Jacques Maritain Center

Moral Philosophy


The Discovery of Ethics


The Good and Happiness identified
I. The fundamental question, for Aristotle, is again that of the supreme good or sovereign good of man, and that supreme good is, again, happiness. It is a question of "living in a blissful and beautiful manner".{1} Happiness, eadaemonia, consists in the perfect fulfillment of human nature. We must understand this word nature, not in an empirical sense but in a metaphysical sense, and as a synonym of essence -- was not Aristotle the father of the concept of essence? Each being possesses an intelligible structure which constitutes it in its species, and tendencies and inclinations which, unlike the accidental variations found in individuals, emanate necessarily from that typical structure itself. (It will be seen that in the course of time the maxim "follow nature" is given directly opposite meanings, depending on whether the word nature is taken in an empirical sense, as designating only what exists in fact, or in a metaphysical sense, as designating an essence, a locus of intelligible necessities . . .)

Eudaimonia is the state of a man in whom human nature and its essential aspirations have attained their complete fulfillment, and attained it in conformity with the true hierarchy of ends proper to that nature. "Not to have organized one's life with a view to some end is the mark of much folly."{2} In order to determine what happiness is, it is necessary to find out what the ends of our nature are (what is "the meaning of life", the first question to awaken moral anguish in us), and to discover what kind of good above all others man is made for, the good which is uniquely appropriate to a rational being and I through which he achieves the fulfillment of his nature.

In order to avoid any misunderstanding, it is important to make the following points clear: (1) Aristotle does not tell us that we ought to tend toward happiness -- the aspiration toward happiness is a fact of nature. It exists in man necessarily. Aristotle tries to discern or determine what happiness really consists in, this happiness toward which we necessarily aspire. (2) This determination of what happiness consists in is the proper task of moral philosophy. But men did not wait for the reflections of moral philosophy and the theories of ethicists in order to begin living and acting. They must, then, have a way of their own -- a spontaneous or "pre-philosophical" way -- of knowing what is really the meaning of life and what the true supreme good consists in (whether or not the idea of happiness occurs to them explicitly at this point). I mention this problem; it is not within the scope of the present volume. (3) Whether this knowledge be acquired in a practical and spontaneous way or in a speculative and philosophical way, in any case, as soon as we know what the supreme good truly consists in, we know also that we ought to tend toward that true good; we are obliged to do so by conscience, not by virtue of some philosophical demonstration, but by virtue of a "first principle" known in an immediate way by each person and self-evident to what Aristotle calls the "intuitive reason" or "the immediate intelligence of principles":{1} one must do good and avoid evil.

When the philosopher has determined what is the true supreme good of man, he has by the same token indicated the first choice which every man is obliged by conscience to make.

2. We can now outline with some precision the positions Aristotle takes with regard to the basic issues we were able to discern in studying the thought of Socrates and Plato.

First of all, it is clear that the concept of the Good, and that of the supreme or sovereign Good, is as central for Aristotle as for Socrates and Plato and Greek philosophy in general. The observations we have just made only confirm this fact. It is to be noted here that if Aristotle identifies the Sovereign Good with Happiness, it is not that for him the Good is eclipsed by Happiness. For him as for Socrates, the Good remains the Good. It retains its own meaning even though identified with Happiness. It even retains a certain priority over Happiness, for the concept of the Good is in itself a more primitive or primordial concept than that of Happiness -- but this priority remains purely implicit in Aristotle's thought.

The fact that Aristotle neglected to elucidate and explain this point in his moral philosophy gives rise, as we shall see, to the kind of amphibology which his system does not succeed in avoiding.

The End -- the Aristotelian Sovereign Good
3. In his ethics as in his metaphysics and his philosophy of nature, Aristotle attributes an absolutely major role to finality. All things are, as it were, suspended from the Final Cause. Thus for him the primary aspect of the Good is its aspect as End. And the first question for moral philosophy is the question of the Sovereign Good. This theme was to become classic for centuries in the occidental philosophical tradition, up to the Kantian revolution.

But as for the manner in which he conceives the End of human life, or the sovereign Good, Aristotle takes his place mid-way between Socrates and Plato.

In contrast to Plato, the ethics of eudaemonia deliberately steps down from the sublime heights of Platonic morality. The supreme good pertains to human life, becomes immanent in that life. It is a happiness which exists here below, a terrestrial happiness. This does not mean that Aristotle failed to recognize its necessary relation to that which is superior to man. He made wisdom, whose object is divine, the principal ingredient of that happiness. He has a theory of good fortune, and, more important, a theory of inspiration, in which he sees a superhuman element intervening in human affairs. We must not forget that, for him, to propose to man only that which is human is to do him disservice, for by virtue of the most excellent part of himself, which is the intellect, man is called to something better than a purely human life.{1} In the Eudemian Ethics, whose doctrine we hold to be authentically Aristotelian, we find such a passage as this: "As in the universe, so in the soul, God moves all things. The principle of reasoning is not reasoning, but something better. Now what could be better than even the knowledge of the intellect, if not God? Not virtue, for virtue is an instrument of the intellect. . . ."{2}

