Happiness is Living like the Gods

Human Happiness is Some Form of Contemplation

Aristotle is thinking about what the best good is in the life someone lives insofar as he is human. In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, he thinks about this in terms of the function of human beings, the parts of their soul, and the virtues proper to these parts.

In book X, he is thinking about the activity in which the happiness of the gods consists and the extent to which the virtues of proper to our souls allow us to have this happiness.

Endymion is a character from myth who is said to have chosen eternal sleep so that his beauty would never fade.

"It is agreed [that happiness] is the greatest and best of human goods and we say human because there might be a happiness belonging to some higher being, for instance a god; but none of the other animals, which are inferior in nature to men, share in the name, for a horse is not happy, nor is a bird, a fish, nor any other existing thing whose designation does not indicate that it possesses in its nature a share of something divine, but it is by some other mode of participating in things good that one of them has a better life and another a worse" (Eudemian Ethics I.1217a).

"[S]laves and animals have no share in happiness or in a life according to choice" (Politics III.1280a).
"We suppose the gods more than anyone are blessed and happy; but what sorts of actions should we ascribe to them? Just actions? Surely they will appear ridiculous making contracts, returning deposits, and so on. ... And when we go through the possibilities, all such conduct appears trivial and unworthy of the gods. We think, though, they are alive and active, since surely they are not asleep like Endymion. And if someone is alive, and action is excluded, and production [making things] even more, nothing is left but contemplation. Hence the activity of the gods superior in blessedness is contemplation" (Nicomachean Ethics X.8.1178b).

Theological Cosmology



"As for the most sovereign part of our soul, we should think of it as follows: it is a daemon given to each of us by god, and it is said to dwell at the very pinnacle of our bodies to raise us up from earth, to our kindred in heaven.... Now it is inevitable that in someone who is busy with desires and ambitions, and who labours intensely at these, all the opinions he forms are mortal, and insofar as it is possible for a person to become mortal, he takes on its full measure since he has swollen that part of himself. On the other hand it is completely inevitable, I presume, that someone who has taken seriously to the love of learning and to true understanding, and has exercised these faculties within himself most of all, will think immortal and divine thoughts, if he should actually attain truth. Furthermore, insofar as human nature is allowed to partake of immortality, he will obtain its full measure, and since he is constantly caring for the divine, and preserving the particular daemon associated with himself in good order, he will be especially happy. But of course the one and only way of caring for everything is to bestow the nutriment and movement appropriate to each, and in the case of our divine part, the kindred movements are the thoughts and revolutions of the universe. So by adhering closely to these, setting rectifying the revolutions in our head which were corrupted at the time we were born, by coming to an understanding of the harmonies and revolutions of the universe, each of us should bring ourselves into the likeness of what is observed, in accord with the ancient nature, and in that likeness, finally attain the very best life prescribed by the gods for man" (Timaeus 90a).
In the Timaeus, which is traditionally a late Platonic dialogue, we can see how Plato developed this idea that human life at its best is living like a god to the extent this is possible for us.

Timaeus says that the universe is a god (Timaeus 34b) and that we can be like this god if we rectify "the revolutions in our head" that were "corrupted" at birth so that they are like "the harmonies and revolutions of the universe." These "harmonies and revolutions" are what this god thinks and what we can see as the motion of the heavenly bodies (Timaeus 38c, 40a). Timaeus says that we in our lives most resemble the god when we are understanding what we see and that this life of knowledge and understanding is the "very best life" for man.

This may not seem plausible to us, but it did to Aristotle.

As we have seen, Aristotle thinks that primary among the gods is the first unmovable mover. This mover moves the fixed and wandering stars without itself moving. As we mature, we acquire reason and the knowledge that belongs to reason. This, though, is not enough for complete happiness. We must perfect the reason nature has given us by acquiring expertise in science, most of all in the science of theology. When we are understanding this science, we most resemble the existence that characterizes the first unmovable mover.

We have the potential for this life because in us is a part that "in accordance with nature ... rule[s] and lead[s]] us and ... think[s] what is noble and divine" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1177a).

Reason has the Power to Know

This puts Aristotle in a tradition of understanding reason that goes all the way back to Parmenides. The thinking in reason allows us to have knowledge.

"With one [of the parts with reason], we consider what does not admit of being otherwise. With the other, we consider what does admit being otherwise. ... The first is the part for knowledge (ἐπιστημονικὸν) and the second is the part for calculating (λογιστικόν), since deliberating is the same as calculating, and no one deliberates about what cannot be otherwise" (Nicomachean Ethics V1.2.1139a). Aristotle, as we saw, divides the part of the soul with reason into two parts.

He calls the first of these parts the ἐπιστημονικόν. It has the potential for ἐπιστήμη or "knowledge." It can grasp "what does not admit of being otherwise."

Parmenides seems to have thought that reality does not admit of being otherwise. Things only appears to come into and go out of existence to those who rely on experience.

In the Phaedo, Plato makes Socrates set our a version of this ontology and epistemology.

