The Best Life for a Human Being

Aristotle's First and Second Best Human Lives

"In the other animals choice does not exist, nor in man at every age or condition; for neither does deliberating and judgment about the why. It is possible that many have an opinion whether a thing is to be done, but they do not have it through reasoning" (Eudemian Ethics II.10.1226b).

"Even some of the animals we say are sensible (φρόνιμα), namely those which display a capacity for forethought as regards their own lives" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.7.1141a). So, for example, in the History of Animals IX.5.611a, Aristotle reports that deer give birth alongside the road where fear of humans keeps predators from approaching. The deer, in this way, as Aristotle understands them, are "sensible."

Aristotle thinks that animals have the capacity for perception and that along with this capacity there is a capacity for desire. Animals must behave in certain ways if they are to survive. Perception is how they become aware of their circumstances, and desire is what moves them to engage in appropriate behavior in these circumstances.
Human beings develop reason as they become adults. One of the parts of the reason they develop is the λογιστικόν. It gives human beings the potential to deliberate.

The gods do not have the λογιστικόν. Aristotle's unmoved movers have reason, but they do not deliberate because their existence ceaselessly satisfies their desires.

Animals and children also lack the λογιστικόν. Deliberation is a kind of reasoning, and animals and children cannot engage in reasoning because they do not have reason.

Living by making Choices

"Wish is in the part with reason, and appetite and spirit is in the part without reason" (On the Soul III.9.432b).

"Now the origin of action--the from which of the movement, not the for sake of which--is choice, and the origin of choice is desire together with reason that aims at some goal" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.2.1039a).

"Choice is not wish. We wish for ends, but choose means; we wish to be healthy, for example, but choose things to make us healthy" (Nicomachean Ethics III.4.1111b).

"Choice is deliberate desire" (Nicomachean Ethics III.5.1113a). "It is intellect qualified by desire or desire qualified by thought, and what originates in this way is human" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.2.1139b).
The λογιστικόν is the potential to think about what to do to bring about an end.

This thinking involves the form of desire Aristotle calls "wish" (βούλησις). Wish is the desire that belongs to reason and that stems from beliefs about what is good and what is bad.

Deliberation is thinking about how to bring about a wished for end.

If deliberation shows that taking some action is the best way to bring about a wished for end, then there is a desire to take this action. Aristotle calls this desire "choice" (προαίρεσις).

Human beings also can act on the basis of a desire that belongs to one of the nonrational parts of the soul. They have this in common with animals and children.

Competency in Choosing

The virtue proper to the λογιστικόν is "practical wisdom" (φρόνησις).

Someone who has practical wisdom possesses competency in choosing. He wishes for the correct ends, deliberates correctly about how to bring about these ends, chooses in accordance with his deliberation for the sake of these ends, has no desires contrary to his choices, and moves in accordance with his choices unless something impedes him.

"We cannot be fully good without practical wisdom or practically wise without virtue of character" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.13.1144b).

Someone is not practically wise simply by knowing; he must also act on his knowledge" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.10.1152a).

"Socrates' inquiries were in one way correct and in another way in error. ... In the thought that all the virtues of character require practical wisdom, he was right. ... Socrates, though, thought that the virtues are reason because he thought they are knowledge, whereas we think they involve reason" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.13.1144b).

Someone has practical wisdom if, and only if, he has the virtues of character.

In the case of courage, he "stands firm against the right things and fears the right things, for the right end, in the right way, at the right time" (Nicomachean Ethics III.7.1115b).

The Problem of Unreasonable Desires

Without the virtue of practical wisdom, there is a lack of competency in choosing.

One thing that could go wrong is that action is on impulse rather than reason.

ἀκρασία, noun, "want of power, incontinence"

ἀκρατής, adjective, "without command over oneself"

ἐγκρατής, adjective, "holding fast, master of oneself"

"The following are opinions held. Self-restraint and endurance are good and praiseworthy. Unrestraint and softness are bad and blameworth. The self-restrained abides by his calculation. The unrestrained abandons it. The unrestrained knows that his actions are base, but he does them because of passion. The self-restrained knows that his appetites are base, but because of reason he does not follow them" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.6.1145b)
Aristotle provides an example in what he calls "impetuous ἀκρασία."

"The impetuous are led by passion because they do not stop to deliberate" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.7.1150b) about what to do to live according to their beliefs about what is good and what is bad. When someone impetuous is insulted, he can get so upset and angry that his anger preempts any thought he might have had about how he should respond in the situation. Once he calms down, he might realize that in general he does not think that his angry response is appropriate. At the time, though, he did not think. He just acted out of his anger.

