ARISTOTLE (384-322 B.C.E.)

Aristotle's father was physician to Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, to whom Aristotle was assigned to tutor. Aristotle had a lot of free time and delved into the study of many subjects besides philosophy. One of his favorite fields was biology, and his preference for the life sciences led him to think in different ways than his teacher Plato, whose favorite field was mathematics.

The main difference between Plato and Aristotle is this: Plato thought ethics was an exact (theoretical) science; Aristotle thought precision was extremely difficult in a science such as ethics. Please note that "science" is being used in its ancient sense of knowledge in general.

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Here is the common picture of the world before the Ptolemaic system was introduced.  It is usually called the Three-Story Universe and is found in many ancient texts, including the Bible.  Click here for more details about this view.

We will discuss Aristotle's arguments for the existence of God  when we come to Aquinas, but here is my version of his argument about God's knowledge that might be controversial:

God is a perfect knower.

A perfect knower would know only perfect things.
Everything below the orbit of the moon is imperfect.
Therefore, God does not know anything below the level of the moon.

Aristotle's challenge for Plato and for later Christians who followed Plato is: How can a perfect being have any relations with an imperfect world?  How does an unchanging, eternal being relate to changing, finite beings?  Thomas Aquinas offered an  interesting solution that you will find in the Aquinas lecture notes.

ARISTOTLE'S THEORY OF PURPOSE (teleology) (Nichomachean Ethics, Book I, Sec. 1.)

Aristotle's "whole hog" teleology (telos = aim, purpose, goal, end). Aristotle believed and everyone and everything had a purpose. Everything has an "entelechy." The word literally means "having a telos inside." For example, he thought that rocks always fall to the ground because their entelechy compelled them to fall to the center of the earth. The human entelechy is rational activity in pursuit of the good.

Roman philosopher Cicero: "virtue. . . is nothing else than [rational] nature perfected and developed to its highest point." This is virtue in its widest meaning--as the purpose of being human--as opposed to specific virtues, which allow a person to attain human excellence in general. 


For both Plato and Aristotle, there is an intimate connection between ethics and politics, primarily because both of them had an "organic" view of reality and society. Such a view emphasizes the individual as an integral and subordinate part of the whole. Politics, for Aristotle, is the master science of the good. The end of the state is more important than the end of each individual. (Note: in this case, "end" means goal.) Humans are naturally social and political animals. Aristotle states that the collective goals of the state are more "god-like." 

Aristotle would disagree with current theories of liberal democracy, where the government remains neutral with regard to most behaviors and protects the right of individuals to pursue any number of life goals, including toleration of what some people would call vice. In this passage Aristotle makes his position against this "procedural" democracy very clear: "Any polis [state] which is truly so called, and is not merely one in name, must devote itself to the end of encouraging goodness. Otherwise, a political association sinks into a mere alliance, which only differs in space from other forms of alliance where the members live at a distance from one another. Otherwise, too, law becomes a mere covenant--or . . . 'a guarantor of men's rights against one another'--instead of being, as it should be, a rule of life such as will make the members of a polis good and just" (Politics bk. 3, chap. 9).

Aristotle rejects the modern liberal idea of autonomy (auto + nomos = lit. giving oneself one's own law).  For him the citizen does not belong to himself, "but rather that all belong to the city" (Politics bks. 7 & 8). Common religious rites, citizen messes, required military service, regulated ages for marriage and rules for child bearing, and mandatory exposure of deformed infants.

Ancient views of the relation of the citizen to the state continued even after the founding of the American republic.  The Anti-Federalist Agrippa (i.e., against the U. S. Constitution that was ratified) argued for the preservation of small, independent states where men (free propertied males were totally in charge, just as in ancient Greece) could keep "their blood pure" and preserve "their religion and morals."  The main goal of such small states was to promote "that manly virtue which is equally fitted for rendering them respectable in war and industrious in peace" (Letters of Agrippa, IX, The Anti-Federalist, ed. Storing, p. 245).  Many people in the southern states used such arguments to support the Confederate cause and some today use the same arguments to fight the Federal Government.