   "Is the reality itself, whose reality we give an account in our dialectic process of question and answer, always the same or is it liable to change? Does the equal itself, the beautiful itself, what each thing itself is, the reality, ever admit of any change whatsoever? Or does what each of them is, being uniform and existing by itself, remain the same and never in any way admit of any change?
   It must necessarily remain the same, Socrates.
   But how about the many things, for example, men, or horses, or cloaks, or any other such things, which bear the same names as those objects and are called beautiful or equal or the like? Are they always the same? Or are they, in direct opposition to those others, constantly changing in themselves, unlike each other, and, so to speak, never the same?
   The latter, they are never the same.
   And you can see these and touch them and perceive them by the other senses, whereas the things which are always the same can be grasped only by the reasoning of the intellect, and are invisible and not to be seen?
   Certainly that is true.
   Now, shall we assume two kinds of existences, one visible, the other invisible?
   Let us assume them, Socrates" (Phaedo 78c).

"Whereas the other animals live by impressions and memories, and have but a small share of experience, the human race lives also by art and reasoning. ... Art is produced when from many experiences a single universal judgment is formed with regard to like objects. To have a judgment that when Callias was suffering from this or that disease and this or that benefited him, and similarly with Socrates and other individuals, is a matter of experience; but to judge that it benefits all persons of a certain type, considered as a class, who suffer from this or that disease (e.g. the phlegmatic or bilious when suffering from burning fever) is a matter of art. ... Men of experience know that the thing is so, but do not know the why, while the others know the why and the cause" (Metaphysics I.1.980b). Aristotle's contrast in the Metaphysics between the medical practitioner and theorist helps show how he understands the exercise of reason that grasps what Socrates describes as "invisible."

As a matter of experience, the practitioner forms the generalization that patients who look a certain way respond to a certain treatment. The practitioner, however, does not have ἐπιστήμη because he does not grasp the universal feature that distinguishes those who benefit when they suffer from the disease from those who do not benefit. Aristotle cites the phlegmatic condition as an example of such a feature. It is only by grasping such a feature that one can form more than an empirical generalization and thus have the ἐπιστήμη that all patients characterized by the feature will benefit from the treatment. The universal figures in the explanation for why the patients benefit. There is a necessary and hence universal connection between patients of the kind and benefiting from the treatment, and this connection explains why the treatment is successful for patients with the disease.

The ἐπιστημονικόν is the part of the soul the theorist is exercising.

The Activity of Contemplation

Someone with "wisdom" (σοφία) has perfected his ἐπιστημονικὸν.

He has the kind of of understanding someone possesses when he has knowledge of the initial premises of demonstrations and of the demonstrative conclusions from these premises.

"Intellect is the starting point of knowledge" (Posterior Analytics II.19.100b). "Knowledge is a state affording demonstration" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.3.1139b). "It is a taking up about universals, things that are by necessity" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.6.1140b). "[W]isdom is the most exact knowledge. The wise must not only know what follows from the starting-points, but also must have the truth of the starting-points. Hence, wisdom is intellect and knowledge ... about what is most valued by nature" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.7.1141a).

Given that someone has this "most exact knowledge," he can hold it in mind if nothing impedes him. When he does this, he is engaged in "contemplation" (θεωρία). "Happiness also requires external goods" (Nicomachian Ethics I.9.1099a). "He who is happy requires in addition to the goods of the body, external goods and the gifts of fortune, in order that his activity may not be impeded through lack of them" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.14.1153b).

"The one who contemplates has no need of the external goods for this activity. We might even say they are impediments, at least to contemplation; but, as he is a man and lives with others, he chooses to do what is in accordance with virtue; he will therefore need such things with a view to living as a man" (Nicomachean Ethics X.8.1178b). "His nature is not self-sufficient for the activity of contemplation. He must have bodily health, food, and other things" (Nicomachean Ethics X.9.1178b).

In order to more clearly understand what this "holding in mind" is, it is helpful to think about Plato's interpretation in the Phaedo of Socrates' interest in definitions.

Plato took Socrates to think that to live a life that benefits us the most, we must know what the virtues of character are to do what we want to do. Socrates, though, as Plato understands him, also believes that his life is better to the extent he thinks about this knowledge.

Aristotle has this same general idea. Someone with wisdom has this knowledge in the background as he lives his life. Because he understands what the best good is, he is functioning better and thus his life is better to the extent that he thinks about this knowledge.

Reason has the Power to Calculate

A human life must consist in more than contemplation. It is "ridiculous" to think of the gods as "making contracts, returning deposits, and so on," but these are things human beings do.

The λογιστικόν is the part of their soul we are exercising when they do these things. This part has the potential for λογισμός because it can grasp "what does admit of being otherwise."

The traditional translation of λογισμός in this context is "calculation."

We can understand why and what Aristotle has in mind if we recall the tripartite theory of the soul in Plato's Republic. Socrates refers to reason as the "calculating part" of the soul.

  "And so it is fitting for the calculating part of the soul to rule, it being wise and exercising foresight on behalf of the whole soul, and for spirit to obey it and be its ally?
  Assuredly, Socrates" (Republic IV.441e).

