In the corpus of Aristotle's works, three treatises on ethics have a place, but two of these are now generally held to be by disciples. The third, the Nicomachean Ethics, remains for the most part unquestioned as to authenticity, but even in this book there is a portion (Books V, VI, and VII) which is held by many to have been incorporated from one of the works of disciples. I shall, however, ignore this controversial question, and treat the book as a whole and as Aristotle's.
The views of Aristotle on ethics represent, in the main, the prevailing opinions of educated and experienced men of his day. They are not, like Plato's, impregnated with mystical religion; nor do they countenance such unorthodox theories as are to be found in the Republic concerning property and the family. Those who neither fall below nor rise above the level of decent, well-behaved citizens will find in the Ethics a systematic account of the principles by which they hold that their conduct should be regulated. Those who demand anything more will be disappointed. The book appeals to the respectable middle-aged, and has been used by them, especially since the seventeenth century, to repress the ardours and enthusiasms of the young. But to a man with any depth of feeling it is likely to be repulsive.
The good, we are told, is happiness, which is an activity of the soul. Aristotle says that Plato was right in dividing the soul into two parts, one rational, the other irrational. The irrational part itself he divides into the vegetative (which is found even in plants) and the appetitive (which is found in all animals). The appetitive part may be in some degree rational, when the goods that it seeks are such as reason approves of. This is essential to the account of virtue, for reason alone, in Aristotle, is purely contemplative, and does not, without the help of appetite, lead to any practical activity.
There are two kinds of virtues, intellectual and moral, corresponding to the two parts of the soul. Intellectual virtues result from teaching, moral virtues from habit. It is the business of the legislator to make the citizens good by forming good habits. We become just by performing just acts, and similarly as regards other virtues. By being compelled to acquire good habits, we shall in time, Aristotle thinks, come to find pleasure in performing good actions. One is reminded of Hamlet's speech to his mother:
Assume a virtue if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel, yet in this
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery
That aptly is put on.
We now come to the famous doctrine of the golden mean. Every virtue is a mean between two extremes, each of which is a vice. This is proved by an examination of the various virtues. Courage is a mean between cowardice and rashness; liberality, between prodigality and meanness; proper pride, between vanity and humility; ready wit, between buffoonery and boorishness; modesty, between bashfulness and shamelessness. Some virtues do not seem to fit into this scheme; for instance, truthfulness. Aristotle says that this is a mean between boastfulness and mock-modesty (1108a), but this only applies to truthfulness about oneself. I do not see how truthfulness in any wider sense can be fitted into the scheme. There was once a mayor who had adopted Aristotle's doctrine; at the end of his term of office he made a speech saying that he had endeavoured to steer the narrow line between partiality on the one hand and impartiality on the other. The view of truthfulness as a mean seems scarcely less absurd.
Aristotle's opinions on moral questions are always such as were conventional in his day. On some points they differ from those of our time, chiefly where some form of aristocracy comes in. We think that human beings, at least in ethical theory, all have equal rights, and that justice involves equality; Aristotle thinks that justice involves, not equality, but right proportion, which is only sometimes equality (1131b).
The justice of a master or a father is a different thing from that of a citizen, for a son or slave is property, and there can be no injustice to one's own property (1134b). As regards slaves, however, there is a slight modification of this doctrine in connection with the question whether it is possible for a man to be a friend of his slave: 'There is nothing in common between the two parties; the slave is a living tool … Qua slave, then, one cannot be friends with him. But qua man one can; for there seems to be some justice between any man and any other who can share in a system of law or be a party to an agreement; therefore there can also be friendship with him in so far as he is a man' (1161b).
A father can repudiate his son if he is wicked, but a son cannot repudiate his father, because he owes him more than he can possibly repay, especially existence (1163b). In unequal relations, it is right, since everybody should be loved in proportion to his worth, that the inferior should love the superior more than the superior loves the inferior: wives, children, subjects, should have more love for husbands, parents, and monarchs than the latter have for them. In a good marriage, 'the man rules in accordance with his worth, and in those matters in which a man should rule, but the matters that befit a woman he hands over to her' (1160b). He should not rule in her province; still less should she rule in his, as sometimes happens when she is an heiress.
