Book X of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is concerned with the ultimate goal of human life. Things said here about the key undefined terms of “intellect” and “contemplation” provide important background for what is said about them in book Lambda of the Metaphysics.
He begins with a discussion of pleasure. “For some people say that pleasure is the good, while others at the opposite extreme say it is completely base, some of them perhaps being convinced that it is that way, but others believing that it is better for our life to make pleasure appear to be something base, even if it is not, on the grounds that most people are heavily inclined toward it and are enslaved to their pleasures” (ch. 1, Sachs tr., p. 181).
First, he suggests that it is not pleasure in its own right that is base, but a kind of enslavement to its pursuit.
Still referring to those who say pleasure is base, he continues, “But it may well be that this is not a good thing to say. For words that concern things in the realm of feelings and actions are less believable than deeds are…. For if someone who condemns pleasure is seen sometimes going after it, he seems to incline toward it because all of it is good, since making distinctions is not something that most people do. So true statements seem to be the most useful ones, not only for knowing but also for life; for since they are in tune with one’s deeds they are believed, and they encourage those who understand them to live by them” (ibid).
Saying that words are less believable than deeds expresses in very simple language the same point for which I have repeatedly cited Robert Pippin’s account of the ethical consequences of the Aristotelian priority of actuality in Hegel.
In passing, Aristotle observes that most humans over-generalize, whereas the philosopher is careful to make distinctions.
“Now Eudoxus believed that pleasure is the good, because one sees that all beings, both rational and irrational, aim at it, while in all things what is choiceworthy is good and what is most choiceworthy is best; so the fact that all things are carried to the same goal reveals that this is the best thing for them all (for each thing discovers what is good for itself, just as it discovers its food), and what is good for all things, and at which all things aim, is the good. His arguments were convincing on account of the virtue of his character, more than on their own account, since he seemed to be an exceptionally temperate man, so that he seemed to be saying these things not as a lover of pleasure but because that is the way things are in truth” (ch. 2, p. 181).
Here Aristotle again concretely applies the priority of actuality or being-at-work. In disputed ethical matters, the character of the speaker as observable by others in her deeds often has even greater importance than the quality of the speaker’s arguments.
“But what is most choiceworthy is what we choose neither on account of anything else nor for the sake of anything else; and such, by general agreement, is pleasure, since no one asks for what purpose one feels pleasure, because pleasure is chosen for itself. And when pleasure is added to any good thing whatever, such as acting justly or being temperate, it makes it more choiceworthy, but it is by itself that the good is augmented.”
It is always a key distinction for Aristotle whether something is chosen for its own sake or for the sake of something else.
“But surely the latter argument, at any rate, seems to show that pleasure is among the things that are good, but no more so than any other, since every one of them is more choiceworthy along with another good thing than when it is alone. Indeed, Plato argues in rebuttal by that sort of argument that pleasure is not the good, since a pleasant life is more choiceworthy along with intelligence than apart from it, but if the mixture is better, then pleasure is not the good, for the good does not become more choiceworthy when something is added to it. And it is clear that nothing else that becomes more choiceworthy along with any of the things that are good in themselves would be the good either” (pp. 181-182).
With the help of Plato, he leads us through a dialectical reversal of the apparent endorsement of Eudoxus’ position above. This last argument about pleasure holds true for any particular good, and therefore does not suffice to establish that pleasure is the good in an unqualified sense. We need to distinguish between any particular end that may be sought and the good in its own right, which he also calls beautiful.
He continues, “But what is of that sort, that we have any share in? For that is the sort of thing being sought. On the other hand, those who argue in opposition that what all things aim at is not good are not saying anything; for those things that seem so to all people, we declare to be so, and someone who destroys that trust will not very likely say anything that is more to be trusted” (p. 182).
Those who argue that what all things aim at is not the good are “not saying anything”. Here he seems to make two separate points. First, by calling this “not saying anything”, he implies that a denial that all things aim at the good ought to be considered as leading to debilitating incoherence. Such a denial does not just contradict the contrary view shared by Eudoxus and Plato, that the good (whatever else it may be) is that at which all things aim. What supports the view of Eudoxus and Plato is the possibility of mutual articulation and clarification between the what-it-is of the good and the what-it-is of the aims of things. The contrary view rejects that correlation, and offers nothing in its place to support articulation and clarification. In that way, it undermines intelligibility and discourse. This is not a proof that all things aim at the good, only a rationally persuasive argument.
