The Nicomachean Ethics

by Aristotle, Hugh Tredennick (Primary Contributor), J.A.K. Thomson (Translator) ...more

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: March 04, 2024
The Nicomachean Ethics
The Nicomachean Ethics

What are the big ideas? 1. The Intermediate and Virtue as a Mean: Aristotle's ethics propose that virtues are acquired through habituation by practicing the interme

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What are the big ideas?

  1. The Intermediate and Virtue as a Mean: Aristotle's ethics propose that virtues are acquired through habituation by practicing the intermediate between excess and deficiency in our actions. This approach is unique because it emphasizes perception over reasoning to determine what is right, and encourages inclination towards both excess and deficiency to more easily find the intermediate (BooK II).
  2. Courage and Temperance as Virtues: While courage and temperance are common virtues, Aristotle's distinction between them is unique. Courage deals with facing fear, while temperance concerns pleasures of touch. Temperance is a mean between excess and deficiency in relation to bodily pleasures, making it essential for self-control (BooK III).
  3. Three Types of Friendship: The Nicomachean Ethics present three types of friendship based on equality, superiority, or a combination of both. Equality implies mutual love, respect, and equal rights and responsibilities, while superiority necessitates one party providing benefits, support, and protection to the other. Understanding the essence of each type provides insight into building strong and fulfilling relationships (BooK VIII and IX).
  4. Happiness as Contemplation: Aristotle's belief in happiness as an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue sets him apart from other philosophers. He argues that contemplation, which allows us to connect with the divine and gain knowledge and understanding, is the highest form of human activity and the ultimate goal for humans (BooK X).
  5. The Role of Legislation and Education: In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle emphasizes the importance of legislation and education in helping individuals live virtuously and pursue happiness. He suggests that effective legislation and governance require experience and practical wisdom, making it a unique approach to creating a just and ordered society (BooK X).




  • Ethics is concerned with living well and finding happiness, which can only be achieved by engaging in virtuous activities.
  • Virtue is a state of character that issues in choices, and vice is the same but with bad choices.
  • Moral virtue involves choosing and performing actions that are morally good, while intellectual virtue involves choosing and performing actions that are intellectually good.
  • The moral virtues include courage, temperature, generosity, kindness, justice, and pride (magnificence and megalopsuchia).
  • The moral virtues develop through habituation and practice, guided by reason.
  • Virtuous actions aim at the mean between extremes of excess and deficiency.
  • Virtue is not a matter of following rules or laws blindly, but of making good judgments about what is appropriate in specific situations.
  • Moral virtues are other-regarding and involve acting for the benefit of others.
  • Justice is concerned with distributing goods and harms fairly, both rectificatorily (making things right for those who have been wronged) and distributively (distributing goods according to merit).
  • Friendship is a valuable relationship based on shared values, virtues, and activities, and involves wishing well for the other person.
  • Moral responsibility depends on having knowledge and power over one's actions, and being able to make choices based on that knowledge.
  • Incontinence is the inability to control one's passions and act against one's better judgment, but it does not mean acting without knowledge or reason.
  • Aristotle's ethics are grounded in an understanding of human nature and its capacities for virtue and happiness.
  • Aristotle's ethics have influenced Western thought and continue to be relevant today, despite some differences from modern values and assumptions.


“good character is the indispensable condition and chief determinant of happiness, itself the goal of all human doing. The end of all action, individual or collective, is the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”

“How can a man know what is good or best for him, and yet chronically fail to act upon his knowledge?”

“Moral experience—the actual possession and exercise of good character—is necessary truly to understand moral principles and profitably to apply them.”



  • There are various works and translations of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics by scholars like Ackrill, Barnes, Ross, Shields, Broadie, Crisp, Gauthier, Irwin, Aquinas, Aspasius, Stewart, and more.
  • Commentaries on selected books are available for Books VIII and IX by Pakaluk and Books II-IV by Taylor.
  • Books discussing the whole work include Bostock, Broadie, Hardie, Hughes, Urmson, Kenny (Aristotelian Ethics and Aristotle on the Perfect Life), Rowe, and collections of essays like Heinaman, Kraut, and Rorty.
  • Other books related to Aristotle's ethics include works by Annas, Charles, Davidson, Dover, Foot, Gosling, Hursthouse, Irwin, Kraut, MacIntyre, Nussbaum, Price, and various selected articles.