The best individual, as conceived by Aristotle, is a very different person from the Christian saint. He should have proper pride, and not underestimate his own merits. He should despise whoever deserves to be despised (1124b). The description of the proud or magnanimous man1 is very interesting as showing the difference between pagan and Christian ethics, and the sense in which Nietzsche was justified in regarding Christianity as a slave-morality.
The magnanimous man, since he deserves most, must be good, in the highest degree; for the better man always deserves more, and the best man most. Therefore the truly magnanimous man must be good. And greatness in every virtue would seem to be characteristic of the magnanimous man. And it would be most unbecoming for the magnanimous man to fly from danger, swinging his arms by his sides, or to wrong another; for to what end should he do disgraceful acts, he to whom nothing is great? … magnanimity, then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it is not found without them. Therefore it is hard to be truly magnanimous; for it is impossible without nobility and goodness of character. It is chiefly with honours and dishonours, then, that the magnanimous man is concerned; and at honours that are great and conferred by good men he will be moderately pleased, thinking that he is coming by his own or even less than his own; for there can be no honour that is worthy of perfect virtue, yet he will at any rate accept it since they have nothing greater to bestow on him; but honour from casual people and on trifling grounds he will utterly despise, since it is not this that he deserves, and dishonour too, since in his case it
cannot be just…. Power and wealth are desirable for the sake of honour; and to him for whom even honour is a little thing the others must be so too. Hence magnanimous men are thought to be disdainful … The magnanimous man does not run into trifling dangers, … but he will face great dangers, and when he is in danger he is unsparing of his life, knowing that there are conditions on which life is not worth having. And he is the sort of man to confer benefits, but he is ashamed of receiving them; for the one is the mark of a superior, the other of an inferior. And he is apt to confer greater benefits in return; for thus the original benefactor besides being repaid will incur a debt to him…. It is the mark of the magnanimous man to ask for nothing or scarcely anything, but to give help readily, and to be dignified towards people who enjoy a high position but unassuming towards those of the middle class; for it is a difficult and lofty thing to be superior to the former, but easy to be so to the latter, and a lofty bearing over the former is no mark of ill-breeding, but among humble people it is as vulgar as a display of strength against the weak…. He must also be open in his hate and in his love, for to conceal one's feelings, i.e. to care less for truth than for what people think, is a coward's part…. He is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar…. Nor is he given to admiration, for to him nothing is great…. Nor is he a gossip; for he will speak neither about himself nor about another, since he cares not to be praised nor for others to be blamed.... He is one who will possess beautiful and profitless things rather than profitable and useful ones…. Further, a slow step is thought proper to the magnanimous man, a deep voice, and a level utterance…. Such, then, is the magnanimous man; the man who falls short of him is unduly humble, and the man who goes beyond him is vain' (1123b–1125a).
One shudders to think what a vain man would be like.
Whatever may be thought of the magnanimous man, one thing is clear: there cannot be very many of him in a community. I do not mean merely in the general sense in which there are not likely to be many virtuous men, on the ground that virtue is difficult; what I mean is that the virtues of the magnanimous man largely depend upon his having an exceptional social position. Aristotle considers ethics a branch of politics, and it is not surprising, after his praise of pride, to find that he considers monarchy the best form of government, and aristocracy the next best. Monarchs and aristocrats can be 'magnanimous', but ordinary citizens would be laughable if they attempted to live up to such a pattern.
This brings up a question which is half ethical, half political. Can we regard as morally satisfactory a community which, by its essential constitution, confines the best things to a few, and requires the majority to be content with the second-best? Plato and Aristotle say yes, and Nietzsche agrees with them. Stoics, Christians, and democrats say no. But there are great differences in their ways of saying no. Stoics and early Christians consider that the greatest good is virtue, and that external circumstances cannot prevent a man from being virtuous; there is therefore no need to seek a just social system, since social injustice affects only unimportant matters. The democrat, on the contrary, usually holds that, at least so far as politics are concerned, the most important goods are power and property; he cannot, therefore, acquiesce in a social system which is unjust in these respects.
The Stoic-Christian view requires a conception of virtue very different from Aristotle's, since it must hold that virtue is as possible for the slave as for his master. Christian ethics disapproves of pride, which Aristotle thinks a virtue, and praises humility, which he thinks a vice. The intellectual virtues, which Plato and Aristotle value above all others, have to be thrust out of the list altogether, in order that the poor and humble may be able to be as virtuous as any one else. Pope Gregory the Great solemnly reproved a bishop for teaching grammar.