In this example, the "part [of the soul] with reason" fails to control the "part with reason as its controller." This happens because of some failure in the past. The impetuous failed to submit himself to the training necessary to ensure that "the part with reason as its controller" has reasonable desires, that he acts for reasons, rather than from passion, and hence that, if there is a conflict, he acts on the basis of "the part [of the soul] with reason."

The "continent" (ἐγκρατής) provides another example of the problem of unreasonable desires. Both the continent and the "incontinent" (ἀκρατής) have unreasonable desires. The continent, however, unlike the incontinent, does not act on these desires. The incontinent is weak. The continent is strong. Aristotle thinks that neither has practical wisdom.

The Best Life a Human Being can Live

"Happiness is not found in amusement; for it would be absurd if the end were amusement, and our lifelong efforts and sufferings aimed at amusing ourselves. For we choose practically everything for some other end--except for happiness, since is the end; but serious work and toil aimed only at amusement appears stupd and excessively childish. Rather, it seems correct to amuse ourselves so that we can do something serious, as Anacharsis says; for amusement would seem to be relaxation, and it is because we can not toil continuously that we require relaxation. Relaxation, then, is not the end, since we pursue it to prepare for activity" (Nicomachean Ethics X.6.1176b).

Little is unknown about Anacharis. For some description, see Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers I.8.

"Happiness seems to be found [most] in leisure (σχολῇ), since we accept trouble so that we can be at leisure, and fight wars so that we can be at peace. The virtues concerned with action have activities in politics or war, and these require trouble. This seems completely true for actions in war, since no one chooses to fight a war, and no one continues it, for the sake of fighting. He would be a murderer if he made his friends his enemies so that there were battles and killings" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1177b).

"Man's complete happiness consists in [contemplation]..., but this life is higher than human. For someone will live it not in so far as he is human, but so far as he has something divine in him. And by as much as this something is superior to his composite nature, by so much is its activity superior to the activity according to the other virtue. If then the intellect is something divine in comparison with man, so is the life of the intellect divine in comparison with human life" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1177b).

"It seems likely that the man who whose activity is according to the intellect, and who cultivates his intellect and keeps it in the best condition, is also the man most beloved of the gods. For if they pay attention to us, as they seem to, it would be reasonable for them to take pleasure in that part of man which is best and most akin to themselves, namely the intellect" (Nicomachean Ethics X.8.1179a).
Now that we have a better understanding of the virtues of "wisdom" and "practical wisdom," we can begin to see why Aristotle ranks human lives in the way does.

Aristotle ranks his lives according to completeness. In the order of second then first, they are

• the life of reason in accordance with practical wisdom
• the life of reason in accordance with practical wisdom and wisdom

The second best life does not achieve the full human potential. The ἐπιστημονικόν does not have its proper virtue. This life does not include the activity of contemplation.

The first best life does achieve the full human potential. Both parts of the part of the soul with reason, the ἐπιστημονικόν and the λογιστικόν, have their proper virtues.

To show that someone with both practical wisdom and wisdom is happier, Aristotle seems to use an argument like the one we saw Socrates give in the Republic for the just.

"Every kind of animal seems to have its own proper pleasure, just as it has its own function; for the proper pleasure will be the one that corresponds to its activity" (Nicomachean Ethics X.5.1176a). "The pleasures that complete the activities of the complete and blessed man, whether he has one activity or more than one, are pleasures of a man to the fullest extent. The others are pleasures in a secondary or even more remote way" (Nicomachean Ethics X.5.1176a).

"The activity of the intellect excels in serious worth, consisting as it does in contemplation, and to aim at no end beyond itself, and also to contain a pleasure proper to itself, and therefore augmenting its activity. Further, self-sufficiency, leisuredness, such freedom from fatigue as is possible for man, and all other features assigned to the blessed, are features of this activity. Hence man's complete happiness will be this activity if it is in a complete life, for nothing belonging to happiness can be incomplete" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1177b).

Someone with practical wisdom does more of what he wants because he has no contrary motivations, and someone with practical wisdom and wisdom fares even better. (Aristotle thinks that once someone has wisdom, there is little to keep him from contemplation.)

Further, because the pleasures that complete proper activities are pleasures "to the fullest extent", someone with practical wisdom and wisdom has the most pleasure in his life. He has more pleasure than someone who only has practical wisdom, and someone who only has practical wisdom has more pleasure in his life than someone who lacks pratical wisdom.