Outline of The Nicomachean Ethics


  • Human activities aim at some good, and politics is the science of the human good.
  • Moral virtue is acquired through repetition of corresponding acts and is a disposition to choose the intermediate.
  • Virtues include courage, temperance, liberality, pride, good temper, friendliness, truthfulness, ready wit, shame, justice, scientific knowledge, art, practical wisdom, intuitive reason, philosophic wisdom, goodness in deliberation, understanding, judgement, and equity.
  • Incontinence is a form of self-control disorder, and pleasure can be good or bad depending on its source and use.
  • Friendship comes in three types: friendship of the body, friendship of the soul, and the best and most complete friendship, which is a combination of both.
  • Happiness is achieved through good activity, particularly the contemplative life.



  • Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue.
  • Virtue is divided into intellectual and moral virtues.
  • Intellectual virtues include philosophic wisdom, understanding, and practical wisdom.
  • Moral virtues include temperance, liberality, and good-temperedness.
  • The soul is divided into rational and irrational elements.
  • The irrational element is further divided into the vegetative element, which is not rational at all, and the appetitive or desiring element, which shares in reason to some degree.
  • Happiness is among the things that are prized and perfect, not merely praised.


“Every art, and every science reduced to a teachable form, and in like manner every action and moral choice, aims, it is thought, at some good: for which reason a common and by no means a bad description of the Chief Good is, "that which all things aim at.”

“Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right?”

“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; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician demonstrative proofs.”

“Each man judges correctly those matters with which he is acquainted; it is of these that he is a competent critic.”

“Hence the young man is not a fit student of Moral Philosophy, for he has no experience in the actions of life, while all that is said presupposes and is concerned with these: and in the next place, since he is apt to follow the impulses of his passions, he will hear as though he heard not, and to no profit, the end in view being practice and not mere knowledge. And I draw no distinction between young in years, and youthful in temper and disposition: the defect to which I allude being no direct result of the time, but of living at the beck and call of passion, and following each object as it rises. For to them that are such the knowledge comes to be unprofitable, as to those of imperfect self-control:”

“Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs. For to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit.”

“Virtue is a greater good than honour; and one might perhaps accordingly suppose that virtue rather than honour is the end of the political life.”

“The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.”

“Happiness then, is found to be something perfect and self sufficient, being the end to which our actions are directed.”

“One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.”

“The beginning seems to be more than half of the whole.”

“With the truth, all given facts harmonize; but with what is false, the truth soon hits a wrong note.”

“The man who does not enjoy doing noble actions is not a good man at all.”

“Happiness is a kind of activity of the soul; whereas the remaining good things are either merely indispensable conditions of happiness, or are of the nature of auxiliary means, and useful instrumentally.”

“Even in adversity, nobility shines through, when a man endures repeated and severe misfortune with patience, not owing to insensibility but from generosity and greatness of soul.”

“He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.”

“Wisdom or intelligence and prudence are intellectual, liberality and temperance are moral virtues.”



  • Moral virtue is a mean between two vices: one involving excess, the other deficiency.
  • It is difficult to attain the intermediate state and requires perception rather than reasoning.
  • We must first depart from what is more contrary to the intermediate and guard against pleasure.
  • Determining how and with whom to get angry and for how long is not easy and depends on particular facts.
  • The man who deviates little from goodness is not blamed, but it is not easy to determine by reasoning up to what point and to what extent a man must deviate before becoming blameworthy.
  • We should incline sometimes towards excess and sometimes towards deficiency in order to more easily hit the intermediate and what is right.


“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

“Lawgivers make the citizens food by training them in habits of right action - this is the aim of all legislation, and if it fails to do this it is a failure.”

“The man who shuns and fears everything and stands up to nothing becomes a coward; the man who is afraid of nothing at all, but marches up to every danger becomes foolhardy. Similarly the man who indulges in pleasure and refrains from none becomes licentious (akolastos); but if a man behaves like a boor (agroikos) and turns his back on every pleasure, he is a case of insensibility. Thus temperance and courage are destroyed by excess and deficiency and preserved by the mean.”

“Some thinkers hold that it is by nature that people become good, others that it is by habit, and others that it is by instruction. . . just as a piece of land has to be prepared beforehand if it is to nourish the seed, so the mind of the pupil has to be prepared in its habits if it is to enjoy and dislike the right things.”

“It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good.”

“In everything continuous and divisible, it is possible to grasp the more, the less, and the equal, and these either in reference to the thing itself, or in relation to us.”

