Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics Summary and Analysis
Pleasure is thought to be one of the things most closely associated with human life. For this reason the education of the young is guided by means of pleasures and pains. Further, the formation of a virtuous character perhaps depends primarily on being formed so as to enjoy what one should and hate what one should. There is however, a great disagreement among philosophers with regard to pleasure. For some say it is the ultimate good while others claim it is entirely bad.
Observation shows that both rational and nonrational animals aim at pleasure. An object which is choiceworthy in the greatest sense is chosen for its own sake, and pleasure seems to be such an object. Yet pleasure is not the highest good, because it is preferable with rather than without prudence, as Plato argues. Further, not all pleasures are worthy of choice, but only those which come from noble actions.
What is pleasure? It is not a motion, for motion require an interval of time for their completion. Yet pleasure is complete at every point during the time in which one is pleased.
The best activity of each faculty of sensation is that which is the best disposed toward the best object with which that faculty is concerned. There is pleasure with respect to every faculty of sensation, as well as with thought and contemplation. The most pleasant activity is the most perfect. Pleasure makes the activity perfect, but not in the same way as a sensible object or sensation. Activities are most pleasant when the faculty is at its best and is directed toward its best corresponding object. Why is it impossible to be continuously pleased? Human activities cannot be continued indefinitely, and therefore neither can pleasure. There can be no pleasure without activity, and pleasure perfects every activity.
Pleasure resides in the activity which is perfected by that pleasure. A pleasure which is proper to an activity makes the activity more accurate, more enduring, and better, while an alien pleasure impairs the activity. The pleasure proper to a good activity is good, while the pleasure proper to a bad activity is evil.
Just as each animal is thought to have a proper function, it also has a proper pleasure which corresponds to the activity of that function. The pleasures proper to human beings are those which correspond to the activity of a perfect and blessed man.
Let us review what has already been said about happiness. Happiness is an activity of some sort which is chosen for its own sake and is self-sufficient. Actions according to virtue are chosen for their own sake. Happiness is not found in amusement, for it would be absurd to argue that the goal of a person's life and work is amusement. Rather, amusement is chosen for the purpose of relaxation, which is necessary to enable a person to engage in serious work. Everything is thought to be chosen for the sake of something else except for happiness. A happy life is a life according to virtue.
Since it has already been established [in Book One] that happiness is an activity according to virtue, it is reasonable to posit that it is an activity according to the highest virtue, which would be an activity corresponding to the best part of man. The activity of the intellect is the best human activity, since it corresponds to the highest part of man, is concerned with the best objects, is the most continuous activity, is self-sufficient, and is loved for its own sake. Everything attributed to a blessed man seems to exist in the activity of the intellect, which is contemplation. A life of contemplation, then, would be the perfect happiness for man. Such a life is above man, for it is possible only insofar as man has something divine in him, since the intellect is a sort of divine element in man. Man should thus strive to live according to the best of his soul and thus to partake of immortality. Since the contemplative life is most proper to man, it is also the best and most pleasant, and thus the happiest.
Life according to moral virtue is happy in a secondary way, since it is concerned with human affairs. The virtue of the intellect, however, is separate from the passions, and requires much fewer external resources than ethical virtue. Another argument which demonstrates that perfect happiness is contemplative activity is that the gods are most blessed and happy, and their action is contemplative. The human activity closest to the activity of the gods is the happiest, and thus contemplation is the most blessed human activity.
However, being human, a person will still need external things such as food for the nourishment of his body. Yet a happy man does not need many external things. As Solon stated, happy men are moderately supplied with external means and perform the noblest actions. He whose activities are in accord with is intellect is the best disposed and the most dear to the gods, since activity of the intellect is closest to the gods' own activity.