From ethics one can expect only as much precision as the subject matter allows. This is opposite to Plato's belief, because it does not allow for any mathematical exactness. Does this mean, then, that moral rules are "conventions," made up or created by humans? No, they are natural, but they are not like Plato's immutable forms. Aristotle avoids ethical relativism because of his confidence in human reason and experience to decide on general courses of action.

Plato approached ethical questions with a formal, abstract approach, analyzing each just as he would analyze a math problem. Aristotle, though, believed that because of all the human variables found in ethics (but not found in the formal sciences), mathematical precision was impossible.


The Greek word translated as "happiness" is eudaimonia, which literally means "having a good spirit." Aristotle decided the highest good, or goal, was happiness or "having a good soul." Aristotle made it clear that being happy is not simply being amused or being entertained, as happiness in our modern society is so often interpreted. Happiness and virtue are necessarily connected for Aristotle's ethics.

A better translation of eudaimonia would be "contentment": "complete well-being and contentment with one's state" (Immanuel Kant). It is not the gratification of pleasure, but "consciousness of virtue." Eudaimonia is an awareness of an idea and possession of virtue rather than a feeling or sensation. Think of the American Declaration of Independence. What do you think it really means by the "pursuit of happiness"?

In the early books of the Nicomachean Ethics, one could say that in addition to the two explicit criteria for eudaimonia--finality and self-sufficiency--there are also two implicit requirements: (1) one achieves it on one's own initiative and power--let us call this the "humanistic" criterion; and (2) eudaimonia is unique to human beings. The humanistic criterion is necessary to avoid the implication that the highest good is god-given, a suggestion that Aristotle appears to reject at 1099b15.

Our next task is to determine the highest good and to figure out how to attain it. Could we say that the highest good is honor, pleasure, reason, or virtue? No. For example, one sense of honor is that it is bestowed upon someone by other people. You probably know of movie stars who become famous, but don't seem very happy with their fame or honor. But think of another sense of honor as in the defense of one’s honor in the story of William Wallace, as portrayed in the movie Braveheart. Reflecting on this story may give you a different idea of the value of honor.

Aristotle believed, further, that only happiness is "final"; in other words, it is not a means to anything else. For example, maybe you want good grades in college because they are a means to a good job. A good job is a means to earn money to live on. So you see that each thing you want is a means to something else. Happiness, though, is not a means to anything else; and if you have happiness, you won't want anything else. It is, in a word, final. Another interesting point made by Bernard Gert is that one can regret pleasures that one used to have (for me having killed wild game), but one cannot regret happiness. (See B. Gert, Morality, p. 261).

Happiness then must be always remembered with pleasure. One will look back at one’s life with no regrets. (Just as with true love happiness is never having to say that you were sorry.) One will be content with what one has done and achieved. One will have the proper sense of one’s worth. (This is what Aristotle means by the virtue of pride or high-mindedness [megalopyschia].) One will have realized that one has chosen the right ends for the right reasons. (An impartial observer would have to see this life as successful, too?)  Notice that a happiness as a successful life necessitates the setting and achieving of some life goals as important external goods.

One then, over an entire life, could not say that "this was the happiest moment of my life." Rather one would say that "this is when I felt the greatest joy." Definitely not: "This is when I felt the greatest pleasure."  Try to analyze all the differences between happiness, joy, and pleasure.

We can deliberately aim at pleasure and get it if conditions are right, but the Zen Buddhists say that we cannot aim at happiness. It just happens: it just supervenes on the activities of the virtuous person.  This means that the causal relation between desires and their satisfactions is very different between the causes of happiness.   One it might be more appropriate to say that the virtues are the necessary conditions (not physical causes) of happiness.  Virtues do not cause happiness in the same way that the stimulation of sense organs causes pleasure.

Recall that Aristotle believed everything had a proper function or virtue (arete). For example, the virtue of a good knife is to be sharp. The virtue of a racehorse is to run fast. So, what then is the virtue of a human being? A race horse develops its running capacity; a person develops his or her rational soul. If a person does this, then she functions well in society and attains happiness.


The soul in general has three parts:

Nutritive Soul: All first trimester fetuses have a nutritive soul, as do all animals and plants. The main characteristic of the nutritive soul is to take in nutrition and grow. A being with only a nutritive soul cannot move, cannot perceive things, and cannot experience pain or pleasure.

