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Aristotle’s Guide To Living Well
Lawrence Evans contemplates Aristotle’s argument that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life, and that it can best be found in philosophical contemplation.
Aristotle’s most famous work on ethics is the Nicomachean Ethics, which aims to describe the ultimate end and good for human beings.
One of the most puzzling features of this classic is that Aristotle seems to waver between two views. These are firstly that happiness involves the activity of the moral as well as the intellectual virtues (this is sometimes called ‘inclusivism’ by Aristotle scholars) and secondly that happiness consists in nothing but the intellectual activity of contemplation (sometimes called ‘exclusivism’). In this article I will explore what he says about happiness, and ultimately conclude that for Aristotle perfect happiness indeed consists in philosophical contemplation.
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At the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle first aims to show that there is an ultimate end (that is, goal) of life. This end, he says, is the chief good which is desirable for its own sake, and this is what we ultimately seek and desire in all our actions. Aristotle then says that everyone agrees that this highest good is happiness (Greek eudaimonia, literally meaning ‘good spirits’), and that living and doing well are the same as being happy. Yet as a definition this alone is rather primitive, as it does not really tell us what happiness is.
Aristotle discusses three different lifestyles all traditionally thought to be happy: the life of pleasure, the political life, and the virtuous life. He rejects the identification of happiness with the life of pleasure because such a life is ‘slavish’ and ‘suitable [only] for cattle’. Neither can happiness be equated with honour – usually considered the goal of political life – because that depends more on those who honour than on the one honoured. Nor can happiness simply be equated with the possession of virtue, since someone who was asleep could possess virtue but not exercise it, or they could suffer terrible misfortunes despite their virtue, and no one would call such a person happy. Aristotle therefore concludes that those traditional conceptions of the good life are each lacking in certain respects. But two things need to be noticed. First, he does not reject the political life per se. What he rejects is the traditional idea that its goal is honour, or even virtue. Second, he has no criticisms to make of the contemplative life, but simply says it will be discussed later. This is an early indication that he is already considering it as a prominent candidate for happiness. As we will see in Book X, Aristotle concludes that the contemplative life is superior to the political life and satisfies the requirements for happiness to the highest degree. Yet before Aristotle can reach this conclusion, he needs to show that the chief good really is happiness.
To achieve this, the first requirement is that the chief good be ‘ultimate’ or ‘perfect’ (Greek teleios, literally ‘end-like’). The translation of this term is important. Supporters of the inclusive conception of happiness argue for the translation ‘complete’, saying that happiness is the most complete good in the sense that it includes other goods, such as honour, pleasure, and virtue. But there seems little textual support for this view. Rather, in calling an end ‘final’, Aristotle means simply that we choose it for its own sake and not for the sake of something else:
“Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these (for example, wealth, flutes, and in general instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are several, the most final of them.” (Nicomachean Ethics 1097a25-30)
The ‘most final’ end is therefore unqualifiedly final – it is always desirable for itself and never for the sake of something else: the thought here seems to be that since the chief good is ultimately choice-worthy, it cannot be chosen for anything else other than itself. Happiness, Aristotle says, seems to meet this requirement, since it is always chosen for its own sake and never for the sake of something else. There are, indeed, several ‘final’ ends, or at least things that are good in themselves – honour, pleasure, intellect and every virtue – but these are also chosen for the sake of happiness. Some people assume their happiness lies in pleasure, others in virtue… but happiness is the most (that is, true) final end, since it is never chosen for anything else other than itself. In this sense, it is truly an end.
The second requirement is self-sufficiency. In saying that the chief good must be ‘self-sufficient’, Aristotle means that it is the good which, when taken alone, makes life desirable and lacking in nothing. And happiness, again, seems to satisfy this.
We proceed to one of the most famous arguments of the Nicomachean Ethics, the so-called ‘function argument’. It is here that we find Aristotle’s account of happiness.
As I pointed out, Aristotle says that both the many and the wise agree that happiness is the chief good; but we are no further in finding out what it is. Perhaps, then, he suggests, we may find a clearer account by finding the ergon (or function) of man. The translation of this word as ‘function’ is somewhat tendentious: it is surely an odd thought that Aristotle thinks humans have a ‘function’, as if we are somehow a tool designed to fulfil a specific purpose. The notion of ‘task’ or ‘characteristic activity’ better captures Aristotle’s intention. Just as carpenters and shoemakers have their tasks to perform, and so too every bodily part, we may also propose that there is a task of a human being apart from all these. The particularily human task cannot be merely living, he argues, since plants do this too; nor can it be simply a life of perception, since this would not distinguish us from horses, oxen, or any other animals. The remaining possibility for Aristotle, is a life of activating the rational part of our soul. Hence this must be our function.
