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Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: The Original and Best Self-help Book

The self-improvement market is estimated to grow to $13.2billion by 2022. And according to market research, we spend $800 million on self-help books.

With this much money being spent on self-help, what kind of help are Americans really searching for?

Aristotle claimed that humans want to know how to be happy, and how to be good.

Aristotle taught that it is happiness to achieve all the goods - health, wealth, knowledge, friends, etc. - which lead to the perfection of one's nature and to the enrichment of one's life. We achieve these goals by the exercise of virtue which forms our character.

Nicomachean Ethics offers accounts of human happiness and welfare; the nature of a good person; the psychology of action and character; the virtues of character and intellect; praise, blame, and moral responsibility; practical reason; weakness of will; self-interest and the interest of others; the role of friendship in the good life; and the relationship between pleasure and goodness.

In Book I, Chapter I, he begins, “Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and choice, seems to aim at some good, and hence it has been beautifully said that the good is that at which all things aim.”

Here Aristotle is describing every voluntary action. Every time we make something, or “art,” every time we seek some knowledge, or an “inquiry,” and with every “choice” and “action,” we aim at some good.

Aristotle notes that a thing (or a person) is best understood by looking at its end, purpose, or goal. The purpose of a glass is to hold liquid. The purpose of a horse bridle is to assist a person in riding a horse. Objects and persons reach their "highest good" when they fulfill their respective purposes within themselves. The hierarchy of ends has a corresponding hierarchy of goods. That is, some things are chosen for the sake of others. The good is the end as desired; the end is what is achieved and so can also be called the good or the goal. Bridle making chosen for the sake of riding a horse, riding a horse for the sake of cavalry, cavalry for the sake of military, military for the sake of civilization...

This is important because we need to understand that all things we desire are good in and of themselves, but there is a hierarchy of goods and we can desire some things disproportionately more, and for bad ends, and to the exclusion or by ignoring the higher good.

This is especially true when it comes to our lower appetites, for which Aristotle says we can let dominate our life.

When our appetites are ordered by right reason, they can actually lead to our good, for the good which the appetites pursue are real goods, and so reason should take those real goods into consideration in the universal and higher good of the individual (Ripperger, 2007, p. 209).

This is where Nicomecian Ethics stands out above all other self-help books because it will help you see and determine a hierarchy of goods. I discuss this more in Our Search for True Happiness

So what is the ideal or supreme goal for humans?

Happiness. That's it. We make every decision we make for the sake of happiness according to Aristotle, and so to him it is our ultimate end.

What brings us true happiness, then?

The perfection of human nature: and since man is a rational animal, human happiness depends on the exercise of his reason.

Happiness depends on acquiring a moral character, where one displays the virtues of courage, generosity, justice, friendship, and citizenship in one's life. These virtues involve striking a balance or "mean" between an excess and a deficiency (vice). It is after all what we all desire.

This happiness requires intellectual contemplation, for this is the ultimate realization of our rational capacities. "It is natural, that is in accordance with nature, for a reasonable being such as man to desire and strive for that which reason recognizes as good" (Wotyla, 1960, p. 168). Our natural and basic moral inclinations to the good do not limit our happiness. The more developed they are, the happier you will become! Nicomachean Ethics is perhaps the best self-help book out there, in that it will help you define and determine this good, which is necessary first in foremost to set out and achieve it. Put Nicomachean Ethics as your next self help book. You may discover the true happiness and life fulfilment you long for.

Odell Terrell

Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places an emphasis on working with spiritual integration, adults and adolescents, trauma, family and children, and grief and loss. Odell received his undergraduate degree from the University of St. Leo's in St. Leo Florida, with a degree in Psychology. He has spent his last 15 years working in the field of emergency services. It is in working with people in emergency situations, both patients and first responders, that Odell has learned how to deal respectively with people in crises mode, helping instill a sense of hope and healing. Odell is happily married, for 17 years, and is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.


Ripperger, C. (2013). Introduction to the science of mental health. Sensus Traditionis Press.

Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 83(5), 1178-1197. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.83.5.1178

Wojtyla, K. (1960). Love and responsibility. London: William Collins Sons & Co.

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