Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1: Virtuous activity

One swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.

For Aristotle, a thing is best understood by looking at its end, goal, or purpose (telos). For instance, the end of a knife is to cut, and it is by grasping this that one best understands what a knife is; the end of medicine is good health, and it is by grasping this that one best understands what medicine is (or ideally should be). If one does this for some time, it soon becomes apparent that some ends are subordinate to higher ends, which are themselves subordinate to still higher ends.

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this) … clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right?

The science that has for object the chief good, and whose end therefore includes that of all the others, is none other than the political art. To obtain the chief good for one person is fine enough, but to obtain it for the state is finer and more godlike. In inquiring into the chief good, care must be taken not to be too precise: fine and just actions admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, and ‘it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits’.

People agree that the chief good is happiness (eudaimonia), but the many and the wise disagree as to its nature. The many and vulgar identify happiness with sensual pleasure, but a life of sensual pleasure is no better than that of a beast. People of superior refinement and active disposition identify happiness with honour, but honour is merely a mark of virtue, and one that is reliant upon the recognition of others. Neither can happiness be identified with virtue itself, for then happiness would be compatible with a lifetime of sleep or inactivity or with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes.

According to Plato there is such a thing as the Form of the Good in which all good things share. However, this notion should be rejected as ‘piety requires us to honour truth above our friends’. Aristotle raises eight objections to the Theory of the Forms, but claims that this is not the place to investigate it. He revisits the subject in the Metaphysics.

Returning to the search for the chief good, a goal that is an end in itself is more worthy of pursuit than one that is merely a means to an end, and a goal that is never a means to an end but only ever an end in itself is more worthy of pursuit than one that is or can be both.

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.

All well and good, but what does happiness actually consist in? It is by understanding the distinctive function of a thing that one can understand its essence. For instance, one cannot understand what it is to be a gardener unless one can understand that the distinctive function of a gardener is ‘to tend to a garden with a certain degree of skill’. Whereas human beings need nourishment like plants and have sentience like animals, their distinctive function is their unique capacity to reason. Thus the Supreme Good, or Happiness, for human beings is to lead a life that encourages the exercise and development of reason and the practice of virtue. Happiness resides not so much in the possession as in the practice of reason and virtue, for just as it is not the strong and beautiful but those who compete well who win at the Olympic Games, so it is not the wise and virtuous but those who act well who win – and rightly win – the noble and good things in life. Their life is also more pleasant, as virtuous actions are pleasant by nature, and all the more pleasant still to the lover of virtue.

Now for most men their pleasures are in conflict with one another because these are not by nature pleasant, but the lovers of what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant; and virtuous actions are such, so that these are pleasant for such men as well as in their own nature. Their life, therefore, has no further need of pleasure as a sort of adventitious charm, but has its pleasure in itself.

A person’s good or bad fortune can play a part in determining his happiness; for instance, happiness can be affected by such factors as material circumstances, social position, and even physical appearance. Yet, by living life to the full according to his essential nature as a rational being, a person is bound to become happy regardless of his good or bad fortune. For this reason, happiness is more a question of behaviour and of habit – of excellence and of virtue – than of luck. A person who cultivates reason and who lives according to rational principles is able to bear his misfortunes with equanimity, and thus can never be said to be truly unhappy. Even the greatest misfortunes can be borne with resignation, not through insensibility to pain but through nobility and greatness of soul.

With regard to the soul, it comprises a rational and an irrational part. The irrational part has a vegetative element that is concerned with nutrition and growth, and an appetitive element that contains a person’s impulses and that more or less obeys the rational part. If the rational part is strong, as in the virtuous person, it is able to exert a greater degree of control over the appetitive element of the irrational part. Similarly, there are two kinds of virtue, one that pertains to the intellect and that consists in philosophic and practical wisdom (dianoetic virtues), and another that pertains to the character and that consists in liberality and temperance (ethical or moral virtues). A person may be praised for either or both kinds of virtue.

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe: A Primer on Aristotle

Aristotle on Education

The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead. - Aristotle

The education of the citizens should match the character of the constitution, for the character of democracy creates democracy, and the character of oligarchy creates oligarchy, and the better the character, the better the government. As the entire city has but one end, education should be the same for all, and should be public rather than private. Children should be taught those useful things that are really necessary, but not all useful things, and in particular not those that are vulgar. By ‘vulgar’ is meant those that tend to deform the body or that lead to paid employment. All paid employment absorbs and degrades the mind.

