Nicomachean Ethics

by Aristotle
translated by W. D. Ross
Book I Book II Book III Book IV Book V Book VI Book VII Book VIII Book IX Book X



VIRTUE, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral,
intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth
to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time),
while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its
name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the
word ethos (habit). From this it is also plain that none of the
moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by
nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance the stone
which by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move
upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten
thousand times; nor can fire be habituated to move downwards, nor
can anything else that by nature behaves in one way be trained to
behave in another. Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature
do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive
them, and are made perfect by habit.
Again, of all the things that come to us by nature we first
acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain
in the case of the senses; for it was not by often seeing or often
hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them
before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them); but
the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the
case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we
can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by
building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by
doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing
brave acts.
This is confirmed by what happens in states; for legislators make
the citizens good by forming habits in them, and this is the wish of
every legislator, and those who do not effect it miss their mark,
and it is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one.
Again, it is from the same causes and by the same means that every
virtue is both produced and destroyed, and similarly every art; for it
is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre-players are
produced. And the corresponding statement is true of builders and of
all the rest; men will be good or bad builders as a result of building
well or badly. For if this were not so, there would have been no
need of a teacher, but all men would have been born good or bad at
their craft. This, then, is the case with the virtues also; by doing
the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become
just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of
danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become
brave or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of
anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others
self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in
the appropriate circumstances. Thus, in one word, states of
character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities
we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of
character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no
small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of
another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or
rather all the difference.

Since, then, the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical
knowledge like the others (for we are inquiring not in order to know
what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our
inquiry would have been of no use), we must examine the nature of
actions, namely how we ought to do them; for these determine also
the nature of the states of character that are produced, as we have
said. Now, that we must act according to the right rule is a common
principle and must be assumed-it will be discussed later, i.e. both
what the right rule is, and how it is related to the other virtues.
But this must be agreed upon beforehand, that the whole account of
matters of conduct must be given in outline and not precisely, as we
said at the very beginning that the accounts we demand must be in
accordance with the subject-matter; matters concerned with conduct and
questions of what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters
of health. The general account being of this nature, the account of
particular cases is yet more lacking in exactness; for they do not
fall under any art or precept but the agents themselves must in each
case consider what is appropriate to the occasion, as happens also
in the art of medicine or of navigation.
But though our present account is of this nature we must give what
help we can. First, then, let us consider this, that it is the
nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we
see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things
imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both
excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and
similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount
destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces
and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of
temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies
from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against
anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but
goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who
indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes
self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do,
becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are
destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.
But not only are the sources and causes of their origination and
growth the same as those of their destruction, but also the sphere
of their actualization will be the same; for this is also true of
the things which are more evident to sense, e.g. of strength; it is
produced by taking much food and undergoing much exertion, and it is
the strong man that will be most able to do these things. So too is it
with the virtues; by abstaining from pleasures we become temperate,
and it is when we have become so that we are most able to abstain from
them; and similarly too in the case of courage; for by being
habituated to despise things that are terrible and to stand our ground
against them we become brave, and it is when we have become so that we
shall be most able to stand our ground against them.