In contrast to Socrates, he holds that the practice of virtue does not result in the immediate possession of happiness. The art of living rightly is not the art of being happy through virtue, or of realizing that virtue equals happiness. It is the art of ordering one's life in such a way as to attain the supreme end: happiness -- in this earthly life no doubt, in this perishable body, in the midst of the city of men (and not beyond the grave, beyond the prison of this body, by means of a kind of death begun here below, as Plato conceived it) -- but not immediately either, as Socrates envisaged, as if happiness were the reverse side of the virtuous act itself. A well-ordered life attains happiness at the end of a long term, after long exercise, at a ripe age, when the hair is beginning to turn silver. Yes, God knows, that is so! Such a view does not arouse great enthusiasm, perhaps -- the man who is starving does not like much to wait -- but it is eminently reasonable.

4. And now, of what is happiness composed? What are its essential elements? Three things are the principal constituents of happiness: wisdom, virtue, pleasure. For the perfect and happy life is "the most beautiful and best of things, and also that which gives the greatest joy".{2}

There is an order among the three elements of happiness, a hierarchy of importance. The first place belongs to wisdom, the possession by the mind, however precarious in the case of man, of contemplated truth. Wisdom is essentially contemplative, it is an immanent activity, an activity of repose and fruition. And contemplation is superior to action. The perfect life is above all iheoretical, it is the life of knowledge achieved in unity.{1}

In second place comes virtue. The life according to virtue is obviously an integral part of the full accomplishment of human nature.

Pleasure takes third place, and occurs as a surplus, so to speak. It exists as a necessary result. By virtue of a general rule, it is added to the act, as bloom is to youth. And man cannot live without a certain measure of joy or delectation. That kind of interior contentment or that feeling of expansiveness which, in the most profound sense of the word, we call pleasure is the natural recompense of a virtuous life.

But that is not all. The three sorts of good we have just spoken of exist within the soul. There are still other kinds of good, exterior to the soul, which are included in the notion of happiness, if not as integral components at least as indispensable conditions: friendship -- a man without friends is not a happy man; health; the possession of material goods (a certain abundance is necessary to the external manifestation of virtue -- poverty does not permit munificence, and we may add that poverty is a terrible obstacle to virtue itself); and finally, Aristotle was too much of a realist to be unaware that chance, with its favorable coincidences, the free gifts of good fortune, plays an indispensable role in the happiness of the human being.

The Aristotelian conception of happiness, or of eudaemonia, is definitely not hedonistic, since pleasure occupies the third rank in its hierarchy of goods. Rather, it takes the supreme good as it was conceived by Plato and renders it immanent, secularizes it in an eminently humanistic, noble and reasonable way. Like man himself, the happiness of man is complex. It is a compound, made of matter and spirit, of sense and intelligence, of animal conditioning and rational, even super-rational freedom, all of this crowned, and guided, by wisdom and contemplation.

In Aristotle's moral philosophy everything is measured in relation to this complex totality: the best and most beautiful life, the accomplished fullness of human nature, happiness -- consisting in the true order of the parts which compose it. It is the end toward which we tend insofar as we are not foolish, insofar as we do not make a mess of the art of living. Herein lies the source of a nuance peculiar to the conception of moral obligation and moral fault which is to be found, if not in the religious thought of the Greeks (witness the great tragedians), at least in their philosophical thought. The idea of duty, as conceived by the Greek philosophers, has less affinity with the idea of a sacred imperative than with that of a masterful ordering of means, something which is required of man in order to attain his end, and something which is recognized by every reasonable and cultivated spirit anxious to assure his true happiness. Their idea of moral fault is most closely akin to the idea of a badly conducted or senseless action which mars the beauty of life and leads away from happiness. The notion of culpability, rendering man unworthy of existence and bringing down upon him the wrath of the gods, this notion which was so strong in Aeschylus, is now greatly attenuated. As for the concept of the norm, if it still plays an essential role, it also has lost the sacred character it possessed in the beginning. It designates less a divine commandment than a rule of conduct required by the order of nature and of the cosmos. In short, it is not the Kantian "ought" that we find here, but "such is the way to happiness". It is significant that for antiquity the vocabulary of ethics and that of art remained substantially identical. The artist possesses his virtue just as the prudent man possesses his. The word "sin" is applied as readily to a grammatical or musical error as to a fault against justice or temperance.

The search for an equilibrium between Finality and Value -- the primacy of Finality
5. Aristotelian ethics consists of the search for a doctrinal and systematic equilibrium between these two major considerations: that of the End, and that of Values.

Far from neglecting the consideration of values, it deliberately emphasizes their importance: the concept of virtue has a central place in this ethics. One of the great tasks successfully performed by Aristotle was to establish rationally the philosophical theory of virtue: what is the ontological "stuff" of virtue? Virtue is by nature that kind of quality which he calls a habitus, a hexis; and moral virtue is a hexis or stable disposition which fortifies and perfects the powers of the soul in respect to the right use of freedom. Now as we have remarked before, the concept of virtue is by its nature inseparable from the concept of value.