The Aristotelian view, that the highest virtue is for the few, is logically connected with the subordination of ethics to politics. If the aim is the good community rather than the good individual, it is possible that the good community may be one in which there is subordination. In an orchestra, the first violin is more important than the oboe, though both are necessary for the excellence of the whole. It is impossible to organize an orchestra on the principle of giving to each man what would be best for him as an isolated individual. The same sort of thing applies to the government of a large modern State, however democratic. A modern democracy—unlike those of antiquity—confers great power upon certain chosen individuals, Presidents or Prime Ministers, and must expect of them kinds of merit which are not expected of the ordinary citizen. When people are not thinking in terms of religion or political controversy, they are likely to hold that a good President is more to be honoured than a good bricklayer. In a democracy a President is not expected to be quite like Aristotle's magnanimous man, but still he is expected to be rather different from the average citizen, and to have certain merits connected with his station. These peculiar merits would perhaps not be considered 'ethical', but that is because we use this adjective in a narrower sense than that in which it is used by Aristotle.
As a result of Christian dogma, the distinction between moral and other merits has become much sharper than it was in Greek times. It is a merit in a man to be a great poet or composer or painter, but not a moral merit; we do not consider him the more virtuous for possessing such aptitudes, or the more likely to go to heaven. Moral merit is concerned solely with acts of will, i.e. with choosing rightly among possible courses of action.2 I am not to blame for not composing an opera, because I don't know how to do it. The orthodox view is that, wherever two courses of action are possible, conscience tells me which is right, and to choose the other is sin. Virtue consists mainly in the avoidance of sin, rather than in anything positive. There is no reason to expect an educated man to be morally better than an uneducated man, or a clever man than a stupid man. In this way, a number of merits of great social importance are shut out from the realm of ethics. The adjective 'unethical', in modern usage, has a much narrower range than the adjective 'undesirable'. It is undesirable to be feeble-minded, but not unethical.
Many modern philosophers, however, have not accepted this view of ethics. They have thought that one should first define the good, and then say that our actions ought to be such as tend to realize the good. This point of view is more like that of Aristotle, who holds that happiness is the good. The highest happiness, it is true, is only open to the philosopher, but to Aristotle that is no objection to the theory.
Ethical theories may be divided into two classes, according as they regard virtue as an end or a means. Aristotle, on the whole, takes the view that virtues are means to an end, namely happiness. 'The end, then, being what we wish for, the means what we deliberate about and choose, actions concerning means must be according to choice and voluntary. Now the exercise of the virtues is concerned with means' (1113b). But there is another sense of virtue in which it is included in the ends of action : 'Human good is activity of soul in accordance with virtue in a complete life' (1098a). I think he would say that the intellectual virtues are ends, but the practical virtues are only means. Christian moralists hold that, while the consequences of virtuous actions are in general good, they are not as good as the virtuous actions themselves, which are to be valued on their own account, and not on account of their effects. On the other hand, those who consider pleasure the good regard virtues solely as means. Any other definition of the good, except the definition as virtue, will have the same consequence, that virtues are means to goods other than themselves. On this question, Aristotle, as already said, agrees mainly, though not wholly, with those who think the first business of ethics is to define the good, and that virtue is to be defined as action tending to produce the good.
The relation of ethics to politics raises another ethical question of considerable importance. Granted that the good at which right action should aim is the good of the whole community, or, ultimately, of the whole human race, is this social good a sum of goods enjoyed by individuals, or is it
something belonging essentially to the whole, not to the parts? We may illustrate the problem by the analogy of the human body. Pleasures are largely associated with different parts of the body, but we consider them as belonging to a person as a whole; we may enjoy a pleasant smell, but we know that the nose alone could not enjoy it. Some contend that, in a closely organized community, there are, analogously, excellences belonging to the whole, but not to any part. If they are metaphysicians, they may hold, like Hegel, that whatever quality is good is an attribute of the universe as a whole; but they will generally add that it is less mistaken to attribute good to a State than to an individual. Logically, the view may be put as follows. We can attribute to a State various predicates that cannot be attributed to its separate members—that it is populous, extensive, powerful, etc. The view we are considering puts ethical predicates in this class, and says that they only derivatively belong to individuals. A man may belong to a populous State, or to a good State; but he, they say, is no more good than he is populous. This view, which has been widely held by German philosophers, is not Aristotle's, except possibly, in some degree, in his conception of justice.