We must take as a sign of states of character the pleasure or pain
that ensues on acts; for the man who abstains from bodily pleasures
and delights in this very fact is temperate, while the man who is
annoyed at it is self-indulgent, and he who stands his ground
against things that are terrible and delights in this or at least is
not pained is brave, while the man who is pained is a coward. For
moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on
account of the pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of the
pain that we abstain from noble ones. Hence we ought to have been
brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says,
so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought;
for this is the right education.
Again, if the virtues are concerned with actions and passions, and
every passion and every action is accompanied by pleasure and pain,
for this reason also virtue will be concerned with pleasures and
pains. This is indicated also by the fact that punishment is inflicted
by these means; for it is a kind of cure, and it is the nature of
cures to be effected by contraries.
Again, as we said but lately, every state of soul has a nature
relative to and concerned with the kind of things by which it tends to
be made worse or better; but it is by reason of pleasures and pains
that men become bad, by pursuing and avoiding these- either the
pleasures and pains they ought not or when they ought not or as they
ought not, or by going wrong in one of the other similar ways that may
be distinguished. Hence men even define the virtues as certain
states of impassivity and rest; not well, however, because they
speak absolutely, and do not say 'as one ought' and 'as one ought not'
and 'when one ought or ought not', and the other things that may be
added. We assume, then, that this kind of excellence tends to do
what is best with regard to pleasures and pains, and vice does the
The following facts also may show us that virtue and vice are
concerned with these same things. There being three objects of
choice and three of avoidance, the noble, the advantageous, the
pleasant, and their contraries, the base, the injurious, the
painful, about all of these the good man tends to go right and the bad
man to go wrong, and especially about pleasure; for this is common
to the animals, and also it accompanies all objects of choice; for
even the noble and the advantageous appear pleasant.
Again, it has grown up with us all from our infancy; this is why
it is difficult to rub off this passion, engrained as it is in our
life. And we measure even our actions, some of us more and others
less, by the rule of pleasure and pain. For this reason, then, our
whole inquiry must be about these; for to feel delight and pain
rightly or wrongly has no small effect on our actions.
Again, it is harder to fight with pleasure than with anger, to use
Heraclitus' phrase', but both art and virtue are always concerned with
what is harder; for even the good is better when it is harder.
Therefore for this reason also the whole concern both of virtue and of
political science is with pleasures and pains; for the man who uses
these well will be good, he who uses them badly bad.
That virtue, then, is concerned with pleasures and pains, and that
by the acts from which it arises it is both increased and, if they are
done differently, destroyed, and that the acts from which it arose are
those in which it actualizes itself- let this be taken as said.

The question might be asked,; what we mean by saying that we must
become just by doing just acts, and temperate by doing temperate acts;
for if men do just and temperate acts, they are already just and
temperate, exactly as, if they do what is in accordance with the
laws of grammar and of music, they are grammarians and musicians.
Or is this not true even of the arts? It is possible to do something
that is in accordance with the laws of grammar, either by chance or at
the suggestion of another. A man will be a grammarian, then, only when
he has both done something grammatical and done it grammatically;
and this means doing it in accordance with the grammatical knowledge
in himself.
Again, the case of the arts and that of the virtues are not similar;
for the products of the arts have their goodness in themselves, so
that it is enough that they should have a certain character, but if
the acts that are in accordance with the virtues have themselves a
certain character it does not follow that they are done justly or
temperately. The agent also must be in a certain condition when he
does them; in the first place he must have knowledge, secondly he must
choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly
his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character.
These are not reckoned in as conditions of the possession of the arts,
except the bare knowledge; but as a condition of the possession of the
virtues knowledge has little or no weight, while the other
conditions count not for a little but for everything, i.e. the very
conditions which result from often doing just and temperate acts.
Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such as
the just or the temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does
these that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as
just and temperate men do them. It is well said, then, that it is by
doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing
temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would
have even a prospect of becoming good.
But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think
they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving
somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do
none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be
made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not
be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy.

Next we must consider what virtue is. Since things that are found in
the soul are of three kinds- passions, faculties, states of
character, virtue must be one of these. By passions I mean appetite,
anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, friendly feeling, hatred, longing,
emulation, pity, and in general the feelings that are accompanied by
pleasure or pain; by faculties the things in virtue of which we are
said to be capable of feeling these, e.g. of becoming angry or being
pained or feeling pity; by states of character the things in virtue of
which we stand well or badly with reference to the passions, e.g. with
reference to anger we stand badly if we feel it violently or too
weakly, and well if we feel it moderately; and similarly with
reference to the other passions.
Now neither the virtues nor the vices are passions, because we are
not called good or bad on the ground of our passions, but are so
called on the ground of our virtues and our vices, and because we
are neither praised nor blamed for our passions (for the man who feels
fear or anger is not praised, nor is the man who simply feels anger
blamed, but the man who feels it in a certain way), but for our
virtues and our vices we are praised or blamed.
Again, we feel anger and fear without choice, but the virtues are
modes of choice or involve choice. Further, in respect of the passions
we are said to be moved, but in respect of the virtues and the vices
we are said not to be moved but to be disposed in a particular way.
For these reasons also they are not faculties; for we are neither
called good nor bad, nor praised nor blamed, for the simple capacity
of feeling the passions; again, we have the faculties by nature, but
we are not made good or bad by nature; we have spoken of this
before. If, then, the virtues are neither passions nor faculties,
all that remains is that they should be states of character.
Thus we have stated what virtue is in respect of its genus.

