Notes on Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’

Note: Aritotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is an awesome book from both a scholarly perspective as well as for personal spiritual development. As a result, if seems that it might be worth it to post my notes from 2014’s discussion series on this book. As I go back and reread various sections I will update this. Leave comments here if there are any questions you have.


Book I


Key terms:

Telos – goal, purpose, end, final, good

 Eudaimonia – happiness, well-being, flourishing, having a ‘guardian angel’

 Arête – virtue

Hexis- disposition, state of character


There is inherent in action, skills, science, practical affairs, etc, an essential teleological-hierarchical aspect.

Not a teleological HIERARCHY, since the exact rank of each particular skill, science, action is up for debate.


Given telic ranking, it make sense to ask what the HIGHEST activities/sciences are.

Group activity: ‘Teleominoes’ [ I made a set ofg 3×5 cards with various activities written on them and let the participants arrange them in a telic hierarchy.]



Cavalry tactics








Home Economics






Wild Card(s)


I.3           Ethical Rationality

Key ideas:






The mark of an educated man- ‘to look for preceision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician demonstrable proofs.’

This is a key difference between A. and other theory-focused philosophies: Plato, Pythagoras.

For Plato, authoritative intuition is fundamentally:


1) absolutely theoretical, universal, rigorous, NOT conventional in any way.


2)  unified- there is one ultimate science that rules over all other sciences/skills, much as math rules over geometry, architecture, astronomy, navigation, etc,


For A., authoritative intuition is


1) separate for every regional ontology- i.e., metaphysics won’t help you very much with politics, medicine or navigation.


2) different type of reasoning in nature for each region :

  • Tekne
  • Phronesis
  • Sophos


I.4 Grounds for Confusion

On confusion concerning the supreme good- ‘Both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and faring well well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing, like





they differ, however from one another- and often even the sasme man identifies this with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor…’ (1095a.17

On the Platonic Idea of the Good- ‘Now some have thought that apart from these many goods  there is another which is good in itself and causes the goodness of all these as well.’ (1095a.27)

‘Are we on the way to or from the first principles (arche)?’ (1095b.1)

deduction- from arche to what is knowable for us/ immediately familiar

induction-  trom what is immediately familiar to the arche, that which is most knowable per se.


For A.-, pesumably, we must:

1) begin with what is immediately familiar and

2)proceed by induction

3) to the arche.


I.5  Common Opinions on the Supreme Good

1) money

2) honor

3) pleasure (hedonism)

4) political action (Conan the Barbarian)

5) Theory/Contemplation



I.6 Criticisms against the Platonic Idea of the Good

Just as ‘being’ is said in many ways; so also is ‘good’

‘Good’ can mean-

‘genuine’ (being as truth)

‘good for___’ (being as potential)

in the Categories-

Substance- God, Reason

Quality- virtuous

Relation- useful, good for___

Quantity- moderate, sufficient for

Time- ‘kairos’ ( good opportunity)

And so on….

If ‘the Good’ were an Idea, each of these uses of ‘Good’ would be univocal, i.e., they would all use ‘Good’ in the same sense (synonymously) but they do not they are all analogous.


There can be no ‘science of the good’ any more than there can be a ‘science of opportunity’ apart from particular sciences.



I.7 Types of Goods


When looking for the  Highest Good, it must be a good achievable by action.


Three types of goods:

1) merely instrumental- Wealth

2) Complete Goods- Happiness

Complete goods are ‘self-sufficient’, not in the sense of ‘like a hermit’, but rather in the sense inclusive of positive social context.

3) Combined Goods-  honor, reason, pleasure, virtue…


What is the Function of Man?


Not mere potential but an activity.

For any activity, there must be a soul. What type of soul?

  1. Vegetable- growth; man shares this with a living things
  2. Animal- movement and sensation, shared with animals
  3. Rational (logos, speaking or reasonling) only men and Gods.


