😁Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle)

Why are we so unhappy? This is a question we have been struggling with for ages. Aristotle attempts to answer it in his seminal work, Nicomachean Ethics.

😁Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle)
Photo by Levi Meir Clancy / Unsplash

Why are we so unhappy?

In many places of the world, we have access to the most opportunities for enjoyable experiences ever. Planes, cars, and public transport systems can take us anywhere we please. Fried foods, exotic fruits, and new cooking methods make food taste better than ever before. The internet opens us up to any information we wish.

Interestingly, according to the World Happiness Report, which ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be, people living in the United States reported being less happy in 2018 than they were in 2008.


Instead of looking in the present, we will shine a light back in time to look at Ancient Wisdom mostly ignored today. Aristotle outlined all we need to attain Happiness in his seminal work, Nicomachean Ethics.

Ironically, the Ancient Greek Philosophers were on average happier than we are today. Aristotle believed Happiness was sustained through finding the Chief Good and through building a good moral character by pursuing virtue.

These qualities line the path for lifelong sustained Happiness rather than long periods of highs and lows like seen in Bipolar disorder.

I can’t guarantee reading this post will allow you to enter this state. I am simply recognizing the Ancient Greeks seemed to be much happier than we are now.

Even if you embody their wisdom, life is inherently cyclical: spring, summer, fall, and winter. Friends move away and family die. There will still be highs and lows.

Constantly striving for Happiness is in itself a reason for unhappiness. These are simply the principles which might give you sustained Happiness.

Good luck.

😁How Can We Be Happy?

Aristotle outlines four philosophies most people have toward living life.

  • A life of pleasure where people live to experience pleasure not to help others but merely for the pleasure in itself.
  • A life of power where people find meaning by making their way up on the societal ladder.
  • A life and honor where people find meaning building virtue and practicing honor.
  • A life of contemplation where people derive meaning from learning and contemplating for its own sake.

These four philosophies encompass most of humans aims no matter the era. Of course, some can be mixed and mashed, one example being, a life of honor and contemplation. The best philosophies make it easier to achieve the Chief Good.

Aristotle explains the Chief Good is the ultimate good on the planet. It’s above every other good in one key area.

  1. It lasts forever

Remember, Aristotle was looking for SUSTAINED Happiness, not a temporary fix. Using this definition we can measure up our four philosophies for the Chief Good.

  • A life of pleasure can’t be the Chief Good because it doesn’t last forever. Sometimes things that brought us pleasure at first stop down the line, like in addiction. In addition, it doesn’t take into account helping others as a principle aim.
  • A life of power can't be the Chief Good as it's too superficial. Power can be taken away. The Chief Good must be something which is our own.
  • A life of honor can't be the Chief Good either as someone who sleeps or is bedridden all day can still have honor and virtue but would certainly not be described as happy.
  • A life of contemplation is thus our best answer as the Chief Good is by definition final. You can always contemplate for its own sake, whether it be reading, writing, or thinking. Learning more about the world enlightens you on more things to love.

So, we are done then? The secret to Happiness is to lead a life of contemplation. Unfortunately, it's not that easy. A life of contemplation can still take many routes depending on the person who pursues it.

In Ancient Greece, A shipbuilder, for instance, might orient their contemplation toward building the best ship which has ever graced this Earth. A shop vendor might orient their contemplation on making the most amount of money possible.

The Best End

The End of a faculty is the final reason for its undertaking. Ends can differ even if the jobs are the same. For instance, two shipbuilders might both the apparent End of building a ship. One, however contemplates on how to build the best ship for the sake of it in itself. Their only motive is to hone their craft out of passion. The other, however, sees their faculty as a means to and End. They find no joy in discovering new methods of building better ships. They want to finish work so they can go to the pub and drink.

The first is a life of true contemplation. The second is a life of pleasure in disguise.

Clearly the Ends of jobs even the same ones are drastically different. Aristotle believed the Ends of faculties that spawn from Ends affecting the community as a whole are the ones most contributing toward the good of humankind.

By this logic, a faculty embodying the Chief Good would be a legislator: specifically, a legislator who contemplates the best way to pass laws which contribute to society as a whole.

Happiness changes definition

Even with this realization, Happiness will still change definition depending on the state of the person working the job. For some say it is one of those things which are palpable and apparent, as pleasure or wealth or honour. In fact sometimes one person gives a different account of it for when ill, he calls it health; when poor, wealth.

