Review: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics


When I passed to  have interest in philosophy, this was one of the first books that I read, beside  the Confessions of Saint Augustine. The Nicomachean Ethics is one of the basis of our civilization and was much used by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica.

Aristotle had a purpose when he elaborated his ethics, to constitute the magnanimous man ( Spoudaios). This man had reached a level that permits that he could be above critics or defamations that could target him. The magnanimous man is the one that lives a theoretical life, or a contemplative life ( Bios Theoretikos). In the same manner he knows how to use his goods to help friends, by the way that his money could be used without excess, as the same time avoids avarice.

The Stagirite did not know the theological virtue of charity, but his ideal of magnanimous man almost reached this. Another virtue that man most possess is to have friends, because without it is impossible to be happy. Therefore the practice of virtue becomes very difficult. Friends are necessary to our intelligence, since it permits that it functions better. Friends are also needed when we suffer adversities. Life without friends makes our goods and knowledge in something sterile, because man in the Aristotelian conception is a political animal ( Zoon Politikon ). The man that lives alone must be, to Aristotle, a god or an animal.

Plato did not elaborate an ethical guide as Aristotle, therefore the Stagirit gave us a more secure way to know how to live. And how our actions must be, according to Aristotle? The answer is that man must find the mean is his practical life. To have courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness, because the true man naturally fears dishonor, the disgrace of his woman and children, the same time he fears prison and corporeal punishment. But cowardice is also a serious error, because we must be prepared to face the adversities of life. We must use our force to defend our nation, family and friends.

Aristotle again almost reached the Christian virtue of hope when he said that we must to endure the inevitable disgrace that happens to us. Suicide is strongly condemned by the greek philosopher as an act that is against life in community and is a scorn to the city. Aristotle says that a man naturally desires his own good, and cannot be unjust to himself, hence suicide is an affront to the other men of the Polis. The man in despair rejects the aid that the men of the community could offer to him. Thomas Aquinas will use this same argument against suicide, merely adding that suicide is a sin against God.

Now we reach the great question: it’s possible for man to be happy in this world and what is the kind of life that provides happiness to men? Aristotle without knowing the future life and the original sin says that yes, we can be happy in this world, only adding that we must have at least some goods, because man without money cannot exercise virtue. We must have friends as also have been said. The most perfect life is the contemplative, because this life is the most desired by the gods. The contemplation of Truth is the highest point that man can reach on this world. For Christianity, the contemplation of God is the most desired thing. Aristotle was the philosopher that most approached to Christianity.

A book like this must be compulsory at the classrooms and Colleges. Aristotle teaches man how to become a true man, namely the one that controls his impulses and acts searching the mean. Despite recognizing that men came to adulthood with some characteristics of justice and goodness since childhood, Aristotle believes that virtue can and must be taught to the young for they grow up in the way of truth.

With the aid of the study of philosophy and the political science, a healthy man could be formed. This way, an adult man searches for happiness, but most of the time confuses it with the accumulation of wealthy and body pleasures, the latter been the worst. The philosophy of Aristotle defines since its beginning that happiness is conquered by man not as a good that came directly from God, but it comes to man by virtue and exercise. But virtue is something divine because the end of virtue and its reward is, so to speak, the most excellent divine and blessed( 1099 b14-18). A man can only be happy with minimal goods, because man do not necessarily must be rich, but either cannot be poor. Hence Aristotle said on his Politics that the goal of the governant of a happy Polis is to create a majority of middle class citizens. Man also needs friends in the golden  mean, because only flatterers are everybody friends. The greek philosopher thought that man cannot live alone, since this is a bestial life. To have body health and do not possess any children, relative or friend in disgrace is also a requisite for happiness.

For the man who rules, the study of the soul is necessary, “because we call virtue that thing that is proper not to the body but the soul. This way we say that happiness is an activity of the soul.” Aristotle believes that the ruler must know political science- because it’s more important than medicine- to study and cure the soul of the population ( 1102a13-23). The moral virtue is caused by habit and must be put on practice. A moral philosophy  purely theoretical produces men  with unhealthy souls. All the ethics of Aristotle seeks to form the magnanimous man. This man is that one who judges himself worth of the greatest goods. The magnanimous person must be truly good.

The man who in the book’s final ought to live a truly happy life ( the theoretical life), must have intellectual virtues as prudence and wisdom. The wisdom man, says Aristotle, “ must know not only the conclusions taked out of the principles, but ought to declare the truth concerning the principles. Hence wisdom will be a combination of understanding and science.”

Saint Thomas Aquinas on his commentary about the Nicomachean Ethics wrote that this man must act as a philosopher who knows how the common notions are known and that the principles of the demonstrations are clear. So the concern of this man is to argue against that one who denies the principles, as it’s evident on the fourth book of the Metaphysics.

As Saint Thomas Aquinas said, the life of the intellect is the best. A life of bodily pleasures is unworthy of man, because the body cannot reach the comprehension of the divine things, since this can only be made by the intellect. Aristotle believed that the intellect is not divine by himself, but he thought that the intellect is the most divine thing in man. Saint Thomas Aquinas says: “ in the contemplation of truth, the philosophy offers wonderful pleasures either in purity as in permanence. The purity of this pleasures is realized by this: they deal with immaterial objects; its permanence on that objects are not subject of changing.” The man who contemplates the truth must communicate to other men what he contemplated. A marvelous book!

This review was written by the brazilian professor of philosophy Felipe Pimenta.

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