Second, he claims that people in general — or what we might call common sense — in fact presuppose the correlation between the good and aims posited by Eudoxus and Plato. Again, this is only a rationally persuasive argument, not a proof.
He continues, “For if it were only things without intelligence that desire pleasant things, there would be something in what they say, but if beings with judgment desire them as well, how could they be saying anything? And perhaps even in the lower animals there is something naturally good that is stronger than they themselves are, that aims at their proper good” (ibid).
Here he tacitly equates intelligence with good judgment. Most things in life cannot be adequately dealt with using only logical reasoning from what can be known in a strict sense. In animals that do not have the ability to deliberate and make judgments of what ought to be done, he suggests that their nature as their indwelling source of motion takes the place of judgment.
“Nor is it the case that, if pleasure is not classed among the qualities, it is for that reason not among good things either; for the ways of being-at-work that belong to virtue are not qualities, and neither is happiness” (ch. 3, p. 182).
Pleasure, virtue, and happiness are not simple qualities. As was said more generally about states of things in the Physics, they involve complex relations.
“To those who bring up pleasures that are matters of reproach, one might say that these are not pleasant (for just because they are pleasurable to people who are in a bad condition, one ought not to suppose that they would also be pleasant to anyone except these…), … or else pleasures differ in kind, for the ones that come from beautiful things are different from the ones that come from shameful things, for it is not possible to feel the pleasure that comes from something just without being a just person, or the pleasure that comes from something musical without being a musical person, and similarly in the other cases. And the fact that a friend is different from a flatterer seems to make it clear that pleasure is either not good or varies in kind” (p. 184).
He concludes, “It seems to be clear, then, that pleasure is not the good and that not every pleasure is choiceworthy, and that there are some pleasures that are choiceworthy in themselves, differing in kind or in the things they come from” (ibid).
Pleasure is not the good, but pleasures associated with that he calls “beautiful” things, which are those that are good in their own right, are nonetheless choiceworthy in their own right.
“Now the activity of seeing seems to be complete over any time whatever, for there is nothing it lacks which would complete its form by coming about at a later time; pleasure too is like something of this sort. For it is something whole, and there is no time at which one could take a pleasure, the form of which would become complete after it went on for a longer time. Hence pleasure is not a motion…. But all the motions that are in parts of time are incomplete, and are different in form from the whole and from one another. For setting stones together is different from making grooves in a column, and these motions differ from the making of a temple; the making of the temple is something complete (for it is lacking in nothing in relation to what was intended), but the making of the foundation or of a decorative tablet is incomplete, since each of these is the making of a part. They are different in form, then, and it is not possible to find a motion complete in its form in any time whatever except in the whole” (ch. 4, pp. 184-185).
“But the form of a pleasure is complete in any time whatever…. [I]t is not possible to be in motion except in a stretch of time, but it is possible to feel pleasure, for what is in the now is something whole” (p. 185).
Pleasure, like seeing, is its own entelechy (something complete in itself), and not a motion. In the Physics, he treats the continuity of any given motion as itself a kind of imperfect entelechy, but here he emphasizes the contrast between motion and any more perfect entelechy.
“Now since every one of the senses is at work in relation to something perceptible, and is completely at work when it is in its best condition and directed toward the most beautiful of the things perceptible by that sense (for it seems that its complete being-at-work is of this sort most of all, and let it make no difference to speak of the sense itself, or of the organ in which it is present, as being-at-work), for each sense, that way of being-at-work is best that belongs to what is in its best condition, directed toward the best of what is perceptible by it. This would be most complete and most pleasant” (p. 186).
It is common to hear claims that perception for Aristotle is unequivocally passive. It does have a passive aspect that he emphasizes in On the Soul. But here he emphasizes that all perception is a being-at-work or actuality, and thus also an entelechy, by way of his identification of actuality with entelechy.
“[F]or there is a pleasure that goes with each of the senses, and similarly with thinking and contemplation, and its most complete activity is most pleasant, and it is most complete when it belongs to a power that is in good condition directed toward that which is of most serious worth among the things apprehended by it, and the pleasure brings the activity to completion” (ibid).
