Aristotelian Eudaimonia: The Strange Virtue of the Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotelian Eudaimonia: The Strange Virtue of the Nicomachean Ethics

In the classical world, human action was thought to transcend mere stimulus and response. While a captive dog might be conditioned to salivate at the ringing of a bell, genuinely human activity was held to be too rich to be reduced to such a model. Human activity, in contrast, is guided by reason, and so, human actions, unlike brute reflexes or mechanical responses, are events for which we are answerable as agents. If I were to ask you why you decided to go to the gym, for example, you might respond that you did so in order to work out. Or if I were to ask you why you went to the grocery store or the café, you might respond that you did so in order to buy groceries or to visit with a friend. In short, we humans undertake actions for reasons. Or, as Aristotle explains, “every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and choice, is thought to aim at some good” (I.1 Trans Ross).

Moreover, human actions are not isolated incidents, but form coherent hierarchical wholes. Our answerability for our actions does not terminate with a single action, but extends indefinitely through our projected future lives. It is not as if my life story is articulated in the words, “to buy groceries”, after someone asks me why I went to the grocery store. For, one could again ask, “why did you buy groceries”? And I might say, “because I wanted to have food for the week”. And one could again ask why I want to have a supply of food on hand. And I could again respond, “because I want to be able to conveniently eat when I’m hungry.” As you can see, this process of questioning and answering can be drawn out over an extended period of time.

Reason seeks, in this manner, to situate our actions within a rationally articulable whole. Indeed, it seems that Reason’s demand for understanding our actions will not be satisfied until we reach some kind of first principle, a final goal towards all our activities aim. In the classical world, this ultimate goal was called the good. Aristotle again observes: “the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” (I.1) And, according to Aristotle, this holds not only for my individual actions, but also for the larger social practices in which they are embedded and give them their meaning:

“Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity—as bridle-making and the other arts are concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others—in all of these, the ends of the master arts (ἀρχιτεκτονικός) are to be preferred to the subordinate ends, for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued” (I.1).

So we can think of a master art as one that subsumes multiple sub-arts under itself, thereby subordinating their goods to its own. For example, military strategy aims at victory, and subsumes the art of riding, which itself subsumes the art of bridle making.

Given that our individual actions and communal practices are defined in terms of the hierarchy of goods towards which they aim, it is critical to identify what the ultimate good of human life consists in. Aristotle observes:

“If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain, clearly this must be the good and the chief good (τἀγαθὸν καὶ τὸ ἄριστον)” (I.2).

Aristotle here argues that an infinite regress of desire is impossible, since it would render human action absurd. If I desire x for the sake of y, and y for the sake of z, and so on to infinity, my desire would be vain. It could never be satisfied, since it aims at no determinate goal. Hence,  there must be some ultimate object of desire if my actions are to make sense. Furthermore, though Aristotle does not state this explicitly, these considerations seem to suggest that for actions to be intelligible within an individual life, they must stand in a systematic relation to each other, subsuming all subordinate goods under a primary one. And, given the importance of this primary good, knowledge of it will be of vital importance for living well as a human. Aristotle queries:

“Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which the sciences or capacities is its object” (I.2).

If we don’t know what we are supposed to shoot at, our aiming will be fruitless. But when we have a clear view of the target, we can direct our attention and energy toward it, improving our performance as a result. Thus, the knowledge of the highest good, a knowledge which the discipline of ethics seeks to articulate, is of central importance to human life. If we fail to consider it, we are likely to miss the mark in life, and to fail to live up to our human dignity and calling.

Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, provides us with an account of the highest human good that, paradoxically, strikes contemporary Western readers as simultaneously familiar and strange. On the one hand, he provides a clear, coherent, and seemingly natural account of the human good. But, on the other hand, the account he provides conflicts with several key assumptions of contemporary society.

Accepting Imprecision

To begin with, Aristotle maintains at the outset that we must accept a certain amount of uncertainty when addressing issues of the human good. Human life does not admit to the same precision as mathematics, and so, he contends, we must not demand more clarity than the subject matter allows. For, Aristotle, unlike his teacher Plato, is here primarily concerned with articulating the empirical good of incarnate human life, not the eternal good of the soul. Since embodied life takes place within the realm of becoming, a realm beset by ambiguity and uncertainty, we must accept the fact that our understanding of its goods will likewise be, to a certain extent, ambiguous and uncertain. As a result, Aristotle warns us that we must not seek the same kind of clarity in ethics as we do in other sciences. He advises:

“Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject matter admits of; for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts” (I.3).

