Thursday, April 7, 2011

Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics, Book I": A Summary

Look, bros don't do shit for no reason. We have reasons when we do things - we act with ends in mind, whatever those ends may be. Sometimes we want to get rich, sometimes we want to get laid, whatever. My point is, we don't bumble through life arbitrarily. Now you might be thinking, "But Aristotle, isn't getting laid an activity, too?" Hell yeah it is - I didn't say activities have to have a single end. Often, we seek goods as instrumental to other goods - but there has to be a highest good, otherwise we get an infinite chain of goods, which is obviously impossible. 

Everyone pretty much agrees that that final good is happiness. Who doesn't want to be happy? What asshole is moping around going, "Fuck happiness. I hate being happy." No one, that's who. The problem is, not everyone agrees on what happiness is or how to get it, which is what I'm here to clear up for you guys. Some people think that happiness is pleasure, which is just stupid. How could it be? Pleasures conflict all the time. When we're presented with two competing pleasures, it's a tough fucking choice, and we always agonize about it; when two options make us equally happy, though, we shrug and say, "I don't give a flying fuck, bro. Honestly, I'm happy either way."

Some other political bros think that happiness is honor, and we should seek that. But who wants honor? And why do we give it? People honor bros because of their virtue, so obviously we value virtue more; besides, honor is only had in relation. I'm honored because people honor me; happiness isn't anything like that at all. So yeah, honor is fucking sweet, but it's not the final good. 

Now, some bros think that we're after the Form of the Good, whatever the hell that is. Bro, think of all the shit that we consider 'good'. Literally every activity we do has some 'good' as its aim. We drink to get drunk. Is drunkenness good? Well, that depends on a lot of shit, like if we can hold our liquor and whether we have important things to do tomorrow; at best, it's good in relation to a bunch of other conditions. And 'drunkenness,' the thing, has so few properties in common with 'bros', which aren't very like 'exercise', which isn't like 'God' at all. If we're trying to figure out what we want, how to be happy, all that Form bullshit isn't going to get us anywhere helpful.

So happiness isn't some other thing we need to identify and seek - it's the reason we do shit. It's the aim of all our activities, we're always seeking it, and it's self-sufficient. It's always a final good. If someone was like, "Why do you want to be happy?" You'd look at him like a fucking idiot. "Because... it's... happiness, asshole." 

If we're trying to figure out how to be happy, we have to figure out our purpose. Everything has a purpose, and good things accomplish their purpose well. What makes a good pledge? He's quiet, compliant, a fucking great driver, and he never has class. That allows him to accomplish his purpose well. What makes a good human? Well, what sets us apart is the soul, our ability to recognize virtue; our purpose, then, is to live in virtue. And what makes people happy? Being fucking good at what they're supposed to be good at. Who doesn't love getting As on tests? Who isn't fucking thrilled to be the best at something? And our highest purpose is virtue; we have to get good at being virtuous to truly be happy.

"But Aristotle, virtue is hard. It doesn't make me happy at all to hear you say that. How can this be?" Being the best at something is always hard if it's worth doing. You don't get to just sit around and be happy or virtuous; you have to work for it. At the Olympics, how do we know who's the strongest? The guy who lifts the most. And if some guy lifted more at his house the week before, he swears, it doesn't matter one bit - it's a matter of who earned it that day. Virtue is hard work, but work isn't bad, not if you're doing what you love to do. So yeah, a virtuous man enjoys his virtue, and takes pride in learning it, and improving himself, even if he has to sweat it out once in a while. Virtue has to be learned; we must spend our lives striving for virtue. It's not a switch you flip and Oh! Now I'm Virtuous.

Happiness isn't a second-by-second thing, it takes a lifetime. In fact, if you want to know whether a man is truly happy, wait until he dies - you should be able to look back over his life and say by the end, "Yup. Definitely happy." "But Aristotle, how can dead men be happy?" Well, whiny-guy-I'm-using-rhetorically, that just proves my point. Happiness isn't something you do, it's an end you achieve. We can't say dead mean do stuff, but we can definitely look back and know they achieved shit.