The greatest pleasure accompanies the most complete entelechy. This also applies to the first cause, which he conceives as an entelechy that is complete in an unqualified sense.
“When the thing perceiving and the thing perceived are at their best, there will always be pleasure when what acts and what is acted upon are present to one another. But the pleasure brings the activity to completion not as an active condition present within it all along, but as something that comes over it, like the bloom of well-being in people who are at the peak of their powers” (ibid).
Pleasure follows from the fulfillment of nature. But it is something that supervenes on that fulfillment.
“So as long as the intelligible or perceptible thing, and the power that discerns or contemplates it, are such as they ought to be, there will be pleasure in their being-at-work, for while the thing acted upon and the thing acting remain as they are and have the same relation to one another, the same thing comes about…. [But] it is impossible for anything belonging to human beings to be at-work continuously” (p. 187).
Being-at-work and entelechy inherently generate pleasure.
“But one might assume that all beings reach out for pleasure because they all desire to live. Life is a certain kind of being-at-work…. The pleasure brings the activities to completion and hence brings living to completion, which is what they all strive for…. For without being-at-work, no pleasure comes about, and pleasure brings every way of being-at-work to completion” (ibid).
All life is being-at-work and entelechy. There is no genuine pleasure apart from these.
“[W]ays of being-at-work that are different in kind are brought to completion by means that differ in kind…. [E]ach of the pleasures is bound up with the activity it completes, since the appropriate pleasure contributes to the growth of the activity. For those who are at-work with pleasure discern each sort of thing better and are more precise about it” (pp. 187-188).
To be at-work and to feel pleasure in it makes us better at whatever we are doing.
“Now since ways of being-at-work differ in decency and baseness, and since some are to be chosen, others are to be avoided, and still others are neutral, their pleasures also differ similarly, since a special pleasure goes with each activity. The special pleasure in an activity of serious worth is decent, and the special pleasure in a base activity is corrupt” (p. 188).
Here he distinguishes what I above called “genuine” pleasure from spurious apparent pleasure associated with a corrupt nature.
“Decency” (epieikeia) means ethical sensitivity. More specifically, for Aristotle it is an attitude that tempers the strict application of rules or laws with kindness and charitable interpretation. Leibniz also emphasized this in his philosophy of jurisprudence. Ethics answers to a higher calling than mere rules or law. This doesn’t mean that all rules and law should be thrown out. It does mean that within reason, kindness and charity and attention to particulars should take precedence over the rigid application of rules.
“But in all such matters, it seems that a thing is what it shows itself to be to a person of serious moral stature. And if this is beautifully said, as it seems to be, then the measure of each thing is virtue, or a good person, insofar as he is good, and what appear to be pleasures to this person would be pleasures, and the things he enjoys will be pleasant. And if some things that are hard for this person to endure appear pleasant to someone, that is nothing to be wondered at, since many kinds of corruption and damage happen to human beings” (p. 189).
In the Metaphysics, Aristotle interprets Protagoras’ “Man is the measure of all things” as a subjectivism that undermines any possibility of discourse. Here is Aristotle’s positive alternative: the virtue of a good person is the measure of all things. Intelligibility depends on normativity.
“[B]ut among the pleasures that seem to be decent, which sort or which one ought one to say is that of a human being? Or is this clear from the ways of being-at-work, since the pleasures follow upon these? So if there is one or more than one activity belonging to the man who is fulfilled and blessed, the pleasures that bring them to completion should be spoken of, in the governing sense, as the pleasures of a human being, while the rest are pleasures in a secondary and greatly diminished sense, corresponding to their activities” (pp. 189-190).
The highest pleasure of a human being will turn out to come from the entelechy of contemplative intellect.
“Now that the things having to do with the virtues, with friendships, and with pleasures have been discussed, what remains is to go through in outline what has to do with happiness, since we set this down as the end at which human beings aim. And the account of it would be shorter for those who take up again what has been said before” (ch. 6, p. 190).
The virtues and friendship are discussed in earlier books of the Ethics. Now he turns from pleasure to eudaimonia or “happiness”, which for Aristotle is a condition to be judged objectively, and not a subjective feeling.