And since the subject matter concerns “the fine and just” actions of embodied life, they will admit of “variety and fluctuation”. As a result,

“We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premises to indicate the truth roughly in and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premises of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should our statements be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject matter admits: it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician demonstrative proofs” (I.3).

In ethics, then, we are not seeking to discover the eternal laws of the soul, but general principles that can help us flourish as humans in the realm of becoming.

The Human Good is Essentially Communal

Aristotle seeks to identify the highest good by first identifying the highest art, and then identifying what it aims to achieve. Since arts and practices, like actions, are hierarchically structured, by identifying the good of the highest art, we would thereby also identify the ultimate good towards which all subordinate arts strive. This likely makes sense to a contemporary audience. But Aristotle then goes on to say something shocking. He identifies the highest art with politics. This claim may sound strange, indeed, even repulsive to those who have been raised within an atomized consumer society.  

Aristotle offers two arguments for this seemingly counterintuitive claim that politics is the master art. First, Aristotle considers the relation between politics and the other arts:

“for it is this [i.e. politics] that ordains which of the sciences (ἐπιστήμη) should be studied in a state (πόλις), and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man” (I.2).

Here Aristotle argues that the science of politics determines what other sciences are to be practiced in the polis and dictates how they are to be practiced. It thereby subsumes all other practices within itself.  So, for example, the practice of rhetoric is learned so that one can persuade one’s fellow citizens to act with justice and nobility, the practice of military strategy is learned so that one can defend the polis from its enemies, and economics to ensure that the community can secure the welfare of its members. Since politics thus contains the other arts within itself, subsuming their goods under its own, Aristotle believes that it constitutes the master craft and that the object towards which it aims will likely be the chief good of man.

Aristotle’s second argument turns on a ceteris paribus comparison between communal and individual goods. He contends:

“For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state (πόλις), that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete (μεῖζόν γε καὶ τελειότερον) both to attain and to preserve (λαβεῖν καὶ σῴζειν); for though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike (κάλλιον δὲ καὶ θειότερον) to attain it for a nation or for city-states (ἔθνει καὶ πόλεσιν)” (I.2).

Here Aristotle contends that even if individuals and the polis aim at the same end, the latter is superior to the former, since it is greater, more perfected, more beautiful, and more like God. The idea here is that, all things being equal, it is better to have a good that is shared by many, rather than one that is restricted to an isolated individual. For example, if it is good for one person to be wise, it would be even better for an entire community to wise.

This will likely still strike us as bizarre, living as we do in a fragmented world composed of atomized subjects bound to each other only by contingent desires, and the hidden hand that shapes them. But Aristotle’s contention begins to make more sense once we realize that his conception of a people (ἔθνος), a polis, and politics significantly diverge from our own contemporary concepts. For Aristotle defines the polis as follows:

“Every Polis is a fellowship (κοινωνία) of some kind, and every fellowship is formed with a view to some good (since all the actions of all mankind are done with a view to what they think is good). It is therefore evident that, while all fellowships aim at some good, the fellowship that is most supreme of all and includes all others does so most of all, and aims at the most supreme of all goods; and this is the fellowship entitled the Polis, the political fellowship” (Aristotle Politics I.1 Trans. Rackham (modified).)

Instead of understanding politics in terms of power, management, and dominance as we do today, Aristotle conceived it to be a kind of fellowship, a fellowship constituted through the mutual striving for a common good. Just as it was of the essence of Plato’s form of the Good to share itself by emanating out of itself into lower grades of reality (Republic 508d-509a), so too is Aristotle’s human good essentially communal. One partakes of it by sharing it with others. It is interesting to note that this form of communion or fellowship was also employed by spiritual writers. The author of the book of Acts, for example, describes how early Christian community “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship (κοινωνία), and in breaking of bread, and in prayers (Acts 2:42).” Here we see Aristotle’s concept of fellowship defined by the religious life. A community is formed by seeking a common good, a good defined, in this case, by apostolic teaching and the rituals of eucharist and prayer. Or again, the apostle John declares:

“If we say that we have fellowship (κοινωνία) with him [God], and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship (κοινωνία) one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:6-7).

