Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics Bk I Ch. 1

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”

Thus starts Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, his best known work on morals. “The good is that at which all things aim” or “good is what all desire.” Granted, Aristotle has some explaining to do, if good is what all actions are aimed towards. One would be confused, at first, in contemplating why a murderer is so obviously to Aristotle merely seeking the good.

The murderer, the thief, the prostitute,…the aspiring saint: all aim at the good. G.K. Chesterton once said, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” We cannot help but desire good. We do what we think will be for some good. We steal because we want bread or a stereo system. We pay a prostitute because we desire the pleasure of the body or companionship. We do these things for the same reason we act polite and quiet in the library or teach our kids the Ten Commandments: it seems good.

It is not the place of ethics to teach one that it is good to be good. Nature does that. The place of ethics helps establish what is truly the good. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics says little about values, because he sees ethics as a practical science that should lead to behavior in practice. Values do not accomplish this. Very few thieves think their activity is morally right, thus, they share the same values as he who does not steal.

Aristotle’s ethics aim, rather, at virtues, and these only after studying man’s ultimate end, which he rightly deems to be “happiness.” Yes, happiness is the very reason for morality.

Aristotle continues, “But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity — as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others — in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

Why do I go to work? To make money. Why do I desire money? To feed myself. Why do I feed myself? To not be hungry? Why do I want to not be hungry? The list could go on. But when we ask ourselves, why we want to be happy, it is hard to say “I want to be happy so that…” To be happy is a true end. Other things are ordered to this end. Ultimately, happiness is that end that is not a means to something else. Work is a means to money. Money is a means to food, and that a means to curing hunger.

But happiness is not a means at all. Once we understand that to be happy is our goal, which goes without saying (once it is said; philosophers are those fools who say the obvious, except that most other people never think enough about the obvious), we must find out what in what consists true happiness.

Still in Book I, Aristotle will discuss happiness itself, and what it is for man. The rest of the Ethics is devoted primarily to virtues (and hardly a mention of values, for Aristotle doesn’t believe in such vague and meaningless concepts), before returning, in the final Book to  Happiness.

Happy, yes happy, would we be to return to the ancient wisdom of Aristotle, who does not think ethics is about “following rules” and “learning vague values” but rather about virtuous living which is the means to happiness.

A return to the wisdom of the ancients, who knew no difference between virtue and manliness and power, would strengthen us all…and make us truly happy.


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