The Nicomachean Ethics (/ˌnaɪkɒməˈkiən/; /ˌnɪkəməˈkiən/; Ancient Greek: Ἠθικὰ Νικομάχεια, Ēthika Nikomacheia) is Aristotle's best-known work on ethics, the science of the good for human life, which is the goal or end at which all our actions aim. (I2) The aim of the inquiry is political science and the master art of politics. (I1) It consists of ten books or scrolls, understood to be based on notes from his lectures at the Lyceum. The title is often assumed to refer to his son Nicomachus, to whom the work was dedicated or who may have edited it (although his young age makes this less likely). Alternatively, the work may have been dedicated to his father, who was also called Nicomachus. The work plays a pre-eminent role in explaining Aristotelian ethics.
The Nicomachean Ethics is widely considered one of the most historically important philosophical works and had an important influence on the European Middle Ages, becoming one of the core works of medieval philosophy. Therefore, it indirectly became of great significance in the development of all modern philosophy as well as European law and theology. Many parts of the Nicomachean Ethics are well known in their own right, within different fields. While various philosophers influenced Christendom since its earliest times, in Western Europe, Aristotle became \"the Philosopher\". In the Middle Ages, a synthesis between Aristotelian ethics and Christian theology became widespread in Europe, as introduced by Albertus Magnus. The most important version of this synthesis was that of Thomas Aquinas. Other more \"Averroist\" Aristotelians such as Marsilius of Padua were controversial but also influential. (Marsilius is for example sometimes said to have influenced the controversial English political reformer Thomas Cromwell.)
Until well into the seventeenth century, the Nicomachean Ethics was still widely regarded as the main authority for the discipline of ethics at Protestant universities, with over fifty Protestant commentaries published on the Nicomachean Ethics before 1682. During the seventeenth century, however, several authors such as Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes argued forcefully and largely successfully that the medieval and Renaissance Aristotelian tradition in practical thinking had become a great impediment to philosophy in their time. In more recent generations, however, Aristotle's original works (if not those of his medieval followers) have once again become an important source. More recent philosophers influenced by this work include Alasdair MacIntyre, G. E. M. Anscombe, Mortimer Adler, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Martha Nussbaum.
From this starting point, Aristotle goes into discussion of what ethics, a term Aristotle helped develop, means. Aristotelian Ethics is about what makes a virtuous character (ethikē aretē) possible, which is in turn necessary if happiness is to be possible. He describes a sequence of necessary steps to achieve this: First, righteous actions, often done under the influence of teachers, allow the development of the right habits. These in turn can allow the development of a good stable character in which the habits are voluntary, and this in turn gives a chance of achieving eudaimonia. Character here translates ēthos in Greek, related to modern words such as ethics, ethical and ethos. Aristotle does not however equate character with habit (ethos in Greek, with a short \"e\") because real character involves conscious choice, unlike habit. Instead of being habit, character is a hexis like health or knowledge, meaning it is a stable disposition that must be pursued and maintained with some effort. However, good habits are described as a precondition for good character.
Concerning accuracy and whether ethics can be treated in an objective way, Aristotle points out that the \"things that are beautiful and just, about which politics investigates, involve great disagreement and inconsistency, so that they are thought to belong only to convention and not to nature\". For this reason Aristotle claims it is important not to demand too much precision, like the demonstrations we would demand from a mathematician, but rather to treat the beautiful and the just as \"things that are so for the most part.\" We can do this because people are good judges of what they are acquainted with, but this in turn implies that the young (in age or in character), being inexperienced, are not suitable for study of this type of political subject.
In Chapter 2, Aristotle asserts that there is only one highest aim, eudaimonia (traditionally translated as \"happiness\"), and it must be the same as the aim politics should have, because what is best for an individual is less beautiful (kalos) and divine (theios) than what is good for a people (ethnos) or city (polis). Politics rules over practical life so the proper aim of politics should include the proper aim of all other pursuits, so that \"this end would be the human good (tanthrōpinon agathon)\". The human good is a practical target, and contrasts with Plato's references to \"the Good itself\". He concludes what is now known as Chapter 2 of Book 1 by stating that ethics (\"our investigation\" or methodos) is \"in a certain way political\".
Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics is identical to Book V of the Eudemian Ethics. Earlier in both works, both the Nicomachean Ethics Book IV, and the equivalent book in the Eudemian Ethics (Book III), though different, ended by stating that the next step was to discuss justice. Indeed, in Book I Aristotle set out his justification for beginning with particulars and building up to the highest things. Character virtues (apart from justice perhaps) were already discussed in an approximate way, as like achieving a middle point between two extreme options, but this now raises the question of how we know and recognize the things we aim at or avoid. Recognizing the mean means recognizing the correct boundary-marker (horos) which defines the frontier of the mean. And so practical ethics, having a good character, requires knowledge.
Reeve has chosen, in contrast with Irwin, to argue for his own interpretation in a lengthy introduction that incorporates a good deal of the claims he has defended in recent years in two books on Aristotle's ethics published by Harvard University Press. A key feature of Reeve's approach is his universalist as opposed to particularist reading of the practical sciences of ethics and politics: \"scientific knowledge of universals is a crucial part of politics. . . . it [politics] is something like an applied science as opposed to a pure one\" (p. xxvi). Politics' \"universalist component\" is \"legislative science\", the aim of which is to \"produce a set of universal laws\" that will make citizens good by habituating them to virtuous conduct through educational arrangements (p. xxvii) designed to do the \"heavy lifting of the Ethics' practicality\" (p. xxix). Ethics and politics, then, have \"explanatory foundations of their own\" and, while respecting the \"empirical foundations\" of the theoretical sciences, practical sciences \"are not committed to them as fixed points of [their] own explanatory enterprise. . . . Biology, metaphysics, and other bodies of knowledge have no foundational role in politics whatsoever\" (p. xxxvi). There follows an extensive and very helpful discussion of the role of dialectic in the process of sifting through the \"reputable opinions \" (endoxa) and the puzzles they raise that are so often encountered in the detailed discussions we find in the NE. There is not space here to critically evaluate Reeve's main substantive contentions, but his introduction is definitely not a simple diachronic summary of the contents of the NE. He has opted, instead, for a concise overview of his general understanding of the \"philosophy of human affairs\" (1181b15); those unfamiliar with his previous scholarship in this area will find the introduction incisive and informative.
The general lesson I draw from comparing Reeve with both Irwin and Crisp is perhaps best expressed in terms of the level of the class in which one wants to use a translation of the whole of the NE. One familiar use is in an introductory ethics course using whole classical texts where one might well want Aristotle along with Mill's Utilitarianism and Kant's Groundwork. In such a course I think that Crisp would be most helpful to beginners, given the relatively smoother and more accessible translation he offers with a modicum of supplementary material; his introduction is more an overview of coming attractions rather than offering a potentially controversial interpretation, and his glossary is short and the index similarly restrained. For more advanced students, especially those who have already had at least one survey of ancient philosophy or, better, a course on Aristotle with emphasis on the theoretical sciences, Reeve would serve very well. He confines his interpretation primarily to his introduction, translates for the most part in a clear and consistent fashion, with very helpful notes as described above and an index that is thorough and well-nigh complete. Though daunting data-wise, and requiring the guidance of a well-versed instructor, Reeve's new offering has much to recommend it. Irwin's 2nd ed. is still very useful for such mid-level students and even for advanced undergraduates. While I have found it very helpful for graduate students as well, there is much to be said for the 2002 Oxford translation by Christopher Rowe with its lengthy \"philosophical introduction\" by Sarah Broadie, which runs some 80 pages and whose commentary of almost 200 pages contains much insight into this challenging and enduring monument. Finally, it might be said that we have a number of very valuable translations of the NE not touched on here, ranging from various hands revising W. D. Ross' 1925 version over the years, to others having various virtues as well as defects, and this abundance of riches is not at all diminished by yet another offering, this one at the hands of a seasoned and devoted student of the \"master of those who know\". I recommend Reeve, then, with the few reservations noted above. For those of us who love this text, yet another attempt to capture it for a modern audience is most welcome. 59ce067264