is as follows:
1. Virtue. Truly virtuous people do not struggle to be virtuous, they do it effortlessly, very few people in this category, and most are in #2 and #3.
2. Ethical strength. Continence. We know what is right thing to do but struggle with our desires.
3. Ethical weakness. This is akrasia incontinence. Happens in real life.
4. Vice. The person acts without regret of his bad actions.
What does Aristotle mean by "fully virtuous"? Ethical strength is not virtue in the full sense of the term. Ethical weakness is not a full vice either. This is the critique against Socrates idea that "Knowledge equals virtue." No one can knowingly do the wrong thing. Thus, Socrates denies appetites and desires. Aristotle understands that people do things that they know are wrong, Socrates denies this. Socrates says if you know the right thing you will do it, Aristotle disagrees. The law is the social mechanism for numbers 2, 3, 4. A truly virtuous person is their own moral compass.
I recommend Aristotle's works to anyone interested in obtaining a classical education, and those interested in philosophy. Aristotle is one of the most important philosophers and the standard that all others must be judged by.
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