According to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics:

Happiness or the supreme good (human flourishing) is the ultimate end and purpose of human 

existence. The Greek term "eudaimonia" used by Aristotle in his discussion on the supreme good means 

roughly a state of being in which we are healthy, happy, and prosperous (in this context, "prosperous" 

means "flourishing"). In short: happiness is living in balance within ourself and within our communities.

Aristotle differentiates between happiness and pleasure, stating that happiness is neither pleasure nor 

virtue, but rather the exercise of virtue (excellence). According to Aristotle, a virtue is a character trait 

that helps us achieve a good life in accordance with reason. Character involves our dispositions: how we 

feel, think, and react to situations; the sort of choices we make and the actions we perform. 

Aristotle states that human beings are rational animals and that our capacity for rational thought 

separates us from other animals. He maintains that human happiness depends on the exercise of 

reason and, specifically, on using our reasoning capacities well

Our well-being (flourishing, happiness) depends on acquiring and displaying moral character. Moral character is comprised of virtues such as courage, generosity, justice, friendship, and citizenship. 

Acquiring and maintaining these virtues involves striking a balance or “mean” between an excess (too much) and a deficiency (too little). 

Excess and deficiency are vices because they do not encourage human flourishing (the supreme 

good): excess and deficiency move us off course.

Virtue is that which encourages human flourishing. Several virtues identified by Aristotle are: courage, 

generosity, friendliness, righteous indignation, and truthfulness.

Vices take us away from our goal of well-being. Several vices identified by Aristotle are: cowardice and 

brashness, miserliness and extravagance, vanity and timidity, envy and spitefulness, boastfulness 

and false modesty.

According to Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, our feelings and actions must be appropriate to the 

circumstances. Anger is a good example. Aristotle doesn't say that when we get angry, we should only be 

moderately angry. Strong anger is justified under some circumstances. Our level of anger should match 

the situation. The use of our capacity to reason allows us to determine appropriate-to-the-situation 


Questions and discussion prompts for Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and the Golden Mean

1. Aristotle identifies two kinds of virtue (excellence): intellectual and moral. According to Aristotle, how 

   does one acquire intellectual virtue? How do we acquire moral virtue, according to Aristotle?

2. Aristotle states that virtue is something we learn by doing. What does this mean? 

3. Aristotle identifies two kinds of vices. What are they? Why does he consider them to be vices?


4. How is becoming an excellent person similar to becoming an excellent musician or technician or  

    carpenter or chef or web designer or...?

5.  a. Think of a specific situation we encounter in daily life that requires a choice of action. 

         Example: You haven't had a chance to shop or cook, you arrive home late at night, and you're 

         tired. Your housemates are asleep. House rules state that you're not allowed to eat anyone else's 

         food, but there it is in the fridge, wrapped up and labeled. What do you do? Explain your reasoning.


     b. Identify the actions available to you. Do any of them represent an extreme? If so, give them a 

         label (greed? selfishness? laziness?). 


     c.  Identify the mean: the best course of action for the circumstances and the individual(s) 


     d. Next explore how that mean can change, that is how the mean is relative to the situation and to 

         the person involved in the situation.

6. Aristotle notes that not all types of actions have a mean. Identify a vice that has no mean (i.e. that is 

   always wrong). 

7. Identify similarities and differences between Aristotle's concept of virtue, the ancient Egyptian concept 

   of Ma'at and the 42 Negative Confessions of the Book of the Dead, Hammurabi's Code, and the Hebrew 

   Decalogue (Ten Commandments).

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