A considerable part of the Ethics is occupied with the discussion of friendship, including all relations that involve affection. Perfect friendship is only possible between the good, and it is impossible to be friends with many people. One should not be friends with a person of higher station than one's own, unless he is also of higher virtue, which will justify the respect shown to him. We have seen that, in unequal relations, such as those of man and wife or father and son, the superior should be the more loved. It is impossible to be friends with God, because He cannot love us. Aristotle discusses whether a man can be a friend to himself, and decides that this is only possible if he is a good man; wicked men, he asserts, often hate themselves. The good man should love himself, but nobly (1169a). Friends are a comfort in misfortune, but one should not make them unhappy by seeking their sympathy, as is done by women and womanish men (1171b). It is not only in misfortune that friends are desirable, for the happy man needs friends with whom to share his happiness. 'No one would choose the whole world on condition of being alone, since man is a political creature and one whose nature is to live with others' (1169b). All that is said about friendship is sensible, but there is not a word that rises above common sense.
Aristotle again shows his good sense in the discussion of pleasure, which Plato had regarded somewhat ascetically. Pleasure, as Aristotle uses the word, is distinct from happiness, though there can be no happiness without pleasure. There are, he says, three views of pleasure: (1) that it is never good; (2) that some pleasure is good, but most is bad; (3) that pleasure is good, but not the best. He rejects the first of these on the ground that pain is certainly bad, and therefore pleasure must be good. He says, very justly, that it is nonsense to say a man can be happy on the rack: some degree of external good fortune is necessary for happiness. He also disposes of the view that all pleasures are bodily; all things have something divine, and therefore some capacity for higher pleasures. Good men have pleasure unless they are unfortunate, and God always enjoys a single and simple pleasure (1152–1154).
There is another discussion of pleasure, in a later part of the book, which is not wholly consistent with the above. Here it is argued that there are bad pleasures, which, however, are not pleasures to good people (1173b); that perhaps pleasures differ in kind (ibid.); and that pleasures are good or bad according as they are connected with good or bad activities (1175b). There are things that are valued more than pleasure; no one would be content to go through life with a child's intellect, even if it were pleasant to do so. Each animal has its proper pleasure, and the proper pleasure of man is connected with reason.
This leads on to the only doctrine in the book which is not mere common sense. Happiness lies in virtuous activity, and perfect happiness lies in the best activity, which is contemplative. Contemplation is preferable to war or politics or any other practical career, because it allows leisure, and leisure is essential to happiness. Practical virtue brings only a secondary kind of happiness; the supreme happiness is in the exercise of reason, for reason, more than anything else, is man. Man cannot be wholly contemplative, but in so far as he is so he shares in the divine life. 'The activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative.' Of all human beings, the philosopher is the most godlike in his activity, and therefore the happiest and best:
He who exercises his reason and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state of mind and most dear to the gods. For if the gods have any care for human affairs, as they are thought to have, it would be reasonable both that they should delight in that which was best and most akin to them (i.e. reason) and that they should reward those who love and honour this most, as caring for the things that are dear to them and acting both rightly and nobly. And that all these attributes belong most of all to the philosopher is manifest. He, therefore, is the dearest to the gods. And he who is that will presumably be also the happiest; so that in this way too the philosopher will more than any other be happy (1179a).
This passage is virtually the peroration of the Ethics; the few paragraphs that follow are concerned with the transition to politics.
Let us now try to decide what we are to think of the merits and demerits of the Ethics. Unlike many other subjects treated by Greek philosophers, ethics has not made any definite advances, in the sense of ascertained discoveries; nothing in ethics is known in a scientific sense. There is therefore no reason why an ancient treatise on it should be in any respect inferior to a modern one. When Aristotle talks about astronomy, we can say definitely that he is wrong; but when he talks about ethics we cannot say, in the same sense, either that he is wrong or that he is right. Broadly speaking, there are three questions that we can ask about the ethics of Aristotle, or of any other philosopher: (1) Is it internally self-consistent? (2) Is it consistent with the remainder of the author's views? (3) Does it give answers to ethical problems that are consonant to our own ethical feelings? If the answer to either the first or second question is in the negative, the philosopher in question has been guilty of some intellectual error. But if the answer to the third question is in the negative, we have no right to say that he is mistaken; we have only the right to say that we do not like him.