But for Aristotle, what dominates the whole field of ethics, and the way in which specific virtues are to be determined, is the consideration of the ultimate End, the primacy of the Supreme Good, or the happy life. At this point he turns away from the positions of Plato to come back to those of Socrates, not, to be sure, with the perspective and to the advantage of that utilitarianism to which Socrates was constrained to limit himself for want of the necessary means to go beyond it, but with the perspective and to the advantage of eudemonism. I mean that in the eyes of Aristotle the good of the virtues is at the same time bonum honestum (good worthy in its own right) or good in itself and through itself, and the means of arriving at Happiness.

Value and finality -- how are these two fundamental aspects of ethics harmonized? Let us recall the famous theory which makes moral virtue consist in a mean, a midpoint (mesotês) between an excess and a deficiency. In each case moral good or moral rectitude is defined by the fact that it strikes the right note, a correct, exact and appropriate consonance which is produced by reason. The fundamental notion of the measurement or the regulation of our acts by reason makes its appearance here, a notion which was to have a bright future, for it was to become the keystone of moral philosophy in the Christian tradition. Now if my interpretation is correct, we must say that for Aristotle a morally good act is an act which has not only been worked over, brewed, prepared, adjusted, harmonized, concocted, digested, formed, measured by reason -- but, more precisely, which has been measured by reason in its very capacity of tending directly toward the ultimate end of human existence, toward Happiness, toward "the good and beautiful life, if one hesitates through a kind of fear to call it by its true name, the blissful life".{1}

On the one hand, then, in virtue of being measured by reason, or conforming to reason, the moral act attains its peculiar configuration, its beauty, its brilliance, the plenitude proper to a human act. It is invested with a quality which makes it good in itself and for itself (bonum honestum, good as right). Here the role of Value is emphasized.

But on the other hand, it is as means to the Happy Life that the moral act is formed and determined, measured by reason. It is in function of its tending directly toward the ultimate End that reason measures the moral act. Here the role of the End is emphasized.

It is thus that Aristotle reconciles the claims of Finality and those of Value in ethical theory.

6. But in actual fact, and in a definitive way, the consideration of the ultimate End, or Happiness, plays the major role and carries all before it, since it is by virtue of tending directly toward true happiness that reason regulates human acts. Finality is not only predominant in the order of action, but it is the supreme criterion even in the order of specification, even in the determination of the moral goodness of human conduct. And the result is that the "absolute" or "categorical" character of the moral imperative or of the bonum honestum is in some sort relegated to the background. Thence a trace, in spite of all, and more than a trace, of utilitarianism.

All this amounts to saying that the equilibrium sought by Aristotle was not decisively attained. I fear, moreover, that a kind of vicious circle is implied in his procedure: the fact is that virtue appears herein as essentially a means toward the good and beautiful life, the blessed life; and yet virtue is also an integral part of that blessed life, since without virtue there is no good and beautiful life -- the means to the end (virtue) thus enters into the very notion and constitutive of the end to which it is directed.

Aristotle discovered the right road, but his solution remained imperfect, enveloped in insurmountable difficulties.

When, with the advent of Christianity, the ultimate, the absolute End, and the Beatitude with which it is connected, were to become even more transcendent and supra-human than with Plato, the norm in relation to which reason measures human acts, that norm which must be proportionate with man (as was Aristotelian happiness), was no longer to be supreme Happiness itself -- it is too transcendent to serve as a norm for measuring human acts. Beatitude is in fact the end to be attained in the order of action by the righteous human life, but it is not, in the order of specification, the criterion of moral goodness. That criterion (at least in the perspective of nature, which is the basic perspective of the philosopher) was to be the ensemble of primary rules known to us without reasoning (though reflexively justifiable in reason) by virtue of the essential inclinations of our nature, in other words natural law, along with all the rules which can be inferred from its principles. At that point the concept of natural law already brought to light, but in a different perspective by the Stoics, was to take its true place in the structure of ethics. And the notion of the accomplishment of the natural law was to replace that of Happiness as the objective specifying standard in function of which reason measures human acts.

The vicious circle which I just pointed out in speaking of Aristotle no longer exists. For natural law enables us to see what the virtues must be, but the concept of virtue or the virtuous life in no way enters into the notion of the natural law itself. The equilibrium sought by Aristotle is finally attained.

