Nicomachean Ethics

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First page of the 1837 edition
The beginning of the sixth book of Nicomachean Ethics in the manuscript made for Andrea Matteo Acquaviva, the Duke of Atri, in southern Italy, Vienna, Austrian National Library, Cod. Phil. gr. 4, fol. 45v (late 15th century)

The Nicomachean Ethics ( ancient Greek ἠθικὰ Νικομάχεια , ēthiká Nicomácheia ) is the most important of the three ethical writings handed down under the name of Aristotle . Since it shares some books with Eudemian Ethics , it may not have been compiled by Aristotle himself in its preserved form. It is unclear why the font bears this title. Perhaps he is referring to his son or his own father, both of whom were named Nicomachus.

Goal of the Nicomachean Ethics

The work aims to provide guidelines on how to become a good person and lead a life in the spirit of eudaimonia . Since the concept of action is central to this, it is already mentioned in the first sentence: "Every practical ability and every scientific investigation, just as all action and choice, strives for a good, as is generally assumed." A good can either only be there to promote another good (it is then counted among the poietic actions), or it can promote another good and at the same time “be striven for for its own sake” (it then has a practical character), or it can be used as a the highest good represent the ultimate goal of all action (= absolute practice ). Thus the work is determined by the question of how the highest good, or also the highest goal, is constituted and how it is to be achieved.


Aristotle's first answer to the question of the nature of the highest good is that happiness ( eudaimonía ) is the highest good. She is a mental happiness. For Aristotle, this follows from the fact that happiness stands for itself - it is not, like other goods, merely a means to an end. Unlike other goods, we seek happiness for its own sake. It is, as Aristotle says, "the perfect and self-sufficient good and the ultimate goal of action." ( 1097b20 )

Ergon argument

In order to determine the actual content of happiness, Aristotle introduces the Ergon argument . Here he starts from an essentialism , which says that every being is characterized by properties that make it possible to distinguish this being from other beings. Furthermore, he pursues his own perfectionism , which makes the fulfillment of the determination of the being dependent on the development of his personality traits.

The essence of the human being can be found in the consideration of his specifically peculiar performance, which distinguishes him from other living beings. This is the activity of the soul according to the rational element (thinking, reason ) or at least not without it. In addition, it is crucial that man uses his reason both perfectly and also in his whole life and more. “And more” in this case means that even what people left behind (such as children) testify to the intensive use of their common sense.

These three arguments - activity of the soul according to reason, activity in a perfect way and in a full life - are universally considered to be Aristotle's first definition of happiness.

Tripartite division into external, physical and mental goods

In order to attain happiness, Aristotle admits, not only rational activity of the soul is necessary, but also firstly external and secondly physical goods. External goods are for example wealth, friendship, origin, descendants, honor and a favorable personal fate. Health, beauty, physical strength, sportiness correspond to the physical or internal goods of the body. The spiritual goods, the virtues, result from the rational activity of the soul.

Aristotle assigns external goods to fortuitous happiness, the eutychia . Physical goods are partly also dependent on chance (e.g. under certain circumstances beauty), but partly also on one's own actions (e.g. through sport or nutrition). Emotional goods, on the other hand, can only be obtained from really good people. It all adds up to a bliss that Aristotle only briefly mentions in his work: that of the "perfectly happy person before and after his life". This person is then truly happy, or in other words: he is makarios .

Practical and theoretical way of life

Aristotle defines bliss as an activity of the soul according to perfect virtue ( arete ) in a full human life. However, certain dianoetic (intellectual) virtues cannot be attained in perfect form by everyone. Therefore, according to Aristotle, there are two basic ways in which a happy life is possible.

The most perfect bliss consists in the bios theoreticalikos , in the contemplative life. This includes scientific activity, the use of reason ( nous ) in the truths that are fundamental to gaining knowledge, and the acquisition of wisdom. The other virtues are also fully developed in this way of life, but are not the focus of action.

Since some people are by nature unsuitable for this way of life, because, according to Aristotle, in particular, they do not have a perfect form of reason and this is the only virtue that cannot be cultivated at all, there is a second way of life. The bios practikos , the practical life, is limited to the perfect use of reason in relation to contingent facts; H. on the use of cleverness and craftsmanship in conjunction with the ethical virtues.


The virtues are goods of the soul. According to the soul, Aristotle divides these into dianoetic virtues, which arise from teaching, and ethical virtues, which arise from habit . By analogy with mastering a musical instrument, virtues are acquired by practicing them.