“Any one 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 every one, nor is it easy.”



  • Courage is a virtue concerned with facing and dealing with fear, while temperance is a virtue concerning pleasures of touch (taste, sex, etc.)
  • Temperance is a mean between excess and deficiency in relation to bodily pleasures.
  • Self-indulgence is the vice opposed to temperance, characterized by excessive pleasure seeking and craving for pleasurable objects.
  • The self-indulgent person is pained at not getting what he desires and experiences strong cravings for pleasurable things.
  • Temperate persons use their reason to regulate their desires and enjoy the right amount and kind of pleasures.
  • Self-indulgence is more voluntary than cowardice, and resembles the childish faults of self-indulgence.
  • The appetitive element in a temperate person harmonizes with reason, craving for things as they ought to be desired and when they ought to be desired.


“Virtue lies in our power, and similarly so does vice; because where it is in our power to act, it is also in our power not to act...”

“Each type of activity produces the corresponding sort of person”

“But to die to escape from poverty or love or anything painful is not the mark of a brave man, but rather of a coward; for it is softness to fly from what is troublesome,”

“The beauty of the soul shines out when a man bears with composure one heavy mischance after another, not because he does not feel them, but because he is a man of high and heroic temper.”

“The self-indulgent man craves for all pleasant things... and is led by his appetite to choose these at the cost of everything else.”



  • The virtues can be categorized into two main types: moral virtues and intellectual virtues.
  • Moral virtues concern our actions, particularly in relation to others, and include qualities such as courage, temperance, justice, friendliness, truthfulness, and readiness wit.
  • Intellectual virtues concern our ability to reason and acquire knowledge, and include qualities such as prudence, wisdom, and understanding.
  • Moral virtues are acquired through habit, while intellectual virtues are developed through education and experience.
  • Each moral virtue has an excess, deficiency, and mean or intermediate state. For example, courage can become excessively rash or timid, but the mean or intermediate is being brave in the right circumstances.
  • Friendliness includes being obsequious (pleasing everyone without ulterior motives), churlish (opposing everything), and truthful (speaking the truth without boastfulness).
  • Truthfulness can be found in word, life, and claims we make. It is opposed by boastfulness and mock modesty.
  • Readiness wit involves making appropriate jokes or social comments and listening to them. The intermediate is called tact.
  • Shame is not a virtue but rather a passion that produces a feeling of disgrace when one has done something wrong. It is more like a emotion than a virtue.


“The wise man does not expose himself needlessly to danger, since there are few things for which he cares sufficiently; but he is willing, in great crises, to give even his life--knowing that under certain conditions it is not worth while to live. He is of a disposition to do men service, though he is ashamed to have a service done to him. To confer a kindness is a mark of superiority; to receive one is a mark of subordination... He does not take part in public displays... He is open in his dislikes and preferences; he talks and acts frankly, because of his contempt for men and things... He is never fired with admiration, since there is nothing great in his eyes. He cannot live in complaisance with others, except it be a friend; complaisance is the characteristic of a slave... He never feels malice, and always forgets and passes over injuries... He is not fond of talking... It is no concern of his that he should be praised, or that others should be blamed. He does not speak evil of others, even of his enemies, unless it be to themselves. His carriage is sedate, his voice deep, his speech measured; he is not given to hurry, for he is concerned about only a few things; he is not prone to vehemence, for he thinks nothing very important. A shrill voice and hasty steps come to a man through care... He bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of his circumstances, like a skillful general who marshals his limited forces with the strategy of war... He is his own best friend, and takes delight in privacy whereas the man of no virtue or ability is his own worst enemy, and is afraid of solitude.”



  • Justice is the virtue that governs a person's relationships with others in distributing and receiving what is due.
  • The just distribution is based on proportion, equality, or merit.
  • Acting unjustly involves voluntarily causing harm to another person's property or rights.
  • Being unjustly treated means suffering harm to one's own property or rights.
  • Equity is a correction of legal justice when it is necessary due to the universality of laws.
  • A man cannot treat himself unjustly as he cannot be voluntarily treated unjustly by himself.
  • The distinction between acting and being treated unjustly also applies metaphorically to the relationship between different parts of an individual, such as master and servant or husband and wife.