“[O]ne ought… to place happiness in some form of being-at-work…. [O]ne ought to place happiness among those that are chosen for their own sake and not among those that are for the sake of something else, since happiness stands in need of nothing but is self-sufficient. And those activities are chosen for their own sake from which nothing is sought beyond the being-at-work; and actions in accord with virtue seem to be of this sort, since performing actions that are beautiful and serious is something chosen for its own sake” (ch. 6, p. 190).
Happiness comes from a substantial engagement in activities chosen for their own sake. No human gets to do this exclusively, but we do have the ability to choose some things only for their own sake.
“Even children believe that the things valued by themselves are the best things. So it is reasonable that, just as different things appear worthwhile to children and to men, so too do different things appear worthwhile to people of a low sort and to decent people…. [T]o each person, the way of being-at-work that results from his own active condition is the most choiceworthy, and to a person of serious worth that is the activity that results from virtue” (pp. 190-191).
At a certain level, we cannot avoid dealing with apparent goods. The way he approaches these is to focus on what seems good to fundamentally kind, reasonable people who take ethics seriously.
“But to be earnest and to labor for the sake of play seems foolish and too childish. But to play in order to be serious… seems to be right, since play seems like relaxation, and since people are incapable of laboring continuously, they need relaxation. So relaxation is not the end, since it comes about for the sake of being-at-work. And the happy life seems to be in accord with virtue, and this involves seriousness and does not consist in play” (p. 191).
He argues against the shallow association of happiness with play. Seriousness means not a dour attitude, but caring about what is reasonable and ethical.
“But if happiness is being-at-work in accord with virtue, it is reasonable that it would be in accord with the most powerful virtue, and this would belong to the best part. Now whether this is intellect or some other part that seems by nature to rule and lead and have a conception about things that are beautiful and divine, and to be either divine itself or the most divine of the things that are in us, the being-at-work of this part in accord with its own proper virtue would be complete happiness. That this way of being-at-work is contemplative has been said. And this would seem to be in agreement with the things said before and with the truth. For this way of being-at-work is the most powerful (since the intellect is the most powerful of the things in us, and the things with which the intellect is concerned are the most powerful of the things that can be known); it is also the most continuous, for we are more able to contemplate continuously than to act in any way whatever” (ch. 7, pp. 191-192).
This helps fill out what is said about the nature of the first cause in book Lambda of the Metaphysics. I think it tends to support the identification of contemplation with thought thinking itself.
“And we believe that pleasure must be mixed in with happiness, and by general agreement the most pleasant of the ways of being-at-work in accord with virtue is that which goes along with wisdom; at any rate, philosophy seems to have pleasures that are wonderful in their purity and stability…. And what is referred to as self-sufficiency would be present most of all in the contemplative life, for… the wise person is able to contemplate even when he is by himself, and more so to the extent that he is more wise. He will contemplate better, no doubt, when he has people to work with, but he is still the most self-sufficient person” (p. 192).
The highest pleasure is being-at-work in accordance with wisdom. Contemplation is more complete in itself (more of an entelechy) than anything else.
“And contemplation seems to be the only activity that is loved for its own sake, for nothing comes to be from it beyond the contemplating, while from things involving action we gain something for ourselves, to a greater or lesser extent, beyond the action” (ibid).
Contemplating is distinguished from the kind of acting that is the official concern of practical judgment (phronesis), as well as from any kind of making. For Aristotle, it is a more pure example of being-at-work than acting or making.
“So if, among actions in accord with the virtues, those that pertain to politics and war are pre-eminent in beauty and magnitude, but they are unleisured and aim at some end and are chosen not for their own sake, while the being-at-work of the intellect seems to excel in seriousness, and to be contemplative and aim at no end beyond itself, and to have its own pleasure (which increases its activity), so that what is as self-sufficient, leisured, and unwearied as possible for a human being, and all the other things that are attributed to a blessed person, show themselves as the things that result from this way of being-at-work, then this would be the complete happiness of a human being, if it takes in a complete span of life, for none of the things that belong to happiness is incomplete” (pp. 192-193).
For Aristotle, happiness or its absence is a characteristic of a whole life viewed in its completion.
“But such a life would be greater than what accords with a human being, for it is not insofar as one is a human being that he will live in this way, but insofar as something divine is present in him, and to the extent that this surpasses the compound being, to that extent also the being-at-work of it surpasses that which results from the rest of virtue” (p. 193).
