SHADOWS

ARISTOTLE: NICOMACHEAN ETHICS

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. Human beings by nature desire to know (they are curious); human beings by nature are also social and political. They need other human beings in order to fulfill themselves. Even though philosophical contemplation is superior to productive, practical (and political) activity, the ability to pursue scientific knowledge depends upon achieving order in the city (justice). For Aristotle, the philosopher is not a king, and the king is not a philosopher (the philosopher imitates the best life -- God's -- which is not political). The best life is the philosophical life; the philosopher is more noble and happier than the ruler. Truth is higher than justice. The affairs of state would be very disturbing to a scholar. But the pursuit of the best life is impossible unless the pursuers of the second-best life (rulers) succeed in making the city just and keeping the peace. War interferes with research. Thus, for Aristotle, the happiest life, the greatest human good, is the fulfillment of the philosopher. This "happiness" is the highest end in the city. But the art or know-how (techne) of the practical ruler is the highest art or know-how (although every know-how is inferior to knowing for the sake of knowing). The good ruler, himself denied the leisure, peace, and joy of scientific knowledge, orders the city so that intellectual scientists may be fulfilled. Politics is the master art that brings about the final end of human beings (happiness, eudaimonia -- well-being, smiled upon by the gods, etc.). But this final end is most adequately realized not in the ruler, but in the scientist. Leisure, not work, is the basis of culture. And the ruler has very little leisure.

Question: Do you agree that contemplation is better than, higher than action? Why or why not? In a similar vein: Is motion for the sake of rest? Work for the sake of leisure? Toil for the sake of retirement?

2. There is a hierarchy of means and ends, just as there is a hierarchy from matter to form, potentiality to actuality. Everything we do, make, or learn seems to aim at some end -- something that is or "seems" good to us. The end or goal of a particular activity may turn out to be itself a means to a further end, etc. Most ends are themselves means to further ends. Money, which is sought after, is a means for providing the necessities of life (and health). Health is a means for functioning well. Aristotle is trying to locate empirically where the "buck stops" with ends; he is trying to discover what is the final end for man -- an end that is sought for itself and is not itself a means. This end, as both the many and wise (the wise and noble citizens provide the standard) would agree, is happiness. But happiness means many things to many people.

3. According to Aristotle, happiness must be related to right functioning. The happiness of men is their "correct operation," doing what they should be doing as human beings. This right functioning is self-fulfillment or self-realization. A tree is fulfilled if it performs according to its nature -- actualizes its potential by growing, reproducing, etc. A human is happy or fulfilled if he realizes his specifically human potential (actualization of basic human tendencies, desires, and inclinations). Now, what potential distinguishes human beings? Their reason. Even though humans, like animals, have lively inclinations to nutrition, growth, perception, reproductiion, etc., the end of man is the fulfillment and perfection and completion of his reason. If a man makes nourishment his final end, he is fulfilling the potential he shares with a slug. This right functioning is not a static condition, but an active operation. According to Aristotle, "human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and of there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete."

Question: For Plato, the "end" of human beings is justice, personal and social order. For Aristotle, the end of human beings is happiness or well-being, of which only a part is justice. Discuss how Plato and Aristotle differ with respect to "right functioning."
4. Virtue is an habitual state, a condition of the soul that predisposes an individual to act in a certain way. Activity is the "activation" or exercise of virtue. Virtue is an habitual state achieved through conscious practice, effort, exercise. There are intellectual virtues and moral virtues. Intellectual virtues are superior to moral virtues. Intellectual virtues aim at knowledge; moral virtues aim at some regulation of bodily activity. The intellectual virtues are productive knowledge (techne or art), practical wisdom (phronesis or prudence, providence), science (episteme), wisdom (sophia), and intellectual intuition (nous). The last three constitute scientific wisdom. The intellectual virtues (such as nous) are higher than the moral virtues (such as courage, justice, etc.). Thus, the best activity of the soul must be the exercise or activity of nous (pure knowing or contemplating).
Question: How does this compare to Plato's view that the universe is a kind of great city, guided by justice (order and arrangement)? Will contemplation of the heavens, in Aristotle's view, reveal structures applicable to personal and social life? Is contemplation of non-human nature (especially heavenly bodies) superior to contemplation of justice? Reflect on these and similar issues.