Well, this is getting ridiculous. We know sustained Happiness comes through pursuing a life of contemplation for it’s own sake. And the greatest of these lives comes from contemplating the Ends that affect the community as a whole. But even still Happiness can change based on the state of the person.

Aristotle gives us one last saving grace in defining the Excellences. The Excellences those things which you should pursue for their own sake with no view to anything else. They include things like honor, pleasure in good action, and intellect. Aristotle defines the Good of Man to be a "working of the soul in the way of Excellence."

Our next step is to define the Excellences.

🎯How Do We Change Ourselves to Pursue Excellence?

What is virtue?

Another word for the Excellences is virtue: the habit of exhibiting good principles through action. To be good, action is all that matters. It’s the classic do don’t tell. You can have the qualities of a good person but if you don't act upon those qualities then there is no inherent good in them.

Someone with no knowledge in grammar could accidently speak a perfect sentence. However, this wouldn't make them a grammarian. Similarly, someone can donate to charity once, but we wouldn’t possibly call them good

Good character is a habit.

A useless person is one who can't come to good principles themselves or even take them with the suggestion of another person.

Aristotle explains it's a misconception you must embody the quality you are building virtue for. The person described as brave isn't necessarily brave. By doing brave actions you will become brave. By doing just actions, you will become just.

Building virtue is an act of doing actions associated with a specific moral quality until you actually exhibit the quality at a fundamental level.

This is why laws are the largest contributor to the good of society. Laws make people good through habituation. As long as the laws of society promote virtuous actions, virtue will be built through repetition.

Is virtue Feelings, Capacities, or States?

We know virtue is the habit of exhibiting good principles through action. This still leaves a ton of possibilities for what virtue could be. Aristotle theorized virtue could be feelings, capacities, or states. Let’s take a look at each:

Feelings are emotions such as lust, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, hatred, longing, emulation, and compassion. Virtue can’t be feelings because we aren’t seen as bad based on the feelings we aren’t good or bad based on momentary TK

Capacities are the degree to which we are capable of feelings. Becoming angry and hitting someone after feeling anger for instance. It’s one thing to feel anger. It’s another thing to hit someone after feeling anger.

This is getting closer to virtue as someone with a low capacity for lust will be less likely to act with lust. However, Our faculties determine our capacity for feelings, and virtue is no more a capacity for feeling than it is a feeling itself. Rather, it is a disposition to behave in the right way.

Therefore it remains virtue must be a state.

States are the disposition to behave in the right manner and as a mean between extremes of deficiency and excess, which are vices. Confusing. Fair enough. Let’s make it clear by outlining the three levels of state.

There are three states in every case, two faulty either in the way of excess or defect, and one right, which is the mean state, of course, all are in a way opposed to one another. For instance, Courage is a mean state in respect of fear and boldness.

It's a mean state because there are times when we want to be bold and times when we should be fearful. We should of course fear poverty and disgrace but shouldn't fear things like stepping out of our comfort zone.

And so in viewing virtue is a mean state, but in reference to the Chief Good and to Excellence, it is the highest state possible.

✊What Can Be Attributed Toward Good Character?

Voluntary and Involuntary Action

Virtue is the habit of exhibiting good moral principles. Vice then, is the habit of exhibiting bad moral principles. But what if we do a moral action accidentally? Or a bad action accidently? Does this still count toward virtue or vice?

Actions can be either voluntary or involuntary. Virtue and vice are mainly concerned with voluntary: it's the only type of action attributable to someone's whim. We wouldn’t say someone who donated to charity accidentally has good moral character.

Even so, some involuntary actions are more worthy of vice than others. He splits involuntary action into two categories:

Compulsory: an action is, properly speaking, compulsory, when the origination is external to the agent, being such in it the agent contributes nothing. For instance, if you were ordered to commit a base act by a despot who had your parents or children in his power, and they were to be saved upon your compliance or die upon your refusal.

In such cases, there is room for a question of whether the actions are voluntary or involuntary. The truth is, such actions are of a mixed kind but are most like voluntary actions; for they are choice-worthy at the time when they are being done

Ignorance: an action done without knowledge or realization of the consequences that occur. There are of course cases in which ignorance is not enough to feign irresponsibility. Getting too drunk at a party for instance. Everyone knows beforehand that getting drunk will leave them less capable of careful decision-making. Therefore if anything bad happens, as a result, it’s the voluntary action of drinking to drunkenness that is judged.

This is further split into two more types:

Involuntary: actions spawned from ignorance where there is regret afterward.

Non-voluntary: actions spawned from ignorance where there is no regret afterward.

