Learn to Live Well


A Brief Introduction to Aristotle

Aristotle FAQ

Introduction to "Flourishing"

Psychology and Happiness

Really? Honestly how hard is it to be happy?


Aristotle distinguishes pleasure (the feeling of happiness) from human flourishing or ``eudaimonia’’ (the state of having fulfilled your potential and living well).  Aristotle thought pleasure can be fleeting, and even individuals whose lives were going quite badly might have pleasure.  (Think Bluto from Animal House).  Only flourishing is pursued for its own sake—it is the goal for all of our lives.

Who is Aristotle?


Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived (384-322 BC).  He learned philosophy from Plato (who in turned learned it from Socrates).  He was the tutor of Alexander the great.  Aristotle was interested in every branch of philosophy and science.


What text are these selections from?


The Nicomachean Ethics is a ten chapter book collecting fragments from Aristotle’s lectures at the Lyceum.  It is a set of philosophical arguments and recommendations for students who wish to achieve happiness.



Aris - "The Philosopher" - totle

Here's an introduction to Aristotle's concept eudaimonia (translated as "flourishing") which is central to his account of living well

If you're interested in contemporary applications of Aristotle's framework, check out this article from The Atlantic on psychology and happiness


Click here if you'd like to download a PDF of the full text


Scroll down for the interactive version

Book II, Chapter 1

The Power of Habit



Virtue then, is twofold, intellectual and moral. Both the coming into being and the increase of intellectual virtue result mostly from teaching -- hence it requires experience and time -- whereas moral virtue is the result of habit…It is also clear, as a result, that none of the moral virtues are present in us by nature, since nothing that exists by nature is habituated to be other than it is.


For example, a stone, because it is borne downward by nature, could not be habituated to be borne upward, not even if someone habituates it by throwing it upward ten thousand times.  Fire too could not be borne downward, nor could anything else that is naturally one way habituated to be another.


Neither by nature, therefore, nor contrary to nature are the virtues present; they are instead present in us who are of such a nature as to receive them, and who are completed through habit.


What is a virtue?

The Habituation Argument

The Rest of Book II, Ch 1


Virtues = stable personality traits that reliably dispose a person to act well.


Vices = stable personality traits that reliably dispose a person to act badly.


The virtues are excellences of human character, and possessing them all is -- for Aristotle -- necessary to live a good life.


So what is Aristotle's argument in this section? First of all, he's making the following revolutionary (and still controversial) claim:

  • Virtues and vices are properties of persons (character traits) that can be acquired


Thus, for Aristotle, we are not just naturally morally good or bad. We have some control (via learning, habituation, the communities and groups we choose to be a part of) over whether we live morally good or morally bad lives.

He supports this claim by arguing that:


(1) No natural properties can be changed by habituation (for example: you can't teach a stone to fall upwards)


(2) Virtues can be changed by habituation (for example: you can teach a soldier to be courageous, or a child to be moderate in their consumption of candy)


(3) Therefore virtues cannot be natural properties


Further, in the case of those things present in us by nature, we are first provided with the capacities associated with them, then later on display the activities, something that is in fact clear in the case of sense perceptions.  For it is not as a result of seeing many times or hearing many times that we come to have those sense perceptions; rather, it is, conversely, because we have them that we use them, and not because we use them that we have them.  But the virtues we come to have by engaging in the activities first, as is the case with the arts as well.  For as regards those things we must learn how to do, we learn by doing them---for example, by building houses, people become house builders, and by playing the cithara, they become cithara players. So too, then, by doing just things we become just; moderate things, moderate; and courageous things, courageous.  What happens in the cities too bears witness to this, for by habituating citizens, lawgivers make them good, and this is the wish of every lawgiver; all who do not do this well are in error, and it is in this respect that a good regime differs from a base regime.

What's the secret to becoming a good cithara player? Practice, practice, practice!

