The intellect is the highest thing in us, and the objects that it apprehends are the highest things that can be known . . . we are more capable of continuous contemplation than we are of any practical activity.
Eudoxus, a member of Plato’s Academy, argues that pleasure is the supreme good because we desire it as an end in itself and it makes other good things more desirable. However, this only shows that pleasure is a good. Further, Plato argues that other things, like intelligence, make pleasure more desirable, so it cannot be the supreme good. There are also flaws in the arguments that all, or even some, pleasures are bad. These arguments rely on the mistaken notion that pleasure is an incomplete process of replenishment.
We cannot say that pleasure is desirable without qualification: for instance, we would not choose to live with the mentality of a child even if that life were pleasant. There are also other goods, like intelligence or good eyesight, which are desirable without necessarily being pleasant. It seems clear that not all pleasures are desirable and that pleasure is not the supreme Good.
Pleasure is not a process, since it is not a movement from incompleteness to completeness and does not necessarily take place over an extended period of time. Rather, pleasure accompanies the activity of any of our faculties, like the senses or the mind, when they are working at their best. Pleasure perfects our activities, and since life itself is an activity, pleasure is essential to life. Only those pleasures enjoyed by a good person and for the right reasons are good.
Happiness, as an activity that serves as an end in itself, is our highest goal in life. We should not confuse happiness with pleasant amusement, though.
The highest form of happiness is contemplation. Contemplation is an activity of our highest rational faculties, and it is an end in itself, unlike many of our practical activities. Only a god could spend an entire lifetime occupied with nothing but contemplation, but we should try to approximate this godlike activity as best we can. All the moral virtues deal with the human aspects of life, which are necessary but secondary to the divine activity of contemplation.
If learning about happiness were sufficient to leading a good life, discourses in philosophy would be far more valuable than they are. Words alone cannot convince people to be good: this requires practice and habituation, and can take seed only in a person of good character.
People are unlikely to be naturally virtuous, so the state is responsible for establishing laws to ensure that the young are educated in the right way and that adults do not become bad. In the absence of good laws, people must take responsibility for their children and friends. Parental supervision is in many ways preferable to laws, since it allows for more particularized attention.
Neither politicians nor sophists are particularly suited to teaching politics. In order to judge how best to establish laws that will benefit citizens, we must turn to an examination of politics.
It might seem strange that we have a discussion of pleasure at the beginning of Book X, when this topic was already addressed in Book VII. There are two answers to this peculiarity. The first is that Book VII and Book X were most likely written at different times and for different purposes, and were only later interpolated into the same book. Books V, VI, and VII of the Nicomachean Ethics also feature in the Eudemian Ethics, which is Aristotle’s other, less known work on ethics. These two works were probably composed at different points in Aristotle’s career, and it is possible that the compiler of the Nicomachean Ethics took these three books from the Eudemian Ethics and inserted them into a significantly different work.
The different times of composition also explains why Aristotle’s views on pleasure differ somewhat between Books VII and X. Most notably, Aristotle implies that pleasure is supremely good in Book VII, but in Book X he is more reserved on this point, noting that certain good things, like excellent eyesight or intelligence, are not necessarily pleasant. Perhaps good eyesight and intelligence bring us pleasure from time to time, but there is nothing about seeing well that is in itself always pleasant. Though there is some debate on this topic, most scholars agree that Book X represents Aristotle’s more mature views on pleasure.
The second explanation of the disparity between Books VII and X is that they deal with different subject matter. The discussion of pleasure in Book VII follows a discussion of incontinence and is meant to illuminate what pleasure is that it should lead people to act against their better judgment. The discussion of pleasure in Book X leads to a discussion of happiness and the good life, and is meant to show in what way pleasure is connected to the good life.
Book X also gives us Aristotle’s ultimate judgment of what constitutes the good life. While the moral virtues are fine and important, rational contemplation is the highest activity. This may not be immediately evident, so we should first examine how Aristotle arrives at this conclusion and then question whether it is correct.
Aristotle holds teleological view of biology. That is, he believes that all living things exist to fulfill some telos, or purpose. This telos is determined primarily by what makes that living thing distinctive. For instance, the telos of a plant is primarily nutritive: its goal in life is to grow. Aristotle distinguishes humans from other animals by saying that we are capable of rational thought. Because we are the distinctively rational animals, our telos must be based in our rationality.
This theme underlies a great deal of the Ethics. In discussing voluntary action, Aristotle emphasizes choice based on rational deliberation. Our actions can be morally praiseworthy or blameworthy because we are able to think about them and decide rationally on the best course of action.
Most of the Ethics is devoted to discussing the various moral virtues. In the end, however, Aristotle explains that these moral virtues are not ends in themselves so much as necessary preconditions for living a good life. This good life is based on our rational faculties, which explains his discussion of the intellectual virtues in Book VI.
Of the intellectual virtues, two of them—prudence and art—are practical virtues. These help us fulfill our practical needs and so cannot be ends in themselves. Of the intellectual virtues, wisdom is the highest, since it combines the other two virtues of scientific knowledge and intuition. Scientific knowledge and intuition help us to figure out what the world is like. Wisdom consists of the ability to contemplate the totality of experience from a place of knowledge. As such, wisdom represents the most achieved state of the rational intellect.
Because wisdom is the highest intellectual virtue, and because the rational uses of the intellect are the highest human goal, the philosophical contemplation made possible by wisdom is the supreme human achievement. While this contemplation could be called “philosophy,” we should be careful to note that for the Greeks, philosophy consists of a contemplation of knowledge generally, and not the more specialized study that modern philosophy consists of.
Is Aristotle right in saying that philosophical contemplation is the highest good? He certainly provides many compelling and noble reasons to think so, but he never provides a watertight argument for thinking so. We might feel inclined to respond that some of the lower pleasures are more worthwhile than solemn contemplation. To this, Aristotle might respond that we are giving into our less than human animalistic natures. But aside from feeling Aristotle’s stern disapprobation, there does not seem to be any compelling reason to think that a little animalistic fun is not in itself sometimes quite worthwhile.