Aristotle was born in 384 BCE at Stagirus, a Greek colony on the coast of Thrace. His father Nichomachus was court physician to the King of Macedonia, and Aristotle would maintain a long association with the Macedonian Court, including instructing the young Alexander the Great later in life.
At age 17, Aristotle was sent to Athens to complete his education and he joined the famous Academy and began studying under Plato; a relationship that would last more than twenty years. Aristotle soon began to lecture on his own account, especially on the subject of rhetoric. After Plato’s death in 347, it was assumed the Academy’s pre-eminent teacher would assume the leadership of the school, but Aristotle’s divergence from Plato's teaching meant Plato's nephew Speusippus was chosen instead. Aristotle left Athens for Mysia then Mytilene and finally Macedon to begin teaching the 13 year old Alexander.
Upon the death of King Philip of Macedon, Alexander succeeded to the kingship and Aristotle returned to Athens. He set up his own school called the Lyceum. For the next 13 years he devoted his energies to teaching and composing his philosophical treatises. When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE., the pro-Macedonian government in Athens was overthrown, and many people linked to the old regime, most notably Aristotle, were persecuted. Aristotle fled to Chalcis in Euboea but died in 322 BCE.
The Nicomachean Ethics
The Nicomachean Ethics, is Aristotle’s treatise on virtue and moral character. The ten books which comprise it are based on notes from his lectures at the Lyceum and were probably assembled by Aristotle's son, Nicomachus. This perhaps explains the choppy nature of the prose as the books are essentially cobbled together notes for lectures rather than a coherently constructed book.
Many commentators emphasize the differences between Plato and Aristotle, but some have argued that Aristotle's Ethics is a continuation of Plato's Republic, and an attempt to resolve the basic problem that either one must find a transcendent, objective reality of pure goodness radically separated from the imperfect sensible world, or one must concede moral enquiry to relativists. Where Aristotle differs from Plato is when he attempts to put ethical evaluations and enquiry into ethical matters on a different footing, one that does not require the appeal to things like the theory of forms.
Ethics focuses on the importance of habitually behaving virtuously and developing a virtuous character. Aristotle emphasized the importance of context to ethical behavior, and the ability of the virtuous person to recognize the best course of action.
Aristotle states our aspirations and desires must have some final object or pursuit; an end universally called happiness. But people mean different things by the expression “happiness” so Aristotle states it’s necessary to discuss the nature of happiness. Happiness cannot be found in any abstract notion, like Plato's self-existing good, it is something practical and human. True happiness lies in the active life of a rational being or in a perfect realization and outworking of the true soul and self, continued throughout a lifetime.
The human soul, according to Aristotle, has an irrational element which is shared with the animals, and a rational element which is distinctly human. Humans have the distinct ability to control animal desires with the help of reason. The human ability to properly control these desires is called moral virtue, and is the focus of morality. Aristotle notes that there is a purely rational part of the soul, which is responsible for the human ability to contemplate, reason logically, and formulate scientific principles and the mastery of these abilities is called intellectual virtue.
The Ethics makes several general points about the nature of moral virtues. First, he argues that the ability to regulate our desires is not instinctive, but learned and is the outcome of both teaching and practice. Second, he notes that if we regulate our desires either too much or too little, then we create problems. Finally, he argues that desire-regulating virtues are character traits, and are not to be understood as either emotions or mental faculties.
The heart of Aristotle's argument on moral virtue is his doctrine of the mean. Moral virtues are desire-regulating character traits which exist between more extreme character traits or vices. For example, in response to the natural emotion of fear, we should develop the virtuous character trait of courage. If we curb fear too much, then we become rash, which is a vice. If, on the other extreme, we curb fear too little, then we cowardly, which is also a vice. Thus the virtue of courage, lies at the mean between rashness, and cowardice. Aristotle is quick to point out that the virtuous mean is not a strict mathematical mean between two extremes. He develops the argument that later turns up in legal arguments that the mean is "as a prudent man would determine it."
Aristotle agrees that it is difficult to live a virtuous life as it is often difficult to find the mean. But the goal is to strive to do so.