The ancient world was as interested in self-help and success as we are today. So it is no surprise that Aristotle wrote three works on ethics, which for him meant not how to live but what is the best way of living. The most influential of these is called the Nicomachean Ethics (hereafter, the Ethics). Since its publication sometime after 335 BC, it has been loved, hated, reviled, annotated, misappropriated, memorized, cut-and-pasted, highlighted, sold, resold, reprinted, retranslated, shipped, and, yes, slowly and silently, in shops and on planes and on boats and in libraries, dorm rooms and kitchens and bedrooms (and bathrooms aplenty) it has been read.
And it should be read. Why? Because the best writing is fertile—that is it—words and thoughts excreted by fine, muscular minds. It can smell bad, sure, but it begets growth.
The big ideas of the Ethics are the mean, friendship, and the happy life. But those all presume a certain kind of person. The Ethics requires its actor being a certain kind of human being whom Aristotle calls a good person: “the good man’s view is the true one.” This person acts well for the sake of good acting. Such goodness is not necessarily moral, as we hear that word today, but right or fit as in right thing done or said at the right time. The good man properly judges the rightness of act and activity. And he also judges his own place on earth and under heaven. Happiness is the well-ordered life lived well.
“We ought, so far as in us lies, to put on immortality and do all we can to live in conformity with the highest that is in us; for even if it is small in bulk, in power, and in preciousness, it far excels all the rest. Indeed, it would seem that this is the true self of the individual, since it is the authoritative and better part of him; so it would be an odd thing if a man chose to live someone else’s life instead of his own.” (1178a)
Simply knowing the what of a thing or the how to of a thing is not enough. Technique and technology cannot deliver the happy life any more than an answer, no matter how correct, truly comprehends its question. Act without understanding is the way of the sophist. Aristotle says, “We do not find people becoming qualified in medicine by reading handbooks.” One must live their life. One must enter in to it, in all its complexity, and by effort and action; by dialog, education, and contemplation; by love, friendship, and association, and with a bit of luck and talent, one discovers what it is to be a human being. No shortcuts.
Now, what is life without friendship? Thus, Aristotle’s chapters nine and ten on the kinds and grounds of friendship have forever been beloved. “Nobody would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other good things,” he says. For “friends are a help both to the young, in keeping them from mistakes, and to the old, in caring for them and doing for them what through frailty they cannot do for themselves; and to those in the prime of life, by enabling them to carry out fine achievements. Between friends there is no need for justice. [So, then,] good men and friends are the same.” (1155a)
It is worth noting that Aristotle encompasses in the word friendship much more than we do today. For us, friendship is an affection between people who are otherwise unrelated. Married people will sometimes call their partner their best friend, true. But we would not call business relationships, local governance, or the bond between parent and child friendship. Aristotle’s friendship has the generality of friendliness without the superficiality of a greeting on the street. It is stronger stuff. It is the “bond that holds communities together.” Nevertheless, Aristotle begins to divide friendship into types almost immediately. What at first he lathered indiscriminately becomes a sorting of the most discriminate sort.
Quotations from Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. trans. J. A. K. Thomson. Introduction by Jonathan Barnes. New York: NY. Penguin Classics. 2004.
Working Outline of this Post for Use and (later) Deletion Introduction We should read good things, and Aristotle is one of those. Aristotle wrote on Ethics. It is going to help us out. Body Presumption of a Good Character The happy life Friendship and Politics The Mean Conclusion Can we be good without others?