Again, κοινωνία takes place as people aim together towards the good. They practice the truth and walk in the light of the common good.

When understood in this manner, Aristotle’s conception of political life begins to make more sense to us. When we imagine a religious community jointly aiming towards their shared conception of ultimate reality, it is easy to imagine how all other aspects of life would be subsumed under the chief end loving and worshiping God. It is this kind of communal approach to the good that Aristotle has in view with his conception of politics. The Greeks, as Hegel observes, felt at home with themselves and with their world, a kind of being-at-home from which we are profoundly alienated in contemporary consumer society.

“It is in this veritable homeliness (in dieser existierenden Heimatlichkeit selbst), or, more accurately, in the spirit of homeliness (Geist der Heimatlichkeit), in this spirit of ideally being-at-home-with-themselves (Beisichselbstseins) in their physical, corporate, legal, moral and political existence; it is in the beauty and the freedom of their character in history, making what they are to be also a sort of Mnemosyne with them, that the kernel of thinking liberty (der Keim der denkenden Freiheit) rests; and hence it was requisite that Philosophy should arise amongst them” (Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Part I: Greek Philosophy).

Perhaps, then, what initially shocks us about Aristotle’s conception of the political, is that it is rooted in a sense of being-at-home in the world, whereas we, as atomized individuals, feel ourselves to be essentially homeless.

False Conceptions of the Good

Aristotle then goes on to swiftly and decisively reject a series of false conceptions of the highest human good, many of which still retain their grip today. First, he rejects the common view that pleasure is the chief end of man. He notes that this view appears to be the dominant conception among the vulgar:

“To judge from the lives men lead, most men, and men of the most vulgar type, seem (not without some reason) to identify the good… with pleasure; which is the reason why the love the life of enjoyment” (I.5).

But he argues that the very vulgarity of this conception serves to undermine it. For, we are seeking a distinctively human good, but pleasure is something achieved by beasts as well as men. To recommend the life of pleasure is thus to recommend a lower course of life. Aristotle argues:

“Now the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts, but they get some reason for their view from the fact that many of those in high places share the tastes of Sardanapalus” (I.5).

In looking for a good that is distinctively human, we must thus look beyond mere pleasure.

Second, Aristotle rejects the more elevated view that identifies the highest good with honor (τιμή) (I.5). One activity that humans appear to engage in that other animals do not is the achievement of status within a community. Specifically, people can attain honor and recognition from other members of the tribe. Yet, Aristotle rejects this proposal on two grounds. First, he argues that the account is “too superficial” (I.5). For, the attainment of honor depends “on those who bestow honor”. It is thus something external that can be given and taken away in an arbitrary manner. In contrast, Aristotle contends that the highest good is something “of one’s own and not easily taken from one”. If honor were the chief end of man, then our attainment of it would largely be outside of our character and control.  Second, Aristotle argues that the identification of the highest human good with honor reverses the proper order of explanation. He observes that people do not seek status for its own sake, but in the hope that, by achieving it, they will be “assured of their merit” (I.5). Imagine a case in which you mistakenly receive an award for your alleged bravery on a given occasion, when you know that, in reality, you acted like a coward at that time. You would likely not be satisfied with your award or the status it conveys, since you would feel that it was given to you inappropriately. Thus, honor is not a good in itself, but is so only insofar as it corresponds to actual merit. And, so, the highest good cannot consist in the mere conferral of honors and status. Rather, one aims to act in such a way so as to be worthy of those honors. “Men of practical wisdom…seek to be honored…on the ground of their excellence” (I.5).

A third popular proposal that Aristotle summarily dismisses is the identification of the highest good with money making. Aristotle contends:

“The life of money making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else” (I.5).

Here Aristotle argues that one never seeks money for its own sake, and so, it could never be the highest good. Money is sought or the sake of what it can purchase, and will therefore always be subservient to whatever that other aim is.

