At the very beginning of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle starts from goodness and states one of his main ethical ideas, “Every art and inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good.”[footnoteRef:1] The good here refers to something that is morally right, or in other words, righteousness. The he distinguishes between two kinds of practical activities, one of them aims to themselves, and the other one aims to the products apart from the activities that produce them. For instance, the first one will be we seek for happiness because we want to be happy. And for the second one, we work not because we only want to work, that’s due to the money that we get from work. According to this logic, then we must have a highest good, and there must be a corresponding science that aims for this good. From Aristotle’s perspective, such science is political science. [1: Aristotle, and H. Rackham. The Nicomachean Ethics. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2003), 935.]
Following that, instead of continuing with the relationship between political science and highest good, Aristotle raises a very interesting argument saying that young adults are not proper to learn political science. Their lack of experience in life could lead them to take actions irrational. They may choose to just follow their heart regardless of the objective condition. From my perspective, I completely agree with his opinion. Even though political science has been changed over the two thousand years, it always requires tons of experience gained from action. The knowledge that we acquired from universities is no longer useful here. Also, preventing young people from learning political science is another way to protect them as they will not be exposed to the reality too early. Without enough knowledge as the foundation, too much experience related to politics could be harmful as young people are usually naïve and lack of judgment.
Let’s return back to highest good. So, what exactly is the highest good? Aristotle claims that happiness is the highest good. Then here comes another question, what is happiness? Different people will have different definitions for happiness, and every definition will be unique and specifically for that person. Just like the words saying, “We boil at different degrees.”[footnoteRef:2] Previously, I have only very shallow understanding of what happiness is. I thought happiness is the things that could bring me joy in my current life state, for example, the accomplishment of my current goal or current pleasant life condition. However, after reading and thinking about the definition given by Aristotle, I feels like my original thought was too plain and now I have a much deep understanding. The definition for happiness given by Aristotle is “Happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue.”[footnoteRef:3] Also, he believes that happiness should be self-sufficient, which is contradictory to most of traditional Chinese philosophers. Traditional Chinese philosophers believes that happiness is from outside, such as friends and relatives, and this is one of the reasons why traditional Chinese people believes having a large family is their happiness. They prefer to believe that happiness belongs more to a whole unit or a whole big family instead of for each individual. And more severely, they even think that it is reasonable to sacrifice individual’s happiness in order to achieve the unit’s happiness. [2: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Society and Solitude. (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2005), 222.] [3: Aristotle, and Rackham. The Nicomachean Ethics., 950.]
So, after reading Aristotle’s article, we can easily say that this traditional Chinese happiness is unveracious and unsustainable. That kind of happiness is just apparent happiness instead of true happiness. In order to achieve true happiness, we should be focusing on ourselves. Our whole journey as a human should be a journey that makes us become more mature step by step. We are building ourselves from scratch and we will gain happiness throughout the whole process.
From the Aristotle’s definition for happiness, we can see the close relationship between happiness and virtue. Then how are we going to define virtue? According to Aristotle’s definition, virtue is divided into two kinds, intellectual and moral. Intellectual is mainly obtained by teaching, while moral comes about as a result of habit. Then what is virtue? Virtue is state of characters instead of passions or faculties, such state of characters could make a man good and make him do his own work well. There is one major component that Aristotle emphasized in his virtue theory, which is mean. He states that “excess and defect are characters of vice, and the mean of virtue.” Therefore, we can say that mean is between two vice, and in order to achieve mean, we need to keep the balance between these two vices. Both excess and defect could be harmful for us, and only mean could be beneficial to make us good. For instance, reckless is the excess for brave, and it could result in super dangerous actions. Cowardice is the defect of brave, and it leads to inactive actions. We can see that both of them could lead to some improper consequences. Only by mean can we better take actions properly and make ourselves good enough for the future growth.