Clearly, it's not as cut and dry as saying virtue is concerned only with voluntary action. Sometimes an action done involuntarily can be seen as a vice. How do we know if an involuntary action is worthy of being looked down upon?

We know by Moral Choice.

🧑‍⚖️What is Moral Choice?

Moral Choice is our power to choose before undergoing an action. If we want to discover which things in our lives can be described to our moral goodness of character, we need to find out what in specific Moral Choice is. Let's first define what Moral Choice is not:

  • Voluntary action: Moral Choice is voluntary but they aren't coextensive as children and other animals share in voluntary action but not Moral Choice. We couldn't possibly label a one-year-old as evil because they break a piece of furniture on accident.
  • Wish: when we Wish for something we ask for a thing we don't have. For instance, we wish to be healthy when we are not. This means Wish has for its object an End. Moral Choice, however, seems to be those things within our power to influence.
  • Opinion: Opinion is thought to be unlimited in its range of objects and logically divided into true and false rather than good and bad as Moral Choice is. Moral choice is much more carefully analyzed as we choose such things which we pretty well know to be good but we form opinions respecting such as we do not know at all.


It seems to reason that Moral Choice could be Deliberation.

We deliberate over things we could have some power in. We deliberate over the means to Ends. No physician, for instance, deliberates whether he will cure, nor orator whether he will persuade, nor statesman whether he will produce a good constitution, nor in fact any man in any other function about his particular End.

We can even deliberate when we delegate to someone else because we have to decide if the person we are delegating to is the right one for the job. Therefore we must be slightly responsible for what they do.

Finally, we have a definition for Moral Choice. Moral Choice is grasping after something in our own power consequent upon deliberation. After we have deliberated we decide and then grasp by our Will in accordance with the result of our deliberation.

Happiness and virtue

This finally lets us fit virtue into our Happiness equation.

With the knowledge of Moral Choice we can say "Happiness is a working of the soul in the way of Excellence or virtue of a certain kind."

Pleasure comes to those who love justice when they do just acts. Therefore a virtuous life is inherently a pleasurable life as those who are virtuous derive pleasure from good acts.

As discussed before a life of contemplation is the only life we can pursue anywhere and everywhere.  Therefore the most sustainable path to Happiness comes from leading a life of contemplation in the working of Excellence of virtue.

But there are other pleasures that can come from sources other than virtue. How do we know if these pleasures contribute to sustained Happiness or take away from it?

🍫The Workings of Pleasure on Happiness:

Aristotle bashes the long-held belief that pleasure is purely evil. Nowadays it’s easy to see pleasure as inherently bad with the number of people in the world who spend their days watching television, playing video games, or shoveling food into their mouths.

Pleasure combined virtue is a good thing. A just man most certainly takes pleasure in doing just actions like the musical man takes pleasure in playing music.

The pleasure we derive from our work is crucial as if we enjoy our trade we will be more likely to perform it well during the working day and even outside of it.

The great thing about pleasure is it affects all people differently. Some people may absolutely despise a specific form of working whereas others are entranced by it. There are so many people in the world there is almost certainly someone who loves doing what you hate.

Self Control

Taking pleasure in things we should is not what is blameworthy. Everybody needs to take pleasure or we would become unemotional slabs of rock.

Taking pleasure while exercising self-control is what matters. The sign of a person high in self-control is he is in such virtue as to not be pained by the absence of something pleasant. They might like to have some chocolate after dinner but would not be in terrible pain if they opened the cupboard to realize there was no more chocolate left.

On the other hand, a man destitute of self-control will be pained more than he ought to at not obtaining that which is pleasant.

How ironic!

The more pleasure people consume their days with, the less pleasure they get out of them. Desert tastes so much better if you don't have it often compared to if you indulge yourself every single night.

Which is worse?

The pursuit of pleasure is more reproachable than the avoidance of pain.

Pleasure is an object of choice whereas pain is of avoidance making it more truly voluntary. It's easier to choose whether to indulge yourself in something you don't need than to avoid something that will hurt.

Therefore being destitute of self-control is worse than having little courage.

Regardless of if they bring pleasure or pain, we should always strive toward building and showing virtue.

Building virtue, in the beginning, is agonizing for most. It’s like getting over an addiction. Your body will resist when you stop reacting to your every whim. The path of building virtue, however, is the only sustainable way to achieve Happiness.

🧑‍🤝‍🧑Friendship and Happiness:

We know working of the soul toward the path of Excellence or virtue is the way to sustainable Happiness. But who do we show this virtue towards?

