Aristotle is the grandfather of ethics and human flourishing; his book The Nicomachean Ethics has been a classic read in philosophy and ethics courses at universities since about 340 B.C.E. He studied with Plato and is largely credited with inventing logic and natural science. In this blog, I will share a brief outline of Aristotle’s first section entitled “The Human Good”, including a few quotations about humanity’s highest aspirations and virtues.
I. All human activities aim at some good; some goods subordinate to others
By some good, Aristotle is essentially describing a positive outcome. Money, fame, and contemplation are these ends of which he writes. “[T]hat at which all things aim” is his wording. He is referring to the few things which could be considered humanity’s highest aspirations – those things we seek for its own sake. For example, money wouldn’t qualify because except maybe in the case of Charles Dickens’s Ebeneezer Scrooge, humans can’t do anything with money per se; it is always used for some purpose (vacations, cars, food, etc) which is meant to bring about some positive end (security, a feeling of self-worth, happiness, etc.).
If there were one thing which was sought above all else (i.e., that state or product which is the highest of humanity’s highest aspirations), it would be the chief good, according to Aristotle.
Aristotle thinks that the ends, or what is produced, is higher or better than the activity that does the producing. “The end of medical art is health,” for example.
II. The science of the human good is politics
Aristotle believes that politics, or the way human beings organize themselves, govern one another, and officially interact, should be the end of all the sciences. This is necessarily a social phenomenon. This is what humankind is uniquely ready and suited for: to live amongst one another in a polis (a city-state, in Ancient Greek thinking). I do not know if Aristotle believes that politics is a convention, or natural. I even read a footnote in the Oxford World Classics edition and it’s a bit beyond me.
“And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-around [good, liberal] education is a good judge in general.”
“For to such persons, as to the incontinent [lacking in moderation and self-control], knowledge brings no profit; but to choose those who desire and act in accordance with reason, knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit.“
III. What is the human good?
Aristotle thinks that the pinnacle of humanity’s highest aspirations “is generally agreed to be happiness.” He points out, though, that “there are various views as to what happiness is.” Fair enough!
“Both the general run of men and people of superior refinement…identify living well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or honor….”
Aristotle emphasizes a point that is known to modern psychologists and many parents: that a person who aims to be ethical in conduct should have ideally been brought up in that way. Think of a “level system” as made popular by Dungeons & Dragons: a first-level character will not be as hardy and as capable as a 10th-level one. It is so with living a virtuous life; if your parents and teachers taught you by word and by example, it will be second-nature as one becomes an adult.
He definitely feels that character, excellence, virtue, and other of humanity’s highest aspirations are essentially formed by habit more than a fact of birth. “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence but we rather have these because we have acted rightly….” he wrote.
IV. The ideal life
“The Philosopher,” as Aquinas referred to him, teaches about a life of pleasure, of enjoyment, and does not think very highly of it. There is also another way of living, according to Aristotle, and that is the political life. Definitely a worthwhile and natural pursuit. The third, and the one Aristotle touts as the noblest of humanity’s highest aspirations is a contemplative life.
Aristotle points out in this section that “people of superior refinement and active disposition identify happiness with honor…. But it seems too superficial to be what we are looking for….” The end of that sentence should ideally read “when it comes to what the best kind of life is; what is worth living for” (my words). He eschews honor, which was basically the “wealth” of Ancient Athens, because a) it is bestowed upon one by others, and, therefore, it can be taken away. It is also rather extrinsic in nature. Aristotle is looking for more solid ground on which to set the idea of the highest good.
“Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”
He also points out that “wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking, for it is merely useful for the sake of something else.“
V. Discussion of the philosophical view that there is a Form of good
Here, Aristotle suggests that we “consider the universal good and discuss roughly what is meant by it….” He is referencing the Forms, as postulated by Plato, his long-time teacher at The Academy. His break from Plato’s conception makes for a very interesting situation, and he basically says (paraphrased in modern English): I love Plato, of course, but his idea of the Forms is unsubstantiated, and therefore, I can’t honor him and sin against philosophy by claiming that I agree with him on this point.
He goes on for some time about this idea, and sort of ends with: “…with regard to the Idea, even if there is some one good which is universally predictable of goods, or is capable of separate and independent existence, clearly it could not be achieved or attained by man, and we are now seeking something attainable.” Aristotle is basically dismissing Plato’s idea of the Forms as too transcendent to be a part of this book, about ethics: human conduct.
VI. The good must be something final and self-sufficient. The definition of happiness is reached by considering the characteristic function of man
The good is essentially “that for whose sake everything else is done. In medicine this is health, in strategy it is victory, in architecture a house….”
