“Ethics Book I” by Aristotle (Notes)

"...Cop didn't see it, I didn't do it..."
“…Cop didn’t see it, I didn’t do it…”
1. Everything and every activity has a point to it. The purpose of building a ship is to have built a ship. But this purpose has purposes beyond it. Having a ship built has military purposes as well as fishing purposes or trade purposes. There’s almost nothing around that stands alone. The expansion of knowledge in one domain will probably lead to expansion in others.
2. There are things we choose to do for their own sake, not just for the results. These are the highest types of good and we should do all we can to make sure that we learn all we can about them and expand what’s known about them. Not only are they good in and of themselves, they’re good for other things too. Politics seems to be one of these things because its goal is the welfare of the city, which is also the welfare of the citizens of the city.
3. It’s hard to say what is good and just since we all have a different opinion of that. It’s easier to use convention as a guiding principle rather than specifics. Education is the key. You can’t really know something until you’ve studied it. That’s true for everything. Young people probably aren’t the best judges of what is good and just because they either haven’t started or haven’t finished their education. But an old person isn’t necessarily wiser because there are plenty of old fools. The judge has to be experience, learned and wise.
4. We’ve decided that politics is the study of the highest of all goods in humanity. Most wise men say that the purpose of life is happiness. We all have a general idea of what happiness is but it varies from person to person. The overall goal of a sick person is to get well, just as the goal of a poor person is to be rich. Those who understand their own ignorance will admit that the idea of what happiness really is beyond their grasp. Even approaching this end goal of happiness is a very good starting point to getting there.
5. So many people have different goals based on the type of lives they lead. The most basic form (vulgar) is based on physical pleasure. People focus on acquisition will look to become rich. Those in a political frame of mind will look for honor. Those focused on the moral side of life will look for virtue. The contemplative life will try to get insight and understanding of life itself.
6. There isn’t really a universal idea of good because “good” means so many things in different areas. We could think about “good” as the thing for whose sake we do things. But is there just one? Or many? If there’s only one, then that’s the thing we should be aiming for. If there are many, then we should be going for the most important and most final of all them – that is, the one most for its own sake than the others. Such things are extremely rare. Even our own areas of expertise tend to have some sort of purpose beyond its own self.
7. If we look at particular areas and ask what the good of it is – e.g. medicine’s good is health, architecture is a house, etc. – the goods of the areas are real and achievable through action. If there’s more than one, there is more than one achievement done by one or more actions. Not all ends are final – some are merely intermediary – but there will be one goal in the end. The intermediary goal is never the goal for its own purpose. End goals are for their own purpose. That makes end goals more desirable to achieve but that does not meant intermediary goals are not necessary. Even some of the higher goals we’ve discussed earlier (pleasure, honor, understanding, wealth, etc.) are ultimately just intermediary goals to the real ultimate goal – happiness. They are just the paths that people have to take according to their own personal penchant.
Happiness seems like a platitude that needs more explanation to have any real meaning. The good of man, just as things’ goods are in their functions, is in his function. A man is a conglomeration of functions because we have eyes and ears all of which have functions for some purpose of their own – sight and hearing. The function of a man is having senses and having rational thought. The body is to receive input and carry out action and the soul is there to make sense of the input and instruct the body to carry out the activity – sense and living according to reason is the function of a human because it is the combination of these that are unique to humans. The best activity is one of virtue. Therefore, the human good is the function or activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. Human activity and the various parts of the body and soul must be subordinated to this good.
8. In order to back any of that up, you’ve got to test it. You can divide good things up into 3 categories: 1- external goods, 2- bodily goods, 3- goods relating to the soul. The goods of the soul are of the highest value because the others are not capable of providing happiness alone. This goes along with the previous assumption that happiness is an activity of the soul. A happy man is a man who leads a good life which also coincides with our definition of happiness being a good life and in a state of well-being. Things we generally look for in happiness – virtue, practical and theoretical wisdom, prosperity – we include in our definition of it. The way our definition is set up, we can say happiness is a virtue or happiness is in conformity with virtue. Either way, that involves the activity of the soul. Activity is important because the use of something fulfills its purpose. An idle soul is useless because it does no good. The more we focus on the highest form of good, the more virtuous we will be and the less our souls will be idle. You do need some sort of external good to achieve the highest level of happiness. You need a good upbringing, good children, good health, etc. otherwise your attention will be diverted from the ultimate goal of the highest form of happiness.
9. Can you get happiness from learning or discipline, or is it given to you by the gods? If anything comes to humans from the gods, it must be the ultimate of good, happiness. If happiness is divine, then you must be able to get it from learning and training. Happiness is the best of anything but it must be attainable from one’s own efforts. Happiness depends on being excellence. If you can share your excellence with others, you can share your happiness.
If happiness is the good of man and an activity of the soul in a virtuous manner, it can only be achieved by a man living in a city. This is because politics is the study of bringing about the well-being for many people at once, which is higher than the well-being for just one. A man who behaves virtuously toward others is more virtuous than the man who is just virtuous for his own sake. Animals can’t truly be happy because they are unable to do moral or rational activities. Children can’t be either because they are too young to understand the idea behind reason or morality. Once they show signs of understanding, we can say they are happy. It’s also important to remember that happiness depends on time – happiness for an instant isn’t really happiness, just as a man who lived a mostly happy life but died unhappily will probably not be considered unhappy.
10. Because no living man’s life is over, it doesn’t really make sense to call him happy because there’s always a chance things could go badly for him from here on out. It’s strange because we tend to think of happiness and virtue as static but things can change so quickly in our lives that we can’t really think about them as such. But you have to think about a virtuous man as virtuous under all sorts of circumstances – good and bad. He’ll be able to make the best of a shitty situation and appreciate the good times too. The real test of one’s virtue is going through the whole life being tested.
11. Virtue cannot be passed down. How many good men do you know who have had shitty children? How many kids with bad families end up doing all right for themselves? Your family and friends can have an effect on your happiness but not really after one’s death. Their virtue or lack of virtue can only affect your happiness so long as you are weak and need posthumous honor’s for your family to remain happy.
12. Should happiness be praised or honored? Praise should really only be given to absolutely good things – things that don’t have defects. Happiness and virtue, since we consider them to be divine and perfect, are absolutely praiseworthy.
13. What is the nature of happiness? We’ll need to know in order to recognize it and then try to culture it in ourselves and our society. Since we’ve decided that it is the excellence of the human soul, the rulers of a state will have to know the inner workings of the soul.
The soul has two parts: 1- the rational, 2- the irrational. It’s unimportant if these are physically separate from each other. The irrational part has two parts of its own a- the part that grows just like a plant does (unimportant for this exercise). b- the part of appetites and desires. This must be controlled by the rational side of the soul. The rational side includes intellect (wisdom, intelligence, prudence) and morals (generosity, liberty, temperance, self-control). When the irrational side of our soul is under control and made to act in accordance with the rational is when we get our best results.
Dividing the soul up like this allows us to recognize the parts of the human and their functions. It also allows us to learn how to use the body and the soul in order to learn how to achieve happiness.

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