Notes on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

A. Formal definition of happiness or flourishing (eudaimonia

Happiness (or flourishing or living well) is a complete and sufficient good. This implies (a) that it is desired for itself, (b) that it is not desired for the sake of anything else, (c) that it satisfies all desire and has no evil mixed in with it, and (d) that it is stable.

B. Material definition of happiness--what it consists in

We have defined happiness formally as the complete and sufficient good for a human being. But there are many different views of what sorts of life satisfy this formal definition. Aristotle specifically mentions the life of gratification (pleasure, comfort, etc), the life of money-making, the life of (political) action, and the philosophical life, i.e., the life of contemplation or study. He has no patience with the life of money-making or the life of gratification, though he agrees with proponents of the latter that a happy life is pleasant.

There are several ways in which Aristotle approaches the question of what happiness consists in. First, he notes that flourishing for plants and animals consists in their functioning well according to their natures. So one question we should ask is this: What is the proper or peculiar function of a human being? Aristotle thinks it obvious that our proper function consists in reasoning and in acting in accord with reason. This is the heart of the doctrine of virtue, both moral and intellectual. So on this line of reasoning we are led to the conclusion that the possession and exercise of moral and intellectual virtue is the essential element in our living well.

A second approach is to survey the goods which we find ourself desiring, since happiness presumably consists in the attainment of some good or set of goods such that to have them in the right way is to be living well. One division of goods is into (i) external goods (wealth, fame, honor, power, friends), (ii) goods of the body (life, health, good looks, physical strength, athletic ability, dexterity, etc.), and goods of the soul (virtue, life-projects, knowledge and education, artistic creativity and appreciation, recreation, friendship, etc.). The problem then is to delineate the ways in which such goods are related to happiness. Aristotle's view is that (a) certain goods (e.g., life and health) are necessary preconditions for happiness and that (b) others (wealth, friends, fame, honor) are embellishments that promote or fill out a good life for a virtuous person, but that (c) it is the possession and exercise of virtue which is the core constitutive element of happiness. The virtuous person alone can attain happiness and the virtuous person can never be miserable in the deepest sense, even in the face of misfortune which keeps him from being happy or blessed. So happiness combines an element over which we have greater control (virtue) with elements over which we have lesser control (health, wealth, friends, etc.).

There is a lot of room for discussion here. For instance, how much is luck or fortune involved in our attainment of virtue? (Aristotle has some things to say about this in Book 3, chap. 5). Also, to what degree is a unity of life and of life-projects necessary for happiness? Alternatively, how far can a happy person go in allowing a single--perhaps complex--end to be predominate in his life? What kind of balance is necessary in one's life-projects? Can a happy life eschew the pursuit of some goods in order to engage in the single-minded pursuit of other goods? These last few questions suggest that it might be helpful to look at lives presented to us by history, experience, and literature. At least we know this much for sure: Aristotle believes that the development of intellectual and moral virtue is the only backdrop against which such questions can be fruitfully investigated.

C. The general account of virtue

First, Aristotle makes some assumptions about the character of the human soul, dividing it into a part that governs (reason), a part that is or ought to be governed by reason (the passions or sentient appetite), and a part that is normally unresponsive to reason (vegetative functions such as digestion, etc.). Thus, some virtues will have reason as their subject while others will have the passions-qua-governed-by-reason as their subject. The differences among virtues will mirror the differences among the various passions and among the various functions of reason.

Virtues are habits of the soul by which one acts well, i.e., for the sake of what is fine and noble. As Aristotle puts it, virtuous actions express correct (right) reason. They are acquired through practice and habituation. One becomes virtuous by acting virtuously, i.e., by acting as the virtuous person acts, doing what one should when one should and in the way one should. And the virtuous person comes to take pleasure in acting virtuously. (Hence, one sign that we have not acquired a certain virtue is that when we perform actions of the sort associated with that virtue, we do not take pleasure in those actions but instead find them burdensome.) By the same token, one becomes vicious by allowing certain defective ways of acting to become habitual. Virtue is difficult to attain, since if we simply follow our inclinations, we become vicious. Hence, even though we have a natural desire for happiness, our inborn inclinations often lead us away from our true happiness.

It is for this reason that a good upbringing is essential. We must learn to both act correctly and feel correctly. (Aristotle here disagrees with those who think that becoming virtuous entails being unaffected by pleasure and pain. On his view, the virtuous person takes delight in what is fine and noble and is pained at what is shameful.)

Having a virtue is different from having a skill (e.g., carpentry or flute-playing) because what counts is not just the product (i.e., the external action) but the fixed intention with which the action is done (viz., to do what is fine) and the fixed and stable state from which the action originates (viz., the habit of acting for the sake of what is fine).

In most cases, a virtue will fall between two vices, one representing an excess of a certain passion or inclination and the other representing a defect.

Aristotle gives a rough general taxonomy of the moral virtues, dividing them into those concerned with feelings or passions (courage and temperance), those concerned with external goods (e.g., generosity, magnificence, magnanimity), and those concerned with social life (e.g., mildness, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness), and justice. He will deal with them specifically in Books 3-5. (Question: how complete is this list meant to be? Look at Stetson handout.) Note the practical advice in Book 2, chap. 9.

Aristotle then discusses some of the preconditions of virtue: voluntariness and its relation to force and ignorance, and deliberation and choice (or decision).