Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Essay Example

As reported by Aristotle, we all aspire to be happy, thus everything we do is in pursuit of this happiness.  His interpretation of this quest for happiness is explained as “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly, every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason, the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim” (Book 1, 1). Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics Books 1 and 2 interprets what is acceptable, why it is acceptable and guides us to a flourishing, respectable and virtuous life.

Aristotle uses an archery comparison to describe his path to happiness. “Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right” (Book 1, 2)?  If we have something to aim at like a target, it may be easier for us to achieve our destination.  Moreover, like an archer, we will not hit the bullseye without practice. Happiness doesn’t just materialize and it cannot be achieved prior to the end of one’s life, so it requires a goal, and a lifetime of practice.  Aristotle’s meaning of happiness is different from our modern meaning of happiness. In our microwave society, we desire everything quick and at hand. 

We might view happiness as a beach vacation, buying a new car, partying with friends, or even sex and believe that these hasty pleasures may lead to happiness, but they are often short-lived. Aristotle shows that happiness is not something that can be gained or lost in a moment, it is the significance of your life, measuring how well you have lived as a person.  Consequently, one cannot confirm living a happy life until it is concluded, hence, Aristotle describes “But we must add in a complete life. For 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” (Book 1, 7).

“The function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete”(Book 1, 7).   Aristotle finishes Book 1 and enters Book 2 linking happiness with a new term, virtue or moral standards and reveals in this next example which excellence in man is acquired by habit and practice requiring constant training and education. 

“Again, of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of the senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts”(Book 2,1).  Educating people early and properly and practicing perfectly will maintain our activities are honorable and appropriate considering bad habits are easily formed.

Aristotle proceeds with his definition of virtue as a mean between excess and deficiency and explains the importance of balance in the following verse. “Hence also it is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not for everyone, but for him who knows; so, too, anyone can get angry- that is easy- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble”(Book 2, 9). 

Aristotle implies no true middle exists in any circumstance and situations will project a different mean in each individual. Experiencing too much or too little of any emotion and the position of virtue to experience a mean relative to oneself, Aristotle summarizes next.  “Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again, it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate. Hence in respect of its substance and the definition which states its essence virtue is a mean, with regard to what is best and right an extreme” (Book 2, 6).  

Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics Books 1 and 2 guides us on how to live a happy, virtuous life. In summary, individuals control their own lives, and choose the best actions necessary to take steps toward a personal development of happiness.  Happiness isn’t equated with material pleasure or quick gratification but is a goal realized at the end of our existence. This destination requires continuing education, balancing ourselves between excess and scarcity, and tolerating countless circumstances, both mental and physical.



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