Intellect “surpasses the compound being”. Once again, this suggests that for Aristotle, intellect is more than just a part of the soul that is a constituent of that compound.
“So if intellect is something divine as compared with a human being, the life that is in accord with intellect is divine as compared with a human life. But one should not follow those who advise us to think human thoughts, since we are human, and mortal thoughts, since we are mortal, but as far as possible one ought to be immortal and to do all things with a view toward living in accord with the most powerful thing in oneself, for even if it is small in bulk, it rises much more above everything else in power and worth. And each person would even seem to be this part, if it is the governing and better part” (ibid).
For Aristotle, intellect is immortal, although memory depends on the body. He is suggesting that we identify as much as we can with the immortal thing that both is within us and surpasses us. (See also Properly Human, More Than Human?.)
“[W]hat is appropriate by nature to each being is best and most pleasant for each, and so, for a human being, this is the life in accord with the intellect, if that most of all is a human being. Therefore this life is also the happiest” (ibid).
The same thing — intellect — that was said to be greater than what accords with an empirical human being, is now said to be “most of all” a human being in a non-empirical, normative sense.
“The life in accord with the rest of virtue is happy in a secondary way, since the activities that result from it are human ones…. Some of them even seem to derive from the body, and in many respects virtue of character is bound up together with our feelings. And practical judgment is linked together with virtue of character, and it with practical judgment, if the sources of practical judgment are dependent on virtues of character, while the right thing belonging to virtues of character is dependent upon practical judgment” (ch. 8, p. 193).
Here we have the source of claims that Aristotle regards practical judgment (phronesis) as distinctly inferior to contemplative intellect. This ought to be considered carefully.
It is true that practical judgement is inseparable from how we deal with our emotions, whereas he wants to say that intellect is not. But being inseparable from how we deal with our emotions need not at all imply being compulsively driven by the raw emotions we are dealing with. In passing, we feel all sorts of things that we do not act upon, because we judge that it would not really be appropriate to do so. We can have various degrees of detachment from things that we feel, even though we still feel them.
I want to say that there is a kind of contemplative, reflective, deliberative, interpretive judgment that is like practical judgment in that it is primarily concerned with particulars, but different in that its primary outcome is interpretation rather than action. I think that practical judgment about the right action could not function without relying on many interpretive judgments about relevant details, and indeed that such interpretive judgment is what does all the deliberative work in practical judgment, independent of whether that work results in action or not.
“But the happiness that belongs to the intellect is separate…. And it would seem to have little need of external props, or less than virtue of character has…. For the generous person will need money for performing generous acts…, and a courageous person will need strength, … and a temperate person will need opportunity” (p. 194).
He points out that the outcome of actions depends on circumstances. Contemplation has some minimal conditions too, but once those are met, its outcome does not depend on circumstances. But it is only the actions that have these additional dependencies on circumstance, not interpretive judgments as such.
“It is also a matter of dispute whether the choice or the actions are more determining of virtue, since it is present in both; it is clear that the completeness of it would consist in both together” (ibid).
Both intentions and outcomes are important for any normative appraisal of actions. Good intentions may warrant forgiveness for bad outcomes. But at the same time, deeds count more than words in the assessment of what someone’s intentions and values really were.
“[B]ut for the actions many things are needed, and more of them to the extent that the actions are of greater magnitude and more beautiful. But for someone who contemplates there is no need of such things for his being-at-work; rather, one might say that they get in the way of his contemplating. But insofar as he is a human being and lives in company with a number of people, he chooses to do the things that have to do with virtue, and thus will have need of such things in order to live a human life” (ibid).
A contemplative human being will almost always also be involved in non-contemplative actions and social interactions. For Aristotle, involvement in social relations is an essential aspect of what it is to be human.
“That complete happiness is a contemplative activity would also be made clear by the following consideration: we assume that the gods are most of all blessed and happy, but what sort of actions will it be right to attribute to them?… And for someone who goes through them all, it would be obvious that the things involved in actions are small and unworthy of the gods. But surely everyone supposes that they are alive at any rate, and are therefore at work…. But when someone who is living is deprived of acting, and still more of making anything, what remains except contemplation? So the being-at-work of a god, surpassing in blessedness, would be contemplative, and so among human activities, the one the most akin to this would be the most happy” (pp. 194-195).