In ancient China, we have Confucianism raised by Confucius, and one of its main theory is also about mean. Its mean theory has been used as the principle of virtue for over two thousand years. These two definitions for mean are not exactly the same, but at least there are many similarities between them. “Being without inclination to either side is called ZHONG; admitting of no change is called YONG. By ZHONG is denoted the correct course to be pursued by all under heaven; by YONG is denoted the fixed principle regulating all under heaven.”[footnoteRef:4] ZHONGYONG here together stands for mean. From this definition, we can see that both of them are advocating for keeping the balance without inclination to either sides. Then here comes an interesting question, why does these two philosophers, one in east and one in west, both come up with such kind of theory? From my perspective, the reason is that both of them are born in war-ridden years, and the society is not stable as it is today. They are experiencing many meaningless wars that results in chaos, and their lives, along with the public’s lives, are in great danger because of this. Therefore, they would like to persuade the people to calm down and keep the balance between excess and defect in order to achieve stable again. [4: Confucius. The Doctrine of the Mean. (Kila, MT: Kessinger Pub., 2004), 127.]
However, one major issue that I find with mean is that it is really hard to judge what is mean and what is not. Also, mean may become different in different scenarios. For instance, the mean for studying a normal exam compared to the mean for studying an entrance exam will be definitely different. For the later one we need to spend more effort and the mean between rest and study should definitely be focused on the study side. While for normal exam, the focus may be on the rest side. Therefore, I think instead of a rigid balance, we should take a dynamic balance instead. Sometimes, we may be slightly inclined to one side of the mean, but we are still keeping the dynamic balance. Once such situation is ended, we can quickly return back to the original mean and keep doing this back and forth.
Another interesting phenomenon is that both of them agree that some kind of actions do not have a mean. Confucius raised the argument that “Hypocrite is the person who spoils the virtue.”[footnoteRef:5] The Hypocrite here refers to people who just do not know right from wrong. They cannot distinguish between good actions and evil actions, and all they want to do is to be nice to every person and every action. Confucius claims this is incorrect as people should at least be aware of wrong actions and also prevent people from taking that kind of actions. Certain bad actions just do not have a mean and you cannot just keep the balance without inclination. Similarly, Aristotle has similar opinion. He states that “not every action nor every passion admits of a mean.”[footnoteRef:6] For instance, murder, theft, and adultery, they are just bad and do not have a mean associate with it. Doing any of these actions is just wrong. This is an alert for people who just regards mean as doing nothing. We should at least have certain moral bottom line and avoid doing actions that is below this line. [5: Confucius, and Lau. The Analects Confucius. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979), 79.] [6: Aristotle, and Rackham. The Nicomachean Ethics., 959.]
Moreover, when talking about Aristotle, we can’t bypass Plato, who is the teacher of Aristotle. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an English philosopher, claims that “Every man is born an Aristotelian or a Platonist.”[footnoteRef:7] One of the reasons for this phrase is that Aristotelian can be seen as focusing on realism, and Platonist can be seen as focusing on idealism. And for each person, they should either be realist or idealist. This phrase raised by Coleridge is definitely too broad, but at least we can tell what the main difference between Platonist and Aristotelian is. From the image that we see in the class we can easily tell that Plato’s finger is pointing to the sky, while Aristotle is holding his hand and facing down. Such kind of gesture could partly illustrate their own theory. Plato believes that concepts had a universal form, an ideal form. However, Aristotle disagrees with this opinion and claims that universal forms were not necessarily attached to each object or concept, and that each instance of an object or a concept had to be analyzed on its own. [7: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Coleridge Derwent. (Notes on English Divines. London: E. Moxon, 1853), 153.]
For Confucius, I prefer to see him as a realism, and this may be the reason why his doctrine has so much similarities with Aristotle’s.
In summary, from Nicomachean Ethics we can get a clear idea about Aristotle’s theory about good and virtue. Meanwhile, we can see many similarities between Confucianism and Aristotelianism as they both advocate for mean and both of them are realism. Such kind of similarities also makes me believe that the peak for wisdom is the same, just their ways of presentation in different culture are different.
- Aristotle, and H. Rackham. The Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2003.
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, and Derwent Coleridge. Notes on English Divines. London: E. Moxon, 1853.
- Confucius, and D. C. Lau. The Analects Confucius. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979.
- Confucius. The Doctrine of the Mean. Kila, MT: Kessinger Pub., 2004.
- Emerson, R. W. Society and Solitude. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2005.