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Ethical Ideas of Aristotle

Aristotle was born in 384 BC in Greece. His father was a court physician of the Macedonian king. He lost his parents at an early age. He studied under Plato for twenty years in the Academy. He then went to Macedonia at the request of King Philip to tutor his son, Alexander the Great, who was then thirteen years old. He supervised Alexander’s studies for five years. Later, Aristotle founded his own school of philosophy at a place called Lyceum.


Aristotle differed from his teacher Plato on many matters. Plato’s philosophy was based on idealism, while Aristotle was a down-to-earth, practical thinker. He famously said, ‘Dear is Plato, but dearer still is truth.’


He believed that ‘form’ (as described by Plato) is not merely the shape but the shaping force, an inner necessity and impulse which moulds mere materials to a specific figure and purpose. It is the realisation of a potential capacity of matter. We must imagine a prime mover unmoved, a being incorporeal, indivisible, spaceless, sexless, passionless, changeless, perfect and eternal, i.e. God. He then stated, ‘God moves the world as the beloved object moves the lover.’


Concept of Soul


According to Aristotle, soul is the essence or the sum of the powers of the body. However, soul is not eternal because it cannot exist without body. According to him, body and soul are like form and wax, separable only in thought, but in reality one organic whole. The soul is not put into the body from outside, but the body and the soul come into existence together. A personal and particular soul can exist only in its own body. However, soul is not material, nor does it die.


The Philosophy of Aristotle


If philosophy is the quest of unity, Aristotle deserves the high name that twenty centuries have given him— ‘The Philosopher’. He was not only a great philosopher, but also a great scientist. He believed in the unity of all forms of knowledge like science and philosophy. He is most famous for writing, Nicomachean Ethics, his celebrated work. His main contribution is in the following two fields—


• Happiness

• Virtue or Ethics


According to Aristotle, happiness and virtue go together.


Summum Bonum


Aristotle stated that all things are done with an end in mind. For example—


• Ship-building is done to make ships

• Economics is looked into to generate wealth

• Medicine is practised to maintain health


Similarly, all human activities are also directed towards an end.


All such ends are then directed towards one final end which he called summom bonum, which by itself is not a means of any end.


The summom bonum of human being is happiness, as we seek everything to attain happiness. The aim of life is not goodness for its own sake, but happiness ‘for we choose happiness for itself and never with a view to anything further; whereas we choose honour, pleasure, power, intellect…because we believe that through them we shall become happy’.


Every creature’s summum bonum depends on its special faculties. For example, animals are ruled by sensation and hence, they try to achieve sensual pleasures. However, pleasure is not good for man because reason is the special faculty of man. Hence, summum bonum of man is to be found living a life of reason.


He thus advocated that human happiness is found by the pleasure of the mind; and we may trust it only when it comes from the pursuit or the capture of truth.


Concept of Virtue


According to Aristotle, virtue is of two types:

• Intellectual

• Ethical


He states that the value of intellect is of higher value since it is achieved by leading a life of reason and philosophical contemplation. A man with intellect will follow the ethical path not because it is stated by a philosopher or written in a scripture, but because he understands the benefits of leading an ethical life.


The ethical virtues consist of subordinating the human passion and appetites to reason.


He believed that the intellectual and ethical values together constitute happiness. It means that your reasoning must be in tune with your ethical values to enjoy lasting happiness in your life.

Aristotle believed that ethical virtues consist in the control of emotions with reason. He also believed that knowledge alone is not enough to make a person virtuous since control of passion is difficult. Passions can be controlled only by self-discipline. Only with practice, virtuous conduct can become a habit and then it becomes so normal for the person that he starts following the virtuous path effortlessly. He, therefore, has stated, ‘Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.’


Virtue: The Golden Mean


Aristotle’s best-known work on ethics is The Nicomachean Ethics. Here, he asserts that the extreme of anything is a vice and that virtue is found only in the golden mean between the two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. The Nicomachean Ethics or ‘Table of Virtues and Vices’ is provided in the following table. Here, the excess and deficiency of anything represents vices and the mean represents the virtues.

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