ARISTOTLE: Ethics [Book I]

ARISTOTLE: Ethics [Book I]

• The good is that at which everything aims. Ends differ from one another. Some ends are activities, and some ends are products distinct from the activity which produces them. Where there are ends apart from the actions which produce them, the ends are better than the activities. There are many arts and many ends. Just as some arts fall under other arts; for example, the art of every distinct military art falls under the art of strategy. The ends of the master arts are preferred to the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the end of the master art that all other subordinate ends are pursued.
• The chief good is that which we desire for its own sake. If we know what this chief good is, then we will more likely live attain it. The good must belong to the art of politics; for it ordains which other sciences should be studied in the State, and the highest esteemed arts fall under politics (e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric). Since politics uses the other arts, and legislates what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, then the end of politics must be the chief good.
• The precision of conclusions is dependent upon the inherent limits set by the inquiry. An inquiry in mathematics will have much greater precision than an inquiry in Ethics; for interpretations of justice admit much variety and fluctuation of opinion. Goods give rise to similar fluctuation because they sometimes bring harm to an individual. For example, wealth and courage may cause a man’s ruin. A man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge in that subject. A man who received a well-rounded education is a good judge in general. However, the chief good aimed at is an activity, not knowledge. Therefore, the incontinent man who pursues each successive object as passion directs, will not benefit from knowledge. But the man who desires and acts in accordance with reason will greatly benefit from moral instruction and contemplation.
• The chief good, the end at which politics aims, and thus all other arts indirectly aim, is happiness. Men have given several different definitions of happiness. Many believe that happiness is pleasure, wealth, or honor.
• There are three prominent types of live – the life of enjoyment, the political life, and the contemplative life. The mass of mankind are slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts, pursuing successive objects as passion directs. Those men of superior refinement identify happiness with honor. However, this definition is too superficial, since it depends upon those who bestow honor rather than on him who receives it. The good we are searching for is not easily taken from him. Furthermore, men pursue honor to be assured of their own goodness or virtue. They seek to be honored based upon their virtue, and thus they believe that virtue is better than honor. But this definition is also incomplete; for the possession of virtue is compatible with lifelong inactivity, and with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes. The life of money-making is one undertaken by compulsion, and wealth is not the good we are seeking; for it is only useful for the sake of something else.
• The Platonist theory of the Forms asserts that there is one form of the Good, which all other goods partake in. Aristotle contends that this theory is flawed because of the many different ways we classify things as good. All good things are not good in the same way. For example, we can say something is good in quality, in quantity, in relation, in time, in opportunity, and in place. Clearly the one form of the Good cannot be present in all cases and single; for then it could not have been predicated in all categories, but only one. Furthermore, if an Idea of the Good did exist, then we could not attain it in this life. But we are seeking a way of life which is attainable by man, and thus we are seeking something practical and applicable to this world,
• We are seeking the ultimate end for all we do. We are seeking something desirable for its own sake and never for the sake of something else. Although we choose honor, pleasure, and every virtue for the sake of themselves, we also pursue them for the sake of happiness. We never pursue happiness for the sake of anything other than itself, and thus happiness is the ultimate end for all we do. The final good must also be self-sufficient, which happiness is. Self-sufficient is defined as that which when isolated makes life desirable and lacking nothing. Everything, including man, has a function (action for which a particular thing is suited). Excellence, and therefore happiness, consists in performing one’s function well. Man’s function is what distinguishes him from all other beings, and thus the function of man is the activity of the rational soul according to the best and most complete virtue in a complete life; for acting according to reason and virtue for one day does not make a man blessed and happy. This will serve as an outline of the good, and we must remember to look for precision in the definition of things in so far as the subject-matter allows.
• Good are divided into three categories: external, those relating to the soul, and those relating to the body. Those goods relating to the soul are conventionally called goods, and thus our definition of the ultimate good (happiness) is in harmony with this account; for it falls into the categories of good relating to the soul and not external and bodily goods. The conventional characteristics that some attribute to happiness (virtue, practical wisdom, philosophic wisdom, pleasure, external prosperity) also correspond to our definition of happiness. The virtuous man must use his virtue, not merely possess it; for virtue may exist without producing good results, as in a man who is asleep or inactive, but one who is active according to virtue will win the noble and good things in life. Each man loves what is pleasant. Because the virtuous man loves virtue, he finds behaving according to virtue pleasant. The virtuous man does not require any other pleasures because his virtuous life is pleasant in itself. Happiness also requires external prosperity; for we observe that misfortune and suffering take the luster from happiness to some extent.
• Is happiness acquired by learning, habituation, and training, or chance? To entrust to chance what is highest and most noble would be a defective arrangement. The end of political science is the best end; political science aims to make citizens be of a certain character, viz. good and capable of noble acts.
• When can we call a man happy? If we must wait to see a man’s entire life before we can call him happy, then this is a paradox, that when a man is happy we do not attribute happiness to him because a man may suffer misfortune while alive. We should not follow the changes of fortune’s wheels, or we would call a man happy then wretched several times, making the truly happy man out to be a chameleon and insecurely based. Happiness does not depend on chance and fortune, these are mere additions. Virtuous activities are what constitute happiness. No function of man has as much permanence as virtuous activities. Thus, a happy man will always be engaged in virtuous action and contemplation, and will bear the changes of fate nobly. A happy man who rationally acts according to virtue will bear misfortune nobly. The happy man can never become miserable, but he will never reach blessedness if he meets with fortunes like those of Priam.
• The fortunes of descendants and friends will affect a dead man’s happiness in differing ways, but these fortunes will never make the unhappy happy nor the happy unhappy.
• The student of politics studies virtue to make his fellow citizens obedient to the law. Therefore, the student of politics must know the facts about the soul. The soul has an irrational element and a rational element. One part of the irrational element is the vegetative part, which is concerned with nutrition and growth. The vegetative part is common to all species. This part seems to function most in sleep. (The happy are not better off than the wretched for half their lives). Since sleep is inactivity of the soul with respect to good and bad, we will consider this part of the soul no further. Another part of the irrational element of the soul is the appetitive part. The appetitive part is concerned with impulses, and obeys the rational element of the soul in a continent man, and resists and opposes the rational element of the soul in an incontinent man. Some virtues are intellectual and some are moral. Philosophic and practical wisdom are intellectual virtues, temperance and bravery are moral virtues.

