Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics I.1-5

by Peter Saint-Andre


Here in the late stages of preparation for writing my book Complete Yourself: Aristotle on Human Fulfillment, I've started a close re-reading of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (to be followed by a similar reading of his Eudemian Ethics). Because it might prove useful both to myself and to others, I'll post notes on my readings as I go along, in a new series entitled "Walking with Aristotle".

In the first five chapters of Book I, Aristotle lays out some preliminary considerations for our journey with him.

First, what is the goal of our inquiry? It is to elucidate the highest good achievable through action, not merely in theory but also in practice so that we can become better human beings. And "everyone agrees" that this highest good is living well and acting well, which is the same thing as eudaimonia (commonly translated as "happiness", although I prefer "fulfillment").

Second, what level of precision should we expect from our inquiry? There is much disagreement and inconsistency about these matters (e.g., on its own wealth is a good thing, but depending on who has the money the result of great wealth could be a great evil). Thus the best we can do is to provide a rough outline of the highest good.

Third, in what direction will our journey proceed? We are travelling inductively from what's near and familiar to us toward the ultimate sources and principles of things, rather than deductively from the ultimate sources and principles toward what's near and familiar to us. Thus we'll judge theories based on the degree to which they accord with human actions and the human way of life, not judge human actions and the human way of life based on the degree to which they accord with some pre-existing theory.

Fourth, what kind of person is our ideal conversation partner? Someone who has a certain level of maturity (e.g., whose actions and commitments are guided by their best experiential understanding of human capacities and the highest good) and who cares to keep improving as a human being. Pointedly not someone who acts badly (e.g., who is pushed along by their every random feeling and impulse) and who needs to be convinced to become good, because the claims of wisdom have no hold on such a person.

Here Aristotle also introduces, almost by the way, a number of concepts that will loom large in our conversation with him (see my Aristotelian glossary for more about these terms):

He also briefly mentions four ways of life that the ancient Greeks traditionally considered and contrasted with each other: the lives of money-making, of pleasure and enjoyment, of honor and status through civic leadership, and of inquiry and contemplation.

We'll see how many of these ideas come together as we take this long walk with Aristotle.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)


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