When we speak of someone being good at something, we mean they do that thing well. The same is said of one who has a task: a good flute-player plays the flute well. Just so, a good man performs his function well. But to do something well itself means to do it in accordance with its appropriate ‘excellence’ or ‘virtue’. Therefore, Aristotle argues, the ultimate human good must be an activity of the rational soul in accordance with virtue. There is a caveat: if there are several virtues, then the ultimate human good will be in accordance with the best and most perfect virtue. This has caused strain for commentators. Does Aristotle mean to include the exercise of all the virtues in happiness? Or does he mean to narrow it down to the exercise of a single supreme virtue? In my view, the natural reading here (and the traditional interpretation) is that, just as with his requirement for finality, Aristotle wishes to use his ‘if… most final of them’ conditional to narrow down from many virtues to one: if there are several human virtues, then final or perfect happiness will be in accordance with the best and most perfect of them. So what we ultimately desire, in seeking an account of happiness, will be the most perfect virtue, the following of which will make us happy. In fact, the most perfect virtue will be found to be philosophical understanding (sophia), although this is not made explicit yet in Book I.
At the end of Book I Aristotle proceeds to divide virtues into two kinds: moral and intellectual. He then discusses the nature of the virtues in subsequent Books. Along the way we discover that intellectual virtues are superior to moral virtues. For example, practical wisdom (phronesis) is associated with the possession of all the moral virtues, but we learn that philosophical wisdom (sophia) – that is, understanding which concerns eternal truths – is superior to practical wisdom, which concerns the changing world of human affairs.
Plato by Ron Schepper 2020. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This brings us to Book X. If happiness is an activity in accordance with virtue, as the function argument concluded, it is reasonable, Aristotle further argues, for it to be in accordance with the most superior virtue, which will be the virtue of the best or highest thing in us – namely our intellect (nous). But philosophical understanding (sophia) was found to be the most superior among all the virtues. Perfect happiness, therefore, will be the activity of intellect in accordance with philosophical understanding, an activity which Aristotle calls ‘contemplation’ (theoria). Aristotle then proceeds to show that contemplation satisfies the requirements of happiness laid down earlier. Contemplation is the best activity since it involves our intellect, the best thing in us. Of all activities it is the one we can do most continuously; it is also the most enjoyable, since understanding is the pleasantest of virtuous activities. It is the most self-sufficient too, since one can contemplate even when alone, whereas moral activity always requires someone else: I cannot be generous if there is no one to be generous to. Contemplation is also the most choice-worthy activity, since nothing arises from it apart from itself. It is its own reward, and inherently pleasurable, whereas from practical activities some other goods may be gained, such as honour. And contemplation is the most leisurely activity, whereas practical activities are often associated with political or military affairs, and so are frequently unleisurely. So long as we live a sufficiently long life, contemplation will be the perfect or final happiness of human beings – what we ultimately seek.
Aristotle does recognise the importance of the moral virtues, but he calls the happiness involving such virtues ‘secondary’ (1178a9). He thinks this because such morally virtuous activities involve our complex human nature, the composite of our non-rational and rational parts of our soul. It is unclear exactly what relation Aristotle intended the second-class happiness of the moral virtues to have to the perfect happiness of contemplation. But there is no evidence that he thinks that moral virtue adds anything to the happiness of the contemplator. Even so, Aristotle recognises that in so far as we are human, and live alongside other people, we will sometimes be required to act morally (1178b5-7).
It seems clear then that for Aristotle perfect happiness consists entirely in contemplation. But what is contemplation?
Aristotle says frustratingly little in the Nicomachean Ethics about what contemplation is, so the notion remains somewhat obscure. What is clear is that it does not mean, as we might be tempted to imagine, the inquiry or search for truth and knowledge about the world, like a scientist or researcher. As Aristotle says, “it is reasonable that those who know will pass their time more pleasantly than those who inquire” (1177a26-27). However, it is far from clear why this is ‘reasonable’ at all. Perhaps what Aristotle means is that the pleasure in discovering some truth is the realisation that comes with knowing this truth for the first time, and that such realisation is a more desirable and pleasurable goal than the process of inquiry that enabled its discovery. In any case, the kind of contemplation Aristotle has in mind is ‘of things noble and divine’ (1177a15). The contemplation of eternal truth, then, involves a share in something divine. Indeed, this becomes evident from Aristotle’s clinching argument that happiness is contemplation – that of all human activities, contemplation is the activity most akin to the activity of God (1178b21-23).