We must, however, not only describe virtue as a state of
character, but also say what sort of state it is. We may remark, then,
that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the
thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing
be done well; e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and
its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see
well. Similarly the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in
itself and good at running and at carrying its rider and at awaiting
the attack of the enemy. Therefore, if this is true in every case, the
virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man
good and which makes him do his own work well.
How this is to happen we have stated already, but it will be made
plain also by the following consideration of the specific nature of
virtue. In everything that is continuous and divisible it is
possible to take more, less, or an equal amount, and that either in
terms of the thing itself or relatively to us; and the equal is an
intermediate between excess and defect. By the intermediate in the
object I mean that which is equidistant from each of the extremes,
which is one and the same for all men; by the intermediate
relatively to us that which is neither too much nor too little- and
this is not one, nor the same for all. For instance, if ten is many
and two is few, six is the intermediate, taken in terms of the object;
for it exceeds and is exceeded by an equal amount; this is
intermediate according to arithmetical proportion. But the
intermediate relatively to us is not to be taken so; if ten pounds are
too much for a particular person to eat and two too little, it does
not follow that the trainer will order six pounds; for this also is
perhaps too much for the person who is to take it, or too little- too
little for Milo, too much for the beginner in athletic exercises.
The same is true of running and wrestling. Thus a master of any art
avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and chooses
this- the intermediate not in the object but relatively to us.
If it is thus, then, that every art does its work well- by looking
to the intermediate and judgling its works by this standard (so that
we often say of good works of art that it is not possible either to
take away or to add anything, implying that excess and defect
destroy the goodness of works of art, while the mean preserves it; and
good artists, as we say, look to this in their work), and if, further,
virtue is more exact and better than any art, as nature also is,
then virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate. I
mean moral virtue; for it is this that is concerned with passions
and actions, and in these there is excess, defect, and the
intermediate. For instance, both fear and confidence and appetite
and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both
too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel
them at the right times, with reference to the right objects,
towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way,
is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of
virtue. Similarly with regard to actions also there is excess, defect,
and the intermediate. Now virtue is concerned with passions and
actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while
the intermediate is praised and is a form of success; and being
praised and being successful are both characteristics of virtue.
Therefore virtue is a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at
what is intermediate.
Again, it is possible to fail in many ways (for evil belongs to the
class of the unlimited, as the Pythagoreans conjectured, and good to
that of the limited), while to succeed is possible only in one way
(for which reason also one is easy and the other difficult- to miss
the mark easy, to hit it difficult); for these reasons also, then,
excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and the mean of virtue;

For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.

Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying
in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a
rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of
practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two
vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on
defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall
short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while
virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate. Hence in
respect of its substance and the definition which states its essence
virtue is a mean, with regard to what is best and right an extreme.
But not every action nor every passion admits of a mean; for some
have names that already imply badness, e.g. spite, shamelessness,
envy, and in the case of actions adultery, theft, murder; for all of
these and suchlike things imply by their names that they are
themselves bad, and not the excesses or deficiencies of them. It is
not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to them; one must
always be wrong. Nor does goodness or badness with regard to such
things depend on committing adultery with the right woman, at the
right time, and in the right way, but simply to do any of them is to
go wrong. It would be equally absurd, then, to expect that in
unjust, cowardly, and voluptuous action there should be a mean, an
excess, and a deficiency; for at that rate there would be a mean of
excess and of deficiency, an excess of excess, and a deficiency of
deficiency. But as there is no excess and deficiency of temperance and
courage because what is intermediate is in a sense an extreme, so
too of the actions we have mentioned there is no mean nor any excess
and deficiency, but however they are done they are wrong; for in
general there is neither a mean of excess and deficiency, nor excess
and deficiency of a mean.