Friends and Friendship are deeply connected with virtue.

What does it mean to be friends?

Aristotle defines a true friend as “one who intends and does what is good (or what he believes to be good) to another for that other’s sake,” or “one who wishes his friend to be and to live for that friend’s own sake” (which is the feeling of mothers towards their children, and of friends who have come into collision). Another definition could be “one who lives with another and chooses the same objects,” or “one who sympathizes with his friend in his sorrows and in his joys.”

There are generally three philosophies to how people become friends:

Some people lay down resemblance causes people to become friends. This goes with the classic saying "birds of a feather fly together."

Others follow the maxim "two of a trade never agree." Heraclitus, for instance, maintained that “contrariety is expedient, and that the best agreement arises from things differing, and that all things come into being in the way of the principle of antagonism."

Of course, there is also a middle line in which people attract to those that are just similar enough to be recognizable but different enough to have big gaps in opinion.

The three types of friends:

  • Friends of utility: friends who are together for the advantage they accrue from being friends. Usually exists among the old and dissolves as soon as one friend is no longer able to provide the advantage one friend likes.
  • Friends of pleasure: friends who are together for fostering fun experiences and pleasure. Usually exists among the young causing these friendships to dissolve and change quickly as young people are still trying to figure out what brings them pleasure.
  • Friends of character: friends who love each other for the admiration of the others character. These friends want to do good to another simply for the sake of doing good. Ironically this gives the friendship utility as both friends can do good to one another but also gives pleasure as having such a friendship is inherently pleasurable. Thus, it's the best friendship.

What does it mean to be true friends?

Clearly, friends of character stay together for the longest. Friends formed from this nature have the ability to enter the highest state of being friends in what Aristotle calls Friendship.

Friendship is the state in which you have melded with the other person. You know each other so deeply and so intimately, you have become one. Their problems are your problems. Their emotions become your emotions.

It's a beautiful thing.

Of course, being in Friendship with another person is a tall order. The ancient proverb goes you are not true friends until you have "eaten the requisite quantity of salt together." They who speedily enact Friendship may wish to be friends but are not true friends yet.

They feel only to the other person what is known as Kindly Feeling: a general liking for the other person and a wish for something more.

This makes it impossible to be in Friendship with many people at once. As said before, to be true friends you must have melded yourself with the other person. Mutual pain and pleasure. They have become you.

This is simply not possible with more than two or three people at once. If you have one friend who is joyous and another who is going through an incredibly rough period of their life, you can't feel both emotions at the same time.

Choose who you enter Friendship with carefully: it's not something to be taken lightly.

When is it okay to get rid of a friend?

Of course, there will be times you no longer want to be friends with someone. There are a couple of times when it's okay.

  1. One case is if you enter into a Friendship with someone because you believed them to be one way but they turned out to be another. In this case, you aren't obligated to stay friends with them as you were never friends with the person they are now.
  2. In another case, one party might remain stagnant while the other builds virtue. It would be expected you would at least attempt to help your friend get to the same level of goodness. If this is not possible or proves to be too difficult, however, there is nothing wrong with breaking off the Friendship.

Does the Happy man need friends?

Some people say those who are blessed and independent have no need of friends, as they already have all that is good.

This notion, however, seems absurd when you remember friends are thought to be the highest of all external goods. To have true Happiness good moral character must combine with action. Therefore, a Happy person should have friends they can act out their good character on.

The Unfortunate Truth

Unfortunately, not everyone has access to the resources which will make this process easier. To exhibit liberality, one must have money to give away in the first place. To do noble actions friends, money, or political influence are at many times required.

Some things are a deficiency by pure merit of one's birth. One who is born ill-born, solitary, childless, or very ugly will have a much harder time coming to Happiness than a more fortunate soul.

Everyone has equal capabilities of coming to Happiness once they know the path of virtue. In fact, people in worse circumstances have more opportunities to show it. The issue comes with realizing the path in the first place. You reading this post right now are automatically ruled out of this group as you have access to the internet.

Despite this fact, Aristotle believed we shouldn't base our definitions of Happiness on the fortunes and misfortunes of man. Otherwise, we would have to constantly change if we believe they are happy or not.

If someone is working in the way of virtue, they are constituted to be happy.

Get the book for yourself on Amazon: Nicomachean Ethics.

Like to check out more book summaries? You might find Think Again by Adam Grant fascinating. It talks about why we should adopt the habit of rethinking into our lives.

And if you haven't checked out my Book Squad Playlist over on YouTube, it's right here.

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