The chart to be found on p. 38 indicates in a diagrammatical way the various positions we have mentioned up to now, and at the same time the kind of trajectory described by the idea of happiness.

chart from page 38
Happiness was at first identified with virtue. Then it left this earthly sphere for the transcendent world of subsistent Ideas. In the third stage it came back to earth and to human life. In the fourth stage it is to have its seat in the celestial homeland, as absolutely perfect Happiness, or Beatitude, toward which man tends by the very fact of tending toward his ultimate End, God loved for Himself and above all else.
Ethics and the common Conscience -- the theory of the Virtues
7. In the case of Aristotle as in that of Socrates, and even more definitely than in the case of Plato, we can verify the fact that ethical theory works on the basis of moral structures already in existence in the human community and is most often occupied with justifying the scale of values and the rules of conduct accepted by common conscience in a given cultural atmosphere and period. At this stage of our enquiry, the period in question is the fourth century B.C., and it is well known that even slavery, which was one of the foundations of that society, was regarded by the Philosopher as grounded in reason and required by nature.{1}

Aristotle was fully conscious of the general fact we have just mentioned. The experience of men plays a fundamental role in his ethics. He refers to it constantly. The conduct of the prudent man, the opinion of the elders and their experience of life, the customs of various cities were, for him, indispensable data for the very construction of moral philosophy. But he uses all this human experience in order to disengage by induction the rational principles with which it is pregnant. Thence the considerable amount of space he devotes to empirical description, the abundant and richly detailed psychological descriptions we find in so many chapters of the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics.

On the other hand, Aristotle was in a position to propose a teleological justification of values and moral rules, in function of the last end, because, as we have seen, that last end found itself humanized in his system, brought back to the level of terrestrial existence and terrestrial standards. Since in the internal hierarchy of earthly happiness theoretical activity or contemplation holds the most exalted place ("Perhaps he thought," Aristotle wrote concerning Anaxagoras, "that he who leads a life without afflictions and free from all injustice, and who in addition is engaged in some divine contemplation, is, insofar as man can be, blessed"),{1} it is in relation to this contemplative wisdom that our various choices and the exercises of the virtues must be ordered. "Whatever choice, then, or the possession of whatever natural goods -- bodily welfare, riches, friends or whatever else -- is most apt to lead to the contemplation of God, that choice or that possession will be the best. There we have the most noble criterion. . . ."{2} In order to attain to the sovereign good man must, on the one hand, regulate by reason (which is "royal" or "political", not "despotic" government){3} the lower functions, especially the passions, and, on the other hand, develop the powers of the spirit, and the superior life of the nous.

8. It is here, and still in reference to the good and beautiful life not to be missed, that the theory of virtue as the golden mean between opposed vices finds its place -- not the golden mean of mediocrity, but the golden mean of eminence, the summit between two contrary depressions, according to that observation so true that it has become trite. It has often been remarked, along the same line, that what Aristotle called prudence is not fear of risk or precautionary timidity; its function is rather to make man master of himself and superior to events, and ready freely to take the risks required by justice, by the dignity of a rational being, and by magnanimity.

chart from page 39
The mean which constitutes virtue is an indivisible thing -- it is just a point, the just point; it is what corresponds in the moral order to having a "good ear", to musical or poetic exactitude. The two opposed extremes -- by excess or by defect -- meet at the summit and fade away, disappear when they come in contact with each other in virtue. To take up a remark of André Gide's, about himself, each virtue could say: extremes touch me; and they die of it.

We find the Aristotelian list of the moral virtues and the contrary vices by excess or defect in the Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, chapters 6 and 7, and in the Eudemian Ethics, Book II, chapter 3 (1220 b 36-1221 a 12). It should be noted that there is no word in the language for the extreme opposed by defect to envy, and so this vice remains unnamed, although it is a very real thing, as we see in the case of those who do not suffer at all by reason of the prosperity of the unworthy, but who "accept everything, as a glutton swallows no matter what, while those in whom exists the opposed vice are impatient, through envy, at the good of others".{1} There we have an example of Aristotle's method. In this whole analysis of the moral virtues and opposed vices, he relies on the common conscience and refers constantly to the moral judgments men make in the ordinary course of life. But he has disengaged therefrom a universal law, to wit, virtue consists in the proper mean. And armed with this instrument, he corrects common experience and supplies examples of what it fails to notice when "the other extreme, as if it did not exist, escapes our knowledge, remaining unperceived because of its rarity".{2}

9. Virtue is not knowledge. In Aristotle's moral philosophy a fundamental characteristic of the ethical theories of antiquity, especially in the heroic age of Greek philosophy, becomes clearly apparent: I am thinking here of the "cosmic" or "ontological" character of this moral philosophy, of the fact that ethical theory presupposes a system of metaphysics and of natural philosophy, and that no ethics can do without prerequisite notions bearing upon the world, man and the supreme realities, in other words, that the universe of freedom (the moral universe) is founded upon the universe of nature.

The ethician must know that there are natures or essences, that there is a human nature, that what pertains to spirit and to reason in man is superior to what is irrational in him. He must be aware of the existence of free will.

This privilege of the being gifted with reason -- freedom of choice -- is particularly emphasized by Aristotle.

It is a question which caused Plato serious difficulties. He believed in freedom, and had no inclination to contest its existence. But the theory of virtue as knowledge, the idea that all sin is ignorance and that it is sufficient to know the good in order to do it, was in reality incompatible with the existence of free will. Plato tried hard to find a way out, for the difficulty was not insurmountable. He sought refuge in a theory of supra-temporal freedom which is not without analogy with that which Kant was to propose -- such theories in fact eliminate freedom.