“It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.”

“The mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts.”

“The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.”

“Man’s function is what distinguishes him from all other beings, and thus the function of man is the activity of the rational soul according to the best and most complete virtue.”

“As in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete, so those who act rightly win the noble and good things in life.”

In Book I of The Ethics, Aristotle demonstrates that happiness is the ultimate good at which all human activity is aimed. Aristotle begins the Ethics by asserting that every art has an end or purpose. That purpose is a good. There are many arts and many goods, but Aristotle argues that there is one ultimate good. If we can ascertain what the chief good is, then we will more easily attain it.

The chief good must be that which we desire for its own sake and never for the sake of something else. We are seeking the end for all we do. We are seeking something desirable for the sake of itself and never for the sake of anything else. Although we pursue honor, pleasure and every virtue for the sake of themselves, we also pursue them for the sake of happiness. We never pursue happiness for anything other than it, and thus happiness is the ultimate end for all we do. Happiness is also “self-sufficient,” meaning that when it is isolated, it makes life desirable and lacking of nothing. Now, we must define happiness.

Aristotle states that we must seek precision so far as the subject matter will allow. The educated man will not expect a conclusion in ethics to be as precise as a conclusion in mathematics; for interpretations of justice admit for a great variety and fluctuation. Goods also admit for great variety because some goods such as wealth and courage can cause great misfortune and misery.

With this in mind, we will attempt to roughly outline the definition of happiness. Men have identified happiness with pleasure, honor, or wealth. The mass of mankind are evidently slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts. They pursue successive objects according to the dictates of passion. This is not the happiness we are seeking. Some of the more refined and sophisticated men identify happiness with honor or virtue. Those who identify happiness with honor provide an incomplete definition of happiness; for honor is dependent upon those who bestow honor. The good we are seeking is not easily taken from an individual. Furthermore, men seek honor to be assured of their virtue. Thus, they believe virtue is better than honor. However, this definition of happiness is also inadequate because possession of virtue is compatible with lifelong inactivity and great misfortune and suffering. Finally, wealth is not the good we are seeking because money is only useful for the sake of something else.

The Platonists maintain that there is one universal Form of the Good, and that all good things partake in this Form. Aristotle refutes this theory by demonstrating that good things are not all good in the same way; i.e. things can be good with regard to quality, quantity, relation, time, opportunity, and place. Surely, one Form of the Good cannot be universally present in all cases and be single. Furthermore, even if the Form of the Good exists, then humans cannot attain it because it is an abstract idea. We are seeking an end which is practical and attainable.

Everything, including man, has a function, or particular activity for which it is suited. Excellence, and therefore happiness, consists in performing one’s function well. We say that a flute player is a good flute player when he performs his function, playing the flute, well. Man’s function is what distinguishes him from all other beings, and that attribute is his rational ability. Thus, happiness is reasoning well, or acting rationally according to virtue. A man must rationally act according to virtue for his whole life; for one day does not make a man happy. This definition encompasses all of the attributes conventionally identified with happiness; i.e. virtue, practical wisdom, philosophic wisdom, pleasure, external prosperity.

A very critical part of this definition is the active component. A man must not merely possess virtue, but must act according to it. Merely possessing virtue will not produce good results, but a man who acts virtuously will rightly win the good and noble things in life. As in the Olympics, it is not the strongest and swiftest who win, but those who compete.

A virtuous life is also full of pleasure; for man loves what is pleasant, and a lover of virtue who acts virtuously will derive much pleasure from his life. He will delight in virtuous acts, and will not require the base pleasures to which the mass of mankind is enslaved.

A man must also possess external prosperity; for misfortune and suffering can decrease happiness to some extent.

We need not wait until a man has died before we can call him happy. We should not follow the change of fortune’s wheel, or we would call a man happy and then wretched and then happy numerous times. Happiness does not depend on chance or fortune. No function of man has as much permanence as virtuous activity. A happy man engaged in virtuous activity and contemplation will remain happy and bear misfortunes nobly. A happy man can never be miserable, though he may not attain blessedness if he meets with sufferings similar to those of Priam.

The well-being of descendants and friends will affect the happiness of a dead man very little. Posterity’s fortunes will not make a happy man unhappy nor an unhappy man happy.

The end of politics must be the chief good because the art of politics uses the highest esteemed arts (rhetoric, strategy, economics, etc.) and legislates what we are to do and from what we are to abstain. The end of political science is to make citizens good and capable of noble acts. Therefore, the student of politics must know the facts of the soul.

The soul is divided into an irrational element and a rational element. The irrational element contains a vegetative part concerned with nutrition and growth. The vegetative part is common to all living beings. Since this part of the soul is not concerned with morality, we will examine it no further. The irrational element of the soul also contains an appetitive part. This part is concerned with impulses. The appetitive part obeys the commands of the rational element in the soul of a virtuous man, but disobeys the rational element in the soul of an incontinent man.

Complete Works of Aristotle

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