Here he says that the being-at-work of a god is contemplation, and cites this as an additional reason why contemplation is the happiest human activity.
“For the gods, the whole of life is blessed, and for human beings it is so to the extent that there is in it some likeness to such a way of being-at-work…. But there will also be a need of external prosperity for one who is a human being, since nature is not self-sufficient for contemplating, but there is also a need for the body to be healthy and for food and other attentions to be present. But one certainly ought not to suppose that someone who is going to be happy will need many things or grand ones…; for self-sufficiency does not consist in excess any more than action does, and it is possible for one who is not a ruler of land and sea to perform beautiful actions. For one would be capable of acting in accord with virtue from moderate means (and it is possible to see this plainly, since private people seem to perform decent actions not less than powerful people but even more), and it is sufficient if that much is present, since the life of someone who is at-work in accord with virtue will be happy” (p. 195).
The happiness of a human life also has material prerequisites, but they are relatively modest. He suggests that the rich and powerful may be less virtuous and therefore less happy than others.
“And Anaxagoras, too, seems to have believed that the happy person is neither rich nor powerful, when he said it would be nothing to wonder at if such a person would appear strange to most people, since they judge by externals, perceiving these alone. So the opinions of the wise seem to be in harmony with our arguments” (ibid).
A person living a life that would ultimately be judged to be happy in the Aristotelian sense will have priorities that will appear strange to people who have no serious involvement with contemplation.
“Now such things have some trustworthiness, but the truth in matters of action is discerned from deeds and from life…. So we ought to examine the things that have been said by applying them to deeds and to life, and if they are in harmony with the deeds one ought to accept them, while if they are out of tune one ought to consider them just words” (pp. 195-196).
Having just cited the authority of a reputedly wise man for additional persuasion, he again points out that deeds observable by others are more trustworthy than anyone’s mere words, including those of an authority we respect.
“But the person who is at-work with intellect and takes care of this and is disposed in the best way toward it seems also to be most dear to the gods. For if some care for human beings comes from the gods, as is believed, then it would be most reasonable for them to delight in what is best and most akin to them (and this would be the intellect), and to do good in return to those who love and honor this most, since such people care for the things that are dear to them, and also act rightly and beautifully” (p. 196).
Here he argues that intellect and contemplation are what is most dear to the gods — even more dear, that is, than virtuous actions. This need not imply that particular virtuous actions are not dear to them also, only that the intellect, contemplation, and wisdom that among other things guide virtuous action are even more so.
“Now if what has to do with happiness as well as with the virtues, and also with friendship and pleasure, has been sufficiently discussed in outline, ought one to assume that our chosen task has its end? Or, as has been said, is the end in matters of action not contemplating and knowing each of them but rather doing them? Then it is not sufficient to know about virtue, but one must try to have it and use it” (ch. 9, p. 196).
Once again, he balances the emphasis on contemplation with an emphasis on complete ethical doing. This kind of careful concern for a balanced, multi-dimensional view of things is why I keep coming back to Aristotle.
“[A]s things are, discourses appear to have the power to encourage and stimulate open-natured young people, … but they are unable to encourage most people toward what is beautiful and good…. For it is not possible, or not easy, to change by words things that have been bound up in people’s characters since long ago…. [I]t is necessary for the soul of the listener to have been worked on beforehand by means of habits, with a view to enjoying and hating in a beautiful way, like ground that is going to nourish the seed” (pp. 196-197).
Here he repeats a point made in an earlier book about the extreme ethical importance of people’s emotional dispositions, and consequently of the way children are raised. Insofar as people have acquired a disposition for disordered emotions, it can be nearly impossible to have dialogue with them at the times when it matters most.
I don’t think it is ever acceptable to hate people as people. But someone who loves the good may legitimately hate actions and circumstances that are truly bad, just because they are bad. And those who stubbornly refuse to recognize others deserve to be harshly dealt with.
“For someone who lives by feeling could not hear the words that would turn him away, nor could he even understand them; when someone is in that condition, how is it possible to change his mind? And in general, feeling seems to yield not to reasoned speech but to force. So it is necessary for a character to be present in advance that is in some way appropriate for virtue, loving what is beautiful and scorning what is shameful” (ibid).
I prefer to use the English word “feeling” in a more positive way, and would substitute “disordered emotion” for it in the above. (See also Virtue Not a Potential.)