NICOMACHEAN ETHICS, BOOK 1, CHAPTERS 1-4

BOOK 1, CHAPTER 1
The good is that at which all things, every art and every inquiry, aim.  Some ends are activities, and some are products of activities.  When the ends are products, they are better by nature than the activities.  There are many activities, so there are many ends.  But where some ends are subordinate to others, such as the end of pike-making to the end of war–since we make pikes in order to make war–the master end is preferred to the subordinate end.  This is because it is for the former that the latter is pursued.  So we really undertake pike-making only incidentally to make pikes, but really to make war.

BOOK 1, CHAPTER 2
If there is some end for the things that we do that we do for its sake (“everything else being desired for the sake of this”), like the making of pikes for the sake of making war, and we do not really do everything we do for the sake of something else but really for the sake of one thing, this is the chief good.  (So, if we do everything we do in order to prepare for war (making pikes, making axes, etc.), this is a good, but if we make war for something else, and this something else is not done for the sake of anything else, then we really make war for the sake of this something else, and this something else is the chief good.)  “We must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and which of the sciences or capacities is its object.”  This object, if it exists, belongs to the most authoritative art.  The art of politics legislates finally what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, and so this end must include all other ends, e.g. the ends of strategy, economics, rhetoric.  And since the end of action is the good, then the end of politics must be the good for man.

Yet, even when the end of a single man and the state are the same, “that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete both to attain and preserve, for though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states.”

COMMENTARY: The political art, then, is best applied to the state; this is politics as such.  The political art applied to the individual man is ethics, and is subsumed under politics.  The good of man, i.e. the ethical life, is of the greatest concern, but the good of all men, i.e. the political life, is even greater.  But the greater importance of political art, which concerns the good of the many, is dependent on the lesser importance of ethics, which concerns the good of the individual.

BOOK 1, CHAPTER 3
Not all subjects admit the same degree of clarity; we should be content if our discussion has as much clearness as the subject of politics admits of.  Just actions, the object of political knowledge, exhibit variety and fluctuations across different kinds of societies.  We should think then that they are a matter of convention, rather than nature.  Goods also exhibit a similar fluctuation, because some goods bring harm to many people–e.g. wealth in some situations, courage in others.  Because of this variety, we should be content in speaking of this subject in outline, as being for the most part true in most cases.  And our statements should be received with this reservation.  “It is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician demonstrative proofs.”

Each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge.”  Hence, just as a man who has never looked at the stars and knows nothing about them would not be a good hearer of lectures on astronomy, so too the young man who has little experience in life is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science.  The knowledge of this text is not, then, intended for those who do not have any experience of good living, but it is very useful for those who do to understand more about good living.

BOOK 1, CHAPTER 4
What is it that political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods attainable by action?  “Verbally (in logos) there is very general agreement”: happiness.  But what happiness is to the many, and to the wise, is something different.  The many think the cause of it is obvious: pleasure, or weath, or honor.  But these disagree with one another, and they say different things.  Some think there is one thing that underlies all good things, i.e. Plato.  These are the most prevalent and reasonable opinions, and so Aristotle limits himself to these.

Aristotle must begin with what is familiar to reach the first principle, and that is why Aristotle begins with the various opinions first.  Anyone reading this text, therefore, must be familiar with what is good, or they will not be able to understand the discussion; therefore anyone who is to understand the text must have a good upbringing.  The man who has been brought up well can easily understand what is familiar, i.e. what are the starting points to a discussion of the good, the superficial appearance that leads us to a deeper principle.  Aristotle quotes Hesiod,

“For best is he who knows all things himself;
Good, he that harkens when men counsel right;
But he who neither knows, nor lays to heart
Another’s wisdom, is a useless wight.”

COMMENTARY: Does this point of view condemn Aristotle to suggesting that it is only in virtue of a non-rational substratum, i.e. behavior, that one can know what is noble or not noble? Is knowledge of what is noble, therefore, ultimately reducible to something that is not rational? And if knowledge of what is noble is not rational, then do we have any foundation for thinking that there is anything rational about nobility? I will address these questions later on.

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