  • Practical wisdom (phronesis) and philosophic wisdom (sapientia or sophia) are two distinct types of wisdom.
  • Practical wisdom is concerned with the application of moral and ethical principles to particular situations, whereas philosophic wisdom is concerned with theoretical knowledge and understanding of abstract truths.
  • Both practical wisdom and philosophic wisdom are virtues and necessary for a good life.
  • Practical wisdom enables us to make good judgments about what is right or just in specific circumstances, while moral virtue (arete) provides the disposition to act on those judgments.
  • Philosophic wisdom helps us understand the underlying principles of the universe and the nature of reality, which can inform our practical decisions.
  • Practical wisdom is not superior to philosophic wisdom, but rather complements it by providing the ability to apply theoretical knowledge to practical situations.
  • Virtue in the strict sense (arete haute) involves both practical wisdom and moral virtue, as well as the presence of correct reason.
  • It is impossible to be good in the strict sense without practical wisdom or to be practically wise without moral virtue.


“Philosophy can make people sick.”

“We learn an art or craft by doing the things that we shall have to do when we have learnt it.”



  • Moral virtues are concerned with pleasures and pains
  • Pleasure is an activity or end, not a process, and some pleasures are good without qualification while others are bad or not good at all
  • The bodily pleasures are often pursued excessively, leading to pain, but there are also natural pleasures that do not involve pain or appetite
  • Happiness involves pleasure, but not necessarily the bodily pleasures
  • Friendship is discussed in Book IX of the Nicomachean Ethics.


“No more will there be any difference between 'the ideal good' and 'good' in so far as both are good.”

“In a practical syllogism, the major premise is an opinion, while the minor premise deals with particular things, which are the province of perception. Now when the two premises are combined, just as in theoretic reasoning the mind is compelled to affirm the resulting conclusion, so in the case of practical premises you are forced at once to do it.”

“A man without regrets cannot be cured.”

“The pleasures arising from thinking and learning will make us think and learn all the more. 1153a 23”



  • Friendship is based on three essential elements: equality (in friendships between equals), superiority (in friendships between unequals), or a combination of both.
  • Equality in friendship requires mutual love, respect, and equal rights and responsibilities.
  • Superiority in friendship necessitates one party providing benefits, support, and protection to the other, while expecting appreciation, loyalty, and gratitude in return.
  • In friendships based on utility, it is essential to maintain a balance between giving and receiving, ensuring that both parties benefit fairly and equitably.
  • When unequal parties engage in a friendship, the superior party should provide benefits, support, and protection, while expecting respect, loyalty, and gratitude from the inferior party.
  • In friendships between equals, each should treat the other with love, respect, and equality, focusing on mutual growth, understanding, and shared experiences.
  • Complaints and reproaches arise most frequently in friendships based on utility due to the expectation of reciprocal benefits and the desire for a fair exchange.
  • In friendships between unequals, complaints may stem from the perception that one party is not receiving an equitable share of the benefits or appreciation.
  • Both parties in a friendship should aim to provide value, support, and care for each other, adhering to the principles of respect, understanding, and reciprocity.


“Without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods.”

“men cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together’;”

“There are three kinds of constitution, and an equal number of deviation-forms--perversions, as it were, of them. The constitutions are monarchy, aristocracy, and thirdly that which is based on a property qualification, which it seems appropriate to call timocratic, though most people are wont to call it polity. The best of these is monarchy, the worst timocracy. The deviation from monarchy is tyranny; for both are forms of one-man rule, but there is the greatest difference between them; the tyrant looks to his own advantage, the king to that of his subjects. For a man is not a king unless he is sufficient to himself and excels his subjects in all good things; and such a man needs nothing further; therefore he will not look to his own interests but to those of his subjects; for a king who is not like that would be a mere titular king. Now tyranny is the very contrary of this; the tyrant pursues his own good. And it is clearer in the case of tyranny that it is the worst deviation-form; but it is the contrary of the best that is worst. Monarchy passes over into tyranny; for tyranny is the evil form of one-man rule and the bad king becomes a tyrant. Aristocracy passes over into oligarchy by the badness of the rulers, who distribute contrary to equity what belongs to the city-all or most of the good things to themselves, and office always to the same people, paying most regard to wealth; thus the rulers are few and are bad men instead of the most worthy. Timocracy passes over into democracy; for these are coterminous, since it is the ideal even of timocracy to be the rule of the majority, and all who have the property qualification count as equal. Democracy is the least bad of the deviations;”

“Such [communistic] legislation may have a specious appearance of benevolence; men readily listen to it, and are easily induced to believe that in some wonderful manner everybody will become everybody's friend, especially when some one is heard denouncing the evils now existing in states, suits about contracts, convictions for perjury, flatteries of rich men and the like, which are said to arise out of the possession of private property. These evils, however, are due to a very different cause - the wickedness of human nature. Indeed, we see that there is much more quarrelling among those who have all things in common, though there are not many of them when compared with the vast numbers who have private property.”