Aristotle, on the contrary, held on to the reality of free will at no matter what cost. This is one of the points at which the existential value of his doctrine, which it is fashionable these days to call into question (and in fact he shows many deficiencies in this regard), appears most clearly. As Hamelin has clearly shown,{1} he was so profoundly conscious of freedom that, rather than compromise its existence, he did not hesitate to scandalize the logicians by enunciating his famous theory (so admirable, and so true) of the indetermination of the truth of propositions relating to future contingents.

Of the contradictory propositions relating to a future contingent, he teaches in On Interpretation, one will be true when the time in question comes to pass, and the other will by the same stroke be false; but neither can be determined today as true or false, since the truth comprised by these propositions is as indeterminate as the event to which they relate, which itself will not be determined until it takes place. "A sea-fight must either take place to-morrow or not, but it is not necessary that it should take place to-morrow, neither is it necessary that it should not take place, yet it is necessary that it either should or should not take place to-morrow. Since propositions correspond with facts, it is evident that when in future events there is a real alternative, and a potentiality in contrary directions, the corresponding affirmation and denial have the same character."{2}

Similarly, which of the two contradictory propositions is true and which is false remains undetermined until the future moment in question has become present. If this were not the case everything would occur by necessity, and there would be neither contingency nor liberty. "There would be no need to deliberate or to take trouble, on the supposition that if we should adopt a certain course, a certain result would follow, while, if we did not, the result would not follow." A thousand years in advance a prediction concerning the result in question would have had to be necessarily true and its contradiction necessarily false, so that the event itself would arrive necessarily on the date indicated.{2}

10. Since he fully recognized the reality of free will it is not surprising that Aristotle treats of the idea that virtue is knowledge without mincing words. In regard to virtue," he says,{4} "not to know what it is, but to know whence it comes (or how to acquire it), that is what is most precious. For we do not want to know what courage is, but to be courageous, nor what justice is, but to be just, in the same way that we want to be in good health rather than to know what kind of thing health is."

He even added that to know is of little use for virtue, or even of no use at all. "As condition for the possession of virtues, knowledge has little or no weight at all."{5}

This memorable disillusioned maxim is evidence that Aristotle was possessed of a more profound human experience and a clearer view of moral problems than Plato, or even than those modern little Platonists who no longer believe in the Ideas and install themselves comfortably in the shadows of the cave, but who believe in "scientific" ethics, and think that it is the business of the empirical sciences to lay the foundations of the good life for humanity -- just wait a little while until biology, psychology and sociology have completed their discoveries and men will put into practice the laws of good conduct (it will be a long wait, for it is the nature of these sciences to substitute one new approach for another and one new theory for another indefinitely).

The Sage and the City
11. When Aristotle writes that he who escapes social life is either a beast or a god,{1} he certainly intends to reject any kind of solitary life, even that eremitical life so widespread in India and so honored by Christianity,{2} which without doubt does not cut all the bonds linking man and society but where -- as far as the essential thing that is the spiritual order is concerned -- the "delivered" or "perfect" one is entirely sufficient unto himself and has no need of others. The sage of Aristotle lives no more apart from the city than the sage of Plato.

But there is a profound difference between the two. Carried toward the beyond and the contemplation of separate Ideas, Plato's sage transcended by his own motion, as Sage, the common life of the citizen, and if at the same time it was absolutely necessary for him to bear witness to the ineluctable political vocation of the human being, he could do this only as a prince, as king of the city, wielding political power by a kind of divine right. The sage of Aristotle, on the other hand, is not called to govern the city by virtue of his wisdom, and has neither the mission nor the desire to assume political authority. He is in the city, he does not rule it. And doubtless the immanent activity of contemplation depends to such an extent on what is divine in us that a purely contemplative life "would be too high for man".{3} Life according to the intellect is divine in comparison with human life.{4} But the fact is that if the philosopher participates in a super-human divine life, he is not a god for all that. Because the life he leads is principally, but not purely, contemplative; he remains a man, and thus a member of the city.

It is quite remarkable that when, in the Politics,{1} Aristotle speaks of the too superior man whom the city must either exile or make king (and to tell the truth how could the ostracism of such a man be tolerable in a perfect city? "On the other hand, he ought not to be a subject -- that would be as if mankind should claim to rule over Zeus";{2} the city should therefore take advantage of its good fortune and take him as its king) -- Aristotle is not thinking here of the sage, or the philosopher, but of the hero of action, the man who is "deemed a God among men"{3} because he possesses preeminently the virtues of command and political genius. (One thinks of Alexander; many centuries later did not Hegel regard Napoleon as "God revealed"?)