Finally, we can also observe that Aristotle would reject the popular contemporary idea that man’s highest good consists in celebrating and protecting one’s inner child. According to Aristotle, the highest human good cannot consist in childlikeness and the states associated with it, since young children are not yet mature enough to think for themselves and shape their lives into a coherent rationally self-determined whole. Aristotle observes:

“It is natural, then, that we call neither ox nor horse nor any other of the animals happy; for none of them is capable of sharing in such activity. For this reason also a boy is not happy; for he is not yet capable of such acts, owing to his age; and boys who are called happy are being congratulated by reason of the hopes we have for them. For there is required, as we said, not only complete excellence but also a complete life, since many changes occur in life, and all manner of chances, and the most prosperous may fall into great misfortunes in old age, as is told of Priam in the Trojan Cycle; and one who has experienced such chances and has ended wretchedly no one calls happy” (I.7).

The highest good for human kind must be something that is unique to us, and it seems that this unique factor is reason. Hence, since young children cannot yet reason, the highest life will not be one of the child. Furthermore, the highest end of human life must be something we strive for throughout our entire lives. It thus cannot be limited to the life of the child, but must include  maturity as well. My suspicion is that the idea of the inner-child has become such a fixture in the contemporary psyche because children possess a sense of wonder, a sense which is lost once they are enculturated into modernity’s disenchanted worldview. Yet classical philosophers like Aristotle had no need for such a limitation, since, for them, the cosmos was never disenchanted.

The Highest Good as Eudaimonia

According to Aristotle, political activity, the highest art, aims at eudaimonia, and, hence, eudaimonia is the highest good for man. The term eudaimonia is often translated as happiness, but this this translation obscures the original meaning of the word.

In the contemporary world, we tend to think of happiness as a feeling, and, as such, something about which individuals have privileged access. We might, for example, refer to someone as a happy drunk when he remarks that that he feels buoyant after a few drinks. And, just as it would be strange to say that a man is not in pain, when he himself honestly reports that he feels pain, so too would it be bizarre to claim that this happy drunk is not actually happy, even though he honestly reports feeling happy. Though eudaimonia in the traditional sense involves feelings, it is not itself a state of feeling. Rather, it is meant to serve as a more objective description of a person’s life and character.

Etymologically, eudaimonia is derived from the terms εὖ meaning good or well, and δαίμων, a god or spirit. Recall that for Plato, and others in the ancient world, daimons were thought to be  mediating spirits between humanity and the higher realms of Being. Specifically, in the myth of Er, Plato describes the daimon as a helping spirit that structures a person’s fate according to the pattern they have chosen before incarnation. Eudaimonia, then, is the pattern of human life that would be arranged by a benevolent daimon—one who seeks to perfect humanity and bring it to its proper end. Those familiar with traditional astrology will likely here call to mind the eleventh house, the place of the good daimon. This is the fortunate place where planets are raised up by diurnal motion to the heights of the midheaven. In this classical sense, then, eudaimonia is something objective. It is the kind of life that a good daimon would arrange for a human being.

This more objective characterization can be seen in the fact that Aristotle retains the traditional religious connotations of the term, arguing that eudaimonia is something godlike and blessed. He observes:

“Now if there is any gift of the gods to men, it is reasonable that eudaimonia should be god-given, and most surely god-given of all human things inasmuch as it is the best…. Eudaimonia seems, however, even if it is not god-sent but comes as a result of excellence and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things; for that which is the prize and end of excellence seems to be the best thing and something godlike (θεῖόν)and blessed (μακάριον)” (I.9).[1]

Yet, Aristotle notes that the notion of eudaimonia needs be rendered more precise. He observes first that eudaimonia satisfies two criteria for the highest good: It is complete and self-sufficient.

Since we are looking for the highest good, it must be complete, not aiming for something beyond itself. Aristotle explains:

“Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these (e.g., wealth, flutes, and in general instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are complete ends; but the chief good is evidently something complete. Therefore, if there is only one complete end, this will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more complete than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more complete than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call complete without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else” (I.7).

So, the highest good will have to consist in something that is desirable in itself, not for the sake of something else, and for the sake of which other things are made desirable. Aristotle argues that eudaimonia satisfies this criterion. He contends:

“Now such a thing eudaimonia, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every excellence we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of eudaimonia, judging that through them we shall be happy. Eudaimonia, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself” (I.7).

Here Aristotle argues that we pursue things like pleasure and honor for the sake of eudaimonia, for the sake of an ideal human life, and not vice versa. We do not want to live well as humans so that we may gain pleasure or attain honor, but to do so for its own sake, given the kinds of creatures we are. Since we are human beings, we seek to flourish as humans.