Division of the soul

Diagram of the soul according to Aristotle
Diagram: Aristotle's theory of the soul (Nicomachean ethics)

Aristotle divides the soul into a specifically human, rational part (λόγον ἔχον) and an unreasonable part (ἂλογον). The unreasonable part of the soul (ἄλογον) consists of a vegetative part, which is composed of growth (αὔξησις) and nutrition (θρεπτικόν), but also houses the soul's striving ability (ὂρεξις). Up to this point, humans are on the same level as plants or animals, only heartbeat and metabolism as well as growth and reproduction are ensured. However, man is also a being gifted with reason and language (ζῷον λόγον ἔχον), his ability to strive (ὂρεξις) is connected to the rational part of the soul. That is why he cannot control the emotions such as fear, anger, pity and others in their emergence, but can control their further "processing".

The rational part, like the unreasonable part, has a share in striving and is the "place" of human reason (λόγος). This consists of two parts: The self-sufficient reason (ἐπιστημονικόν) and the applied reason, i.e. consideration (λογιστικόν) and advice (βουλευτικόν). Self-sufficient reason (ἐπιστημονικόν) is about science (ἐπιστήμη), philosophical wisdom (σοφία) and pure thinking, which - detached from everything - means complete spiritual self-referentiality (νοῦς). It relates to things that are unchangeable, to mathematics, the cosmos and metaphysics.

Applied reason is about practical craftsmanship (τέχνη), manufacturing skill (ποίησις) and cleverness (φρόνησις). It relates to practical life. The prudence (φρόνησις) plays a big role, because it affects the ability to strive again. While all previous virtues were dianoetic, i.e. they resulted directly from reason, the interplay of prudence (φρόνησις) and the ability to strive (ὂρεξις) give rise to ethical virtues, which through decision (προαίρεσις) and habituation (ἐθίζειν) become an attitude (ἕξις) can. Cleverness (φρόνησις) brings the affective extremes that arise in the striving faculty (ὂρεξις) into a virtuous center (μεσότης). For example, it ensures that people are neither too cowardly nor too foolhardy in their demeanor, neither too complacent nor too contentious. For Aristotle, to be virtuous does not mean to be free from affects, but to control one's own affects.

Ethical virtues

The ethical virtues refer to the passions and the actions that result from those passions. They consist in the taming and control of the irrational, instinctual part of the soul. Aristotle postulates an ethic of moderation. With the ethical virtues it is important to strike the right middle ( mesotes ) between excess and lack. This can best be illustrated by the example of bravery. Bravery moves between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness - neither cowardice is desirable, nor an exaggerated, irrational bravery, which Aristotle calls recklessness. The brave, on the other hand, keeps the right measure. The same is true for other ethical virtues such as large-mindedness , prudence, correct diet, etc.

In order to understand and understand the middle (mesotes), one should have experienced the irrational and instinctual goings-on of the human soul. In this way you get an understanding of the mesotes and understand that the excessive drift does not lead to anything. The prudence will set in when one has understood that excessive hustle and bustle as well as a complete withdrawal of the "I" leads to nothing, and realizes that only the middle between the two extremes (mesotes) counts as the correct measure.

The ethical virtues are valued by the people. They are therefore morally valuable. But something can only be of value that is not a spontaneous movement, but a permanent state. On the basis of this, Aristotle defines the ethical virtue as a fixed basic attitude (hexis) (see also habitus ).

Dianoetic virtues

According to Aristotle, the dianoetic virtues can be divided into two parts: those virtues that relate to contingent facts and those that relate to necessary facts. The former are craftsmanship ( techne ) , i.e. specific manufacturing knowledge (e.g. the skill of carpentry) and the far more important cleverness (phronesis) , which controls all ethical virtues and shows the correct application of these.

Science (episteme) , which means the ability of correct reasoning, reason ( nous ) and wisdom (sophia) refer to necessary facts . Reason is a kind of "intuitive understanding" or a knowledge of the "highest sentences" ( 1141a15 ff. ) From which science can then draw conclusions. Because reason as the only virtue cannot be acquired at all, but is given to everyone in different ways, its exercise is reserved for the fortuitously beneficiaries. Science, too, is dependent on a well-developed reason, and wisdom is the existence of reason and science. Therefore, life in the pure vision of truth (theoria) , the bios theoretikos , cannot be achieved by everyone (see section on the theoretical and practical way of life).

Pleasure and pain

The ethical virtues are closely related to pleasure and pain . Aristotle explains why people turn to bad things by saying that people seek pleasure and fear pain. It is important to influence and control this natural behavior through education for good. For this reason, he also justifies chastisements: "They are a kind of healing, and the healings are naturally carried out through the opposite."