Thus the virtue/ function of humanity is:

  • Activity of soul
  • according to/ depending on logos
  • in a complete life



I.8 How the Nicomachean Ethics agrees with Common Beliefs

  1. It recognized three types of goods:
  1. external
  2. bodily
  3. spiritual- good in the strictest sense, for external and bodily goods are define only as they relate to our soul.


  1. ‘The happy man lives well and does well.’


  1. The life of virtue is inherently pleasant.


  1. Pleasure is a state of the soul.


  1. Good men find pleasure in the good.


  1. Even if ‘virtue is its own reward’, external goods are needed as well: wealth, health, beauty, honor, etc.


I.9 How is eudaimonia acquired?

Common ideas on this include:

  1. Nature
  2. Luck
  3. Divine Grace/ Providence
  4. Learning- study, contemplation, anamneusis
    1. Techne
    2. Theoria
    3. e) Habituation (Ethismos)- conditioning, training, practice


  1. a) Contradicted by the commonness of vice. If virtue were a potential, it could not be a optential from nature, for it has opposite outcomes. Only Rational Powers (dunameis kata logos) a capable of opposite effects. While Nature is necessary, it not sufficient.


  1. b) Some Luck is necessary for eudaimonia, but it’s not sufficient; human effort is also necessary.


  1. c) Some Divine Favor is also necessary, but not sufficient; human effort is also necessary.


  1. d) has already been dealt with in Book I.6; this is the Platonic/Pythagorean idea.


  1. e) Is A.’s theory; nature, luck, Gods and learning are all necessary, but the key element is Habituation

I.10 How Certain is eudaimonia?


Must we wait till death to judge happiness?


If happiness is an activity, then how can the dead be called happy?


A happy/unhappy life can be negated after death by the Fortune/misfortune

of descendents:

  1. Honor/ dishonor
  2. Wealth
  3. Health


While the fate of descendents can affect the dead’s happiness, ‘ordinary misadventures’ cannot radically alter it, only a ‘great calamity’ can make the truly happy unhappy.

The eudaimon makes the most of her circumstances (both by virtue and phronesis).

‘the happy man can never become miserable- though he will not reach blessedness, if he meet with fortunes like those of Priam.’


The happy one/ eudaimon:

  1. Acts (it’s not mere virtue / contemplation)
  2. In accordance with complete virtue (not mere enkrateia (‘continence’))
  3. Has enough external goods
  4. Throughout a complete life
  5. Dies a fitting death.
  6. Leaves descendants who are not miserable.





I.13 What is Virtue?


Virtue is an activity of soul.


Soul (psuche) is a principle of movement/change in self or other.

There are four kinds of soul:

  • Divine- eternal motions- planets, stars
  • Mineral- gravity, wind, currents, geological forces, etc.
  • Vegetable- growth, metabolism, anything shared by ALL life
  • Animal- movement, sensation
  • Rational- (logos) thinking, speaking, consiousness(?)


So which of these souls’ activity is responsible for virtue?

  1. Intellectual virtues- rational soul
  2. Moral virtue- animal soul in accordance with rational soul



1 The Nature of Virtue

‘Excellence, then being of two kinds, intellectual and moral,


1) intellectual excellence in the main owes its birth and growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while


2) moral excellence comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name is one thatis formed by a slight variation from the word ‘habit’.


… none of the moral excellences arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. (e.g., the stone falls down , fire rises up)


Rather we are by nature potentially virtuous, i.e., fitted to become virtuous.


In nature, potential precendes the actual


For virtue, (potentials precede) action, precedes habit/character.



2 Doctrine of the Mean

We are not primarily aiming at theoretical knowledge, but PRACTICAL, not defining the good but rather to BECOME GOOD.


Thus, we must examine the nature of actions, especially how we ought to do them. Not precisely (as with ‘any art or precepts’ 1104a.7), but in a general outline.


