Montreal, November 22, 2003  /  No 133  
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Dr. Edward Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. He is the author of Capitalism and Commerce
by Edward W.Younkins
          Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) is the most significant thinker and the most accomplished individual who has ever lived. Every person currently living in Western civilization owes an enormous debt to Aristotle who is the fountainhead behind every achievement of science, technology, political theory, and aesthetics (especially Romantic art) in today's world. Aristotle's philosophy has underpinned the achievements of the Renaissance and of all scientific advances and technological progress to this very day.
          Aristotle, the teacher of those who know, defended reason, invented logic, focused on reality, and emphasized the importance of life on earth. The importance of reality, reason, and logic in Aristotelian philosophy has enabled science and technology to develop and flourish. 
          His philosophy of reason embodied a primacy of existence approach that states that knowledge of the world commences by looking at and examining what exists. Recognizing the validity of man's senses, Aristotle taught that men can increase their knowledge by augmenting the evidence of the senses through reason (i.e., through logic and the formulation of abstractions). He explained that conceptualization should be preceded by inductive observation in our efforts to understand the world. Reason is competent to know reality but it is necessary to begin with what exists in the world. 
          Aristotle teaches that each man's life has a purpose and that the function of one's life is to attain that purpose. He explains that the purpose of life is earthly happiness or flourishing that can be achieved via reason and the acquisition of virtue. Articulating an explicit and clear understanding of the end toward which a person's life aims, Aristotle states that each human being should use his abilities to their fullest potential and should obtain happiness and enjoyment through the exercise of their realized capacities. He contends that human achievements are animated by purpose and autonomy and that people should take pride in being excellent at what they do. According to Aristotle, human beings have a natural desire and capacity to know and understand the truth, to pursue moral excellence, and to instantiate their ideals in the world through action. 
Metaphysics and Epistemology 
          Aristotle espouses the existence of external objective reality. For Aristotle, the existence of the external world and of men's knowledge of it is self-evident. He contends that the basic reality upon which all else depends is the existence of individual entities. He insists upon an independent existing world of entities or beings and that what exists are individuals with nothing existing separately from them. For Aristotle, the ontologically ultimate is the individual. 
          The basic laws of being, or first principles of reality, in Aristotle's metaphysics, are the philosophical axioms or laws of non-contradiction, identity, and excluded middle. According to Aristotle, these presuppositions or assumptions govern, direct, or command scientific explanation. 
          For Aristotle, causality is a law inherent in being qua being. To be is to be something with a specific nature and to be something with a specific nature is to act according to that nature. The ideas of identity, non-contradiction, and causality underpin the fundamentals of science and are basic principles of Aristotelian philosophy. 
          Aristotle heralds the role of reason in a proper human life. He examines the nature of man and his functions and sees that man survives through purposeful conduct which results from the active exercise of man's capacity for rational thought. The ability to reason separates man from all other living organisms and supplies him with his unique means of survival and flourishing. It is through purposive, rational conduct that a person can achieve happiness. For Aristotle, a being of conceptual consciousness must focus on reality and must discover the knowledge and actions required if he wants to fully develop as a human person. 
          Aristotle is a this-worldly metaphysician who avowedly rejects mysticism and skepticism in epistemology. His view is that human nature is specific and definite and that there is some essence apparent in each and every person and object. 
          An advocate of this-worldly cognition, Aristotle's theory of concepts was reality-oriented. It follows that Aristotle considered essences to be metaphysical and every entity to be comprised of form, the universalizing factor, and matter, the particularizing factor. 
          Aristotle was also a this-worldly philosopher and scientist whose observations of the biological world led him to endorse realism, knowledge based on experience, and experience-based reasoning. For Aristotle, an immanent (or naïve) realist, what is general does not exist in isolation from what is individual. The existence of universals is thus dependent on the existence of particulars. Universals exist in the particulars that instantiate them. Aristotle holds that universals do exist, but not separately from the particulars. His view is that the one exists only as instantiated in the many. Both universals and particulars are real. Individual concrete entities exist in reality and universals exist only in particulars in the form of essences. In this way, Aristotle wedded universals to objects. The universal and the particular are indivisible in reality and are separable only in analysis and thought. All things are a composite of a "this" and a "such." Each object is an individual of a certain class. Aristotle distinguishes between matter and form. The matter is the individualizing and unique-making element or aspect. The form is the universalizing element that makes it a member of a particular class. Forms are joined to objects. 