Thus the vocation for wisdom and the vocation for political power are separated.{4} And henceforth the question presents itself of knowing whether the philosopher or the statesman leads the most enviable life.{5} Let us say that each excels in his own order, but to be loyal to Aristotle's principles on the superiority of the contemplative life, let us say that the order in which the philosopher excels is higher than that in which the statesman excels.{6}

The fact remains that neither is the philosopher a pure contemplative nor the statesman a pure man of action. The philosopher devotes himself especially but not exclusively to contemplation; he participates in the political life of the city. The statesman devotes himself especially but not exclusively to action; his very virtues require that he participate in some measure in the leisure of contemplation. For he must be wise, even if he is not dedicated to wisdom (this is why he needs the philosopher more than the ordinary citizen does).

The heroic life is therefore at once contemplative and active; and it is normal that all of human life should be drawn to it.{7} This is why, in the perfect city, something of this life -- at once contemplative and active -- would be the portion of every citizen; to one degree or another, in one form or another, he would have access to contemplative activity concentrated within itself and to practical activity turned outward: since these two activities, each in its own place, are integral parts of happiness.{1}

12. The city of Aristotle holds to justice. The "happy city" is the one which "acts rightly", and "neither individual nor state can do right actions without virtue and wisdom". There will be no good life for the city without "courage, justice and wisdom".{2} Political philosophy was to remain attached to this theme of moral rightness and justice as inherent in the common good of the city until the time of Machiavelli.

But Aristotle's city is at the same time -- for the individuals who make it up -- a good which is purely and simply supreme; the notion of the person has not emerged; and there is no suggestion that the human person -- who is a part of the city and must work for its common good, and if necessary give his life for it -- might nevertheless transcend the political order of the city according as he is himself directed to supra-temporal goods.

In saying that the good of all, or of political society, is more divine than the good of the individual,{3} Aristotle, like all classical Greek thought, directs the individual in all of his aspects to this more divine good -- which St. Thomas was careful not to do{4} (though he liked to repeat Aristotle's phrase,{5} but as a formula to be interpreted freely according to the needs of each particular case). "If all communities aim at some good, the city-state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good."{6}

It follows that for Aristotle the ruling, supreme science in the order of practical knowledge is politics;{1} it is to it that all ethics is directed.{2}

On this point St. Thomas Aquinas, while striving to keep using Aristotelian language, adds in his commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics that if political science is termed the ruling science, "this is not true absolutely speaking",{3} but only in a certain aspect. As a matter of fact, as he teaches elsewhere,{4} the end which comes under the consideration of politics is an ultimate end in a given order only (in the order of temporal civilization); if it is a question of the absolute ultimate end of human life, in other words of "the ultimate end of the whole universe", "it is the scientia divina which considers it, and it is she who is the ruling science in every respect".{5} Here we find ourselves far removed from the perspective of Aristotle himself. In his perspective the ultimate end was temporal: earthly happiness; and man achieved it in and by the city, directing himself to the good of the city as far as all that is in him is concerned.

If, on the other hand, we take the point of view indicated by St. Thomas, it will appear that a reinterpretation -- actually a serious recasting -- is in order of the division of ethics, classic in the peripatetic school, into "monastic" (concerned with the life of the individual), "economic" (concerned with the life of domestic society) and "political" (concerned with the life of civil society){6} -- with politics having primacy over the two other parts of moral knowledge. For if the ethics of the individual person remain directed to the ethics of the city, or to politics, in this sense that not only in his political activity, but in his private activity itself and his virtues as a private person the individual must take into considenition the common good of the city and direct himself to this end,{7} nevertheless this end is supreme only secundum quid or in a given order. It is to the separate common Good, to God Who infinitely transcends the cosmos and human society, that the activity and the virtues of the individual are directed, as to their purely and simply ultimate end. And in this light, which is primordial, the ethics of the individual identifies itself with an ethics of the common good which Aristotle did not and could not know, and which is above politics as the heavens are above the earth, and which one might call the ethics of the kingdom of God. There the supreme common good of the society of men en route toward their final end is identical with the most personal supreme good of the individual person en route toward his final end: God to be possessed by the vision of His essence; which will be the beatitude of all and which will also be the beatitude of each.{1}

13. I just said that Aristotle could not know such an ethics of transcendent common good: it belongs to the supernatural order, and depends on the revelation progressively made to the prophets of Israel and consummated in the Gospel. But what Aristotle might have known, and did not, is the fact that in the natural order itself the "monastic", as far as it considers the purely and simply final end of human life, identifies itself with a supra-political ethics. For even in the purely natural order (where there is no question of beatific vision) it is not the earthly city but God Who is the absolute final end of man as of the whole universe.{2} And even in the purely natural order there is for human persons, members of the city, a common good which is superior to that of the city, that is the common good of minds,{3} the supra-temporal order of goods, of truths and of intangible laws which reveal themselves to the intellect -- and which human life could not do without. The common good of the earthly city itself demands that the city recognize this supra-political common good, and that the persons who are members of the city direct themselves to it, thus transcending the political order of the city by what is eternal in man and in the things to which he is attached. One might say that it took the fracas of revelation and the scandal of grace coming to complete nature to make philosophy see these supreme data of the natural order, which it had been looking at all along, without realizing it.

