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A Guide to Aristotle

By Edited Feb 2, 2014 0 0

It is said by many that Aristotle’s works – in particular his ethics, which are to be focussed upon here - favour the privileged people of his day; they are thought to be elitist and the obvious result of a well-to-do man in the times in which he lived.

 There is a lot of truth in this view. However, Aristotle’s notion of ethics (the ‘Good Life’) has many merits - in particular a laudable emphasis upon circumstance. This section will dissect Aristotle’s ethics in reference to his times and contemporaries.

At root, it seems that Aristotle’s hope is that with practice one will be well placed to exercise reason and choose the mean response to any situation; he hopes that intellectual and moral virtues will work together to result in a eudaimonic man; despite everyone having the potential to become so, Aristotle concedes that very few do.  



Aristotle was born in 384 B.C in Stagyra, Macedonia. He was the son of Nicomachus, a wealthy and highly influential court physician to the king of Macedonia. At the age of eighteen Aristotle joined Plato’s academy where he studied for around twenty years.

 He died in Chalcis in 322 B.C at the age of sixty-two; his will, which survives relatively intact, suggests that he had lived a full and happy life.

Three Unknown Facts about Aristotle:

- On being turned down again for presidency of the academy, Aristotle founded his own school and called it the Lyceum.

- Aristotle was invited by King Philip II of Macedon to tutor his young son, Alexander the Great.

- When riots broke out in Athens following the death of Alexander the Great Aristotle fled to his mother’s estate in Euboa, fearing for his life after being accused of impiety.



Aristotle and the Purpose of Life

‘Every Art and every investigation and similarly every action and pursuit is considered to aim at some good’

 Aristotle claimed that there is always a purpose to it (even things that do not seem to have a purpose – for example, the purpose of sitting around doing nothing is to relax and to feel revitalised. He goes on to say that there are superior and subordinate aims. So, if I were to aim to write a piece of music that would be the superior aim, with the subordinate aims being buying scored paper and digging out a metronome.

‘If then, our activities have some end which we want for its own sake, and for the sake of which we want all the other ends… it is clear that this must be the Good, that is the supreme Good… Does it not follow then that a knowledge of the Good is of great importance to us for the conduct of our lives… while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime’


Aristotle defines the Good Life as Eudaimonia (Happiness), which is an activity of the soul.

 A little defining and describing is necessary here to properly grasp this broad outline of Aristotle’s central thought:

Eudaimonia or Happiness: The concept of eudaimonia, a key term in ancient Greek moral philosophy, is central to any modern neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics and usually employed even by virtue ethicists who deliberately divorce themselves from Aristotle. It is standardly translated as “happiness” or “flourishing” and occasionally as “well-being.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).   It is thought by some that these definitions do not quite capture what Aristotle meant when he used the word ‘eudaimonia’; indeed, it is unclear precisely what he means when he uses it (as with most philosophical matters, the issue is open to interpretation). It is thus advisable to simply bear these attempted-definitions in mind when considering Aristotle’s discussion of the good life. 


Aristotle's Three Types of Happiness

According to Aristotle there are three broad categories that all people fall into:

•Those who love pleasure: lives devoted to pleasures of the flesh – sex, drugs etc.

•Those who love honour: those who live in constant service to their community. Soldiers, lawyers, the police.
•Those who love contemplation: for example, philosophers such as Aristotle (unsurprising).

Aristotle notes that most people would prefer to live a life of pleasure. He expresses this thought in the following way: ‘the utter servility of the masses comes out in their preference for a bovine existence’. Aristotle believed that what separated humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is the faculty of reason. He concedes that we share some form of sentience with animals, and the basic function of life with both animals and plants; but he claims that only humans can use reason in the way that we do (for example, to consider the way in which we live). Aristotle thus concludes that seeing as reason is what marks humans out, it must be in the exercise of it that we derive our pleasure.

Aristotle on The Soul

'By human goodness is meant goodness not of the body but of the soul, and happiness also we define as an activity of the soul’

Aristotle’s conception of the soul was influenced by Plato’s. Plato claimed that the soul was split into two parts and Aristotle agreed with this. Both philosophers thought that the soul consisted of a Rational half, and an Irrational half.  Aristotle went further however and divided the Irrational half again into the Vegetative and the Appetitive.


Peter Vardy's on Aristotle's Soul Theory

Peter Vardy gives the following example to help one understand how Aristotle believed the different parts of the soul to work and interact:

 ‘… let us suppose that the vegetative part of me needs sustenance or nutrition or growth. Now, the desiderative part of me desires cake rather than fruit. However, the scientific part of me know the fact that, given my current waist size, fruit will do me more good than cake will. So, finally, the calculative part of my mind thinks about the advisability of cake over fruit or vice versa, and comes to a decision: how about fruit cake? The scientific part of my mind will then be able to follow the precise instructions on how to make a reasonably respectable fruit cake of the health-food variety. Thus the vegetative, calculative and scientific parts of my ‘soul’ have all come into play’ 


Aristotle on Virtue

Aristotle thought that there were two kinds of virtue:

Moral virtues: gained and honed by habituation; connected to the desiderative (irrational) part of the soul.

