Summary of book one of Aristotle’s Ethics

by Jonathan McIntosh

Aristotle’s Ethics is one of the most important texts in the history of moral and political philosophy. The following is a summary of the most politically relevant passages of book one of his Ethics (chs. 1-2, 4, 7-8, and 13)

Everything, including every human action and discipline, is ordered towards some end or goal, which we call a “good” (1.1). The ends of some actions or discipline are intermediate goods, being the means to some further, higher good. Those actions or disciplines that have lower order goods are subordinate to those actions or disciplines that target higher order goods. A ruling science is a science that studies a higher, more choiceworthy good (i.e., a good that is chosen for its own sake rather than because it is a means to a higher good).

The best or highest good (the “summum bonum”) is one that is chosen because it is the good that is sought in all other goods (1.2). Knowledge of this good is the highest or best kind of knowledge possessed by the highest and most dominant (“architectonic”) form of science, and this science is the science of politics. For it is politics that determines which of the other sciences ought even to be studied in the political community, with all other sciences being subordinated to it. Politics uses the other sciences in a way that the other sciences do not use politics. The end of politics subsumes the end of all the other sciences, for its end is the truly human good. As its good involves the whole community rather than that of any particular individual, its good is greater than that of the individual.

What, precisely, is this highest good that politics studies (1.4)? Everyone is agreed that it is happiness—eudaimonia, or human flourishing—but there is much disagreement over what happiness itself is. Many think it consists in pleasure, wealth, or honor, while others think that it must be some higher good that causes these other things to be good. We must inquire, then, into what happiness is, but to do this we need to begin, not just anywhere, but with those individuals whom we agree have been nobly raised.

The good is simply that for the sake of which anything is done (1.7). The good in medicine is health; in generalship, it is victory; in housebuilding, a house. Not all ends or goods are complete in the sense that we choose them not for their own sake but for the sake of something greater. The best good, accordingly, the one we are looking for in this study, or happiness, must be a complete or perfect good in the sense that it is desired for its own sake. The complete good is also something self-sufficient in the sense that it comes with everything that we want and need. Happiness is also not something to be had by the isolated hermit, by its had by parents, children, spouses, friends, and fellow citizens, since man is by nature a political animal.

So what is happiness? To answer the question of what happiness is that all human actions are ordered towards, we need to first gasp what it means to be human, and what the function or purpose of a human being is. What a good flautist, sculptor, or other craftsman is will depend on what the function of a flautist, sculptor, or other craftsman is; so it is with being human in general. It’s inconceivable that these occupations have a function, or that the different parts of the human body would have a function, and yet human beings themselves would be without a function. The function of a human being must be something specific to human beings, something that is true of human beings and of no other kind of being. What differentiates human beings from all other beings with which we are immediately familiar is that humans have reason and that they act according to reason. The human function, accordingly, is to act in accordance with reason or in a way that requires reason. When humans act in accordance with reason well, that is, with excellence, we say that they have virtue. And so the human good might also be described as a life marked by activity in accord with virtue. This, then, is a sketch of the human good that is happiness. Ethics, however, is not a mathematical science and so, going forward, we should not expect the same degree of certitude or precision that we might with other sciences, but only as much certitude or precision as the subject matter (human action) admits of.

Goods may be further divided into three types: external goods, goods of the soul, and goods of the body (1.8). Goods of the soul are the most fully goods, and these include actions and activities of the soul. But as central as goods of the soul are for happiness, the latter also requires the possession of external goods, for we cannot act and act well if we lack the resources. These external goods include friends, wealth, and political power, as well as good birth, good children, and beauty.

If happiness, then, is a life of activity in accord with virtue, this raises the question of what the relevant human virtues in fact are (1.13). The politician is someone who wants to make the citizens to be good and law-abiding, something the Spartans and Cretans understood. Politics, then, is concerned with ethics and virtue. The virtue or excellence politics is concerned with is the virtue or excellence of the soul more than the body, which means the politician must know something about the soul—the politician must be a kind of psychologist—though his interest in the soul will be professionally limited by its political relevance. The soul has two parts: the rational and the non-rational or sub-rational. The non-rational part of the soul may be further subdivided into two parts. First, there is that part (called the nutritive) that is responsible for nutrition and growth, and which has no part in or regulation by reason, and which is possessed in common by all other living things, both plants and animals. Second, there is a non-rational part of the soul (called the sensitive) that involves human passions and appetites which can participates in or be ruled by reason, but also which can disobey reason. As there are two parts of the soul that are concerned with reason—the rational part of the soul itself and the non-rational part that nevertheless participates in reason—so there are two different kinds of virtue in the soul: there are the intellectual virtues of thought, which are wisdom, understanding, and prudence, and there are the moral virtues of character, and which include such virtue as generosity and temperance.

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