4. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

“Happiness is the theme of the first book of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The fact that happiness is a subject of universal interest confirms Aristotle’s most fundamental insight about it: all men want to be happy, and everything else they want they seek as means of becoming happy. Among the things that men call good and strive for, happiness stands out as the one good which, if fully possessed, would leave a man satisfied and at rest. No one would call himself completely happy if anything essential to his well-being remained beyond his grasp. Happiness must, therefore, be the sum of all good things.”  (“Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, page 37)

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who was born in the small colonial town of Stagirus on the Aegean Sea near the Macedonian border in 384 B.C.; attended Plato’s Academy in Athens in 367-347; helped set up and taught in an academy in the newly-built town of Assus on the Asian side of the Aegean Sea in 347-44; moved to Mytilene, capital of the nearby island of Lesbos, where he studied natural history in 344-342; tutored Alexander (the Great) and studied/taught in Macedonia in 342-336; established and taught in a school in Athens called the Lycaeum in 336-23; and died in Chalcis (his mother’s hometown) in 322. Great Books of the Western World devotes two volumes to his writings, most of which represent lectures that he delivered at the Lycaeum.

Adler and Wolff devote the fourth reading in A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education to Book I of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. They compare it and the first two books of Plato’s The Republic, discuss what is the greatest good to Aristotle, and pose four questions on the reading. Here I’ll summarize the first two sections of their presentation and comment on two of the questions which they ask.

Nicomachean Ethics and Plato’s The Republic

“It will be instructive to compare the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics with the first two books of Plato’s Republic. Both are works dealing with morals or ethics; both contain the author’s best thought on these matters; and in both cases we read the introductory section.

“In spite of these similarities, there are obvious and sharp differences between these two works. The first to come to mind, perhaps, is the difference in style. Whereas Plato’s writing is always in the form of a dialogue, Aristotle’s never is. Consequently, it usually is a little harder to discern what is Plato’s thought is on a given subject than Aristotle’s. Plato never speaks to us in his own right but through the mouth of Socrates; and he usually chooses to have Socrates not as expounding a view, but as questioning others and extracting their point of view. In Aristotle’s works, on the other hand, whatever their difficulty may be in other respects, it is never unclear that it is Aristotle who is talking and presenting his views.

(Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 39)

Adler and Wolff go on to consider four other differences between Nicomachean Ethics and The Republic:

1. Plato uses the “What is justice?” as his beginning, but Aristotle uses “What is happiness?” Adler and Wolff suggest that the author’s beginning indicates what moral problem he considers most important.

2. Plato uses a political matter, the organization of the state, to explain a moral matter, but Aristotle proceeds from ethics to politics.

3. Because of its dialogue form Plato’s treatment of ethics is not systematic or complete, but Aristotle tries to treat it in a systematic and complete fashion. However, as Adler and Wolff observe, Plato’s omissions are only apparent, his treating the omitted topics in other dialogues

.4. Its division into books and chapters assures that Nichomachean Ethics has a clearer structure than The Republic with its dialogue form.

The Greatest Good

Adler and Wolff begin their discussion of the greatest good by quoting the openings of Chapters 1 and 2 of the reading:

“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good.” “If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for it 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.” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, in volume 9 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 339).

But what is this chief or greatest good? Adler and Wolff answer this question by quoting the opening of Chapter 4 of the reading:

“Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good … what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness.” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, page 340)

But what is happiness? After quoting and commenting on three more passages from the reading, Adler and Wolff conclude:

“For Aristotle, therefore, the happy man leads a good life, he is not a man who has a good time. Having a good time, though often desirable and not necessarily bad, is a passing thing. It is a feeling of pleasure, and like all feelings or emotions it lacks just that quality of stability and sufficiency that marks happiness. “Happiness, in other words, is a moral quality for Aristotle, involving all virtues and all of a lifetime. Just because it is such a complete and completely satisfying thing, it is also hard to achieve; only the virtuous man can hope to achieve it.” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 44)

Questions on the Reading

What is the role of external goods in happiness?

Adler and Wolff answer:

“Aristotle’s happiness is not an ascetic one. He does not maintain that a destitute and sick man can be as happy as one who is materially and physically well off. This is especially interesting if we remember that happiness is an activity of the soul involving reason. It is sometimes supposed that thinking and being a philosopher are ‘other-worldly’ occupations and that a person following them will reject all worldly goods. But this is clearly not Aristotle’s view. Evidently, the happy man must have his share of each of the various kinds of goods.” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 45)

Why does happiness involve “a complete life”?

After demonstrating that according to his definition of it happiness involves complete virtue and a complete life, Aristotle asks:

“Must no one at all, then, be called happy while he lives; must we … see the end? Even if we are to lay down this doctrine, is it also the case that a man is happy when he is dead? Or is not this quite absurd, especially for us who say that happiness is an activity?” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, page 345)

My response as an evangelical Christian is that although his or her life may include happiness and unhappiness, the Christian can always experience joy through the indwelling Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and moreover will have a full and joyous life after death.

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4 thoughts on “4. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

  1. Brian Geiger

    What are your stances on “eudaimonia” being translated as not happiness but flourishing? There isn’t much consensus on the issue, yet I feel as if its implications are sizeable.
    For instance, when Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics, speaks of the plant’s ability to grow and seek nutrition, it would be strange for him to say that by performing its ergon of nutrition and growth it becomes “happy.” Instead, it seems best to say that it “flourishes.” Likewise, if the human function is reason via phronesis, it seems misleading to state that reasoning excellently makes us “happy”–the ancient philosophers seemed to agree that knowing a lot makes one less happy than if he were ignorant. Perhaps the human “flourishes,” then, upon reasoning well?

    Excellent post. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this point that so confuses me!

    Reply
    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      Brian, I told you in an e-mail that I’d try to respond to your comment in a few days but that, because of my being just an ordinary reader of the great books rather than a philosopher or a student of philosophy, I couldn’t imagine what I’d say being of any value to you. I appreciate your gracious reply to my e-mail.

      Your suggestion that “eudaimonia” be translated as not “happiness” but “flourishing” sounds good to me. However remember that I say that as just an ordinary reader of Nicomachean Ethics in English rather than as a student of philosophy reading it in Greek.

      Thanks again for your comment. Best wishes with your blog, briangeigersite.wordpress.com, which I visited and was impressed by.

      Reply
  2. Allison

    Aristotle’s definition of happiness makes sense. Many people whom I know that simply have a good time aren’t really happy but are searching for something deeper. Like you, I believe that despite the fact Christians will have sad times like everyone else, they can find contentment and joy through the Holy Spirit.

    Reply

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