Nicomachean Ethics I: A Reflection

The first order of business for Aristotle is to mark out the subject matter, how the subject is treated (the science) and the method of argument. Herein lie the content of the first three chapters. Aristotle is always one to start from principles, and here, if we are to determine what a person should do, that is, what actions would make a man a good man, we must determine what the ‘function’ of a man is; what is it that man ‘is for?’

After all, we could hardly give an answer as to whether or not a clock was a good clock unless we knew what it is a clock is for; what is it suppose to do. Once we do know this, however, we have something to measure it against, and to decide if it is good or faulty.

To take this analogy further, we may ask what the spring in a watch is for, and may determine that it is there to turn a cog. Well, what is the cog for? To turn a hand, perhaps. So the spring is a means, but not a final end. The spring is there, however, so that ultimately, the watch keeps and displays time, and displays it correctly. This is the final end of the watch, and what the means are there to help accomplish.

So Aristotle shows us that a man may do several things for the sake of other things, but that ultimately, there is some end at which all other things aim. This final end will be unique to man, or at least will be set apart inasmuch as man differs from other things.

Likewise, a computer may keep time (mine certainly has a clock on display) but the computer does more than this, and has higher functions. So while it may keep time as does a watch, its end will not be the same as a watch, for it goes beyond the watch in its ultimate function.

Likewise, man shares many traits with other beings; a man is like a rock, in that he has matter and form, and he is like a tree, in that he has nutritive and regenerative capabilities, and he is likewise like a beast, in that he has self movement and sensation (sight, hearing, and the like). But Aristotle will ask, ‘what sets man apart?’ and the answer is ‘reason.’ Man is capable of rational thought, and seeks to know things as they are.

Man’s good then will be something to do with his reasoning, but will not ignore his material nature, his nature he shares with other beings.

In Chapter II, Aristotle points out that the goal of both the individual and the political community is the same, that is, the perfection of the human being.  Just as Aristotle seems to differ with modern philosophers by assigning an objective nature to man, he differ here with modern political thought, for certainly we don’t often hear that the political community exists primarily for the good of the citizens’ virtuous activity.

In short, for Aristotle, the subject matter of political science is the doing of noble and just actions.

Now, this is a goal which allows of a great deal of fluctuation and variability. The philosopher therefore lays down the truth, for example, that the virtues are absolutely necessary for man to attain his highest good. They hold for all people and everywhere and at all times. However, we will also see that ethics is primarily a practical rather than speculative science. Because of this, the principles are objective and true, but their application will vary not only by situation, but even by person. For example, what would be brave in one situation may be cowardly in another, and what would be brave for a specific person (say, a well trained soldier) may be rash for another person (someone with no experience in combat trying to take on the same challenger).

Returning to what it is that man strives for, we take into account that he is rational. But we can ask the simple question, ‘why does man do the things he does?’ Ultimately, the end that seems to be only an end and not a means toward anything else is this: happiness. Man seeks to be happy, and it simply makes no sense to ask to what purpose he wishes to be happy. He may think he desires money, or honor, or sex, or food, or drugs, or somehow, even pain, but in the end, he does what he does and desires the things he desires so that he may be happy. The shocking thing to so many that have never read Aristotle or any of the ancient and medieval thinkers on ethics is this: it was not primarily duty or law that was the principle of their moral thought, but attaining true happiness.

Aristotle, in Book I of his Ethics, concludes that happiness is what we seek, and virtuous activity is how we attain this end.

Our contemporary culture would tell us that the key to happiness is freedom, but the modern understanding of freedom is extremely flawed. True freedom is not the “right” to simply follow the impulses of the will, but a true freedom is what is known as a “freedom for excellence.”

Servias Pinckaers uses the wonderful example of a piano player as a means to show what virtue can do for someone who seeks true freedom towards a specific end:

In the beginning the child, despite the desire to learn will often feel that the lessons and exercises are a constraint imposed on freedom and the attractions of the moment. There are times when practice has to be insisted upon…Of course, anyone is free to bang out notes haphazardly on the piano, as the fancy strikes him. But this is a rudimentary, savage sort of freedom… On the other hand, the person who really possesses the art of playing the piano has acquired a new freedom. (The Sources of Christian Ethics, p.355)

We see, then, that to truly be free to attain the very ends we were both made for and should aspire to attain to, that our freedom involves both a responsibility and a joy in becoming what we are meant to be. It should come as no surprise that, at the same time a new teaching on freedom overtook society (a freedom which emphasizes indifference rather than excellence) the virtues fell out of common knowledge and pursuit.

If we are to once again become a culture that seeks excellence, we must be a culture that strives after virtue. We are meant to be something, and we are meant to have a part in becoming that something. We are truly both what we are (as created) and what we make of ourselves: a sort of theistic existentialism. Made in the image of God, we are meant to be free, but free to be what He made us to be.


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