But the practice of virtue is also associated with pleasure and pleasure. Aristotle differentiates between physical and spiritual pleasures based on his theory of the soul. The physical desires indicate basic human needs, but should not, as practiced by the hedonists , be served beyond what is reasonable in this context. Spiritual lusts can be combined with virtues, such as the pleasure of intellectual activity in the sense of science or, more generally, the pleasure of doing good. In this sense, a virtuous person will lead a lustful life.


"Justice in this sense is, however, excellence in perfect form ... in relation to the fellow citizen"

"Since the unjust person disregards the equal distribution of goods, his striving is naturally directed towards the possession of goods."

“And that is why justice is considered to be the highest among the virtues of character, and 'neither evening nor morning stars are so wonderful.' And the saying goes: 'In righteousness all privilege is decided.' "

“Justice is therefore a middle, admittedly not in the same way as the other virtues, but because it creates the middle. Injustice, on the other hand, creates extremes. "

"If, for example, money is distributed from public funds, it must take place according to the relationship that the services of the citizens have to one another"

See also
Theories of Justice # Aristotle
Philosophy of Law # Theories of Justice

Forms of State

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle also develops a ranking of forms of government known to him based on their virtue. Aristotle considers monarchy to be the best form of government , which he compares to the caring care of his father over his sons. It is followed by the aristocracy as the rule of the most virtuous and capable, which finds its counterpart in the rule of man over woman, which according to Aristotle is based on natural virtues. Finally, Aristotle praises a census- based constitution he calls timocracy and compares it to the friendship between older and younger brothers.

In Aristotle's system, the three virtuous forms of government are each contrasted with a “degeneracy”. The monarchy degenerates into tyranny when the autocratic ruler establishes a tyranny for his own benefit - like a father who treats his sons like slaves. The aristocracy turns into an oligarchy when a small number of not virtuous but greedy rulers monopolize power and divide the state goods among themselves. As an analogy, Aristotle tries to use the image of the rich heir daughter who, despite the alleged lack of the natural preference of masculinity, exercises violence because of wealth and power. The democracy holds Aristotle finally for the "least bad" degenerate form of government because it only gradually differs (through lower licensing restrictions on citizenship) from the timocracy. In Aristotle's parallelization of forms of government and family relationships, democracy appears as a house "where the master is absent", and consequently everyone has equal rights "and everyone does what he likes."

Text output



  • Sarah W. Broadie: Ethics with Aristotle . Oxford University Press, Oxford 1991.
  • Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics. Translated, introduced and commented by Dorothea Frede . Half volume 2: Commentary (= Aristotle: Works in German translation , Volume 6/2). De Gruyter, Berlin 2020, ISBN 978-3-534-27209-9
  • William Francis Ross Hardie : Aristotle's Ethical Theory . Oxford University Press, Oxford 1968. (second edition. 1980)
  • Magdalena Hoffmann: The standard of the good in Aristotle: Regularity in the indefinite: Aristotle's Nicomachean ethics as the subject of the particularism-generalism debate . Karl Alber, 2010, ISBN 978-3-495-48383-1 .
  • Otfried Höffe (Ed.): Nicomachean Ethics . Akademie, Berlin 1995, ISBN 3-05-002692-8 (interpret classics 2).
  • Otfried Höffe (Ed.): Aristoteles Lexicon (= Kröner's pocket edition . Volume 459). Kröner, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-520-45901-9 .
  • Christoph Horn, Christof Rapp (Hrsg.): Dictionary of ancient philosophy . Munich 2002, ISBN 3-406-47623-6 (explanations of numerous terms of ancient and also Aristotelian philosophy).
  • Richard Kraut: Aristotle on the Human Good . Princeton University Press, Princeton 1989 (especially on NE I, X).
  • Christof Rapp : Aristotle for an introduction . Junius, Hamburg 2004, ISBN 3-88506-346-8 (good German-language introduction to Aristotle with very good thematically structured bibliography for beginners).
  • Ursula Wolf : Nicomachean Ethics . Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2002, ISBN 3-534-14142-3 . ( Content ; PDF; 251 kB)

Web links

Text editions and translations

Secondary literature
Lecture by Claus Beisbart

supporting documents

  1. Otfried Höffe (Ed.): Aristoteles. The Nicomachean Ethics. Berlin 2010, p. 6.
  2. Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics. 1094a1 (translated by Franz Dirlmeier)
  3. Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, Chapter 12 (1160a – 1161a)