What Are the Nicomachean Ethics?

Nicomachean Ethics is one of the most significant works in Western philosophy and the foundation for virtue ethics.

Mar 21, 2024By Natalie Noland, BS Politics, Philosophy, and Economics


Often considered the cradle of Western civilization, Ancient Greece was home to many Western philosophical thinkers — and with great thinkers came great written works. While plenty of written works can be traced back to the time and region, from Plato’s many dialogues to the Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, few were as important as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a ten-book account that covers everything from morality and virtue to reason and well-being.


Aristotle Wrote Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle tutoring Alexander, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Source: Wikipedia


Nicomachean Ethics is a philosophical treatise written by Aristotle. Aristotle was a philosopher from the fourth century BCE who rose to prominence as a student of Plato’s at the Academy, though Aristotle eventually opened up his own school and even became the tutor for Alexander the Great. He was a prolific writer and explored many topics — from metaphysics to biology to virtue. Many of the fields Aristotle once worked in still today credit him with some of their findings. While he went on to leave a vast record of his beliefs, one of Aristotle’s most enduring works is Nicomachean Ethics


It Was Written Around 350 BCE

View of the Parthenon from the Propylea by John Bailey, via the British Museum


Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle’s most significant work. It was written around 350 BCE in Athens, where Aristotle studied and worked. At the time, Athens was the victim of political upheaval, often transitioning back and forth from democracy to oligarchy. This instability likely influenced Aristotle’s thoughts, and some of the views expressed in Nicomachean Ethics could be read as a reflection of society at the time. Also, since Nicomachean Ethics was the culmination of Aristotle’s ideas, it combined his own views with responses to the works of his predecessors — such as Socrates and Plato — and their influence is felt throughout the work. 


Aristotle’s Son Might Have Inspired Its Name

A Philosopher by Jusepe de Ribera. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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The term “ethics” is pretty self-explanatory, but what does Nicomachean mean? Directly translated, it implies a relation to some ancient Greek named Nicomachus. In the case of Nicomachean Ethics, the Nicomachus in question is likely Aristotle’s son. 


Not much is known about Aristotle’s son, but it was not uncommon for philosophers to name their works after others at the time. Plato was famous for naming his dialogues after those he featured in them or those that inspired them, creating works such as Parmenides, Phaedo, and Timaeus. While ​​Nicomachus does not appear in the Nicomachean Ethics, many scholars believe that Nicomachean Ethics is dedicated to him. However, others have theorized that Nichomachus perhaps edited the work — like Eudemus edited Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics — or that Nicomachus could actually refer to Aristotle’s father.


Aristotle Wrote It to Explore Ethical Theory

Nicomachean Ethics. Source: Rowland Book Collections


As the other part of the name Nicomachean Ethics suggests, Aristotle used the account to explore ethics. Like other philosophers, Aristotle spent his career trying to give reason to the meaning of life. He examined human nature and wrote about the ultimate goal in life, eudaimonia, often translated today as a type of happiness or personal fulfillment. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle also emphasized the importance of developing virtue, both morally and intellectually, as the way to reach eudaimonia. He discussed the central role of reason and the importance of friends, but ultimately, putting them in the context of how they can help with virtue and happiness. Although Aristotle mentions many different topics, they all come back to the role of virtue and how it can be used to achieve eudaimonia. 


It Introduced Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself” from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Source: The New York Public Library


One of the most important topics Aristotle introduces in Nicomachean Ethics is his doctrine of the mean. Unlike other ethical philosophers who promoted a series of rules and consequences, Aristotle believed ethical behavior existed by balancing extremes. He argued that virtue was found between the deficiency and excess of a character trait, and living in that in-between led to a good life. 


Take, for example, the character trait of courage. Courage is between cowardice (deficiency) and recklessness (excess). Although the exact spot on the spectrum might shift depending on circumstances, one must always be between the two. You are virtuous once you find the correct spot for all character traits (and experience eudaimonia). 


Nicomachean Ethics Was Influential Then and Still Is Today

The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509-1511. Source: Musei Vaticani


Aristotle is one of the most influential philosophers in Western philosophy, and that’s in no small part thanks to the enduring significance of his works — especially Nicomachean Ethics. Nicomachean Ethics is a foundational text for virtue ethics, and it was utilized in other Hellenistic schools of thought, like Stoicism and Epicureanism. Even now, Aristotle’s famed work continues to impact the field. Virtue ethics underwent a revival in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and scholars in fields from moral philosophy to professional ethics (such as business, medical, and environmental ethics) continue to look back at and debate Nicomachean Ethics to understand the world today.

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By Natalie NolandBS Politics, Philosophy, and EconomicsNatalie is a freelance writer from Rhode Island. She has a BS in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Northeastern University with a minor in Writing. Her academic interests include ancient philosophy, logic, and game theory. She enjoys reading, watching movies, and kayaking in her spare time.