The End of Our Actions

The Good Life and Happiness

The Aristotelian corpus contains two works on ethics: the Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics.

These titles seem to refer respectly to Aristotle's friend (Eudemus of Rhodes) and to his son (Nicomachus).

Books IV, V, and VI of the Eudemian Ethics are identical to Books V, VI, and VII of the Nicomachean Ethics.

It is traditionally thought that the Eudemian Ethics is earlier.


An Outline of the Nicomachean Ethics:

NE I.I.1094a.                     The best good
NE I.1097b-I.1098a.         The argument from function
NE I.1102a-II.1109b.        Virtue and the soul
NE III.1109b-1115a.         Necessary conditions for virtue
NE III.1115a-IV.1128b.    Virtues of character
NE V.1129a-1138b.           Justice
NE VI.1138b-1145a.         Virtues of thought
NE VII.1145a-1154b.        Continence, pleasure
NE VIII.1155a-IX.1172a.  Friendship
NE X.1172a-1181b.            Pleasure, happiness, legislation


"[The science of politics] ... ordains which sciences are to exist in states, and what branches of knowledge the different classes of the citizens are to learn, and up to what point they are to learn them.... As the rest of the sciences are employed by this one, and as it lays down laws for what people shall do and refrain from doing, the end of this science must include the ends of all the others and so will be the human good" (Nicomachean Ethics I.1.1094a). "As far as the name [of the human good at which politics aims] goes, we may almost say that the great majority of mankind are agreed about this; for both the multitude and persons of refinement speak of it as happiness, and conceive of living well and doing well as the same thing as being happy. But what constitutes happiness is a matter of dispute; and the popular account of it is not the same as that given by the philosophers" (Nicomachean Ethics I.2.1095a).

"To say that the best good is happiness will probably appear a truism; we still require a more explicit account of what this good is and thus what constitutes happiness. Perhaps we may arrive at this account by first ascertaining the function (ἔργον) of man" (Nicomachean Ethics I.6.1097b). "Life seems common even to plants, but we are seeking what is special to man. So let us exclude the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but this also seems common to the horse, the ox, and every animal. The remaining possibility is a life of action of the [part of the soul] having reason (πρακτική τις τοῦ λόγον ἔχοντος)" (Nicomachean Ethics I.6.1097b).
Aristotle begins his Nicomachean Ethics with an argument to show that there is an end distinct from the ends of our individual actions. He calls this end the "best good."

Some reflection on our lives may help make Aristotle's point a little clearer.

Every day we do many things. If we ask why, we might say we do some for the sake of others and some because we like doing them. These things are the ends of our actions, and Aristotle thinks that in addition to them we have the end he calls the best good.

"Suppose that the things achievable by action have some end that we wish for because of itself and because of which we wish for the other things, and that we not choose everyting because of something else--for if we do, it will go on without limit, so that desire will prove to be empty and futile. Clearly this end will be the good, that is to say the best good. Then does knowledge of this good carry great weight for our way of life, and would it make us better able, like archers who have a target to aim at, to hit the right mark? If so, we should try to grasp, in outline at any rate, what the good is" (Nicomachean Ethics I.2.1094a).

In living the way we do, we are trying to live a life of a certain sort. In Aristotle's terms, we are aiming for a life that has the "best good." Our differences are over what this good is.

How Aristotle Proceeds

Aristotle assumes that we can be wrong about the best good is.

We can think it is one thing when in fact it is another. In this situation, we are like archers shooting at the wrong target. If, in living the way we do, we are shooting at the wrong target, we are making a mistake. We are shooting for a lesser life when the target is a better one.

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics tries to discover what the right target is.

He assumes that there is a life someone lives insofar as he is human and that if we think about what the best good is in this life, we can discover what our life must be like to be good.

(This strategy Aristotle pursues is similiar to the one Plato makes Socrates pursue in the Republic. To discover what justice is in an individual, he first looks for it in a city.)

Aristotle also says, a little perplexingly, that "the contemplative" life is the one he will "examine" in his inquiry (Nicomachean Ethics I.5.1096a) into the best good.