Sensitive Soul: This occurs when the fetus starts to move--about the beginning of the second trimester. (For some odd and unsubstantiated reason, Aristotle thought that male fetuses moved at 40 days and poor little females did not until 80-90 days. The later period is in fact when fetuses begin to move in the womb.) Since animals can also move, they also have sensitive souls. Animals and human beings are have sense organs, another essential component of the sensitive soul. Sensitive souls can perceive the world about them, and they can experience pain and pleasure.

Rational Soul: Only human beings and God (gods) have rational souls; only they can be considered persons, which, following Aristotle, Euro-American religion, law, and morality have defined as rational beings. The rational soul develops naturally out of the fusion of the sensitive and nutritive souls. Christian philosophers changed this: the rational soul is a special creation of God in both human beings and angels. Angels would not have nutritive and sensitive souls since they don't have physical bodies. The Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas thought that the rational soul was infused by God late in pregnancy. He's most likely correct, because there is no high brain activity (like neocortical brain waves) until the third trimester. Study these slides from the fetal brain below.  The brain on the left essentially cannot think because there are very few connections between the brain cells and the neocortex has not yet developed into its six layers.

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Conclusion: The human function or virtue is to follow a rational principle, and the final human good is activity of the entire soul in accordance with reason.

There are three things in the soul which control human actions: sensation, desire, and reason. The first two reside in the sensitive soul and the latter in the rational soul. No moral action can originate in sensation; if it did, then animals would exhibit a moral sense. Moral action, then, must be a combination of intellect and character (i.e., development of right desires from the sensitive soul).

Later in his book Aristotle's three-part soul becomes a duality: The "irrational" (nutritive and the sensitive soul) and rational. We have no control, obviously, over the "nutritive" or involuntary functions of the body (for example, growing older; going gray). We do, however, have control over the "sensitive" soul; we can close our eyes so we can't see, plug our ears so we can't hear, etc. Of course sometimes our emotions get out of control: you can get so angry that you want to hit your friend, but if you are virtuous your reason will prevent you.

For more on the soul read this link.


1. Goods of the soul: virtues and eudaimonia

2. Goods of the body: good health, physique, good looks

3. External goods: wealth, political power, handsome wife and children, friends.

A "quick burst" of happiness is not enough. Happiness has to last a whole life in order to say you had "true" happiness. Besides the "internal good" of virtue, one also needs the goods of the body: good health, good physique, and good looks. You also need the "external" goods: friends, wealth, political power, good birth, and handsome children. The Greeks and most of the ancients believed that deformed children should be "exposed"--left to die in a remote place.

TWO TYPES OF VIRTUE (Bk. II, Sec. 1) Note: arete , usually rendered as "virtue," is sometimes translated as "excellence" in your book.

Intellectual Virtues: Understanding (nous), theoretical reason (sophia) and practical knowledge (phronesis).   Philosophy as the love (philo "to love") of wisdom is based on this intellectual virtue. It is a virtue to pursue knowledge in all things. The objects of intellectual virtue are invariable, while those of moral virtue are variable. Again one sees a contrast with Plato, who would say that moral and intellectual virtue are the same, because theoretical knowledge is virtue. There is no mean in intellectual virtues, i.e., it is always better to have more knowledge than less.  Click here for more on the intellectual virtues.

Moral Virtues: Liberality or generosity, temperance or self-control--ultimately learning the mean in all things nonintellectual. Unlike intellectual virtue, moral virtue deals with the emotions and irrational part of the soul. Practical knowledge is the "bridge" between intellectual and moral knowledge. Intellectual virtues do not describe character; they are not "habits," but innate (you are born with them) and are drawn out and perfected by certain disciplines such as logic, mathematics, and geometry. Moral virtues are habits that you have to learn (you don't just naturally have them).

Summary: Two Types of Virtue

Intellectual Virtues                                            Moral Virtue

Understanding, theoretical reason, practical reason                     Courage, moderation, justice, generosity, pride, loyalty, etc.