Let us examine these three questions in turn, as regards the ethical theory set forth in the Nicomachean Ethics.
(1) On the whole, the book is self-consistent, except in a few not very important respects. The doctrine that the good is happiness, and that happiness consists in successful activity, is well worked out. The doctrine that every virtue is a mean between two extremes, though very ingeniously developed, is less successful, since it does not apply to intellectual contemplation, which, we are told, is the best of all activities. It can, however, be maintained that the doctrine of the mean is only intended to apply to the practical virtues, not to those of the intellect. Perhaps, to take another point, the position of the legislator is somewhat ambiguous. He is to cause children and young people to acquire the habit of performing good actions, which will, in the end, lead them to find pleasure in virtue, and to act virtuously without the need of legal compulsion. It is obvious that the legislator might equally well cause the young to acquire bad habits; if this is to be avoided, he must have all the wisdom of a Platonic guardian; and if it is not avoided, the argument that a virtuous life is pleasant will fail. This problem, however, belongs perhaps more to politics than to ethics.
(2) Aristotle's ethics is, at all points, consistent with his metaphysics. Indeed, his metaphysical theories are themselves the expression of an ethical optimism. He believes in the scientific importance of final causes, and this implies the belief that purpose governs the course of development in the universe. He thinks that changes are, in the main, such as embody an increase of organization or 'form', and at bottom virtuous actions are those that favour this tendency. It is true that a great deal of his practical ethics is not particularly philosophical, but merely the result of observation of human affairs; but this part of his doctrine, though it may be independent of his metaphysics, is not inconsistent with it.
(3) When we come to compare Aristotle's ethical tastes with our own, we find, in the first place, as already noted, an acceptance of inequality which is repugnant to much modern sentiment. Not only is there no objection to slavery, or to the superiority of husbands and fathers over wives and children, but it is held that what is best is essentially only for the few—magnanimous men and philosophers. Most men, it would seem to follow, are mainly means for the production of a few rulers and sages. Kant maintained that every human being is an end in himself, and this may be taken as an expression of the view introduced by Christianity. There is, however, a logical difficulty in Kant's view, since it gives no means of reaching a decision when two men's interests clash. If each is an end in himself, how are we to arrive at a principle for determining which shall give way? Such a principle must have to do with the community rather than with the individual. In the broadest sense of the word, it will have to be a principle of 'justice'. Bentham and the utilitarians interpret 'justice' as 'equality': when two men's interests clash, the right course is that which produces the greatest total of happiness, regardless of which of the two enjoys it, or how it is shared among them. If more is given to the better man than to the worse, that is because, in the long run, the general happiness is increased by rewarding virtue and punishing vice, not because of an ultimate ethical doctrine that the good deserve more than the bad. 'Justice', in this view, consists in considering only the amount of happiness involved, without favour to one individual or class as against another. Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, had a different conception of justice, and it is one which is still widely prevalent. They thought—originally on grounds derived from religion—that each thing or person had its or his proper sphere, to overstep which is 'unjust'. Some men, in virtue of their character and aptitudes, have a wider sphere than others, and there is no injustice if they enjoy a greater share of happiness. This view is taken for granted in Aristotle, but its basis in primitive religion, which is evident in the earliest philosophers, is no longer apparent in his writings.
There is in Aristotle an almost complete absence of what may be called benevolence or philanthropy. The sufferings of mankind, in so far as he is aware of them, do not move him emotionally; he holds them, intellectually, to be an evil, but there is no evidence that they cause him unhappiness except when the sufferers happen to be his friends.
More generally, there is an emotional poverty in the Ethics, which is not found in the earlier philosophers. There is something unduly smug and comfortable about Aristotle's speculations on human affairs; everything that makes men feel a passionate interest in each other seems to be forgotten. Even his account of friendship is tepid. He shows no sign of having had any of those experiences which make it difficult to preserve sanity; all the more profound aspects of the moral life are apparently unknown to him. He leaves out, one may say, the whole sphere of human experience with which religion is concerned. What he has to say is what will be useful to comfortable men of weak passions; but he has nothing to say to those who are possessed by a god or a devil, or whom outward misfortune drives to despair. For these reasons, in my judgment, his Ethics, in spite of its fame, is lacking in intrinsic importance.