And since all of this starts with the soul, we have to know the soul, which has two parts - rational and irrational. When bros let the irrational part take over, that's when shit gets out of hand. Yeah, it feels really good to let the irrational part take over sometimes and just fulfill all our appetites, but when shit all comes crashing down, then what? "Bro, I spent all my money, and hooked up with a bunch of chicks, but now I have nothing." Was it worth it? Nope, not if they've abandoned virtue - those bros are miserable. We must, therefore, tame the irrational part of the soul with the rational, and allow that to direct us; after all, that's what makes us special. We must think, and we must act; we must be virtuous both in mind and in character. And as a bro masters these, becomes wise and temperate, you bet your ass he's happy as fuck.


  1. I wonder if any readers here actually act as the portrayed "bros" in these summaries. It definitely adds some zest to the reading, though.

    "We can't say dead mean do stuff"

  2. Fantastic. Any plans on doing the rest of the ethics? Book 6 would be bomb.

  3. This is the best blog on the internet, hands down.

  4. I love the Nicomachean Ethics, please continue the series!

  5. HI: The obvious question is 'what is virtue?'Do we have an evolutionary tilt to some sort of inborn notion of good? How does one navigate one's life in a virtuous direction? Whose map do we follow.

    Pleasure by contrast is an identical experience/sensation for all of us. We all orgasm pretty much the same way. My guess is happiness is the result of the successful pursuit pleasure- things that make us feel good. These aren't always hedonistic. There is pleasure in helping others just as there is also pleasure in defeating others. Virtue is unknowable.

  6. @Anonymous: I think it's more tricky than that.
    Of course, we may have some hard-wired biological mechanisms (like pleasure) that influence our decisions. But still, a large part of human behavior is influenced by culture, not by biology. People from different eras (and different countrys) are biologically almost identical to us. If you would take a chinese baby from the 13th century to our time and raise it in our culture(s), it would not behave like a 13th century chinese person, but it will most probably behave like people in our time and space do behave.

    While culture and arts observe what makes people happy - like Aristoteles did - they also define what makes people happy. When we grow up, we learn what is supposed to make people happy, and there's a good chance that we adopt those happiness concepts - whether they are based on money, honour, religion, fame, success or whatever you can think of.
    The question "what is a good life" is a key question of ethics. We may not be able to find a perfect system of explaining (and defining) what makes people happy and what SHOULD make people happy, but we can try to build systems that are internally consistent and compatible with our experiences. I will now try to explain why I think that basing one's choices on pleasure and unpleasure is not a very good happiness-system.

    If you want to be happy, not just for a moment, but long-term-happy, you cannot do EVERYTHING that is pleasuring and avoid EVERYTHING that is unpleasant.
    For example, a heroin shot is certainly a very pleasant experience - but heroin destroys your life if you take too much of it (probably any amount could be too much). If you want to be happy, you should probably not take heroin, as pleasant as it may be. Adultery is also a very pleasant thing while you do it - but it can destroy your long-term-happiness.
    Also, if we follow our pleasures, we eat lots of unhealthy (but really, really tasty) food, avoid going to the doctor (which is unpleasant but useful) and probably never become skilled at anything, because training and work are sometimes unpleasant.

    So, if pleasure can lead us to long-term unhappiness, how do we sort out which of our actions actually DO lead to long-term happiness? Well, Aristoteles defines Virtue (or Virtues) as a set of principles of action, which could help you to make the right choices.

    Of course, the exact principles of Virtue are difficult to find - you never know EXACTLY how your actions will affect your life and your happiness. Aristoteles only discusses some possible Aspects and Requirements of Virtue - for example avoiding extremes; he does not give you a "map" to find happiness because you have to find and create YOUR hapiness by yourselfs, he only lays down some guidelines.

  7. Or more simply put, what is virtue. A virtuous man is an amorphous one depending on time and space. The 13th century Chinese baby's father my find virtue in killing his baby if it is a girl, but will only find a jail cell in our culture today.

  8. Isn't survival a more basic purpose to humankind than happiness? If we're happy but can't survive that genetic code would be washed out summarily.

  9. what's the use of surviving if you're not happy in your life.:D
    isn't it better to die early yet have a good life than to live a long lonely life.:D

  10. Virtue is the set of actions or practices that allows us to be good humans, which ultimately leads to happiness, BOOK 2 1-6

  11. Isn't happiness what the best thing is for you to be happy as an individual and not a whole.

  12. Books 2 and 3 PLEASE! Thanks.

  13. Bro, you saved my philosophy grade.

  14. you sound like an idiot perhaps you should talk like an intelligent person... why do you need to put in so much f words to provide a point????

    1. Because that's the point of the goddamn site, bro.