5. Thus, nourishment and exercise, etc. are means to the end of bodily health. The health of the body is a means for the performance of moral actiions, which are in turn a means for the moral health of the soul. Moral actions aim at personal and social stability. Personal and social stability aim at scientific inquiry. Scientific inquiry aims at the possession of knowledge (and knowing that one knows) that imitates the best activity in the universe, the activity of God.

6. There are levels of happiness. "Supreme" happiness (or blessedness) does not consist finally in pleasure, wealth, health, justice, or courage. "Why then should we not say that he is happy who is active in accordance with complete virtue and has sufficient external goods, not for a time but throughout a complete life." Happiness would include moral fulfillment, intellectual fulfillment, bread on the table, and "good luck" til the end of one's days. It would also include friendship, as we shall see.

7. There is a great ambivalence and happy inconsistency in Aristotle. Scientific wisdom is higher than justice, but Aristotle gives "justice" to justice in the Ethics. Furthermore, we shall see how that divine part of us (nous) is tied to that human part of us that needs friends in order to be happy. Our happiest moments are moments of contemplation that cannot be shared (speech is not knowledge), although we can "contemplate" in the same room with our friends (co-contemplators?). Yet the happiest human life includes friendship.

8. Friendship is a virtue (arete -- excellence) or it implies virtue. In order to be happy, one needs --

(1) sufficient external goods,
(2) health,
(3) opportunity to practice and actual practice of moral virtues (such as courage, temperance, justice, generosity, etc.),
(4) opportunity to practice and actual practice of intellectual virtues (such as science and contemplative wisdom -- which activate the divine part of the soul),
(5) friends, and
(6) good luck.

Even the self-sufficient man needs friends to be generous to. Also he needs sufficient external goods to exercise his generosity. Those who have only enough or less than enough are unable to give to their friends. We also need friends to ensure against future calamity, etc. Finally, we need friends to facilitate thinking and acting. We can think by ourselves, but conversation with friends facilitates our learning. Friendship also binds citizens together in the polis or city (community). Where there is friendship, there is no need to enforce action through moral constraint (justice). Aristotle mentions these and many other benefits of friendship.

Question: Does Aristotle's view of friendship seem self-centered? Explain.
Question: Do you agree, more or less, with Aristotle's listing of the components of happiness?
Question: Do you agree that happiness is the end or purpose of life?
Question: Given this "recipe" for happiness, was Socrates happy? Discuss.

9. According to Aristotle, there are three basic kinds of friendship; all other kinds are variations of these kinds:

(1) Friendship based on mutual usefulness or mutual advantage. These people love some good or advantage they can get from the other. This would include business relationships, etc. One does not really love the other for the sake of the other; one loves the external benefit one can derive from friendship.

(2) Friendship based on mutual pleasure. Pleasure is an internal good. One does not really love the other for the sake of the other; one loves the pleasure one can derive from friendship with the other. When being together is no longer pleasant, the friendship comes to an end.

(3) Friendship based on the good, on mutual goodness and mutual willing of good for the other. It is love for the other for the sake of the other. This is the friendship between those who are happy, fulfilled, or self-realized through the practice of moral and intellectual virtue. The most lasting and most unselfish friendship is friendship between the good, where the good of the other is the object of the friendship and not some external advantage or internal satisfaction (pleasure).

Nevertheless, though these friendships do not aim at utility or pleasure, they are accompanied by utility and pleasure. Such friendships are rare and take time. True friends, friends who are friends for their own sake and not for some other advantage, must be good (habitual practitioners of moral and intellectual virtue). True friendship is based upon a love of what is truly good (good without qualification) -- fully developed moral and intellectual humanity.

Question: Give some examples of friendship based on pleasure or utility.