One general formal feature of virtue (and perhaps of action as well) is that virtue falls on a continuum between excess and defect, as below:


Defect mean excess

Cowardice courage rashness

Paranoia faith gullibility

Despair hope gullibility

Hate love  ?


3. Pleasure and Pain

Not only must action fall into the mean, but motivation must as well. One who is truly virtuous must enjoy and take genuine pleasure in the mean and consequently find pain in the both excess and defect.

Not only do pleasure and pain result from virtue, as reward and punishmenrt, they are essential to training for virtue as well.

Aristotle cites the medical rule that ‘cures are oft effected by contraries’, from the theory of humours in Ancient Greek medicine as essentially similar to the use of pleasure and pain in education.


Three objects of choice and avoidance:

  1. Noble/base
  2. Advantageous/injurious
  3. Pleasant/painful




4. Value in Ethics and Tekne: a comparison


A paradox?- how can we BECOME just by doing just acts? How do we act justly without already being just?

If we look at technai, you can do something grammatical for many reasons:

  1. Chance
  2. Expert guidance
  3. One’s own skill

Any of these can develop virtue, but people are generally taught virtue or skill by first performing actions under the guidance of another, and later refine their skill under their own guidance.


But technai and virtues are different in this wise:


Tekne’s/Craftwork’s telos is in the products themselves, so that one need only see the products to judge the skill of the make.

But for Virtue, while the products must be good, to judge the virtue of the agent, we must know the agents’s condition as follows:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Choice
  3. Choose actions ‘for their own sakes’
  4. Action must process froma ‘firm and unchangeable character’ (not ephemeral moods)


For tekne, only a) knowledge is taken into account in judging skill, but virtue is judged by all of these.


5. Ontology of Virtue


People often disagree on the ultimate nature of virtue, so we can further refine our inquiry if we enumerate all the various elements of the soul and see which of them virtue might be part of.


There are three things in the soul:

  1. Passions (pathe)- joy hunger, andger, confidence, envy, friendliness, hatred, pity, feelings that are accompanied by pleasure and pain
  2. Potentials/ faculties- fundamental abilites, such as the ability to feel pleasure or pain, to feel hunger, to see, hear touch, smell, speak, think, imagine, move, fly, swim…
  3. States of character (ethismoi)- that by which we do well or ill w.r.t. passions e.g., fell anger in excess/defect or moderately or at the right time


Virtue is clearly in the genus of  ‘states of character’.




There is an essential connection between goodness and functional excellence. Functional excellence is always a proper mean on the continuum between vices of excess and defect.

Virtue, tekne and nature all aim at an intermediate.

Virtue, however, aims at the mean ‘concerned with passions and actions.’

Virtue- felling pleasure and pain thusly-

  1. Right times
  2. r.t. right objects
  3. With the right people
  4. With the right motive
  5. In the right way
  6. Moderately


Similarly w.r.t. actions, there are many ways to fail, but rather few ways to succeed.

‘In respect of its substance, and the definition which states its essence, virtue is a mean.’


Some vices do not admit of means:

Spite- feeling anger at the wrong time, too much

Shamelessness- feeling not enough shame

Envy- wanting wrong things too much

Adultery- with the wrong person

Theft- taking the wrong thing

Murder- killing the wrong person at the wrong time in the wrong way




7. Catalogue- Excess mean defect


Rashness courage cowardice

Self-indulgence temperance, insensibility (not common)

Prodigality  liberality  meanness

Tastelessness magnificence niggardliness

Vanity pride undue humility

Irascibility  of good temper  inirascibility

Boastfulness  truthfulness  over-modesty

Buffoonery ready-witted  boorishness

Bashful modest shameless

Envy righteous indignation  spite






If there are some virtues which do not seem like aiming at the mean to us, but rather more like maximizing some value at all costs, that is because our nature is biases towards either excess or defect, and thus the other extreme is not a problem for us at all. In spite of this, the mean is where virtue lies, whether it seems so or not. In some cases, we consciously AIM at the other extreme, but our true goal is the mean.