  "When the soul inquires alone by itself, it departs towards the pure, always existent immortal and the changeless, and being akin to these it dwells always with them whenever it is by itself and is not hindered, and then it has ceased its wanderings and remains always the same and unchanging, because of its contact with things of a similar kind. And this condition of it is called wisdom (φρόνησις)?
  This, Socrates, is altogether right and true" (Phaedo 79c).

Plato does not distinguish σοφία and φρόνησις as two prefections of reason in the way Aristotle does.
In just souls, reason is "wise" and uses its knowledge in "foresight" about what to do.

Aristotle understands this in terms of the two parts of the part of the soul with reason. Reason can be "wise" because it has the ἐπιστημονικόν and the power to know. It can exercise "foresight" because it has the λογιστικόν and the power to calculate.

The First and Second Happiest Lives

There is also another way Aristotle clarifies and corrects the view in Plato's in the Republic.

In the Republic, the soul has two lives. The best is outside the body free from all practical concerns. Second is the life of a just soul in a body. This soul has practical concerns but manages them wisely in an effort to spend time contemplating the forms.

Aristotle's mature view, it seems, is that no part of the human soul can exist apart from the body. So he does not think reason in the human soul can free itself from the need to manage practical concerns, but he does think that human lives can be ranked into first and second according to the extent reason does more than manage practical concerns.

"For man [what is fitting] is life according to intellect, if this more than anything else is man. He is happiest in this life. Secondly he is happiest in the life according to the other virtue. For the activities in accordance with it are human [as opposed to the activity of contemplation which characterizes the life of the gods]. We display justice, courage and the other virtues in our relations with our fellows" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1178a).

Someone living the life second in happiness has The translation of φρόνησις in Aristotle in this contexts presents a challenge. It would be natural to us "wisdom" if this were not already the translation for σοφία.

The translator in the Perseus Digital Library uses "prudence." This follows the standard practice of translating φρόνησις into Latin as prudentia.

I use "practical wisdom" because Aristotle characterizes φρόνησις as "a state of reason attaining truth about practical things." The Greek here for "practical things" is a form of the adjective πρακτικός.

"To grasp what practical wisdom is, we should first study the sort of people we call practically wise. It seems proper, then, to someone practically wise to be able to deliberate beautifully about what is good and beneficial for himself, not about some restricted area, for example, about what promotes health or strength, but about what promotes living well in general" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.5.1040a).

"[P]ractical wisdom is a state of reason attaining truth about practical things that are good with respect to a human being. ... [And of] the two parts of the soul with reason, practical wisdom is a virtue of one of them, of the part that has belief [as opposed to knowledge]; for belief is concerned, as practical wisdom is [but wisdom is not], with what admits of being otherwise" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.5.1140b).

"Practical wisdom is about human concerns and what is open to deliberation. For we say that to deliberate well is most of all the work of the man of practical wisdom. No one deliberates about things that cannot be otherwise nor about things that are not a means to some end, where that end is a good achievable by action. The good deliberator is capable of aiming in accordance with calculation at what is the best for a human being of things pursued in action (Nicomachean Ethics VI.7.1141b).
the virtue of thought Aristotle calls φρόνησις and I translate as "practical wisdom." This virtue is proper to the λογιστικόν.

Still More Answers are Necessary

Now we need to know what Aristotle thinks is true of someone when he has practical wisdom and thus is good at making choices that put him in a position to live the happiest life.





Perseus Digital Library

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon

ἀποδεικτικός, apodeiktikos, adjective, "affording proof, demonstrative"
βούλευσις
ἐπιστημονικός, epistēmonikos, adjective, "capable of knowledge"
εὐδαιμονέστατος, eudaimonestatos, adjective, superlative of εὐδαίμων ("happy"), "happiest"
εὐβουλία
κόσμος, kosmos, noun, "order"

"The whole heaven (οὐρανὸς), or cosmos (κόσμος), or if there is any other name it prefers, by that let us call it" (Timaeus 28b). "We must declare that this cosmos has come into existence as a living being endowed with soul and intellect (ζῷον ἔμψυχον ἔννουν) owing to the providence of God" (Timaeus 30b).

κρίσις, krisis, noun, "separating, distinguishing"
λογιστικός, logistikos, adjective, "skilled or practised in calculating"
νοεῖν, noein, verb, "to think"
οἰκεῖος, oikeios, adjective, "proper, fitting, suitable"
οὐρανός, ouranos, noun, "heaven, the vault or firmament of heaven, the sky"
πρακτικός, praktikos, adjective, "practical"
πράσσω, prassō, verb, "to transact, negotiate, manage"
φρόνησις, phronēsis, noun, "sensibleness"

φρόνησις derives from the noun φρήν. The presence of φρήν gives one the ability to think and understand and thus to act sensibly. In Homer, the souls of the dead lack φρήν ("wits" or "sense"). Their behavior is erratic.

Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary:

prudentia, noun, "sagacity, good sense, intelligence, prudence, practical judgment"

universus, adjective, "all together, all in one, whole, entire, collective."
The universum, "the universe" (substantive use of a form of universus)
universus = uni, "one" + versus, "turned" (past participle of vertere) = "all turned into one"




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