We can understand this if we keep in mind that he is working with Plato and the Republic in the background. Aristotle is telling us that he as part of his inquiry, he is going to try to determine whether those who conceive of the best good as contemplation are right.

The Human Function

In his inquiry, Aristotle's first step is to identify the best good with "happiness" (εὐδαιμονία).

There are various things people take to be goods that someone can make part of his life. He can arrange things in his life so that he makes lots of money, but Aristotle thinks that most people believe that happiness is the good it benefits them most to possess.

This takes us forward one small step in the inquiry. It takes us to the conclusion that

• a human life with the best good is a life in which the human is happy

We get this far but no further because the general agreement that the best good is happiness does not tell us what a human being is doing when he is "happy" (εὐδαίμων).

  "The soul, has it a function (ἔργον) which you couldn't accomplish with anything else in the world, as for example, to manage things, rule, deliberation, and the like, is there anything else than soul to which you could rightly assign these and say that they were its peculiar work?
  Nothing else, Socrates" (Republic I.350d).
To move the inquiry over this impasse, Aristotle turns to the idea we saw in the Republic: that we can understand what happiness is if know what the "function" of a human being is.

The function is how humans as a species behave and thus is what goes on in a life someone lives insofar as he is human. Aristotle argues that this function is

• "action of the part of the soul having reason"

It is not immediately clear what Aristotle has in mind here, but in order to get a more complete picture of his argument, we will put this question off for the moment.

The Argument from Function

The human function defines the possible lives a human being can live. These lives are each some life or other of "action of the part of the soul having reason."

If Aristotle is right that there is a human function and that it is what he thinks it is, then he has made progress in his inquiry in the Nicomachean Ethics. He knows that

• a human life with the best good is a life of "action of the part of the soul having reason"

Since functions can be performed well or badly, Aristotle argues that

• a human life with the best good is a life of performing the human function well

"Do the carpenter and the leather worker have their functions and actions, but a human being does not? Is he by nature idle, without any function? Or, just as eye, hand, foot, and, in general, every [bodily] part has it function, may we likewise ascribe to a human being some function apart from all of these" (Nicomachean Ethics I.7.1097b).

The Greek word ἔργον translated as "function" here also means "work." So the carpenter has a work he has been trained to do as a carpenter, and this work explains the actions he takes in certain circumstances.

We might be temepted to think, similarly, that nature gives the eye a work that explains the changes it undergoes in certain circumstances and that a good eye (like a good carpenter) is an eye that does this work well.
Aristotle does not set out his premises in this argument explicitly, but to tie best good and function in the way he wants, it seems that he must rely on the following two premises:

• a human life with the best good is a life of a good human being
• a good human being lives his life performing the human function well

These premises give Aristotle a valid argument, but neither premise is obviously true.

All that seems true about a human life that has the best good is what Aristotle has said is generally agreed: that it is a life in which the human being living it is happy.

The second premise is plausible for artificats. A good knife cuts well and has the other properties we want in a knife, but it is less clear that we think this way about human beings.

Our interest, though, is primarily historical. About Aristotle's argument, we need to know

• what "action of the part of the soul having reason" is
• what it is for a human being to perform this "action" well

Answers to these questions are necessary to understand why Aristotle concludes what he does about what our life must be like for it to be good and for us to be happy.

Function and Virtue

"If the function of man is a certain life, and that this is an activity (ἐνέργειαν) and action of the soul with reason, and that the good of man is to do this well and beautifully, and that if a function is completed well when it is completed in accordance with its proper virtue, then it follows that the good of man is the activity of his soul in conformity with virtue, or if there are several virtues, then in conformity with the best and most complete (τελειοτάτην). Moreover, to be happy takes a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period does not make a man blessed and happy" (Nicomachean Ethics I.6.1098a).

The noun ἐνέργεια is formed from ἐν ("in") and ἔργον ("function" or "work"). A standard translation is 'activity.'