Book III


1. On freewill and compulsion.

In voluntary actions are of two kinds:

    1. Ignorance
    2. Compulsion– when the origin (arkhe) is external to the agent, so that he is both agent AND patient; for example:
  1. Of the wind were to carry you away
  2. Other were to have power over your person
  • Reflexive- see III.2
  1. Mixed– see below


Q: But what if your action’s origin is in another who is extorting your cooperation from you? (i.e., a terrorist or despot) Another similar case is in throwing a shiip’s cargo overboard in a severe storm.


A: Such actions are mixed, because

  • No one would choose these actions ‘in and of itself’ (i.e., this action would never have its arke in the doer.
  • But on a physical level, the origien is in the agent, NOT from ignorance.
  • Thus it is ‘voluntary, though in the abstract perhaps involuntary because no one would choose these acts in and of itself.’


Such cases are difficult to settle or analyze, and thus would be a good topic for further study.



  1. If the pleasant or honorable are external to the agent, AND
  2. ‘Compulsion= external origin of action AND
  3. Most actions are done for pleasure or honor,
  4. Then are not most actions compulsory? QED


A; Those who do mixed actions are pained and regretful, but those who act from reason do so with pleasure. The above argument is the basis of many moral absurdities:

  1. Easily caught by external pleasures- NOT really compulsion
  2. Claiming honorable activities as voluntary, but not the base.


Thus, of compulsory actions (those which do not carry blame or honor) there are two kinds:

  1. Not voluntary- done from ignorance
  2. Involuntary- with regret/pain


If the compelled agent is freed and gains knowledge of their deed, they may react in two ways:

  1. No regret- not voluntary
  2. With regret- involuntary


There are also two kinds of ignorance:

  1. ‘because of ignorance’- not culpable
  2. ‘with ignorance’- culpable, as with drunkenness


Q: Is it true that ultimate ignorance of one’s ultimate interests is the ultimate source of evil or vice?


A: This sort of ‘ignorance’ is not what we are talking about above; rather, this is what is normally meant by ‘depravity’ or ‘ignorance of moral principles’, which is rightfully blamed.


Q: Are actions done from passions (anger or lust) involuntary?


A: This would make all actions by animals and children involuntary, which is absurd.

Counter-Q: Do we only act voluntarily in doing the Good, and not from evil? For we may have proper or virtuous  lust and anger.

A: If yes, it’s absurd, for the cause is the same.

If no, it claims that acting properly w.r.t. virtuous lust, anger, etc. is involuntary, which is absurd.



2. On Moral Choice


Within the set of voluntary actions, there is a subset of actions originating from deliberation, and a subset of deliberate acts originate from moral choice.

Only actions from moral choice are relevant to the evaluation of virtue or moral character.

Reflexive actions- not even voluntary

Actions voluntary but not from moral choice:

  1. children
  2. animals
  3. others? (deranged)


False opinions concerning moral choice:

  1. passion- e.g. lust, anger
  2. wish
  3. a type of opinion- i.e. moral cognitivism a la Plato


  1. Vs. passion
    • Animals and children have passions, but not moral choice. [ Objection: But perhaps moral choice is a subset of passion.]
    • The incontinent (who fails at self-control) acts from passion, but not moral choice. [Objection: same as above.]
    • While lust is frequently opposed to moral choice, lust cannot be opposed to lust. [But lusts CAN be opposed.]


    • Passion and moral choice differ as to their objects:
  1. Passions- pleasant/painful
  2. Moral choice- noble or base

[From II.3 Three objects of choice and avoidance:

  1. Noble/base
  2. Advantageous/injurious
  3. Pleasant/painful]


  1. Vs. wish
    • Moral choice only applies to practical possibilities, but wishes may be for impossibilities or for IMpractical possibilities. [Objection: perhaps moral choice is a subset of wish.]
    • Moral choice only for one’s own actions, but wish may be for anyone’s actions or for no one’s. [As above.]
    • Wish is only for an end (telos), moral choice is for a means to an end.