The four traditional branches of education are (1) reading and writing, (2) gymnastics, (3) music, (4) drawing. The Ancients included music not for the sake of utility but for that of intellectual enjoyment in leisure. Unlike music, reading and writing and drawing do have utility, but they also have liberal applications. In particular, reading and writing can open up other forms of knowledge, and drawing can lead to an appreciation of the beauty of the human form. Leisure should not be confused with amusement and relaxation, which are the antidotes to effort and exertion. The busy man strives for an end that he has not yet attained, but happiness is the end. Thus, happiness is experienced not by busy men, but by those with leisure. That which is noble should come before that which is brutal. Courage is more a function of nobility than of ferocity, and to turn children into athletes risks injuring their forms and stunting their growth. For these reasons, children should practice nothing more strenuous than light gymnastics. Following the onset of puberty, three years should be spent in study, and only after this triennium may a youth engage in hard exercise. However, the youth should guard against labouring mind and body at the same time, for they are inimical to each other.

Returning to the subject of music, it is not easy to determine its nature, nor why anyone should have knowledge of it. Perhaps music, like sleep or drinking, offers nothing more than amusement and relaxation. Perhaps it promotes virtue. Or perhaps it contributes to the enjoyment of leisure and to mental cultivation. Some say that no freeman should play or sing unless he is intoxicated or in jest, so why learn music and not simply enjoy the pleasure and instruction that comes from hearing it from others? Our considered opinion is that children should learn music so that they might become performers and critics, but their musical education should not extend too far beyond an appreciation of rhythm and harmony, and not to instruments such as the flute or lyre which require great skill but contribute nothing to the mind.

In addition to this common pleasure, felt and shared in by all … may [music] not have also some influence over the character and the soul? It must have such an influence if characters are affected by it. And that they are so affected is proved in many ways, and not least by the power which the songs of Olympus exercise; for beyond question they inspire enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is an emotion of the ethical part of the soul. Besides, when men hear imitations, even apart from the rhythms and tunes themselves, their feelings move in sympathy. Since then music is a pleasure, and virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright, there is clearly nothing which we are so much concerned to acquire and to cultivate as the power of forming right judgments, and of taking delight in good dispositions and noble actions. Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections…

– Politics, Book 8

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.

Platonic myths: The Myth of the Metals


In the Republic, having discussed the class of producers and the class of guardians, Socrates goes on to discuss the third and last class of citizen in his ideal State, the class of rulers.

Rulers should be chosen from amongst the guardians after close observation and rigorous testing of their loyalty to the State.

Guardians who are chosen as rulers should receive further education; guardians who are not chosen as rulers should no longer be known as ‘guardians’ but as ‘auxiliaries,’ whose role it is to implement the will of the rulers.

Socrates says that all the citizens should be told a useful lie so as to promote allegiance to the State and enforce its three-tiered social order.

According to this ‘myth of the metals’, every citizen is born out of the earth of the State and every other citizen is his brother or sister. Yet God has framed them differently, mixing different metals into their soul: gold for the rulers, silver for the auxiliaries, and brass or iron for the husbandmen and craftsmen.

Children are usually made of the same metal as their parents, but if this is not the case the child must either descend or ascend in the social order. If ever a child made of brass or iron was to become a guardian, the State would be destroyed.

As guardians are made of divine gold and silver, they should have nothing to do with the earthly sorts which have been ‘the source of many unholy deeds’.

Guardians should not have any private property; they should live together in housing provided by the state, and receive from the citizens no more than their daily sustenance.

Guardians may be the happiest of men in spite, or because, of their deprivations, for the arts and crafts are equally liable to degenerate under the influence of wealth as they are under the influence of poverty: ‘the one is the parent of luxury and indolence, and the other of meanness and viciousness, and both of discontent’.

Adapted from Plato’s Shadow


Platonic myths: The Origins of Virtue


Once upon a time, the gods moulded the animals in the earth by blending together earth and fire. They then asked Prometheus and Epimetheus to equip them each with their proper qualities. Taking care to prevent the extinction of any of the animals, Epimetheus assigned strength to some, quickness to others, wings, claws, hoofs, pelts and hides. By the time he got round to human beings, he had nothing left to give them.

Finding human beings naked and unarmed, Prometheus gave them fire and the mechanical arts, which he stole for them from Athena and Hephaestus. Unfortunately, Prometheus did not give them political wisdom, for which reason they lived in scattered isolation and at the mercy of wild animals. They tried to come together for safety, but treated each other so badly that they once again dispersed. As they shared in the divine, they gave worship to the gods, and Zeus took pity on them and asked Hermes to send them reverence and justice.

Hermes asked Zeus how he should distribute these virtues: should he give them, as for the arts, to a favoured few only, or should he give them to all?

‘To all,’ said Zeus; I should like them all to have a share; for cities cannot exist, if a few only share in the virtues, as in the arts. And further, make a law by my order, that he who has no part in reverence and justice shall be put to death, for he is a plague of the state.

Adapted from Plato’s Shadow

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