10. True friendship is between equals, where each gives the same to the other. Family relations and relations between ruler and ruled involve inequality. No one would wish for his friend to become God. There is no friendship between God and man (the inequality and distance are too great). A man wishes for his friends all of the greatest goods but one, that he be like God. This good he wishes only for himself (in his "divine" moments of self-sufficient contemplation).

11. Aristotle states that friendship "seems to lie in loving rather than in being loved." But in a deeper sense for Aristotle, all love of others is based on self-love. It is out of one's own goodness that one wishes well to another who is seen to be good. For Aristotle, self-development and self-realization through moral and intellectual perfection are self-sufficient. One both needs and does not need others. Satisfaction is found in the development of one's own potentiality; doing good for one's friends is part of one's moral self-development. Friends are a desirable extra. The perfection of every natural being is the extent to which it achieves independence, self-sufficiency, and self-movement. Human beings are more independent of external conditions than are plants and animals, but they are not absolutely independent of anything outside of themselves as God is. God needs nothing outside of himself. Needing nothing outside of himself (self-sufficiency) is imitated by the self-sufficient contemplation of the scientist, who enjoys conversation with friends, but enjoys even more reflecting upon what he knows in his own mind. Aristotle spends much of Book IX in a very strained attempt to show that the supremely happy man, who is self-sufficient and quite content in himself, nevertheless needs friends. This is because, for Aristotle, contemplation (in one's mind) and not conversation (between two people) is the home of truth; ideas or forms are in the mind, not in a separate realm; and moral goodness is an internal perfection separable from coordinating one's life with others. Socrates, outside of Athens, has no place; at his post, he is the best Athenian individual. For Aristotle, individual perfection is somewhat dependent upon external factors and other human beings; but the tie is less pronounced than it is for Plato. Aristotle witnessed the beginnings of the breakdown of the city-state. He himself was indicted for impiety, but he chose to leave Athens so that, in his own words, "Athens might not sin twice against philosophy." Moreover, Aristotle was impressed by the individualism of life, and he was impressed by a view of nature filled with biological individuals (each self-moved and self-determining to a greater or lesser extent -- each having a soul). Self-realization is the key term. Thus, we read that "a friend is another self." We love the good other because he/she is good like ourselves.

Questions for Review and Discussion:

1. Name the four causes or principles which, according to Aristotle, make a thing to be what it is. Give an example of each.

2. What is the status of heavenly bodies (for Aristotle) -- such as sun, moon, and stars? What, if anything, do they have to do with life on earth? Are they superior or inferior to human beings? Explain.

3. What is the essential difference between natural and artificial beings, according to Aristotle?

4. Name and explain the three types of friendship discussed by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics.

5. According to Aristotle, what (six things) does a person need to have or do in order to be happy?

6. Why would Plato call Aristotle an atheist?

7. According to Aristotle, happiness is related to "right functioning." Explain what this means.

8. Describe the tension between body and soul for Aristotle. In what ways is knowledge for its own sake dependent upon yet independent of practical and productive knowledge?

9. What is the relationship between the practice of the political art and the pursuit of scientific wisdom, according to Aristotle? Would Plato agree or disagree? Why?

10. Explain the nature and the importance of Aristotle's God.

11. Explain the relation (according to Aristotle) between ascending grades of beings in the universe and their dependence upon or independence of the environment.

12. According to Aristotle, what keeps the universe going? How?

13. What is eternal and unchanging for Plato? For Aristotle?

14. According to Aristotle, what good would a person wish for himself, but would not wish for his friend? Why?

15. Discuss the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle in the light of attachment and detachment.

16. Discuss the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle in the light of in- dividuality (or private good) and community (or common good).

17. Discuss thinking as escape versus thinking as strategic withdrawal in the thought of Plato and Aristotle.

18. What lessons can be learned from Aristotle?

19. Graph or describe the attitude toward other people, human institutions, non-human nature, the self, and God in Aristotle. Do the same with Plato.

20. What is the end or purpose of human life? Defend your answer.


Direct inquiries and comments to:

Copyright © 1996 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.