τελειοτάτην is a superlative form of the adjective τέλειος.

The first meaning of τέλειος in the intermediate LS Greek dictionary is "having reached its end, finished, complete."

The translator in the Perseus Digital Library translates τελειοτάτην in the above passage as "most perfect."
Things perform their function well only if they have their proper virtue or virtues. Knives must be sharp, balanced, and so on. Without these properties, they do not cut well.

Because he thinks that the human life achieving the best good is a life of performing "action of the part of the soul having reason" well, Aristotle concludes that "the good of man" is

• "the activity of the soul in conformity with virtue, or if there are
several virtues, in conformity with the best and most complete."

The "activity of the soul" is "action of the part of the soul having reason." If someone has the virtue or virtues proper to this "activity," he achieves the best good if he is not impeded.

To understand this more clearly, we need to know how Aristotle understands

• "the part of the soul having reason"

and what he thinks

• the virtues proper to this part of the soul are

In his statement of the answers to these question, Aristotle reverses the order in the Republic. Socrates identifies justice as the virtue of the soul and then identifies the parts of the soul. Aristotle begins with the parts of the soul and then goes on to identify their virtues.

The Parts of the Soul

"We have discussed this sufficiently in our popular discourses (ἐξωτερικοῖς λόγοις), and we should use this discussion. We have said that one part is without reason (ἄλογον) and that one has reason (λόγον ἔχον)" (Nicomachean Ethics I.13.1102a).

The human soul =
        1. part having reason
            1.a. part with reason about
               1.a.1. what cannot be otherwise
               1.a.2. what can be otherwise
            1.b. part with reason as its controller
               (1.b.1. spirit)
               (1.b.2. appetite)
        2. part not having reason

The argument is roughly the one in the Republic.

"Another nature in the soul would also seem to be without reason though in a way to share in it. For in the continent and the incontinent we praise their reason, i.e., the part that has reason, because it exhorts them correctly and towards what is best; but they evidently also have in them another part that is by nature something besides reason, conflicting and struggling with reason" (Nicomachean Ethics I.13.1102b).
For what the parts of the soul are, Aristotle accepts a version of the Tripartite Theory from the Republic. He thinks that "the part of the soul having reason" consists in two parts:

• a part with reason
• a part with reason as its controller

As we will see in the next lecture, the "part with reason" itself consists in two parts:

• a part that reasons about what cannot be otherwise
• a part that reasons about what can be otherwise

Aristotle, however, at this point, does not introduce these parts of "the part of the soul having reason" because he is trying to prevent details from obscuring the argument.

Similarly, although Aristotle elsewhere accepts that the part with reason as its controller divides into spirit and appetite (as Plato makes Socrates argue), he does not make this division in the Nicomachean Ethics because he does not want details to obscure the argument.

Virtues of Thought and Character

Aristotle divides the virtues into two kinds: virtues of "thought" and virtues of "character."

"The part that has reason has two parts, one that has authority in itself, and one that listens as to a father. The distinction between virtues reflects this difference. Some are virtues of thought and others are virtues of character (ἠθικάς)" (Nicomachean Ethics I.13.1103a). The adjective ἠθικάς is a genitive form of ἠθικἠ, which transliterates as "ēthikē" and is the root the word 'ethical.'

If we recall this passage from the Republic, we can begin to see what Aristotle has in mind.

  "Then, wouldn't these two parts also do the finest job of guarding the whole soul and the body against external enemies--reason by planning, spirit by fighting, following its leader, and carrying out the leader's decision through its courage?
  Yes, Socrates, that is true.
  And it is because of the spirited part, I suppose, that we call a single individual courageous, namely, when it preserves through pains and pleasures the declarations of reason about what is to be feared and what isn't.
  That is right.
  And we'll call him wise because of that small part of himself that rules in him and makes those declarations and has within it the knowledge of what is advantageous for each part and for the whole soul, which is the community of all three parts.
  Absolutely, Socrates" (Republic IV.442b).

Reason has authority in itself. It declares, and spirit is supposed to follow these declarations.