Aristotle’s second criterion for the highest good is self-sufficiency. He observes, “the self sufficient we now define as that which when isolated makes life desirable and lacking in nothing” (I.7). And he argues that eudaimonia satisfies this criterion as well, contending:

“And such we think eudaimonia to be; and further we think it most desirable of all things, without being counted as one good thing among others—if it were so counted it would clearly be made more desirable by the addition of even the least of goods; for that which is added becomes an excess of goods, and of goods the greater is always more desirable. Eudaimonia, then, is something complete and self-sufficient, and is the end of action” (I.7).

Here Aristotle argues that, once one has attained eudaimonia, complete human flourishing, such a life is not rendered more desirable by adding additional goods to it. If, for example, two people had attained eudaimonia, and one had a six pack of beer and the other didn’t, we would not think that the former life was thereby made more desirable than the latter. Having an extra six pack of beer, does not make living a well lived life any more rewarding.

Although eudaimonia satisfies these two criteria for the highest good, Aristotle observes that eudaimonia is still being understood too generally and that what has been argued thus far is platitudinous. In order to further clarify what is meant by eudaimonia, he appeals to concept of a characteristic human work or function (ἔργον). He observes:

“This [clearer account] might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function (ἔργον) of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or any artist, and in general, for all things that have a function (ἔργον) or activity (πρᾶξις), the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function. Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he naturally functionless? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these? What then can this be?” (I.7).

We can define what it is for an eye to function well by appealing to its characteristic activity. The work, or ergon, of the eye is to see. Thus, we can think of the flourishing eye as one that can see well. Similarly, the characteristic activity of the flute player is to play the flute. So, we can think of the flourishing flautist as one who can play the flute well. In the same manner, if we can identify the characteristic function of man, we can use it to concretely define what eudaimonia consists in.

Aristotle argues that the human ergon cannot consist merely of nutrition and growth, since this is an activity that plants engage in as well. Likewise, it cannot be perception, since this activity is shared with other animals. Rather, he contends that the uniquely human ergon must be found in the rational principle in man. He explains;

“There remains, then, an active life of the element that has a rational principle (of this, one part has such a principle in the sense of being obedient to one, the other in the sense of possessing one and exercising thought); and as this too can be taken in two ways, we must state that life in the sense of activity is what we mean; for this seems to be the more proper sense to the term. Now if the function of the man is an activity of the soul in accordance with, or not without, rational principle, and if we say a so-and-so and a good so-and-so have a function which is the same in kind, e.g. a lyre-player and a good lyre-player, and so without qualification in all cases, eminence in respect of excellence being added to the function (for the function of a  lyre-player is to play the lyre, and that of a good lyre-player is to do so well): if this is the case, [and we state the function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence (ἀρετή): if this is the case,] human good turns out to be activity of soul in conformity with excellence, and if there are more than one excellence, in conformity with the best or most complete.

            But we must add ‘in a complete life’. For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy” (I.7).

If human nature’s unique activity consists in exercising the rational principle, then an excellent human life, eudaimonia, will consist in performing those activities consistently and with excellence.  Since the rational principle expresses itself in two ways, both as reason itself and as the sensible faculty insofar as it can subordinate itself to reason, the characteristic excellences of each of these will constitute the intellectual and moral virtues. The intellectual virtues consist of the excellences of the purely rational principle, and the moral virtues of the sensible faculties capable of obeying reason. Eudaimonia, then, for Aristotle will consist of a life of virtue. Indeed, not the mere possession of virtue (which, for example, one possesses even while sleeping), but virtue as it is expressed in a life of action. “But it makes, perhaps, no small difference whether we place the chief good in possession or in use, in state or in activity. For the state may exist without producing any good result, as in a man who is asleep or in some other way quite inactive, but the activity cannot; for one who has the activity will of necessity be acting, and acting well. And as in Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete (for it is some of these that are victorious), so those who act rightly win the noble and good things in life” (I.8).

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The image used in the thumbnail of this essay is The Allegory of Virtues by Correggio. It is in the public domain and can be found here:]

[1] And he makes a similar claim when he claims that eudaimonia surpasses praise (ἐπαινετός) and is prized (τίμιος) instead. “Happiness is among the things that are prized and complete. It seems to be so also from the fact that it is a first principle; for it is for the sake of this that we all do everything else, and the first principle and cause of goods, we claim, something prized and divine” (I.12).]

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