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Ancient History Sourcebook:
from The Nicomachean Ethics, c. 340 BCE

Book I:

In view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy. To judge from the lives that men lead, most men, and men of the most vulgar type, seem (not without some ground) to identify the good, or happiness, with pleasure; which is the reason why they love the life of enjoyment. For there are, we may say, three prominent types of life---that just mentioned, the political, and thirdly the contemplative life. The answer to the question we are asking is plain: 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. 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 will presumably be also the happiest; so that in this way too the philosopher will more than any other be happy.

Now some think that we are made good by nature, others by habituation, others by teaching. But it is difficult to get from youth up a right training for virtue if one has not been brought up under right laws; for to live temperately and hardily is not pleasant to most people, especially when they are young. For this reason their nurture and occupations should be fixed by law; for they will not be painful when they have become customary. But it is surely not enough that when they are young they should get the right nurture and attention; since they must, even when they are grown up, practice and be habituated to them, we shall need laws for this as well, and generally speaking to cover the whole of life; for most people obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than the sense of what is noble.

If as we have said, the man who is to be good must be well trained and habituated, and go on to spend his time in worthy occupations and neither willingly nor unwillingly do bad actions, and if this can be brought about if men live in accordance with a sort of reason and right order, provided this has force---if this be so, the paternal command indeed has not the required force or compulsive power (nor in general has the command of one man, unless he be a king or something similar), but the law has compulsive power, while it is at the same time a rule proceeding from a sort of practical wisdom and reason. And while people hate men who oppose their impulses, even if they oppose them rightly, the law in its ordaining of what is good is not burdensome. Now it is best that there should be a public and proper care for such matters. It would seem from what has been said that he can do this better if he makes himself capable of legislating, and for this he needs a knowledge of Politics.


From: Thatcher, ed., Vol. II: The Greek World, pp. 364-382; The Politics of Aristotle, trans. Benjamin Jowett, (New York: Colonial Press, 1900)

Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg has modernized the text.

This text is part of the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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