One Virtue is the Best

At this point in his argument, Aristotle has made more progress. He thinks he has shown that

• the human life with the best good is a life of activity of the soul in
conformity with virtue, or if there are several virtues, in conformity
with the best and most complete

In the conditional here, Aristotle thinks the antecedent "there are several virtues" is true. He assumes there are virtues of character and of thought. So he thinks it follows that

• the human life with the best good is a life of activity of the soul in
conformity with the best and most complete virtue

We need to know what Aristotle thinks "the best and most complete" is. He never identifies it explicitly, but a passage in Book X of Nicomachean Ethics provides a pretty clear indication.

"If happiness is activity in accordance with virtue, then it is reasonable that it should be activity in accordance with the best virtue; and this is the virtue of the best part of us. Whether the best part of us is intellect, or whatever else seems in accordance with nature to rule and lead us and to think what is noble and divine, this itself being divine or as being the divinest part of us, the activity of it in accordance with its fitting virtue will be complete happiness; and that is an activity of contemplation (θεωρητική), as we have said" The "as we have said" here is puzzling. The Nicomachean Ethics, as we have it, contains no such previous statement. (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1177a).

Contemplation is an "activity" of reason, and Aristotle thinks that the virtue of thought he calls "wisdom" (σοφία) is necesssary for someone to engage in his activity.

The Search for More Answers

This itself does not tell us very clearly what a life with the best is good is. We need to know

• what Aristotle thinks is true of a human being when he is wise

In addition, we need to know

• why Aristotle thinks wisdom is the best virtue
• what virtue he thinks is the second best virtue
• what he thinks is true of someone who has this second best virtue
• why he thinks this virtue brings "incomplete" happiness

I try to explain Aristotle's answers to these questions in the next two lectures, but it helps first to see a summary of the crucial points in his argument as we are now understanding it.

Aristotle thinks we should understand ourselves as trying to achieve something when we live our lives in the ways we do. We are reaching for the "best good," and Aristotle thinks there is general agreement about that this good is. We are trying to live a life in which we are happy.

He thinks that we can get some insight into what this life is if we think about the kind of beings we are. He thinks that because human is the kind we are, we act in a distinctively human way in the circumstances we face. He thinks that our actions are instances of "action of the part of the soul having reason," that we can generate our actions well or badly, and that we have the best good and thus are happy to the extent that we generate them well.

Aristotle thus uses the human function to define the possible lives amd uses the virtues of character and thought to select the lives that most possess the best good and happiness.




Perseus Digital Library:

Plato, Euthydemus, Republic
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἐνέργεια, energeia, noun, "activity"
ἔργον, ergon, noun, "work"
εὐδαιμονία, eudaimonia, noun, "happiness"
ἠθική, ēthikē, adjective, "moral"
μακάριος (derivative of μάκαρ, epitaph of the gods in Homer, Iliad I.339), makarios, adjective, "blessed"
σοφία, sophia, noun, "wisdom"
σοφός, sophos, adjective, "wise"
τέλειος, teleios, adjective, "having reached its end, finished, complete"
τελειοτάτην, teleiotatēn, adjective, superlative of τέλειος

Arizona State University Library. Loeb Classical Library:
Aristotle, Parts of Animals




"Aristotle thinks objects have a function. We can readily understand what he means in the case of artifacts: they are constructed the way they are constructed to fulfill a certain task or to exhibit a certain kind of behavior. Fulfilling this task or exhibiting this behavior is their function. ... Aristotle, like Plato before him, extends the notion of function to natural objects, especially to living things. In addition, Aristotle thinks that the capacity of an object to behave in this characteristic way depends on its organization, structure, and disposition, indeed, he thinks that it is just this disposition or organization that enables the object to behave the way it does. Now, for Aristotle, the form is this disposition or organization, while the matter is what is thus disposed or organized" (Michael Frede, "Individuals in Aristotle," 65-66. Essays in Ancient Philosophy, 49-71. University of Minnesota Press, 1987).




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