  1. Vs. Opinion
  • Opinion may concern the necessary, eternal, natural and impossible. Moral choice only concerns the contingent and practical. [Obj.: possible subset?]
  • Opinion-true or false. Moral choice- good or bad.
  • Character is determined by chosen actions, not by holding opinions.
  • We choose to act, but do not opine to act.
  • Moral choice is commended for having ‘right object’ (proper goal/telos) rather than for being ‘judicious’. Opinion is praised for being true.
  • We choose based on knowledge, but opinon also applies to what is unknown.
  • Often, opinion is much better than choice, as with moral vice.


Q: Isn’t it true that opinon always proceeds of accompanies moral choice?


A: Not relevant- the point is whether moral choice is a type of opinion.


Moral choice- ‘that voluntary decision which has passed through a stage of moral deliberation.’


3. On Deliberation


Reasonable people do not deliberate about the following:

  1. Eternal things
    1. Cosmology
    2. Geometry
    3. Plantary motion
    4. Elemental motion
  2. things from chance/fortune
  3. actions of others
  4. details of sensation or perception
    1. Is this bread?
    2. Is this properly cooked?


Reasonable people do deliberate about:

  1. our own actions and
  2. their results.


But some of our actions we do not deliberate about:

  1. How to spell ‘CAT’.
  2. Ends of Techne– A doctor deliberates HOW to heal, not whether to heal.


Objects of Deliberation has these essential qualities:

  1. Have general principles
  2. Have uncertainty of application and outcome
  3. Variety of means
  4. It’s for the construction of a ‘practical syllogism’ whose ‘premises’ (arche) is one’s self.


Note: Friend’s action is also included in this, because our influence affects their behavior.




4, The telos, objective or subjective?   A critique of utilitarianism.


[Location 1029 on my Android kindle app]


What is the telos that wish has for its object?

  • The true idea of the Good?
  • The subjective impression of the good?


IF the true good- then what is wished for by the wicked person?


If the subjective impression of good, then the above problem is resolved, but with the disadvantage that this good is only true of the particular or the individual.


“Abstractly, and as a matter of objective truth, the really good is the object of wish… and so to the good man that is an object of wish which is really and truly so, but to the bad man anything may be; just as physically those things are wholesome to the healthy which are really so, but other things to the sick.”

‘The most distinguishing characteristic of the good man is his seeing the truth in every instance’- in this case, the ‘good’ is finding pleasure in the mean in accord with phronesis.


Against utilitarianism– The many are deceived by pleasure and pain, which appear to be the arche of all action, but is instead a sign of one’s virtue as attunement to the mean.


5. Freedom of the will vs. ignorance and vice.


Thus virtue is in our power- the influence of pleasure and pain is not compulsion, because voluntary actions are the the arche of virtue, and thus also of pleasure and pain.


Side note III.4a [Loc. 1060]


Q: Is ignorance the arche of vice?


A: Ignorance is either voluntary or the result of vice.

  • If voluntary, it is willful and thus a form of vice.
  • If from vice, then it is also the result of voluntary action, and also blameworthy.
  • In cases of ‘extreme stupidity’ one might be unaware that actions form character, but this would also be blameworthy.


The case is analogous to how certain voluntary habits or customs may cause physical illness. In both cases, it is like:

‘he who has let a stone out of his hand cannot recall it, and yet it rested with him to aim and throw it, because the origination was in his power.’


[Loc. 1074]

‘… no one would think of upbraiding, but would rather be compassionate, a man who was blind by nature, or from disease, or from an accident…


[Sidenote: II5a, Loc.1095]: actions and virtue are both voluntary, but in two different senses, ‘for of the actions we are masters from beginning to end … but only of the origination of the habits, the addition by small particular accessions not being cognizable… still they are voluntary because it rested with us to use our circumstances this way or that.’


6. Of courage.
















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