          Aristotle's view is that concepts refer to essences that are within the concretes of the external world. An essence is an object's nature. It is made up of the invariant characteristics inherent in a thing. An essence is in an object from the time the entity is a potentiality all the way to its becoming and being an actuality. Aristotle explains change as matter getting restructured and as requiring identity. An object that changes is what it is, the thing that it changes into is what it is, and the change process itself is what it is. Change is the actualization of potential. It follows that the world of particulars and changes in particulars is rationally explainable. Change is the capacity to grow into something and is thus the actualization of potential. 
          Since universals exist only in particulars, we cannot apprehend the universal except through apprehension of the concrete. Matter is the underlying substratum in which development of form occurs. Aristotle is an "ontological essentialist" who defines essence as embodying the actual metaphysical nature of things. Essences exist in the world independent of the mind and are what a person's mind refers to when it forms concepts. 
          Knowledge is a natural process in the real world. Aristotle explains that it is natural for an animal with rational consciousness (i.e., man) to actualize its potential. This potential involves the ability to understand intelligible or law-governed structures and changes. It also includes the ability to apprehend that there are intelligibly impossible changes. Aristotle taught that the world encompasses both material and mental aspects and that it exists independently of our reasoning and thinking activities. In addition, there are certain essences in the world as well as knowable laws, structures, and connections governing them. He explains that there are no contradictions in nature (i.e., in reality). By a contradiction he means being both x and not x at the same time and in the same respect. Also, Aristotle emphasized individual human action in his Nichomachean Ethics thus inventing the concept of methodological individualism – the notion that collective entities such as states, communities, or classes are reducible to individuals in relation with one another. Furthermore, he emphasized deductive reasoning in which a person begins with self-evident axioms and deduces from them. 
          For Aristotle, essences or universals are phenomena intrinsic in reality and that exist in particulars. It follows that to comprehend essences or universals is at root a passive intuition or receptivity. Aristotle, the naturalistic realist, explains that knowledge begins and arises out of our sense experiences which are valid. It follows that a man can build on the evidence of the senses through reason which includes logic and the formation of abstractions. 
          Some contemporary thinkers find fault in Aristotle for viewing essences as metaphysical rather than as epistemological. They oppose Aristotle's apparent intuitionist view that essences are simply "intellectually seen." They contend that universals or concepts are the epistemological products of a classification process that represents particular types of entities. 
Human Action and Political Economy 
          In the Topics, Aristotle provides his philosophical analysis of human ends and means. He explains that means or instruments of production are valuable because their end products are useful to people. The more useful or desirable a good is, the higher the value of the means of production is. Aristotle then goes on to derive a number of economic ideas from axiomatic concepts including the necessity of human action, the pursuit of ends by ordering and allocating scarce means, and the reality of human inequality and diversity. 
          Aristotle explains that actions are necessarily and fundamentally singular. For Aristotle, the individual human action of using wealth is what constitutes the economic dimension. The purpose of economic action is to use things that are necessary for life (i.e., survival) and for the Good Life (i.e., flourishing). The Good Life is the moral life of virtue through which human beings attain happiness. 
          Given that human actions are voluntary and intentional, it follows that action requires the prior internal mental acts of deliberation and choice. Human beings seek to fulfill their perfection via action. Observing that human nature has capacities pertaining to its dual material and spiritual character, Aristotle explains that economics is an expression of that dual character. The economic sphere is the intersection between the corporeal and mental aspects of the human person. 
          Aristotle made a distinction between practical science and speculative science. He states that practical science is concerned with knowledge for the sake of controlling reality. It studies knowledge that may be otherwise (i.e., contingent knowledge). Practical science studies relationships that are not constant, regular, or invariable. Aristotle classifies economics as a practical science. On the other hand, Aristotle sees speculative science as yielding necessary, universal, noncontingent truths. Speculative science generates universal truths deduced from self-evident principles known by induction. The goal of speculative science is knowledge for its own sake. Mathematics and metaphysics would be speculative sciences for Aristotle. 