State of mind                                                                     State of character

More dependent on natural capacities (IQ)                            Learned by experience and emulation

Nature                                                                                 Nuture

Theoretical, rational soul only                                             Practical, all parts of the soul

Do not admit of a mean                                                     Do admit of a mean

Objects are invariable and immutable                                   Objects are variable as personal lives are.

What about the virtue of piety?                             


ARISTOTLE'S DOCTRINE OF THE MEAN (Bk. II, nearly all sections)

Did Aristotle get the idea of the mean from Plato? "But let him know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible, not only in this life, but in all that which is to come. For this is the way of happiness" (Republic 10.619).

The "mean" goes along with the idea of "moderation." It is not the same for each individual. The mean of each behavior is somewhere between the extremes. For example, the mean between starving yourself and being a real pig is the behavior of eating just enough, but because of physiology and psychology that "just enough" is different for every person. The mean, then, is not "absolute" (like the mean between 6 and 10 always being 8) but "relative." 


The mean is a rational calculation based on our individual needs, which of course will vary with every single person. Our needs, however, depends very much on objective conditions. There are, for example, factual reasons why an ordinary person cannot eat as much as Milo or cannot be courageous in the same way as a well-trained solider. Therefore, Aristotle is still an ethical objectivist, not subjectivist, like modern moral relativists, who believe that moral rules are a matter of opinion, consensus, or even individual desire (leading perhaps to moral anarchism). Modern moral relativists do not teach a mean based on objective standards but free action based on subjective wishes and desires.  


"Virtue is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle. . . ."

Some behaviors do not have a mean. For example, you can't halfway commit murder. Aristotle believed that one had to use an inner moral sense to avoid these vices, such as murder, adultery, robbery and lying.


In ethical subjectivism moral values are dependent on a will, human or divine, a willing subject. If the will is human, then one has the basis for modern moral relativism, in which humans together (e.g., a legislature) decide what is right and wrong. If the will is divine, then one has a divine command theory of ethics. In this view moral law is a freely chosen creation of God. In cases of infractions against this law, God can freely choose to mete out punishment or no punishment; or, as in the mystery religions and Christianity, God or his agent can decide to take the punishment upon himself. Those who violate the law are still sinners, but God can grant grace and forgiveness for wrong doings. It seems, then, that any doctrine of grace or forgiveness must have its basis in this form of ethical subjectivism.

The three great savior religions of the world-Christianity, the religion of Krishna, and Pure Land Buddhism--grew out of a reaction to various forms of ethical objectivism. Each of them developed doctrines of grace in which the savior infused his grace so that the effects of sin would be removed. People of course would still sin and be apart from God, but the final consequences (death or karmic rebirth) would be eliminated.

The great success and popularity of the savior religions tell us something significant. A great majority of people outside of the priestly or monastic class realized (either consciously or unconsciously) that they could not conform to the moral law without divine aid. The savior religions had a great liberating effect in that all people were equal before God. The savior religions had mass appeal, cutting, as they did, across all classes. As a result they had profound social and political impact.


In ethical objectivism moral values and virtues are intrinsic, not dependent on anything outside of them. In ethical objectivism moral law is uncreated and eternal and not subject to any will, divine or human. (One form of ethical objectivism is moral absolutism.) No will can lessen the consequence of acts against the law. There is no grace in ethical objectivism. In order to avoid punishment, one must perfect one's life and follow the law perfectly. The law of karma, continuous birth, death and rebirth until such moral perfection is reached, appears to be the ultimate expression of ethical objectivism. In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, for most people one lifetime is not enough for such moral perfection.

The "Law of Karma" holds that if people act in evil ways, that evil will eventually return to them. Conversely, if people do good deeds, then they will advance in spiritual progress. This is connected to reincarnation, where those with a "negative balance" in good deeds will come back in a lower position in society or the animal world.

Ethical subjectivism, as we have seen above, is the opposite of ethical objectivism. Subjectivism says that the moral values are dependent on a human or divine will, that they can change from one situation to another. Please note that a large majority of Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe in moral absolutism, which is a form of ethical objectivism. Also note that Buddhists may have a weaker definition of the law of karma. For some Buddhists it may simply mean that actions have consequences.