  • Friendship is a partnership between two individuals based on mutual respect, trust, and shared values or interests.
  • The essence of friendship lies in living together and perceiving each other's existence, as friends aim to occupy themselves with their friends and engage in activities that bring them closer.
  • Good friends are essential for the virtuous man, as they provide companionship, help in contemplating worthy actions, and contribute to a pleasant life.
  • The number of friends is not unlimited; it is important to have enough friends to live together and share meaningful relationships without being spread too thin or becoming obsequious towards many people.
  • Friends are needed in both good and bad fortunes: we seek their help and companionship in adversity, while in prosperity we enjoy their presence and the opportunity to do good for them.
  • The presence of friends is desirable in all circumstances as it provides pleasure, comfort, and the opportunity to engage in shared activities.


“What is evil neither can nor should be loved; for it is not one’s duty to be a lover of evil or to become like what is bad; and we have said that like is dear to like. Must the friendship, then, be forthwith broken off? Or is this not so in all cases, but only when one’s friends are incurable in their wickedness? If they are capable of being reformed one should rather come to the assistance of their character or their property, inasmuch as this is better and more characteristic of friendship. But a man who breaks off such a friendship would seem to be doing nothing strange; for it was not to a man of this sort that he was a friend; when his friend changed, therefore, and he is unable to save him, he gives him up.”

“Freedom is obedience to self-formulated rules.”

“Bad people...are in conflict with themselves; they desire one thing and will another, like the incontinent who choose harmful pleasures instead of what they themselves believe to be good.”

“bad men... aim at getting more than their share of advantages, while in labor and public service they fall short of their share; and each man wishing for advantage to himself criticizes his neighbor and stands in his way; for if people do not watch it carefully the common weal is soon destroyed. The result is that they are in a state of faction, putting compulsion on each other but unwilling themselves to do what is just.”

“For when people do not keep watch over the commons, it is destroyed. It results, then, that they fall into civil faction, compelling one another by force and not wishing to do what is just themselves.”

“And so the good man ought to be Self-loving: because by doing what is noble he will have advantage himself and will do good to others: but the bad man ought not to be, because he will harm himself and his neighbours by following low and evil passions. In the case of the bad man, what he ought to do and what he does are at variance, but the good man does what he ought to do, because all Intellect chooses what is best for itself and the good man puts himself under the direction of Intellect.”



  • Aristotle believes that happiness is the ultimate goal for humans, and that it can be achieved through contemplation and virtuous action.
  • Contemplation is the highest form of human activity because it allows us to connect with the divine and gain knowledge and understanding.
  • Virtuous action is necessary for living a fulfilling life as a human being, but it is not the primary source of happiness.
  • External prosperity is also necessary for a happy life, as our bodies require food, shelter, and health to function properly.
  • The best way to live a virtuous life and achieve happiness is through education and legislation, which can help individuals develop good habits and live in accordance with reason and right order.
  • Legislation is important for creating a just and ordered society, as it provides a framework for individuals to live virtuously and pursue happiness together.
  • Experience and practical wisdom are essential components of effective legislation and governance.
  • Aristotle suggests that the best way to learn how to legislate is through a combination of theoretical study and practical experience.


“the good of the individual by himself is certainly desirable enough, but that of a nation and of cities is nobler and more divine.”

“These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions ... The good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life.”

“Happiness does not lie in amusement; it would be strange if one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one's life in order to amuse oneself”

“Now to exert oneself and work for the sake of amusement seems silly and utterly childish. But to amuse oneself in order that one may exert oneself, as Anacharsis puts it, seems right; for amusement is a sort of relaxation, and we need relaxation because we cannot work continuously. Relaxation, then, is not an end; for it is taken for the sake of activity.”

“The happy life is thought to be one of excellence; now an excellent life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement. If Eudaimonia, or happiness, is activity in accordance with excellence, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest excellence; and this will be that of the best thing in us.”

“We must not listen to those who advise us 'being men to think human thoughts, and being mortal to think mortal thoughts' but must put on immortality as much as possible and strain every nerve to live according to that best part of us, which, being small in bulk, yet much more in its power and honour surpasses all else.”


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