          Aristotle taught that economics is concerned with both the household and the polis and that economics deals with the use of things required for the good (or virtuous) life. As a pragmatic or practical science, economics is aimed at the good and is fundamentally moral. Because Aristotle saw that economics was embedded in politics, an argument can be made that the study of political economy began with him. 
          For Aristotle, the primary meaning of economics is the action of using things required for the Good Life. In addition, he also sees economics as a practical science and as a capacity that fosters habits that expedite the action. Economics is a type of prudence or practical knowledge that aids a person in properly obtaining and using those things that are necessary for living well. The end of economics as a practical science is attaining effective action. 
          Aristotle explains that ontologically the operation of the economic dimension of reality is inextricably related to the moral and political spheres. The economic element is integrated in real action with other realms relating to the acting human person. The various domains mutually influence one another in an ongoing dynamic fashion. 
          Aristotle explains that practical science recognizes the inexact nature of its conclusions as a consequence of human action which arises from each person's freedom and uniqueness. Uncertainty emanates from the nature of the world and the free human person and is a necessary aspect of economic actions that will always be in attendance. Aristotle observes that a practical science such as economics must be intimately connected to the concrete circumstances and that it is proper to begin with what is known to us. 
Individuals, Communities, and the State 
          The highest or most general good to which all individuals should aim is to live most fully a life that is proper to man. The proper function of every person is to live happily, successfully, and well. This is done through the active exercise of a man's distinctive capacity, rationality, as he engages in activities to the degree appropriate to the person in the context of his own particular identity as a human being. 
          Because man is naturally social, it is good for him to live in a society or polis (i.e., a city-state). Aristotle emphasizes the individuating characteristics of human beings when he proclaims that the goodness of the polis is inextricably related to those who make it up. For Aristotle, social life in a community is a necessary condition for a man's complete flourishing as a human being. 
          Aristotle explains that friendship, the mutual admiration between two human beings, is a necessary condition for the attainment of one's eudaimonia. Because man is a social being, it can be maintained that friendship has an egoistic foundation. It follows that authentic friendship is predicated upon one's sense of his own moral worth and on his love for and pride in himself. Moral admiration, both of oneself and of the other, is an essential component of Aristotelian friendship. Self-perfection means to fulfill the capacities that make a person fully human including other-directed capacities such as friendship. 
          Noting that individuals form communities to secure life's necessities, Aristotle also emphasizes the importance of active citizen participation in government. He views the proper end of government as the promotion of its citizens' happiness. It follows that the goodness of the polis is directly related to the total self-actualization of the individuals who comprise it. 
          Aristotle contends that the state exists for the good of the individual. He thus preferred the rule of law over the rule of any of the citizens. This is because men have private interests whereas laws do not. It follows that the "mixed regime" advocated by Aristotle was the beginning of the notion of constitutionalism including the separation of powers and checks and balances. He was the first thinker to divide rulership activities into executive, legislative, and judicial functions. Through his support for a mixed political system, Aristotle was able to avoid and reject both Platonic communism and radical democracy. 
          For Aristotle, an entity that fulfills its proper (i.e., essential) function is one that performs well or excellently. He explains that the nature of a thing is the measure or standard in terms of which we judge whether or not it is functioning appropriately or well. Things are good for Aristotle when they advance their specific or respective ends. 
Human Flourishing 
          Aristotle bases the understandability of the good in the idea of what is good for the specific entity under consideration. For whatever has a natural function, the good is therefore thought to reside in the function. The natural function of a thing is determined by its natural end. With respect to living things, there are particular ways of being that constitute the perfection of the living thing's nature. 
          According to Aristotle, there is an end of all of the actions that we perform which we desire for itself. This is what is known as eudaimonia, flourishing, or happiness, which is desired for its own sake with all other things being desired on its account. Eudaimonia is a property of one's life when considered as a whole. Flourishing is the highest good of human endeavors and that toward which all actions aim. It is success as a human being. The best life is one of excellent human activity. 
          For Aristotle, the good is what is good for purposeful, goal-directed entities. He defines the good proper to human beings as the activities in which the life functions specific to human beings are most fully realized. For Aristotle, the good of each species is teleologically immanent to that species. A person's nature as a human being provides him with guidance with respect to how he should live his life. A fundamental fact of human nature is the existence of individual human beings each with his own rational mind and free will. The use of one's volitional consciousness is a person's distinctive capacity and means of survival. 