Book II, Chapter 2

You can only learn to be good by trying to do good things

Now, since the present subject is taken up, not for the sake of contemplation, as are others -- for we are conducting an examination, not so that we may know what virtue is, but so that we may become good, since otherwise there would be no benefit from it -- it is necessary to examine matters pertaining to actions, that is, how one ought to perform them…


 Let it be agreed to in advance that every argument concerned with what ought to be done is bound to be stated in outline only and not precisely… Matters of action and those pertaining to what is advantageous have nothing stationary about them, just as matters of health do not either.  And since such is the character of the general argument, still less precise is the argument concerned with particulars, for it does not fall under any art or any set of precepts.  Instead, those who act ought themselves always to examine what pertains to the opportune moment [when it presents itself], as is the case with both medicine and piloting.

Book II, Chapter 2

Virtue as the Mean Between Two Extremes

Such things [as the virtues] are naturally destroyed through deficiency and excess, just as we see in the case of strength and health: excessive as well as deficient gymnastic exercises destroy strength, and, similarly both drink and food destroy health as they increase or decrease in quantity, whereas the proportionate amounts create, increase, and preserve health.  So it is too with moderation, courage and other virtues: he who avoids and fears all things and endures nothing becomes a coward, and he who generally fears nothing but advances towards all things becomes reckless….  Moderation and courage are indeed destroyed by excess and deficiency, but they are preserved by the mean.


Pleasure and the Virtues

Book II, Chapter 2

Moral virtue is concerned with pleasures and pains: it is on account of the pleasure involved that we do base things, and it is on account of the pain that we abstain from noble ones.  Thus one must be brought up in a certain way straight from childhood, as Plato asserts, so as to enjoy as well as to be pained by what one ought, for this is correct education…


Pleasure has been a part of the upbringing of us all from infancy; it is difficult to remove this experience, since our life has been so ingrained with it.  We also take pleasure and pain as the rule of our actions, some of us to a greater degree and some to a lesser.  It is on account of this, then, that one’s entire concern necessarily pertains to pleasure and pain, for taking delight and feeling pain make no small contribution our actions being well or badly done.

Book II, Chapter 4

Objection: How can we ever become virtuous?

 Here Aristotle considers whether his account of how we acquire virtues is circular

But someone might be perplexed as to what we mean when say that to become just, people must do just things or, to become moderate, do moderate things.  For if they do just and moderate things, they actually are just and moderate, just as if they do what concerns letters and music, they are by that fact skilled in letters and music.  Or is this not so even in the case of the arts? For it is possible to do something skillful in letters by chance or on the instruction of another.  A person will actually be skilled… when he both does something skillful and does it in a skillful way, and this is what accords with the art of letters that resides within the person himself.


Whatever deeds arise in accord with the virtues [are done virtuously]… only if those deeds are done in a certain state as well: first, if he act knowingly; second, if he acts by choosing and by choosing the actions in question for their own sake; and, third, if he acts while being in a steady and unwavering state.


Action is Necessary in Learning to Live Well

Book II, Chapter 4

It is well said, then, that as a result of doing just things, the just person comes into being and as a result of doing moderate things, the moderate person; without performing these actions, nobody would become good. Yet most people do not do them; and, seeking refuge in argument, they suppose they are philosophizing and that they will in this way be serious, thereby doing something similar to the sick who listen attentively to their physicians but do nothing prescribed.  Just as these latter, then, will not have a body in good condition by caring for it in this way, so too the former will not have a soul in good condition by philosophizing in this way.

Summary & Conclusion:

For Aristotle, philosophy is a deeply practical enterprise.  He's a particularist -- he does not think you can live well by reading books or studying a general theory.  Instead, you need practice solving real problems and dealing with complexity.  He thinks you learn virtue by developing the right kinds of habits and by having a good community around to support to you.  To master the virtues, you need lots of practice and feedback.  And he thinks that living well is more than just finding pleasure in your life -- it is developing your talents, including growing in virtues like courage, moderation, and generosity.

Created by Paul Blaschko and Meghan Sullivan, 2016

For more information, visit the website for God and the Good Life