It is the same here as with the creation, or the immortality of the soul, or the Esse per se subsistens and its knowledge of the world. If Aristotle did not know these things, if in his political philosophy he thought that the city was for individuals a purely and simply supreme good, and that there is no way in which the person transcends the city, it is not that his principles obliged him to think so, but rather that he did not follow his principles far enough. What he did not know how to bring out or see explicitly, he held implicitly. We said above that the Greek conception of the city was hieropolitical and not totalitarian. This is especially true of Aristotle's political philosophy; the spirit of this philosophy is profoundly opposed to totalitarianism. And to tell the truth it was at the price of a latent contradiction that Aristotle did not bring out the truths we insisted on above, which his own principles called for.

If the city is committed to justice, it is because without justice there is no "good life" or happiness; doubtless yes, but why is there no happiness or "good life" for the city without justice, if not because the city must recognize laws which matter more than its own advantage or even its own existence? For there are instances where the city, like the individual, can serve justice only to its own detriment. To say that the city is committed to justice is to say that it is not a purely and simply supreme good.

And what does all Aristotle's teaching on contemplation mean, if not that there are for man goods of another, and better, order than that of political life? In pursuing these goods the individual serves the common good of the earthly city, to be sure -- in fact the city needs the impetus given it by those who live according to the intellect, and the wisdom which comes down from their contemplation and incorporates itself in the common heritage; but it is not for love of the common good of the earthly city that the individual pursues these goods; it is for love of these goods themselves.

If it is true that "the activity of reason, which is contemplative . . . seems to aim at no end beyond itself, and to have its pleasure proper to itself . . . and the self-sufficiency, leisureliness, untrammelled state" characteristic of perfect happiness;{1} and if it is true that "we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things", but must on the contrary "so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything"{2} -- then it must be said that there are goods and activities for man which depend on an order superior to that of political life; and that with respect to all that which in man concerns these goods and activities, the person emerges above the mortal city, and passes beyond its good, "more divine" as it may be.

The Paradox of Aristotelian Ethics
14. I should like to point out, in conclusion, what one may call the paradox of Aristotelian ethics. There is no moral system more thoroughly and authentically humanistic. And there is no moral system more disappointing for man. At this point it is permissible to speak of the defeats which Aristotelian ethics cannot avoid.
The first Defeat
15. The sovereign good, Happiness, has been brought back to earth, humanized, adapted to the structure and to the essential aspirations of our nature. Yes, but it involves so many ingredients and so many conditions which are hardly attainable -- even for a small number of individuals, for a limited aristocracy of philosophers.

It goes without saying that Aristotle had no such consequence in mind. His intentions were generous. He remarked, for example, that "if the beautiful life" consisted "in the gifts of good fortune or of nature, it would be something that not many could hope for and that neither their precautions nor their efforts would permit them to attain; but that if it depended on the individual and on the character of his personal acts, then the sovereign good" would be "at the same time more generally possessed and more divine -- more generally possessed because accessible to a greater number, more divine because happiness is then the prize offered to those who impress a certain character on their person and on their acts".{1}

And yet in fact, given the structure of Hellenic society (approved by Aristotle), the philosophical contemplation of truth and of things divine is rendered possible for free men only thanks to slavery and the servile labor of the greatest number; and even then, even at this price, such contemplation, which is the principal ingredient of the good and beautiful life, can only be the privilege of a very limited number of sages among these free citizens.

What is more, those who achieve happiness must also possess the virtues, lead a virtuous life. And they must not only lead a virtuous life but also a life crowned by pleasure. They must know the joys of culture and of art and all the beauty of the world, and not be exempt from an appreciable enjoyment of the corporal pleasures.

And they must have friends whose very presence will intensify their effort toward virtue, and whose society will add charm to existence.

And they must have money, enough worldly possessions to profit by their freedom. And good health is also necessary, in order that the higher activity and peace of the spirit not be troubled or destroyed by bodily ills. And they must not be the victims of misfortune -- chance, finally, plays its role. A certain measure of good fortune is required.

There we have the happiness of man. Who, then, as things really go, is capable of attaining the sovereign good, that sovereign good the thirst for which is the source and the fundamental motivation of our whole moral life? It is understandable that Aristotle should ask himself sometimes if, "supposing the choice were offered us, not to have been born would not be the most desirable" thing.{2}

Our whole moral life, all our effort and striving toward rightness and virtue, are suspended from an End which, in fact, eludes us, vanishes within our grasp.

This is the first defeat suffered by Aristotelian ethics.

The second Defeat
16. A second defeat is involved, which derives from the eudemonist conception itself. Aristotle, in agreement with Socrates and all the Greeks, identifies the sovereign Good and Happiness. Now Happiness is, so to speak, the subjective side of the Good; in the concept of Happiness the notion of Good refers back to the subject. If there is no good which is desired and loved more than Happiness, it is inevitable that Happiness should be desired and loved for the sake of the subject it beatifies.