          One's own life is the only life that a person has to live. It follows that, for Aristotle, the "good" is what is objectively good for a particular man. Aristotle's eudaimonia is formally egoistic in that a person's normative reason for choosing particular actions stems from the idea that he must pursue his own good or flourishing. Because self-interest is flourishing, the good in human conduct is connected to the self-interest of the acting person. Good means "good for" the individual moral agent. Egoism is an integral part of Aristotle's ethics. 
Ethics, Virtue, and Self-Interest 
          In his ethical writings, Aristotle endorses egoism, rationality, and the value of life. He insisted that the key idea in ethics is a human individual's own personal happiness and well being. Each man is responsible for his own character. According to Aristotle, each person has a natural obligation to achieve, become, and make something of himself by pursuing his true ends and goals in life. Each person should be concerned with the "best that is within us" and with the most accomplished and self-sufficient success and excellence. 
     « The distinction of a good person is to take pleasure in moral action. In other words, human flourishing occurs when a person is concurrently doing what he ought to do and doing what he wants to do. »
          According to Aristotle, the "moral" refers to whatever is related to a person's character. He taught that the value of virtuous activity resides in realizing a state of eudaimonic character. Such a state must be achieved by a man's own efforts. A person needs to pursue rational or intelligent efforts in pursuing goods and in otherwise taking control of his own life. Because a man might fail or be thwarted in his efforts, Aristotle explained that a person should be more concerned with his fitness to achieve success than with the existential attainment of the success itself. 
          Aristotle insists that ethical knowledge is possible and that it is grounded in human nature. Because human beings possess a nature that governs how they act, the perfection or fulfillment of their nature is their end. A human being is ordered to self-perfection and self-perfection is, in essence, human moral development. The goal of a person's life is to live rationally and to develop both the intellectual and moral virtues. There are attributes central to human nature the development of which leads to human flourishing and a good human life. According to Aristotle, the key characteristics of human nature can be discerned through empirical investigation. 
          Aristotle teaches that ethical theory is connected to the type of life that is most desirable or most worth living for each and every human being. It follows that human flourishing is always particularized and that there is an inextricable connection between virtue and self-interest. He explains that the virtuous man is constantly using practical wisdom in the pursuit of the good life. A man wants and needs to gain a knowledge of virtue in order to become virtuous, good, and happy. The distinction of a good person is to take pleasure in moral action. In other words, human flourishing occurs when a person is concurrently doing what he ought to do and doing what he wants to do. When such ways of being occur through free choice, they are deemed to be choice-worthy and the basis for ethics. 
          The purpose of ethical inquiry is a practical matter according to Aristotle. He explains that practical wisdom is not only concerned with universals (such as good or value), but also with particulars which became known through experience in the choices and activities of life. He states that it is important to have practical experience with particulars if one is to optimally benefit from philosophical inquiry into ethics. Aristotle thus emphasizes the power of judgment beyond the guidance of general theory. Experience helps to perfect a person's power of moral judgment. He notes that one's facticity, including his past choices, and the contingent situation are relevant considerations in determining a correct choice. Proper actions are in the particulars that differ considerably from case to case. 
          Aristotle's this-worldly intrinsicism says that universals exist in particulars and that men can abstract or intuit the essences or universals out of the particulars. Aristotle wants to ground his theory of concepts in the facts of reality but is not fully explicit with respect to methods by which essences get imprinted on a man's mind. He does see man as scientifically looking at reality, gathering instances, isolating and classifying phenomena, detecting similarities, discerning patterns and regularities, and obtaining essences upon which concepts and laws are constructed. Aristotle refers to this process as intuitive induction. 
          Aristotle saw a universal teleology or purposiveness in which everything in the universe was goal-directed and striving to actualize its essence. For him, an object actualizes its distinctive essence when it achieves an identity of formal and final causation. Man, as a rational being with free will, should strive for his own perfection. By achieving his fulfillment and all-around development he would attain happiness or eudaimonia. It follows that in ethics a man should choose actions that are proper to man qua man. 
