Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in Historical View Essay

November 10, 2020 by Essay Writer

Nicomachean Ethics is one of the most significant works of the prominent ancient philosopher, dedicated to the analysis of the moral purposes and virtues of a man. It had become the canonical work in ethics and defined the further development of the Western philosophical tradition. Book 5 to be analyzed covers the issues of justice, fair equality, the nature of the equitable exchange, and the need for money as a means of ensuring equality.

While considering the historical background of the work, one should give due attention to the figure of Aristotle as a philosopher. For 20 years, Aristotle had been a philosopher in Plato’s Academy in Athens; he had supported Platonic idealism until he coined his views on the state, the nature, and sense of human life. In 343 B.C., Aristotle became the educator of the future legendary commander Alexander the Great.

In 335 B.C., he founded his educational center named Lyceum, which subsequently became a rival to his alma-mater Academy. Aristotle’s views on the state system were influenced by the current slave-holding reality; he considered slavery a natural and binding order and his concept of justice arose out of that understanding (Patterson, 2004). Nicomachean Ethics consists of ten books and represents the philosopher’s most developed views on ethics of around 330 B.C. Aristotle did not write it himself; his students later made up the book of his lectures. Sometimes it is assumed that the work is devoted either to Aristotle’s son Nicomachus or to his father who had the same name. Nicomachean Ethics was not just a philosopher’s abstract reflections but a work “explicitly practical in intent” (Furley, 2003, p. 110).

The first part of Book 5 contains Aristotle’s views on the concept of justice. For Aristotle, any exchange in the society should be guided by the principle of justice, which is close to the notion of retribution. The individual cases of justice can be seen in the equal treatment of the material goods. Aristotle divides justice into two types. Those are the distributive and the “rectification” justice. Distributive justice is based on the dignity and virtue of the people participating in the exchange. This kind of justice assumes the principle of proportional distribution that establishes a relation to the moral qualities of a man that have no economic value (Kraut, 2006).

The “rectification” justice, on the contrary, considers that the exchange is determined not by the value of a person but by the value of the exchanged goods. Thus, such justice has economic preconditions. Just means equal not because of the distributive moral proportionality; the objects are directly compared according to the arithmetical proportionality. Aristotle considers material inequality a contrary between material damage and benefit; justice is something in the middle between loss and benefit. However, Aristotle rejects the Pythagoreans’ idea of equality as a solely numerical concept. Some people are still more equal than others are. For instance, if the master hits the slave, the latter cannot hit the master back; otherwise, he will be punished.

In the exchange relations, justice is achieved through proportionality: “For it is by proportionate requital that the city holds together” (Aristotle, 2014, p. 1788). For the proportional exchange, Aristotle provides a scheme where a builder, a house, a shoemaker, and a shoe are the variables. The shoemaker and the builder may need for the results of their corresponding work. For them to make an exchange, some proportional equation should be established.

This equation is required due to the need. All the items exchanged must be measured by something uniform, but in reality, this uniform thing is the need: “Now this unit is in truth demand, which holds all things together” (Aristotle, 2014, p. 1788). Such different things as a shoe and a house are incomparable. Thus, for the exchange to take place there should exist some single measure of evaluation. In such a way, Aristotle comes up with the concept of money.

Money makes things comparable so that everything can be equated and measured by money. The exchange is impossible without the equation of values, as well as communication is impossible without exchange. The coin represents a physically fixed need. It has a value not by nature but due to the established law: ”This is why it has the name ‘money’ (nomisma) – because it exists not by nature but by law (nomos), and it is in our power to change it and make it useless” (Aristotle, 2014, p. 1788). Having developed such a concept of money, Aristotle was one of the first philosophers to establish the science of political economy.

Aristotle’s views, however, should be perceived in the context of the historical period of his life. As it was already mentioned, Aristotle was the thinker of the slavery era. His concept of justice is tailored to the slaveholding society. To his point of view, it is in the very essence of things that some people are born to obey and others to govern (Furley, 2003). Social justice is something in the middle between the governors and the slaves.

The ideal political system is the one where this middle element represents the majority. If too many people in society are poor and deprived of political rights, the state will encounter increased hostility and frequent rebellions. Social justice should be equally distributed so that no citizen is allowed to increase his political power over the appropriate measure (Furley, 2003).

As to Aristotle’s views on money, they also fall within the paradigm of his ideal society. He acknowledges the fact that the value of different things in its essence cannot be compared, so money should be used. But Aristotle doesn’t take into account that different things require different efforts and amount of labor. He sees the need of the person as the only exchange regulator (Kraut, 2006). For a slave society where the work of slaves is not considered a valuable thing, such a condition is justifiable. Aristotle sees equality not in the efforts made, but in the equality of needs of the free members of the slave society.

All things considered, it can be stated that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics depicts an elaborate system of views of the philosopher of the ancient slave society. There is no doubt that the established concept of ethical virtues was the peak of ancient philosophy. Aristotle was the first to delineate moral and social justice, which made for the further perception of a man as a “social animal”. Even though the Aristotelean ethical system had been designed for a slave society, its fundamentals were further applied to the development of modern democracy.


Aristotle. (2014). Complete works of Aristotle: The revised Oxford translation (J. Barnes, Ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Furley, D. (2003). Routledge history of philosophy: Aristotle to Augustine (Vol. II). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kraut, R. (2006). The Blackwell guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Madlen, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Patterson, C. (2004). CliffsNotes on Aristotle’s ethics. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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