Lesley Brown, Ph.D., the editor of this edition of The Nicomachean Ethics clarifies that this final end Aristotle refers to is “endlike” (teleion), and “picks up on the idea of the good as what is aimed at for itself. Happiness is ‘most final’ since [it is] never pursued for the sake of something else, while all other things, even those pursued for their own sake, such as pleasure or virtue, may be pursued for the sake of happiness.” This is the crux of Aristotle’s Book I, I believe – that happiness is the ultimate end of all we humans do. It is, thus, the apex of humanity’s highest aspirations. All roads of human psychology end here.
“Among all willing injustices, most occur out of greed and ambition.”
I will quote Aristotle at length on this topic of happiness (albeit a bit wordy of a paragraph): “…therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else. Such a thing, happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else. However, honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves…we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that through them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one would choose for the sake of these, nor in general for anything other than itself.”
The point is made that happiness makes one self-sufficient; that is, if we were stranded on a desert island, the main wish we would wish for would be to be happy. Such an end would trump other considerations such as: rich, healthy, wise, socially-accepted, and successful. Who would wish, in isolation, to be successful but not happy? “The self-sufficient we now define as that which when isolated makes life desirable and lacking in nothing; and such we think happiness to be…the most desirable of all things….”
As flute-players, artists, and doctors all have “a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ are thought of as the function, and so it is for man, if he has a function.” Aristotle continues by asking, “What then can this be? Life seems to belong to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man.” What he is getting at here is, essentially, what makes man unique? Is it life?, he asks. No, because even a plant has life. Ask yourself what you believe is not perhaps humanity’s highest aspirations, but its highest function, or capability. Eagles fly; fish breathe water; what are humans really about?
“…the function of man is an activity of the soul which follows or implies reason” ~ Aristotle
Dr. Brown points out here that “connecting the human good with the human function is a key element, albeit controversial, in Aristotle’s inquiry into happiness or the best life.” He goes on to criticize this angle, showing that “Aristotle does not locate the human function in the role a person plays in their polis, or in any larger whole.” Yet, Aristotle uses analogies of parts of the body to the whole body. Aristotle’s concept of function is essentially “what X ought to do or how they ought to be“, akin to the way “oak trees out to be sturdy and bear acorns and leaves in the summer” (Brown).
His significant quote in this section is that “human good turns out to be an activity of the soul exhibiting virtue….” Dr. Brown puts a very fine point on it when he notes that “it may seem that Aristotle has imported the idea that to be happy one must be virtuous [that is, the traditional ‘moral virtues’].” By moral virtues is meant goodness and uprightness and characteristics such as honesty, selflessness, care – surely humanity’s highest aspirations. It seems as though Aristotle does believe that to be true, yet he does not justify that claim at this time in the book. Instead, Brown is pointing out that “Aristotle takes it as a truism that the best human life involves human activities exhibiting virtue…”, by which is meant excellence, not moral propriety. Thus, dogs have virtue, even though they are not moral per se; some dogs are more perfect examples of dogs than others.
VII. Our definition is confirmed by current beliefs about happiness
“We have practically defined happiness as a sort of living well and faring well,” Aristotle shows in section 8.
Brown astutely points out here that Aristotle is saying something very unique here: “since virtues are states [of being, of mind], and it is activities manifesting good states, rather than the states themselves, that are best.” Aristotle reflects on it by claiming the following: “…just acts are pleasant to the lover of justice, and in general, virtuous acts are pleasant to the lover of virtue.” I like that wording! It’s also a fascinating idea he brings up, very relevant to virtue ethics. It is reminiscent of a subdued kind of pleasure; more like reading than jumping on a trampoline.
To sum that point up: Do virtuous activities [comprising both excellence and nobility and natural (and intrinsically fulfilling)] and that – more than money, fame, titles, or pleasures of the senses – is what will make you happy. It is very pleasant to see that a man who was so influential and distinguished that he was known for centuries simply as “The Philosopher” believes in humanity’s highest aspirations, too.
“A carpenter and a geometer investigate the right angle in different ways; the former does so in so far as the right angle is useful for his work, while the latter inquires what it is or what sort of thing it is, for he is a spectator of the truth.” ~ Aristotle
Aristotle does strike a practical note, indicating that the ugly, poor, childless, and solitary person is not likely to be happy. This following paragraph is long, but it certainly gets at the idea of humanity’s highest aspirations, so I shall include it:
“Some identify happiness with virtue, some with practical wisdom, others with a kind of philosophical wisdom [he adds here that pleasure is a separate matter, and may or may not coincide with these states], while others include prosperity. Some of these views have been held by many men and men of old, others by a few eminent persons. It is not probable that either of these should be entirely mistaken, but rather they should be right in at least some respect, or even in most respects.”
“In the Olympic Games, it is not the most beautiful or the strongest that are crowned, but those who compete (for it is some of these that are victorious), so those who act, win (and rightly win) the noble and good things in life.”