Aristotle describes ethical virtue as a hexis (as a habit/practiced ability); he states that through habituation one will become not only a better judge of the mean, but also a more compulsive and happy user of it.

 Intellectual virtue (the virtues that allow greater precision when using the doctrine of the mean): gained and honed by teaching.

The intellectual virtues are as follows: scientific knowledge (‘episteme’), artistic or technical knowledge (‘techne’), intuitive reason (‘nous’), practical wisdom (‘phronesis’), and philosophic wisdom (‘sophia’).  



Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean (as it appears in the Nicomachean Ethics)





















Proper ambition






Righteous indignation








Lack of ambition

Lack of spirit







One should be careful to note that Aristotle does not always recommend mild responses; rather, he recommends the appropriate one according to the situation.

 So, if a circumstance were to mean that wild, animalistic rage were the mean then that would be perfectly permissible.



Aristotle and the Golden Mean

Aristotle proposed that one should always aim for the mid-point between excess and deficiency; it is famously known as ‘the Doctrine Mean’, or ‘the Golden Mean’. According to Aristotle we all have the potential to develop the moral and intellectual virtues listed in the following slides.

We shall now put Aristotle’s idea of the Golden Mean in its supposed context.

 It can be traced furthest back to the Cretan tale of Daedalus and Icarus: in this story Daedalus advises his son to "fly the middle course", between the sea spray and the sun's heat. However, Icarus did not listen to his father; instead he flew up and up until the sun scorched the wax off his wings.

Socrates can be quoted as giving the following advice: "must know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible”

 Plato in one of his famous dialogues ((Phlb. 64d-65a) Plato writes: ‘that any kind of mixture that does not in some way or other possess measure of the nature of proportion will necessarily corrupt its ingredients and most of all itself.'



Useful Quotations on the Golden Mean

‘Virtue, then, is a kind of moderation inasmuch as it aims at the mean or moderate amount’.

‘The mean as concerns fear and confidence is courage: those that exceed in fearlessness are foolhardy, while those who exceed in fear are cowardly’

‘Virtue, then, is a habit or trained faculty of choice, the characteristic of which lies in moderation or observance of the mean relative to the persons concerned, as determined by reason, i.e. by the reason by which the prudent man would determine it’.

Aristotle on Friendship

“Nobody would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other good things”

It seems that Aristotle thought that without friendship none of the virtues (neither intellectual nor moral) would be worth anything. He considered it to be essential; he justifies this with the thought that we are social and political beings.

 He claims that there are three types of friendship: utility friendships; Pleasurable or Erotic friendships; and Perfect friendships.

 Aristotle writes that: “Friendship also seems to be the bond that holds the communities together”



The Eudaimonic Life

•Happiness (eudaimonia) is virtuous activity, which is guided by the intellect and by reason.
•Happiness is a contemplative activity.
•Happiness is not merely a means to an end, but is an end in itself.
•Happiness is a unity of will and action, of intellect and reason.
•Happiness is not just a feeling of pleasure or contentment: it is a fulfillment of the human soul.
•Aristotle says that humans are happiest when they are guided by reason. Thus, the happiest life is that of the philosopher. Perfect happiness is achieved by a unity of practical and philosophical wisdom.

The best individual according to Aristotle is very different from the Christian conceptions of a good character: his individual should hate those who deserve to be hated and have real pride in one’s merits.

It is unsurprising that Aristotle considers the best way of life to be his own.


Criticisms and Thoughts about Aristotle

Peter Vardy writes the following: “According to some scholars… Aristotle’s account of ethics is, in fact, simply a detailed elaboration of a very orthodox Greek view aristocratic living. It is easy to cultivate the virtues when the mortgage is fully paid up…”


Bertrand Russell concludes in his chapter about Aristotle in his book ‘History of Western Philosophy’ that: ‘his Ethics [Aristotle’s], in spite of its fame, is lacking in intrinsic importance’. He claims that there is an ‘emotional poverty’ in the work; that there is in the work ‘an almost complete absence of what may be called benevolence or philanthropy. The sufferings of mankind, in so far as he is aware of them, do not move him emotionally; he holds them, intellectually, to be an evil, but there is no evidence that they cause him unhappiness except when the sufferers happen to be his friends’


Dr. Roger Crisp, of St. Anne’s College, Oxford claims that despite Aristotle’s emphasis upon circumstance he is not what one would term a true situation ethicist: Crisp draws the reader’s attention to a passage in the Nicomachean Ethics were Aristotle lists actions that he thinks are always wrong. 


Aristotle was bound by his times and class when it comes to his philosophy. It is not that one should not criticise his elitism; but what should happen as a counterbalance to the somewhat inevitable accusations of snobbery is a recognition that his emphasis upon situation – when compared to, say, Plato, and his quest for objective morality, was admirable and an important step for philosophy. In conclusion, with regards to his philosophy, Aristotle was indeed in some ways distinctly a product of his time and class; and yet, in other ways, really quite forward-thinking and free of popular doctrines. 



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