Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Why Success Lessons Mislead

This article was an email to my list. The only changes are formatting.

I had planned to recap and haul. But the books I read blew past the boundaries of a recap. And the email would have been too long and lacked a consistent theme. Each book deserved its own treatment. So I’m going to drip these emails out. We’ll start with Aristotle’s Ethics, move over to Raymond Chandler, and then I’ll do a somewhat recap and haul to finish.

First, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I’m going to cover a fraction of Ethics. If you’re hoping for deep philosophical debates regarding Aristotle’s terms, his concepts of Good and Evil, or how he’d approach the Mind-Brain Problem you’re in the wrong place.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle’s only surviving works are the courses and lectures he taught. And one surviving course and lecture, Ethics. The first line in Ethics sums up the aim of the course:

Every art and technical skill, every systematic method associated with those, and in the same way every action and choice seems to aim at something good.

In other words, everything you do seems to aim at something good. But what is “good” and how do we do that? Another way to view the main lesson of Ethics: what is a flourishing life, and how does one live a flourishing life?

Aristotle answers: strive to have excellence in character. We could go on a few different tangents on how to have excellence in character, but we’ll look at the famed concept of The Golden Mean. Or as Aristotle refers to it (in the translation I read), the midpoint.

Aristotle unpacks what it means to live a good life. A good life requires excellence of character. And how does one get excellence of character? Aristotle starts with the target choices of virtue and vices, pleasures and pains, right things and wrong things, and fortunes and misfortunes. He then lays out that good things are, external goods, goods of the soul, and goods of the body. He unpacks goodness via, virtues of thought, virtues of character, and virtues of the intellect. That narrows down to virtues of character and virtues of intellect.

Hang with me and keep those things in mind.

Ok, that whole choice thing.

When we make choices we do so from our current capacity. Capacity? Our current knowledge, experience, potential, talent, beliefs, worldview, patterns, securities and insecurities, strengths and weaknesses, and aims. It’s like playing golf. The swing you have on the day you play is the swing you have. The swing is like your capacity. It might be off, it might be on, but it’s the swing you have today. You act from your capacity. You choose from your capacity. Like a golf swing, you can improve your capacity. Like a golf swing, improving your capacity takes work.

A famous tenant of philosophy: the unexamined life is not worth living. The examined life is worth living. The examined life means living deliberately. Yet not in a navel-gazing-the-theory sort of way. Many people go through life without personal reflection. They lack awareness of their current capacity. They may think about life, but they never go beyond the surface, and when they act, they act from autopilot. For instance, they find themselves in the same relationship situation over and over. They see a documentary on Netflix and reflexively think it’s true. And when conflict arises, insecurities guide them. They are not deliberate in their target choices. It’s not that these people are bad, dumb, or inferior; rather, they go through the motions of living.

The examined life, inside Aristotle’s framework, injects depth, deliberation, and skill into our capacity. In other words, we work to deliberately exercise our virtues. And the more we deliberately exercise our virtues, the better we habituate our character. We habituate our emotions, behaviors, and nature towards the right aim. That aim, to not to fall short or not go too far. Aristotle posits we go for the midpoint, aka the Golden Mean. And that doesn’t mean shooting for fifth place in a ten-man race.

Let’s unfold this.

Aristotle said that physical health played a critical role in flourishing and excellence in character.

Again, Aristotle starts with a target choice: flourishing. And to flourish we need excellence in character. That demands virtues of character and virtues of intellect. And physical health delivers external goodsgoods of the soul, and goods of the body.

Let’s consider falling too short in physical health.

Falling short in your physical health includes never exercising, sloppy nutrition habits, and poor lifestyle choices. If we’re honest, we also include excuses, rationalizations, impulse-led behavior, and more. But it goes deeper. Let’s say someone wants to go to the gym. They are trying to get healthier. After work, they get a text inviting them out. They could go to the gym, they want to go to the gym, but they tell themselves, “My friends are going out, we had so much fun the other day, I don’t want to miss out. Plus this bar is new.” Here, the person wants to do good. They know what doing good entails. But they rationalize a vice into a virtue.