          Aristotle thought that it was possible to conduct rational research with respect to value. He saw practical science as an essentially evaluative or moral science. A practical science is ethical to the extent that it takes into account the ethical aspects of the subject being studied. 
          Aristotle regarded reality as ordered and taught that order with respect to human affairs is a project or effort through which people aspire to happiness through the cultivation of virtues. He asserts that the end of politics is the good for man. According to Aristotle, the virtue of prudence is personal, freely pursued, and changeable according to situations. A prudent action for one individual may not be a prudent action for another person. Nevertheless, the integration of freely made prudent and varying actions results in social coordination. He believed that economic coordination is attainable when persons prudently choose and undertake economic transactions with others. Aristotle believed that human flourishing requires a life with other people. 
          Aristotle taught that people acquire virtues (i.e., good habits) through practice and that a set of concrete virtues could lead a person toward his natural excellence and happiness. Aristotle viewed economic activity as a means of coordination through which persons would have the opportunity to obtain the external goods necessary to attain happiness. Morally good habits promote stable and predictable behavior and foster coordination in an imperfect world. Habits, natural dispositions created through the repetition of actions, underpin virtues. 
          Aristotle did not regard ethics as an exact science. He said that matters of conduct are not found in an exact system, not only in dealing with specific cases of conduct, but also with respect to the general theory of ethics. He explains that a person must both investigate the nature of virtue and learn through experience to discern, consider for themselves, and competently judge the particulars of the circumstances of each situation. Aristotle thus emphasizes both the difficulty of devising general principles of moral action and the importance of perception and judgment in practical decisions. One's practical wisdom is a kind of insight, perception, or sense of what to do. 
          Aristotle tells us that virtues, as constituents of happiness, are acquired through habituation. He also explains that virtue can be understood as a moral mean between two vices - one of excess and one of deficiency. Such a mean is not scientific or easy to calculate. Aristotle's moral virtues are desire-regulating character traits which can be found at a mean between extreme vices. For example, courage is the virtuous mean between rashness as a vice of excess and cowardice as a vice of deficiency. 
          With respect to ethical judgments, Aristotle expounds that a person should not expect more certainty in methods or results than the nature of the subject matter permits. It is obvious then that Aristotle did not regard ethics as an exact science. His modern critics' explanation of Aristotle's position on ethical exactness is that it was a consequence of the intrinsicist elements of his epistemology. Because Aristotle considers universals, concepts, or essences as metaphysical rather than as epistemological, it is difficult, if not impossible, for him to explain how one sees or intuits "good," "value," "ethical," and so on when he is confronted with various optional actions or objects. 
Self-Perfection, Self-Direction, and the Limited State 
          An Aristotelian self-perfectionist approach to ethics can be shown to support the natural right to liberty which itself provides a solid foundation for a minimal state. This approach gives liberty moral significance by illustrating how the natural right to liberty is a social and political condition necessary for the possibility of human flourishing – the ultimate moral standard in Aristotelian ethics interpreted as a natural-end ethics. A foundation is thus provided for a classical liberal political theory within the Aristotelian tradition. Modern proponents of this approach include Tibor R. Machan, Douglas B. Rasmussen, Douglas J. Den Uyl, and others. 
          Human flourishing (also known as personal flourishing) involves the rational use of one's individual human potentialities, including talents, abilities, and virtues in the pursuit of his freely and rationally chosen values and goals. An action is considered to be proper if it leads to the flourishing of the person performing the action. Human flourishing is, at the same time, a moral accomplishment and a fulfillment of human capacities, and it is one through being the other. Self-actualization is moral growth and vice-versa. 
          Not an abstraction, human flourishing is real and highly personal (i.e., agent relative) by nature, consists in the fulfillment of both a man's human nature and his unique potentialities, and is concerned with choices and actions that necessarily deal with the particular and the contingent. One man's self-realization is not the same as another's. What is called for in terms of concrete actions such as choice of career, education, friends, home, and others, varies from person to person. Human flourishing becomes an actuality when one uses his practical reason to consider his unique needs, circumstances, capacities, and so on, to determine which concrete instantiations of human values and virtues will comprise his well-being. The idea of human flourishing is inclusive and can encompass a wide variety of constitutive ends such as knowledge, the development of character traits, productive work, religious pursuits, community building, love, charitable activities, allegiance to persons and causes, self-efficacy, material well-being, pleasurable sensations, etc. 