As we did for Plato, we may wonder about the soundness of Aristotle's arguments.

Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates

Aristotle intends for this conclusion about the "best good" to have practical consequences. In this, Aristotle stands squarely in the Socratic tradition of trying to benefit those who engage with him. Aristotle realizes that practical wisdom is not something many of us will achieve and that even fewer of us will become wise, but he thinks that if we have this target in mind, we are more likely to increase the level of happiness we experience in our lives.

About the best life, though, Aristotle follows Plato against Socrates.

Whereas Socrates thought the kind of knowledge of the universe the inquirers into nature sought might not be possible and that it is not the wisdom that interests him even if it is possible, Plato moves away from this perspective. In the Phaedo and the Republic and then more so in the Timaeus, a life is good and the person living it is happy to the extent that he knows the most general and theoretical aspects of how the universe works. Aristotle tempers this thought in Plato. He makes room for Socrates' life as a life of practical wisdom in which this knowledge is absent, but he does not think it is the best life for a human being to live.

Aristotle, in this way, is a man of his times. He tries to correct the views of Plato's he thinks are mistakes, and he tries to give better arguments for the ones he thinks are true.

Perseus Digital Library

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics

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

αἵρεσις, hairesis, noun, "choice" ἀκούσιος (Attic contraction for ἀεκούσιος), akousios, adjective, "unwilling"
ἑκούσιος, hekousios, adjective, "willing"

ἀκρασία, akrasia, noun, alternate spelling of ἀκράτεια, akrateia, "want of power, incontinence."

"It would be astonishing, Socrates thought, for knowledge to be in someone, but be mastered (κρατεῖν) by something else, and dragged around like a slave. Socrates fought against the account, in the belief there is no incontinence (ἀκρασίας)" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.2).

βουλεύω, bouleuō, verb, "take counsel, deliberate"
βούλησις, boulēsis, noun, "willing"
προαίρεσις, proairesis, noun, "choice"
διανοητικός, dianoētikos, adjective, "intellectual"
νόος, noos, noun, "mind"
φρήν, phrēn, noun, "the wit of a person"
φρόνησις, phronēsis, noun, "practical wisdom"
φρόνιμος, phronimos, adjective, "in one's right mind, in one's senses, showing the presence of mind, sensible"

"In Aristotle's view, there is a certain good which we all will or want to attain in life, namely, a good life. As grown-up human beings we have a certain conception, though different people have rather different ones, of what this final good consists of. So in a particular situation we shall, as mature human beings, choose what to do in light of our conception of this final good, because we think, having deliberated about the matter, that acting in this way will help us attain this good" (Michael Frede, A Free Will Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought, 27).

"As then the question of legislation has been left uninvestigated by previous thinkers, it will perhaps be well if we consider it for ourselves, together with the whole question of the constitution of the city, in order to complete as far as possible our philosophy of human affairs (τὰ ἀνθρώπεια φιλοσοφία)" (Nicomachean Ethics X.9.1181b).

"Now it is clear that the best constitution is the system under which anybody whatsoever would be best off and would live in felicity; but the question is raised even on the part of those who agree that the life accompanied by virtue is the most desirable, whether the life of citizenship and practical things is desirable or rather a life released from all external affairs, for example some form of contemplative life, which is said by some to be the only life that is philosophic" (Politics VII.2.1324a).
"Aristotle hardly ever talks of ethics or practical philosophy as 'philosophy.'' One place in which he does so is at the very end of E.N [Ethica Nicomachea or (translated from the Latin into English) Nicomachean Ethics].X.9.1181b15, where he speaks of 'the philosophy concerning human affairs.' Thus he implicitly contrasts it with first philosophy which is concerned with wisdom which is divine and of matters divine, for instance God. It is wisdom which affords us the contemplation of truth, of which Aristotle earlier in E.N.X tells us that it makes our life like that of gods, to the extent that this is humanly possible. But first philosophy is concerned with the good or with what is best, and its concern is a theoretical concern, a concern aimed at satisfying our need to know and understand what is the most important thing to understand, namely, God, a principle of all things. By contrast, ethics is just concerned with the human good, and this concern is not theoretical, but a practical concern. It is aimed at being good and living well" (Michael Frede, "Aristotle's Account of the Origins of Philosophy," 24. Rhizai. A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science, 2004, 9-44).

move on go back