Instead of working out, our person hits the happy hour. They booze. They eat bad. And when they get home, they feel zapped. They binge-watch Netflix before falling asleep. They sleep like shit, wake up feeling like shit and say, “I can’t exercise today, I feel too tired, I don’t want to hurt myself.” Our person habituates falling too short patterns. They want to be better, but the habituated falling too short pattern hinders best intentions. In time, this behavior catches up with them. If you have poor physical health you age poorly, you’re prone to getting sick, you mentally don’t function as well, and you struggle if you need physical strength in a situation. This goes for both men and women.

And being physically unhealthy does nothing for your looks. Aristotle, to the ire of many, says being good-looking offers an advantage. If you’re an attractive male or female, Aristotle believes — and I agree — that it’s an advantage and that it can aid in living a flourishing life. And if you’re attractive and you uphold a standard of personal physical health, it fuels this advantage. On the flip side, Aristotle posits that if you’re not Idris Elba or Gisele Bundchen, striving for good physical health will make you not only healthy but better looking.

It’s not just good looks; Aristotle teaches to advocate for yourself. And advocating for yourself does more than just make you buff and sexy.

Let’s unpack this. Keep in mind personal capacity and goods of the soul.

Working out to attain a baseline of sound physical health requires making it a habit. Regardless of whether it’s an elite athlete at seventeen beginning a training program to better their chances, or it’s a fifty-year-old wishing to lose weight, the hardest part sometimes, making it a habit. That task of making it a habit requires time, work, and self-motivation. You can read all the habit books you want, no matter the advice or hip-sounding methods, in the end, you need to get your ass to the gym and train. It’s as pain-in-the-ass simple as that.

When working out becomes a habit, we know it’s a good thing. It exemplifies consistency. The habit itself is virtuous. This virtuous habit likely points to or fosters other virtuous habits. For instance, if you make time for your workouts, you likely maintain commitments elsewhere in your life. Aristotle isn’t a guru saying that if you work out it delivers perfection in life. Rather, the habit of scheduling or making time for your workouts is one habit helping other areas of your life. Aristotle is also teaching self-motivation. While self-motivation is somewhat inherent to our dispositions, we can strengthen that motivation. That’s not to say, as the gurus promise, that you will attain 500% motivation all of the time every time. No. Aristotle shows that it’s natural to have some days and moments you grind through. You won’t be feeling it, you won’t be motivated. And that’s ok. Despite the sugar-high gurus making it sound like you need or can attain otherworldly motivation, you won’t always have it and that’s part of life. But having habituated virtuous habits — like showing up to workout even if you’re not feeling it — pushes you towards excellence. In other words — and this also pertains to outside of working out — when you habituate good actions, on those days you’re not feeling it, those actions carry you through. You grind it out. Or you put a bad effort into perspective and learn from it. But a bad effort doesn’t halt everything. Why? You’ve habituated your capacity to keep moving forward.

Let’s dissect this even further.

Aristotle teaches that a rigorous training regimen is best. First, someone busted their butt to get to the gym. In time, if they kept going, they habituated the habit. What does that mean? They are consistent. Consistency is a cornerstone to success in any endeavor. That goes for any craft, hobby, or personal development. A person habituated themselves — habits, scheduling, self-motivating, and more — to be consistent with their physical health.

Ok, so that rigorous training program. A person makes it a habit of working out. They get to the gym, they’ve been doing it for years. That’s amazing. But Aristotle advises to challenge yourself. That doesn’t mean going to extremes, like trying to win every Strongman or Mr. Olympia. Rather, get into an environment that challenges and tests you.

Here’s why.

A rigorous training regimen is difficult. It’s a mental and physical test. Let’s look at a regular person undergoing rigorous training. That training might be lifting, Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, regional fitness shows, road cycling, and more. A regular Jack and Jill, they’re not training for a professional sports championship. They endure it for themselves. That’s a challenge. That’s virtuous.