We must, however, not only make this general statement, but also
apply it to the individual facts. For among statements about conduct
those which are general apply more widely, but those which are
particular are more genuine, since conduct has to do with individual
cases, and our statements must harmonize with the facts in these
cases. We may take these cases from our table. With regard to feelings
of fear and confidence courage is the mean; of the people who
exceed, he who exceeds in fearlessness has no name (many of the states
have no name), while the man who exceeds in confidence is rash, and he
who exceeds in fear and falls short in confidence is a coward. With
regard to pleasures and pains- not all of them, and not so much with
regard to the pains- the mean is temperance, the excess
self-indulgence. Persons deficient with regard to the pleasures are
not often found; hence such persons also have received no name. But
let us call them 'insensible'.
With regard to giving and taking of money the mean is liberality,
the excess and the defect prodigality and meanness. In these actions
people exceed and fall short in contrary ways; the prodigal exceeds in
spending and falls short in taking, while the mean man exceeds in
taking and falls short in spending. (At present we are giving a mere
outline or summary, and are satisfied with this; later these states
will be more exactly determined.) With regard to money there are
also other dispositions- a mean, magnificence (for the magnificent
man differs from the liberal man; the former deals with large sums,
the latter with small ones), an excess, tastelessness and vulgarity,
and a deficiency, niggardliness; these differ from the states
opposed to liberality, and the mode of their difference will be stated
later. With regard to honour and dishonour the mean is proper pride,
the excess is known as a sort of 'empty vanity', and the deficiency is
undue humility; and as we said liberality was related to magnificence,
differing from it by dealing with small sums, so there is a state
similarly related to proper pride, being concerned with small
honours while that is concerned with great. For it is possible to
desire honour as one ought, and more than one ought, and less, and the
man who exceeds in his desires is called ambitious, the man who
falls short unambitious, while the intermediate person has no name.
The dispositions also are nameless, except that that of the
ambitious man is called ambition. Hence the people who are at the
extremes lay claim to the middle place; and we ourselves sometimes
call the intermediate person ambitious and sometimes unambitious,
and sometimes praise the ambitious man and sometimes the
unambitious. The reason of our doing this will be stated in what
follows; but now let us speak of the remaining states according to the
method which has been indicated.
With regard to anger also there is an excess, a deficiency, and a
mean. Although they can scarcely be said to have names, yet since we
call the intermediate person good-tempered let us call the mean good
temper; of the persons at the extremes let the one who exceeds be
called irascible, and his vice irascibility, and the man who falls
short an inirascible sort of person, and the deficiency
There are also three other means, which have a certain likeness to
one another, but differ from one another: for they are all concerned
with intercourse in words and actions, but differ in that one is
concerned with truth in this sphere, the other two with
pleasantness; and of this one kind is exhibited in giving amusement,
the other in all the circumstances of life. We must therefore speak of
these too, that we may the better see that in all things the mean is
praise-worthy, and the extremes neither praiseworthy nor right, but
worthy of blame. Now most of these states also have no names, but we
must try, as in the other cases, to invent names ourselves so that
we may be clear and easy to follow. With regard to truth, then, the
intermediate is a truthful sort of person and the mean may be called
truthfulness, while the pretence which exaggerates is boastfulness and
the person characterized by it a boaster, and that which understates
is mock modesty and the person characterized by it mock-modest. With
regard to pleasantness in the giving of amusement the intermediate
person is ready-witted and the disposition ready wit, the excess is
buffoonery and the person characterized by it a buffoon, while the man
who falls short is a sort of boor and his state is boorishness. With
regard to the remaining kind of pleasantness, that which is
exhibited in life in general, the man who is pleasant in the right way
is friendly and the mean is friendliness, while the man who exceeds is
an obsequious person if he has no end in view, a flatterer if he is
aiming at his own advantage, and the man who falls short and is
unpleasant in all circumstances is a quarrelsome and surly sort of
There are also means in the passions and concerned with the
passions; since shame is not a virtue, and yet praise is extended to
the modest man. For even in these matters one man is said to be
intermediate, and another to exceed, as for instance the bashful man
who is ashamed of everything; while he who falls short or is not
ashamed of anything at all is shameless, and the intermediate person
is modest. Righteous indignation is a mean between envy and spite, and
these states are concerned with the pain and pleasure that are felt at
the fortunes of our neighbours; the man who is characterized by
righteous indignation is pained at undeserved good fortune, the
envious man, going beyond him, is pained at all good fortune, and
the spiteful man falls so far short of being pained that he even
rejoices. But these states there will be an opportunity of
describing elsewhere; with regard to justice, since it has not one
simple meaning, we shall, after describing the other states,
distinguish its two kinds and say how each of them is a mean; and
similarly we shall treat also of the rational virtues.

