12: Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’

Most philosophy courses require students to tackle Aristotle at some point and for good reason: not only does his work cover almost the entire breadth of human interest, but much of what he had to say still informs modern discussions in biology, psychology, ethics, physics, politics and law, not to mention philosophy itself.

Aristotle’s method is unlike that of his predecessors and his work requires a somewhat different approach by the critical thinker. Not only did he make heavy use of observation and classification but he also took care to consider the opinions of both experts and lay people. He was, in this sense, the forerunner of both modern empirical method and academic credibility. This means that the reader must handle a wide range of differing assumptions and examples when reading his work.

Approaching ancient texts always requires some caution. Vocabulary in particular presents a unique challenge: translations from one interpreter to another can be inconsistent, and some terms can only awkwardly be forced into modern parlance.

In this excerpt from Book II of Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’, we will meet Aristotle’s concept of virtue, which is not easily rendered into modern English. A virtue, in Ancient Greek, is often parsed as being ‘an excellence’, but this hardly makes the notion much clearer to the modern reader. The Greek concept of virtue is not, as is our modern English one, solely concerned with moral behaviour. Rather, referring to some thing’s virtue is understood as referring to ‘its best or highest quality’. Thus, Aristotle can make the distinction at the beginning of Chapter 1 between man’s best intellectual qualities and his best moral qualities by use of one and the same word.

The word ‘passions’ is also used with a slightly different meaning to our modern one. It is synonymous with ‘desire’ in the general sense, rather than the ‘intense desire’ of our modern word.

You will find paragraph main ideas, answers to the questions and a commentary in the answer key.


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