It’s undergoing difficult things, willingly. You will have your personal goals. You might do an amateur competition for fun. But in the end, it’s for you. There is no grand glory. If you’re an accountant with a rigorous lifting routine, you know you need disciplined habits: work schedule, meals, diet, drive time, rest, and beyond. Aristotle shows that this sort of activity habituates excellence in character. How? To stand up to the challenge you give yourself requires discipline, consistency, sacrifices, and trade-offs. It doesn’t mean you live in the gym and forego having a family. It means you find ways to be that well-rounded, well-read person that makes training work in your daily life. In other words, this value of yours, this physical fitness value and its ingredients, aligns with other aspects of your life. Your relaxing hobbies, your professional life, your family, and the other elements align with the fitness regimen. And each element, each value, feeds the others. All the granular aspects that make it all work help habituate your character.

How so? How does it help habituate excellence of character?

Let’s stick with the general example of rigorous physical training. Consider the positive trade-offs. You can better handle adversity because you’ve undergone difficult things. If shit hits the fan in your life, you still get your butt to the gym to train. It might suck, you might not feel it, but you move forward (and studies show working out is fantastic in this situation). You’ve developed a capacity to face hard things. And Aristotle shows that character isn’t built off of one secret. It’s not categorical that if you work out you are therefore going to be successful and amazing in all endeavors. Rather success builds upon many tangibles. And physical training, undergoing difficult things willingly, helps build a virtuous behavior pattern to better handle life’s ups and downs.

Aristotle details the nitty-gritty of excellence. He teaches that habituated character builds from various elements, behaviors, actions, and self-learning. This differs from current Success fare. Many people seek excellence in character via Success gurus and common Success ideologies. But Success fare and its fans get excellence skewed. The guru and their claims, or the “secret tactic,” or both, are seen as the surrogate of success. For instance, consider the popular book Atomic Habits. It contains useful information on how to develop good habits. But many fall into the belief that great habits are the target choice in life. And that great habits deliver excellence in character. And that habits create motivation, wealth, or any other pinned on hope. People believe the book and its author are a surrogate for flourishing.

Yes, Atomic Habits offers useful information, but it offers a small ingredient and not the whole aim. Flourishing and excellence in character come down to you, the individual. When you habituate actions and behaviors, like habits, you work to make it a part of you. Learning about habits can help, but it’s not the endpoint. It may be a place to start, but many stay stuck mistaking the fashionable advice as the target choice or the divine surrogate to their utopia. Many people in Success are doing the right thing: reaching for better. But they spin their wheels putting all their hopes onto a small tactic. While that tactic is good and may help, it isn’t the deity of flourishing.

No one secret delivers excellence in character. Some parts, like Aristotle’s Ethics, move you closer to excellence than others, if you’re willing to apply the lessons, but it’s one part, not the end all be all. And Aristotle teaches this truth well. He shows that your excellence in character, and what you strive to do well in, is distinct to you. You may emulate others, but in time you need to make it your own.

Let’s turn to the too far aspect. And let’s continue with our Success example.

The Success Industry fomented a too far fetish. People fetishize turning themselves into an autistic, narcissistic, sociopathic — yet “offering value” — ubermensch entrepreneur. It’s bizarre. Success fanboys hear that a famous billionaire did something immoral, yet they praise that immorality as “doing whatever it takes.”

And the people seeing that immorality as a good, fantasize that they can turn into an autistic, narcissistic, sociopathic — yet “offering value” — ubermensch entrepreneur. It’s a fetish. It’s sad. It’s part Hustle Signaling (like a Virtue Signal, Hustle Signaling is a behavior or action in the hopes of proving that you’re part of the hustlers tribe and innocent of any anti-hustle belief of behavior), part validation seeking, and part going too far.

The going too far part here is aiming at professional success for the sake of personal vanity. A person wants to be widely recognized as an autistic, narcissistic, sociopathic — yet “offering value” — ubermensch entrepreneur. They believe that recognition equates entry and arrival at the Success Country Club. In reality, the person taking on this vanity project turns into none of those things. They come across as a try-hard dork. But in this instance of one wanting success, they go too far in their vanity. They worship a quirk, a detrimental one, and often avoid doing what they need to do — stop fantasizing about being a money-printing edgelord and get to work.