          To flourish, a man must pursue goals that are both rational for him individually and also as a human being. Whereas the former will vary depending upon one's particular circumstances, the latter are common to man's distinctive nature – man has the unique capacity to live rationally. The use of reason is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for human flourishing. Living rationally (i.e., consciously) means dealing with the world conceptually. Living consciously implies respect for the facts of reality. The principle of living consciously is not affected by the degree of one's intelligence nor the extent of one's knowledge; rather, it is the acceptance and use of one's reason in the recognition and perception of reality and in his choice of values and actions to the best of his ability, whatever that ability may be. To pursue rational goals through rational means is the only way to cope successfully with reality and achieve one's goals. Although rationality is not always rewarded, the fact remains that it is through the use of one's mind that a man not only discovers the values required for personal flourishing, he also attains them. Values can be achieved in reality if a man recognizes and adheres to the reality of his unique personal endowments and contingent circumstances. Human flourishing is positively related to a rational man's attempts to externalize his values and actualize his internal views of how things ought to be in the outside world. Practical reason can be used to choose, create, and integrate all the values and virtues that comprise personal flourishing. 
          Virtues are the means to values which enable us to achieve human flourishing and happiness. The constituent virtues such as rationality, independence, integrity, justice, honesty, courage, trustworthiness, productiveness, benevolence, and pride (moral ambitiousness) must be applied, although differentially, by each person in the task of self-actualization. Not only do particular virtues play larger roles in the lives of some men than others, there is also diversity in the concrete with respect to the objects and purposes of their application, the way in which they are applied, and the manner in which they are integrated with other virtues and values. Choosing and making the proper response for the unique situation is the concern of moral living – one needs to use his practical reason at the time of action to consider concrete contingent circumstances and to determine the correct application and balance of virtues and values for himself. Although virtues and values are not automatically rewarded, this does not alter the fact that they are rewarded. Human flourishing is the reward of the virtues and values and happiness is the goal and reward of human flourishing. 
          Self-direction (i.e., autonomy) involves the use of one's reason and is central and necessary for the possibility of attaining human flourishing, self-esteem, and happiness. It is the only characteristic of flourishing that is both common to all acts of self-actualization and particular to each. Freedom in decision making and behavior is a necessary operating condition for the pursuit and achievement of human flourishing. Respect for individual autonomy is required because autonomy is essential to human flourishing. This logically leads to the endorsement of the right of personal direction of one's life, including the use of his endowments, capacities, and energies. 
          These natural (i.e., negative) rights are metanormative principles concerned with protecting the self-directedness of individuals thus ensuring the freedom through which individuals can pursue their flourishing. The goal of the right to liberty is to secure the possibility of human flourishing by protecting the possibility of self-directedness. This is done by preventing encroachments upon the conditions under which human flourishing can occur. Natural rights impose a negative obligation – the obligation not to interfere with one's liberty. Natural rights, therefore, require a legal system that provides the necessary conditions for the possibility that individuals might self-actualize. It follows that the proper role of the government is to protect man's natural rights through the use of force, but only in response, and only against those who initiate its use. In order to provide the maximum self-determination for each person, the state should be limited to maintaining justice, police, and defense, and to protecting life, liberty, and property. 
          The negative right to liberty, as a basic metanormative principle, provides a context in which all the diverse forms of personal flourishing may coexist in an ethically compossible manner. This right can be accorded to every person with no one's authority over himself requiring that any other person experience a loss of authority over himself. Such a metanormative standard for social conduct favors no particular form of human flourishing while concurrently providing a context within which diverse forms of human flourishing can be pursued. 
Recommended Reading
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Brakas, George. Aristotle's Concept of the Universal. Hildesheim and New York: Georg Olms, 1988.
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Cooper, John. Reason and Human Good in Aristotle. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1975.
Gotthelf, A., ed. Aristotle on Nature and Living Things. Bristol, 1985: 259-73.
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Hardie, W.F.R. Aristotle's Ethical Theory. Oxford , 1968.
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Irwin, Terence. Aristotle's First Principles. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.
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