It seems that merely to theorize about virtues is not enough, but that the end of such speculation is action. However, for most men arguments are not enough to exhort them to noble deeds, since such men are guided most by fear rather than a love of what is noble. They abstain from what is bad because of the penalties they would receive rather than because of the disgracefulness of such actions. Further, it is extremely difficult by mere argument to change long-standing habits ingrained in a person's character. In order to make a person docile to instruction in virtue, it is necessary to habituate the person to enjoy what is good and hate what is disgraceful. For passion seems to yield not to argument but to force. As a result, it is necessary that the pursuits of the young should be regulated by law such that they will be habituated to take pleasure in what is good. Paternal command alone does not have enough power for this task. Yet if the state is negligent in its duty to form virtuous citizens, each citizen on his own should take care to help his children and friends to be virtuous. The person who cares to help his children and friend toward virtue would do best by becoming a lawgiver. For a person to be a good lawgiver, experience is necessary along with intelligence. Laws are like works of political art. [This discussion of laws is continued in The Politics.]
The first two topics dealt with in Book Tenpleasure and contemplationwill be analyzed individually. For an analysis of Aristotle's closing comments on the necessity of proper laws to help citizens lead virtuous lives, see the analysis of Book Two, which addresses this topic in depth.
As already discussed in the analysis of Book Seven, Aristotle has highly nuanced view of pleasure and its role in human life. He recognizes that attraction to pleasure and repulsion from pain are natural and instinctive to human beings, and that as such they often act as the motivating force behind a person's actions. While disagreeing with the philosophers who consider pleasure to be an evil on the count that such a view is not in accord with the experience of human nature, Aristotle is also careful to qualify the ways in which pleasure is a good and the reason for its goodness. Pleasure is not the ultimate good, because one of the characteristics of the ultimate good is that it admits of no improvement and needs nothing to supplement it. Pleasure, on the other hand, is not sufficient on its own for a good life. For the pursuit of pleasure without regard to reason or virtue would lead to a slavish and bestial life. Pleasure, then, is a part of the good life, but is not its aim or definition. Rather, good actions, because they are good and in accord with judgments of the highest part of the soul, are naturally accompanied by pleasure, though not necessarily physical or sensible pleasure. This pleasure is perhaps best described as an inner pleasure produced by the harmony within the soul of a virtuous person. Good pleasures accompany good actions, while bad pleasures accompany bad actions. Pleasure in itself is neutral, but its goodness is determined by the goodness of the action, by whether or not the action is in accord with human nature.
Aristotle waits until Book Ten to complete the logic set forth in Book One with regard to determining the ultimate good for man by examining a human being's highest capacities. As already mentioned in the analysis of Book One, Aristotle holds that the happiness of man can be defined by determining the function proper to man. This function cannot be one which plants and animals also perform, because it must be particular to human beings. Therefore, man's function must be a part of the practical life of the rational part of man, the term practical implying purposeful conduct, which is possible only for rational beings. It follows, then, that happiness consists in the action of the rational part of man, the soul. The ultimate good of man should naturally flow from performing his function well; therefore, as Aristotle theorizes, "the Good of man [and, by extension, the definition of happiness] is the active exercise of his soul's faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several human excellences or virtues, in conformity with the best and most perfect among them" (Book One, Section 7). To constitute true happiness this action must persist with continuity throughout a lifetime. While ethical virtue is action in accord with reason, intellectual virtue is superior because it employs reasonthe highest part of manin contemplation of the best objects which man has the ability to know. Since it is the most continuous activity, the most pleasant virtuous activity, the most self-sufficient activity, and the only activity which is loved for its own sake, contemplation is the sole operation which meets all of the qualifications of happiness. Aristotle thereby provides the final revision of his definition: "Happiness is a bringing of the soul to the act according to the habit of the best and most perfect virtue, that is, the virtue of the speculative intellect, borne out by easy surroundings and enduring to the length of days" (Book One, Section 7).
Man, however, lives in a real world where he cannot spend his entire life in continuous contemplation. Realizing this problem, Aristotle concedes, "But such a life would be too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him" (Book Ten, Section 7). For the times when, out of the necessities of human life, man must forego his contemplation, living in accordance with the moral virtues provides a secondary, less divine, happiness. In addition, the Aristotelian theory posits that, in order to be happy, it necessary to have sufficient external prosperity, such as health, good birth, satisfactory children, food, shelter, and freedom from suffering, although even in the most dire circumstances the virtuous man can maintain some semblance of happiness by bearing his trials nobly and with fortitude.
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