But here’s what makes Aristotle ace. Here’s what makes him practical.

When you’re starting out, Aristotle advises that it’s better to go too far than to fall short.

Consider our online marketing example.

In our edgelord notoriety example, the one benefit here, the drive to succeed. Now, the too far aspect results in the person acting as a try-hard dork. But at least a drive exists versus no action taken. Aristotle would rather you push the envelope at first. Be a little greedy (that doesn’t mean dishonesty). Be aggressive in your marketing (again, that doesn’t mean dishonesty). He wants you to hustle after that dollar. It’s better to chase the spotlight — via hard work and earned reputation — than to not. If you’re working out, better to do it for looks than not working out. Why? Because you’ll bust your butt for that body versus not. And with bravery, better to be reckless than to have no courage.

Aristotle shows that going too far, at first, acts as an impetus to action. It helps to habituate the behavior. Aristotle teaches that with time, maturity and reflection, you find that midpoint. It may come along subconsciously. Or it may come with considerate reflection and experience. If you’re working on a critical part of flourishing, excellence in character and excellence in intellect, then it helps find that midpoint in something like Success, and learning how to not go too far.

Some areas are impossible to take too far. Aristotle wants you to aim for otherworldly in that area. There aren’t too many things in this category of impossible to go too far. Like these two:

  • wisdom, aka virtues of intellect
  • excellence in character

No one will ever say, “oh, she’s too excellent in character, who can trust that!?” Excellence in character you can sense. The person exhibits good humor, good values, high personal standards, kindness, self-assuredness, and awareness that they’re not perfect. And to work on excellence in character is good. Attaining that excellence in character, it’s individual to each person. They will undergo their own journey. That’s what makes it special.

Look at intellect. Aristotle teaches that wisdom matters. And he shows that wisdom can color your life beyond being smart. It makes your downtime more pleasurable and meaningful. It makes conversations with your friends richer. That doesn’t mean you have deep and heavy conversations all the time. Rather, you appreciate the time spent; you appreciate the laughs; you appreciate your friend on a deeper level; you enjoy the color of the time spent.

Aristotle implores erudition. He wants you to be curious and constantly learning. Whether it’s your craft, or knowing more about your favorite band, he teaches you to dig deeper. And it’s not mere book smarts he’s advising, he says one must have skin in the game. For instance, he teaches that you can make contemplation enjoyable, deep, and strategic. Strategic? Perhaps you read an inspiring biography. You glean lessons from the biography and apply those lessons. And, moving beyond the obvious read to learn, Aristotle shows that deep learning or reading fosters good thinking. As in, some books you read you may not be able to directly apply its lessons. Let’s say you read a book on the history of F-18 fighter jets. Certain elements you can apply to your profession: attention to detail, happy mistakes, and more. But many elements you will not be able to apply directly — like test piloting F -18 jets. But in time, the non-immediate applications of that book might enrich your thinking. It might foster a professional benefit, or it simply just colors your world.

In other words, Aristotle details the benefit of being pragmatically well-read. That being well-read makes you a more rounded person. That pragmatic aspect means you don’t read solely to navel-gaze on a topic; nor do you read a book to solely extract its income secrets. You engage with the book. And you can’t go too far in this. No one wishes they knew less about the world and were less well-rounded.

Ethics offers manifold lessons. Again, what it offers goes far beyond what I mentioned here. Aristotle goes into relationships, friendships, philanthropy, politics, and so on. Many see a book like this and get a little nervous. They fear it a slog. ButEthics is accessible. It provides nuance in its wisdom. It’s a must-read, to say the least. And no one says you need to rush through it. Again, the translation I read was readable. And the translator offered good advice on how to read it.

I can’t make you read anything. But putting Ethics on your list and reading it soon will not be the worst thing. It’s one of the greatest tracts, it’s a cornerstone for Western Civilization, it’s a great guide to living the good life, and it’s readable.

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