There are many things, according to Aristotle's conception of happiness, which man loves and desires for their own sake and for their intrinsic goodness -- in a way which transcends his own interest, even when his own interest is involved: contemplated truth, wisdom, virtue, all that which depends on the beautiful-and-good (bonum honestum). It even happens that he loves them more than his own life. But from the moment that they are included in the overall idea of Happiness, subordinated to that idea, and desired as ingredients of Happiness, from the moment that Happiness takes precedence and becomes purely and simply the supreme End, this whole which is Happiness and which is desired and loved as such can only be desired and loved for the sake of the subject whom it perfects. Even in the case of the philosophic contemplation of truth and of things divine, it would be for the good of my own intellect that I loved them if I loved them only as an ingredient of my happiness. Implicitly, the ethics of Happiness was an ethics of the Good. But this fact remains implicit, veiled. He never makes explicit and precise the distinction between the Good and Happiness which, as a matter of fact, his own metaphysical system requires (since for him it is the Thought of Thought attracting to itself the whole universe which constitutes the absolute End, and thus the supreme Good-in-itself), and which is in a very real way operative in his own ethical judgments and in his moral system. As a result, because this distinction between the Good and Happiness is nowhere clearly elucidated in his moral system, Aristotle leaves us in a state of ambiguity. In spite of everything, in the last analysis his moral teaching leaves us enclosed in love of ourselves. It is my good that I love and will in willing and loving Happiness as the supreme Good supremely loved, that is to say the Good taken subjectively, the Good as a perfection of the subject and a resonance in the subject or as a fulfillment of human life. It is a good which I will propter me, for my own sake, for love of myself. It is impossible for Aristotelian ethics to escape from the embrace of the Self, from a kind of transcendental egoism. Within the moral perspective of Happiness as the supreme Good, I cannot deliver myself, I can never be delivered of myself, I can never be freed from my egoistical love of myself. And yet in the end it is just such a deliverance that we long for.

The ineffectiveness of the appeal made to Man by the End proposed
17. The two defeats we have just pointed out indicate the practical, existential weakness of Aristotelian ethics. By a curious paradox, it happens that all its principles are true (in particular, the very principle of eudemonism is true, in the sense that Happiness is the last subjective End of human life, or the last end relative to the human subject; Aristotle's error was in not going further -- and could he, with only the weapons of philosophical reason?). All the principles of Aristotle's ethics are true, all its themes are carefully adjusted to what is most human in man. And yet they remain ineffective in fact, they do not come to grips with existence, they do not succeed in taking hold of the internal dynamism of the human will. They ought to have a decisive and imperious appeal for man -- they do not at all.

This is the case above all because Happiness as ultimate subjective End did not lead the Philosopher to discover a supreme Good which is loved more than Happiness, a Good worth more than Happiness and for the love of which our Happiness itself is loved. Thus the supreme Good was identified with Happiness. The last End relative to the human subject, the last End as my fulfillment or my supreme perfection, or as End in which my nature and my being are realized, the last End taken subjectively, blocked Aristotle's vision of the last End in and for itself, which at the same time he implicitly recognized. It did not totally replace (as was to happen with the Epicureans) but left in shadow the supreme Good to which I and my Happiness are ordered. From this moment the supreme End, remaining essentially human, also remains involved in human complexity. It is proportioned to man and commensurate with man, that is to say with the deception inherent in the human condition, the precariousness and the falsity of human goods. It is the sum and the summit of a collection of goods each of which is uncertain and menaced -- a fragile and fleeting supreme End, deprived of all power of decisive attraction.

True as they are (but incomplete), the true principles of Aristotle's moral philosophy do not penetrate the concrete existential reality of the human being. They are incapable of stirring his aspirations and his profoundest hopes, which go beyond rational and reasonable happiness, incapable of probing the recesses of his ego and the world of the irrational with its impulses toward death and the void. In a word, what is infinite in man has been forgotten. The vanitas vanitatum of the Preacher is the reverse side of Aristotelian eudemonism.

The moral philosophy of Aristotle, which is the truest and the most authentic, the most honest of purely philosophical ethical theories, lacks effectiveness and existential bearing because it is a system of means suspended from an End which does not possess the value of an End practically absolute, nor the value of an End practically accessible, nor the value of an End practically constraining.

Aristotle was right to seek in happiness -- I use the word in its most indeterminate sense, the happiness toward which we tend not by choice but by necessity of nature -- the point of departure of ethics. But when it comes to the point of arrival, and the determination of what the true happiness of man consists in, the happiness toward which we must tend by free choice, then he sees neither that this true happiness is in fact something beyond purely human happiness, nor that it is itself ordered to a Good which is better and loved more than any happiness. The supreme good which he proposes to us is incapable of a decisive hold on existence.

Aristotelian ethics is par excellence the natural (purely natural) ethics and the philosophical (purely philosophical) ethics. And in what concerns the real direction of human conduct it runs aground in inefficacy.

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