This piece is the one of a set of three papers written for an independent study undertaken during the author's second year in graduate school, the first tentative foray into Aristotle's ethics. This and the other two pieces, Friendship in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Egoism in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics , work together to present the case that altruism is utterly foreign to Aristotle's ethics and that egoism is his implicit doctrine, despite typical mainstream commentator's interpretations. They challenge textual interpretations one by one, showing that only an egoist ethic can explain the passages that commentators find most puzzling, and allow them to fit consistently with other relevant passages and works. Although the independent study and the papers were not undertaken with this goal in mind (the purpose of the study was simply to familiarize the author with the philosopher's broader work in preparation for advanced study of his metaphysics and epistemology), nevertheless the text forced these conclusions. The current piece is a rough attempt at a coherent view of Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia, sometimes translated as "happiness". It is almost casually styled, as if in conversation with the professor. She had been introduced to objectivist ideas just one year earlier, following four thoroughly analytic years in college and one in graduate school. This is the first and least developed work in the series.
This essay was not written in the author's customary gender-neutral style. The reason is that there is little reason to believe that Aristotle was writing about women. For some hair-raising sexism (and racism), see his Politics, in which he grants that women may be slightly more rational than slaves, but that's pushing it. When he says, "Man is a political animal," (1253a7) he is talking about male Greek persons, for "moral virtue belongs to all of them; but the temperance of a man and of a woman, or the courage and justice of a man and of a woman, are not, as Socrates maintained [Meno, 72 a-73 c], the same; the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying." (NE, 1260a20-25) Choice passages from the Politics include 1261a4-5, 1263b9-11, and especially 1262b36-1263a1-3.
Do we choose life because of pleasure, or pleasure because of life? Let us set aside this question for now, since the two appear to be yoked together, and to allow no separation; for pleasure never arises without activity, and, equally, it completes every activity (1175a25).
According to Ackrill, Aristotle does not answer (1), and gives two answers to (2): good action, and purely contemplative activity. It cannot be that right actions are right because they make contemplation possible; this would be inconsistent with the importance Aristotle places on the right action being an end in itself rather than a mere means. If this is the case, then the book does not really give us any guidance with regard to what to do. Aristotle has merely chosen some individual or group of individuals that society praises and modeled his theory thereon.
- What is the criterion of right action and of moral virtue?
- What is the best life for a man to lead? (Ackrill, p. 3)
Since happiness is an activity of the soul expressing virtue, we must examine virtue; for that will perhaps also be a way to study happiness better (1102a5-7).Book I, Chapter 13, through the end of Book IX, constitute Aristotle's attempt to make that connection. (They are, in addition, his attempt to answer the question: "What is the criterion of right action and of moral virtue?" I'11 come back to this later. I do not know what Ackrill is looking for, if he cannot find the answer in the doctrine of the mean.)
In another way also it appears that complete happiness is some activity of study. For we traditionally suppose that the gods more than anyone are blessed and happy (1178b8-10).After showing that the gods are flourishing not in virtue of just or brave or generous actions, but rather in virtue of the activity of study, Aristotle tells us that the human activity that is closest to the only activity it makes sense to ascribe to the gods is the one that will "more than any of the others, have the character of happiness" (1178b23). Flourishing extends just as far as study, and the more a person studies, the more he will flourish, since study is valuable in itself.
However, the happy person is a human being, and so will need external prosperity also; for his nature is not self-sufficient for study, but he needs a healthy body, and needs to have food and the other services provided (1178b33-35).That Aristotle should say this is not surprising, since it comes directly on the heels of a description of the gods as creatures who do nothing but study. If this life were possible for human beings, human beings would be gods. He has firmly in mind just who he is talking about.
And plainly it is the person who awards himself these goods whom the many habitually call a self-lover. For if someone is always eager to excel everyone in doing just or temperate actions or any others expressing the virtues, and in general always gains for himself what is fine, no one will call him a self-lover or blame him for it.That "most controlling part" is the person's understanding or reason. What is proper to any creature is what is best and most pleasant for it, a human being who studies is not only most human but the one who can be said most truly to flourish (1178a5-8). So the best life belongs to the self-lover, since it is the understanding that is gratified and increased by the activity of study, which it is now clear Aristotle thinks is the most god-like activity.
However, it is this more than the other sort of person who seems to be a self-lover. At any rate he awards himself what is finest and best of all, and gratifies the most controlling part of himself, obeying it in everything. And just as a city and every other composite system seems to be above all its most controlling part, the same is true of a human being; hence someone loves himself most if he likes and gratifies this part (1168b24-34).
But the activity of understanding, it seems, is superior in excellence because it is the activity of study; aims at no end beyond itself; has its own proper pleasure, which increases the activity; and is self-sufficient, leisured and unwearied, as far [as these are possible] for a human being. And whatever else is ascribed to the blessedly happy person is evidently found in connection with this activity.Why focus on the understanding, rather than on some other capacity? Because
Hence a human being's complete happiness will be this activity, if it receives a complete span of life, since nothing incomplete is proper to happiness (1177b15-1177b25).
what is proper to each thing's nature is supremely best and pleasantest for it; and hence for a human being the life expressing understanding will be supremely best and pleasantest, if understanding above all is the human being (1178a5-7).Passages such as these have lead to what Cooper calls "the intellectualist interpretation." Cooper argues that the interpretation on which Aristotle thinks that a human being's eudaimonia consists only in purely intellectual activity is wrong. Such an interpretation reduces the Nicomachean Ethics to a bunch of interesting but disconnected remarks.
Moreover [the complete good is the most choiceworthy, and] we think happiness is most choiceworthy of all goods, since it is not counted as one good among many. If it were counted as one among many, then, clearly we think that the addition of the smallest of goods would make it more choiceworthy...[But we do not think any addition can make happiness more choiceworthy; hence it is most choiceworthy.]It makes no more sense to say that intellectual or theoretical activity is the ultimate end than it does to say that moneymaking is (Cooper,p. 107). If the pursuit of honesty, for example, conflicts with the ultimate goal of money-making, then honesty must be given up. But the virtuous person does not give up some virtues for his end; rather, in order to achieve the end (eudaimonia), he must be ready to display any and all virtues.
Do we choose life because of pleasure, or pleasure because of life? Let us set aside this question for now, since the two appear to be yoked together, and to allow no separation; for pleasure never arises without activity, and, equally, it completes every activity (1175a25).Not only is pleasure good for guiding the young in moral action. It is also inextricably tangled up with life itself. Do we desire pleasure for life or life for pleasure? His answer, implied by his explicit recognition that the two are inseparable, is "Both!"