There are three kinds of disposition, then, two of them vices,
involving excess and deficiency respectively, and one a virtue, viz.
the mean, and all are in a sense opposed to all; for the extreme
states are contrary both to the intermediate state and to each
other, and the intermediate to the extremes; as the equal is greater
relatively to the less, less relatively to the greater, so the
middle states are excessive relatively to the deficiencies,
deficient relatively to the excesses, both in passions and in actions.
For the brave man appears rash relatively to the coward, and
cowardly relatively to the rash man; and similarly the temperate man
appears self-indulgent relatively to the insensible man, insensible
relatively to the self-indulgent, and the liberal man prodigal
relatively to the mean man, mean relatively to the prodigal. Hence
also the people at the extremes push the intermediate man each over to
the other, and the brave man is called rash by the coward, cowardly by
the rash man, and correspondingly in the other cases.
These states being thus opposed to one another, the greatest
contrariety is that of the extremes to each other, rather than to
the intermediate; for these are further from each other than from
the intermediate, as the great is further from the small and the small
from the great than both are from the equal. Again, to the
intermediate some extremes show a certain likeness, as that of
rashness to courage and that of prodigality to liberality; but the
extremes show the greatest unlikeness to each other; now contraries
are defined as the things that are furthest from each other, so that
things that are further apart are more contrary.
To the mean in some cases the deficiency, in some the excess is more
opposed; e.g. it is not rashness, which is an excess, but cowardice,
which is a deficiency, that is more opposed to courage, and not
insensibility, which is a deficiency, but self-indulgence, which is an
excess, that is more opposed to temperance. This happens from two
reasons, one being drawn from the thing itself; for because one
extreme is nearer and liker to the intermediate, we oppose not this
but rather its contrary to the intermediate. E.g. since rashness is
thought liker and nearer to courage, and cowardice more unlike, we
oppose rather the latter to courage; for things that are further
from the intermediate are thought more contrary to it. This, then,
is one cause, drawn from the thing itself; another is drawn from
ourselves; for the things to which we ourselves more naturally tend
seem more contrary to the intermediate. For instance, we ourselves
tend more naturally to pleasures, and hence are more easily carried
away towards self-indulgence than towards propriety. We describe as
contrary to the mean, then, rather the directions in which we more
often go to great lengths; and therefore self-indulgence, which is
an excess, is the more contrary to temperance.

That moral virtue is a mean, then, and in what sense it is so, and
that it is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the
other deficiency, and that it is such because its character is to
aim at what is intermediate in passions and in actions, has been
sufficiently stated. Hence also it is no easy task to be good. For
in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find
the middle of a circle is not for every one but for him who knows; so,
too, any one can get angry- that is easy- or give or spend money; but
to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right
time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for
every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and
laudable and noble.
Hence he who aims at the intermediate must first depart from what is
the more contrary to it, as Calypso advises-

Hold the ship out beyond that surf and spray.

For of the extremes one is more erroneous, one less so; therefore,
since to hit the mean is hard in the extreme, we must as a second
best, as people say, take the least of the evils; and this will be
done best in the way we describe. But we must consider the things
towards which we ourselves also are easily carried away; for some of
us tend to one thing, some to another; and this will be recognizable
from the pleasure and the pain we feel. We must drag ourselves away to
the contrary extreme; for we shall get into the intermediate state
by drawing well away from error, as people do in straightening
sticks that are bent.
Now in everything the pleasant or pleasure is most to be guarded
against; for we do not judge it impartially. We ought, then, to feel
towards pleasure as the elders of the people felt towards Helen, and
in all circumstances repeat their saying; for if we dismiss pleasure
thus we are less likely to go astray. It is by doing this, then, (to
sum the matter up) that we shall best be able to hit the mean.
But this is no doubt difficult, and especially in individual
cases; for or is not easy to determine both how and with whom and on
what provocation and how long one should be angry; for we too
sometimes praise those who fall short and call them good-tempered, but
sometimes we praise those who get angry and call them manly. The
man, however, who deviates little from goodness is not blamed, whether
he do so in the direction of the more or of the less, but only the man
who deviates more widely; for he does not fail to be noticed. But up
to what point and to what extent a man must deviate before he
becomes blameworthy it is not easy to determine by reasoning, any more
than anything else that is perceived by the senses; such things depend
on particular facts, and the decision rests with perception. So
much, then, is plain, that the intermediate state is in all things
to be praised, but that we must incline sometimes towards the
excess, sometimes towards the deficiency; for so shall we most
easily hit the mean and what is right.