Some readers of Aristotle have pointed to an apparent inconsistency here. On the one hand, Aristotle says that the contemplative life is ‘too high’ for us (1177a26); on the other, he tells us that perfect happiness is the activity of the element in us that is the most human of all (1178a6), which would be the contemplative activity of the intellect. The inconsistency seems, then, to be between saying that the intellect is what is most human in us and saying that the intellect is divine. Here, though, lies a subtlety in Aristotle’s argument. Just as for non-human animals the appetitive soul (the part which drives them to satisfy bodily needs) might be identified as ‘something human’ in so far as it also belongs to us too, yet is in fact the part which is most animal of all, since it is their best element, so the human intellect might be identified as ‘something divine’, in so far as it belongs to divine beings, yet is in fact the part of us which is most human, as it is our best element, and distinguishes us from other animals. Each of us should strive, then, Aristotle argues, to live in accordance with our best element, identifying ourselves not with our complex human nature, but with our intellect. This is what he seems to mean when he says that “we must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and do everything to live in accordance with the highest thing in us” (1177b33-34).
Platonic Aristotelian Happiness
In many respects Aristotle was a Platonist. For example, like his teacher Plato, he believed in the existence of forms; but unlike Plato, he denied that they had an eternal existence independent of the matter of the objects they belonged with. Aristotle’s account of happiness in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics is also similar to what we find in some of Plato’s dialogues. His exhortation that we should, so far as we can, act as an immortal, shares none of the words (in the Greek) of Plato’s corresponding argument in the Theaetetus, but its resemblance is uncanny:
“We ought to fly away from earth to heaven as quickly as we can; and to fly away means to become like God, as far as this is possible; and to become like him, means to become holy, just, and wise.”
Plato also argues in his dialogue Timaeus that we should identify ourselves with the divine principle in our heads – our intellect – and take care of it. Taking care of our intellect involves nourishing it with what is naturally akin to it; and the motions naturally akin to the divine principle within us are the thoughts and revolutions of the universe. By aligning the revolutions in our head – our thoughts – with the harmonies and revolutions of the universe, we correct its revolutions, which were corrupted at our birth, and we assimilate our thoughts to God’s own. This allows us to share in the divine and immortality, as far as this is possible for human beings; and also in happiness, while having our divinity – our spirit or daimôn – well-ordered (Timaeus 90a-d).
The goal of life, therefore, for both Plato and Aristotle, is, in a sense, to flee from this world by detaching oneself from earthly concerns and devoting one’s attention to the study of the heavens and the eternal truths. This allows us to become ‘like God’. This does not, of course, mean that one wholly neglects other activities in life. Aristotle is clear that contemplation, like Plato’s ‘becoming like God’, is no more than a pale imitation of God’s contemplation, and in so far as we are human, we will sometimes also be required to act morally. But it does mean that your life is, or ought to be, essentially directed toward contemplation.
That both Plato and Aristotle considered a purely intellectual life to be true happiness or eudaimonia is strengthened by the etymology. Your intellect is your own personal daimon, or divine spirit, and adding to daimon the prefix eu-, meaning ‘well’, gives us eudaimonia, which therefore means having your intellect in a well-ordered state, which is their idea of happiness.
Many of us will be reluctant to accept this picture of happiness – that what it truly means to live well is to become like God in the contemplation of eternal truths. However, Aristotle’s thoughts on ethics and human nature have had an immense influence, and still continue to do so. The idea of the superiority of the life of contemplation and study over that of the active life had particular influence in early Christian circles. Perhaps also as philosophers we sometimes find solace in contemplation, away from earthly, practical concerns. At these moments at least, we may partly attain the goal of life that Aristotle had in mind.
© Lawrence Evans 2022
Lawrence Evans has master’s degrees in philosophy and the philosophy of science from University College London and the London School of Economics. He is currently a PhD student specialising in Aristotle’s Ethics and Ancient Greek philosophy at University College London.