VIII. Is happiness acquired by learning, habituation, sent by god, or by chance?
I am not sure why the translator, W. D. Ross, uses the term “god” rather than “God” or “gods”. I know that Socrates often talked of “god” and it doesn’t get capitalized. Are we to assume that neither Socrates, Plato, nor Aristotle believed in the gods of the ancient Greeks – Athena, Apollo, Dionysus, and the rest of them? That would be iconoclastic.
Aristotle claims “If there is any gift of the gods to men, it is reasonable that happiness should be god-given…. For that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed.” He also considers if it came about naturally (by evolution, I might surmise), not exactly given by a supernatural being. His words are: “To entrust to chance what is greatest and most noble would be a very defective arrangement.” I agree that it is improbable that morality and other of humanity’s highest aspirations came about by chance, but that is how humans evolved; we are on a rock kept in place by gravity, spinning through space at 1,000 miles per hour, and we evolved from single-celled organisms from the prehistoric era. In other words, our very existence is extremely improbable, and emotions like happiness (the modern use of the word) and actions like generosity are all part and parcel of why we homo sapiens grew extremely advanced in just a million years.
This endnote by Lesley Brown is of use to me, and perhaps to you: “Since happiness is virtuous activity…then it is acquired by whatever means the capacity for virtuous activity is acquired. As Book II.1 will argue, moral virtues are acquired by habituation, and intellectual ones by learning….”
“Political science spends most of its pains on making the citizens to be of a certain character – namely, good and capable of noble acts.”
Philosopher Daniel N. Robinson says this on this topic: “[According to Aristotle] moral virtue is learned. Rather than being intuitive or residing in the soul of superior individuals, it is acquired by lifelong practice – the habit of virtue. It is the result of a lifetime of learning and practice and discipline toward the goal of doing right.”
IX. Should no man be called happy while he lives?
The extremely influential Athenian leader Solon said, “Let no man be called happy before his death. Till then, he is not happy, only lucky.” As well, Aristotle points out that in some way, a dead person can be considered happy and unhappy because his or her good name can be honored or denigrated even in death. Further, if one considers one’s ancestors’ happiness and condition as part of one’s life, then that might matter too. Aristotle puts it as “…though a man has lived blessedly until old age and has had a death worthy of his life, many reverses may befall his descendants....”
There is a bit about this passage I don’t understand, but I don’t think it is of great importance. I tend to feel that whether happiness be a state or an activity, it is legitimate to gauge it in a shorter period than “a lifetime.” Why cannot one be happy at this very moment?
One sentence I like is: “For no function of man has so much permanence as virtuous activities (these are thought to be more durable even than knowledge of the sciences….”
“If activities are what determines the character of life, no blessed man can become miserable, for he will never do the acts that are hateful and mean.” ~ Aristotle
X. Do the fortunes of the living affect the dead?
I’m afraid this passage just doesn’t interest me, so I only skimmed it. I suppose I feel, like Socrates and Epicurus, that the living are living, the dead are dead, and there is no ability for one to affect or be affected by the other.
XI. Virtue is praiseworthy, but happiness is above praise
“What we do to the gods and the most godlike of men is to call them blessed and happy. And so too with good things; no one praises happiness as he does justice, but rather calls it blessed, as being something more divine and better.”
“Praise is appropriate to virtue, for as a result of virtue men tend to do noble deeds; but encomia are bestowed on acts, whether of the body or the soul.”
My how I wish that in these decaying times we cared more about nobility! It seems like today it is just money (Jeff Bezos), narcissism (Trump), power (Dianne Feinstein), fame (Kim Kardashian), and other of the “deadly sins.”
XII. Kinds of virtue: division of the soul and resultant division into intellectual and moral
“All virtue is summed up in dealing justly.”
Intellectual virtue (philosophical wisdom and practical wisdom) and moral virtue (liberality and temperance) are two big aspects of Aristotle’s paradigm. Again, Daniel N. Robinson: “The end of the intellectual virtues is knowledge of one sort or another, whereas the and of the moral virtues is the formation of character, or self-perfection. The intellectual virtues are the result of teaching and learning. The moral virtues arise from habit.”
“The true student of politics is thought to have studied virtue above all things, for he wishes to make his fellow citizens good and obedient to the laws.” Coming from Aristotle, this is significant, but considering the fact that he saw Socrates pretty much willingly drink poison as the commission of his death sentence so as to avoid breaking the law, this is deep indeed.
“By human virtue we mean not that of the body but that of the soul, and happiness also we call an activity of the soul.”
“In the soul too there is something besides reason, resisting and opposing it.”
I’m really not terribly sure if this “irrational” aspect he writes of means passion, or something akin to foolishness.