1. Why is it called the Nicomachean Ethics?
The Nicomachean Ethics is a book written by Aristotle named for Nicomachus (Νικόμαχος), which in keeping with the Greek practice of boys being named after their grandfathers, was the name of both Aristotle’s father and his son. Accordingly, we are unsure if the book was dedicated to or inspired by either Aristotle’s father or son, or perhaps his grandfather, who was confusingly also named Nicomachus.1)See Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Famous Philosophers, Book V, Aristotle, for more (though perhaps dubious) information on the biography of Aristotle There is a tradition that holds, though, that the book was named after Aristotle’s son.
2. The “Hidden Meaning” of Nicomachus
Nicomachus means “victor in the battle,” so it perhaps is no surprise that courage is the very first virtue discussed in detail, as Aristotle makes it a point to say that the prime exemplification of courage is courage in battle. He further contends that the other uses of the word courage are really an extension of this primary usage from war.
3. The Chief Good
The inquiry which serves to guide the entire enterprise of the Nichomachean Ethics is answering the question as to what is the chief human good. The chief good, still familiar to us today through use of the Latin term, summum bonum, is that thing at which all people aim, and for which all other things are done. Aristotle says that happiness is the chief good, and famously says that happiness is an “activity of reason in accordance with virtue… and this is in a full life” (1098a16-18).2)τὸ ἀνθρώπινον ἀγαθὸν ψυχῆς ἐνέργεια γίνεται κατ’ ἀρετήν… ἔτι δ’ ἐν βίῳ τελείῳ. This last point is meant to emphasize that in order to achieve the chief good one must live a complete life of excellence, all the way unto death.
4. Did Aristotle write anything else on ethics?
The Nicomachean Ethics is not the only work by Aristotle on the subject of ethics, or practical living. There is also the Eudemian Ethics and the Magna Moralia, sometimes also called the Great Ethics. While the Eudemian Ethics is considered genuine, many scholars cast doubt on the Aristotelian authorship of the Magna Moralia, and most believe the comparatively small On Virtues and Vices is not by Aristotle.
5. Don’t forget politics…
In our modern world, we seldom expect politics and ethics to go together. However, this was exactly the layout in Aristotle’s plan for the Ethics. Near the end of the treatise, he makes a point to say that in order to complete this discussion of human affairs, a study of the constitutions of different cities must be undertaken. Although the human good, i.e. happiness, is something that is pursued by an individual, it is actualized within the confines of a Greek city-state (polis). Thus, the important and appropriate conditions of virtue must be cultivated by those knowledgable about politics; only in such a system can the virtuous man live.
6. Many Virtues in Two Divisions
Aristotle divided up his virtues into two main kinds, though this is not to say that he believed the virtues were in fact separable from each other. On the one hand there are virtues of character: courage (andreia), moderation (sophrosyne), generosity (eleutheriotes), munificence (megaloprepeia), magnanimity (megalopsuchia), mildness (praotes), and justice (dikaiosyne), as well as others dealing with sociability. While the intellectual virtues are scientific knowledge (episteme), craftsmanship (techne), prudence (phronesis), intelligence (nous), wisdom (sophia), understanding (synesis), and sense (gnome).
A word that often causes non-Greek readers of the Ethics problems is eudaimonia. This is often translated as “happiness.” The root of the word means something like “well-favored by a god.” It is literally “well-demoned,” except that “demon” here is a rather positive term, unlike our English usage, and it means something like a demigod or divine being. Furthermore, this “happiness” does not correspond to a feeling, as our word does, but it confers a type of status on someone, what we might call flourishing or a blessed state. More helpful than this Greek term is what was said in point 3 above: happiness or eudaimonia is an “activity of reason in accordance with virtue… and this is in a full life.”
8. Virtue and Ethics
The Greek word arete is often translated virtue or excellence. In fact, what this second translation demonstrates is that for an ancient Greek, arete covered excellence in any area, such as a horse, a hammer or a human. In our day, we could even extend this usage and say there is an arete of a car, i.e., that excellence which good cars demonstrate when they are being driven. Our word “ethics” derives from the Greek word ethike, meaning those things “pertaining to and expressing traits of character.” We should be wary, then, of attributing to Aristotle a moral system in our modern understanding of that term.
9. Aristotle and Virtue Ethics
Aristotle, in writing the Nicomachean Ethics, initiated the school of theorizing today called Virtue Ethics. In this system, more emphasis is placed on cultivating the character and virtues of an individual so that one becomes a virtuous person, whereas other major ethical theories tend to focus on either rules or outcomes.
10. NE or EN?
Often either the initials NE or EN are used to refer to the Nicomachean Ethics. The reason for this is that NE stands for the English Nicomachean Ethics, while EN stands for Latin Ethica Nicomachea. Both refer to the same book, yet Latin observes a different word order from English. Why the Latin title? Many of Aristotle’s treatises have a Latin name, some of which are more popular than the English title, such as De Anima (On the Soul) while other times the English name is the only one most people are familiar with, e.g. Parts of Animals (De Partibus Animalium).
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||See Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Famous Philosophers, Book V, Aristotle, for more (though perhaps dubious) information on the biography of Aristotle|
|2.||↑||τὸ ἀνθρώπινον ἀγαθὸν ψυχῆς ἐνέργεια γίνεται κατ’ ἀρετήν… ἔτι δ’ ἐν βίῳ τελείῳ.|