Our account of this science will be adequate if it achieves such clarity as the subject-matter allows.
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Every human activity aims at some end that we consider good. The highest ends are ends in themselves, while subordinate ends may only be means to higher ends. Those highest ends, which we pursue for their own sake, must be the supreme Good.
The study of the Good is part of political science, because politics concerns itself with securing the highest ends for human life. Politics is not a precise science, since what is best for one person may not be best for another. Consequently, we can aim at only a rough outline of the Good.
Everyone agrees that the supreme Good is happiness, but people disagree over what constitutes happiness. Common people equate happiness with sensual pleasure: this may be sufficient for animals, but human life has higher ends. Others say that receiving honors is the greatest good, but honors are conferred as recognition of goodness, so there must be a greater good that these honors reward. Plato’s Theory of Forms suggests that there is a single Form of Good and that all good things are good in the same way. This theory seems flawed when we consider the diversity of things we call “good” and the diversity of ways in which we consider goodness. Even if there were a single unifying Form of Good, our interest is in the practical question of how to be good, so we should concern ourselves not with this abstract concept but with the practical ends we can actually pursue in everyday life.
Happiness is the highest good because we choose happiness as an end sufficient in itself. Even intelligence and virtue are not good only in themselves, but good also because they make us happy.
We call people “good” if they perform their function well. For instance, a person who plays the flute well is a good flutist. Playing the flute is the flutist’s function because that is his or her distinctive activity. The distinctive activity of humans generally—what distinguishes us from plants and animals—is our rationality. Therefore, the supreme Good should be an activity of the rational soul in accordance with virtue. This definition aligns with popular views of happiness, which see the happy person as virtuous, rational, and active.
When talking about happiness, we consider a person’s life as a whole, not just brief moments of it. This raises the paradoxical suggestion that a person can be considered happy only after death, that is, once we can examine the person’s life as a whole. However, a good person will always behave in a virtuous manner. Even faced with great misfortune, a good person will bear himself or herself well and will not descend into mean-spiritedness. Once a person has died, according to Aristotle, posthumous honors or dishonors and the behavior of his descendants might affect his happiness somewhat, but to no great extent.
We can divide the soul into an irrational and a rational part. The irrational soul has two aspects: the vegetative aspect, which deals with nutrition and growth and has little connection to virtue; and the appetitive aspect, which governs our impulses. The rational part of the soul controls these impulses, so a virtuous person with greater rationality is better able to control his or her impulses.
Much confusion about Aristotle’s work comes not from Aristotle’s lack of clarity, but from an imprecision in translation. Ancient Greek is quite different from the English language, and more important, the ancient Greeks lived in a very different culture that used concepts for which there are no exact English translations.
One central concept of the Ethics is eudaimonia, which is generally translated as “happiness.” While happiness is probably the best English word to translate eudaimonia, the term also carries connotations of success, fulfillment, and flourishing. A person who is eudaimon is not simply enjoying life, but is enjoying life by living successfully. One’s success and reputation, unlike one’s emotional well-being, can be affected after death, which makes Aristotle’s discussion of eudaimonia after death considerably more relevant.
That happiness should be closely connected to success and fulfillment reflects an important aspect of social life in ancient Greece. The identity of Greek citizens was so closely linked to the city-state to which they belonged that exile was often thought of as a fate worse than death. There was no distinction between the public and private spheres as exists in the modern world. Consequently, happiness was not thought of as a private affair, dependent on individual emotional states, but as a reflection of a person’s position within a city-state. A person who inhabits a proper place in the social structure and who appropriately fulfills the duties and expectations of that place is “happy” because, for the Greeks, happiness is a matter of living—not just feeling—the right way.
Aristotle treats happiness as an activity, not as a state. He uses the word energeia, which is the root of our word energy, to characterize happiness. The point is that happiness consists of a certain way of life, not of certain dispositions. In saying that happiness is an energeia, he contrasts happiness with virtue, which he considers a hexis, or state of being. Possessing all the right virtues disposes a person to live well, while happiness is the activity of living well, which the virtuous person is inclined toward.
[T]he good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind.
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The very idea of living well might seem a bit odd as Aristotle formulates it. In particular, he talks about living well as performing the function of “being human” well, analogous to the good flutist performing the function of playing the flute well. It may seem that Aristotle has confused the practical and the moral: being a good flutist is a practical matter of study and talent, while no such analogy holds for morality. Being a good person surely is not a skill one develops in the same manner as flute playing. But this objection rests on a misunderstanding due to a difficulty in translation. The Greek word ethos translates as “character,” and the concerns of the Ethics are not with determining what is right and wrong, but with how to live a virtuous and happy life.
We should also note the importance of the concept of telos, which we might translate as “end” or “goal.” The first sentence of the Ethics tells us that every activity aims at a certain telos. For instance, one might go to the gym with the telos of becoming fitter. When Aristotle identifies happiness as the highest goal, he is claiming that happiness is the ultimate telos of any action. We might understand this idea of an ultimate telos by imagining the child who constantly asks, “why?”:
“Why are you going to the gym?”
“To become fitter.”
“Why do you want to become fitter?”
“So that I’ll be healthier.”
“Why do you want to be healthy?”
“So that I’ll live longer and have more energy.”
“Why do you want a long and energetic life?”
“Because that makes for a happy life.”
“Why do you want a happy life?”
“I just do.”
Every activity has a telos, which is an answer to the question, Why are you doing this? Happiness is the ultimate telos because there is no further telos beyond happiness and because the ultimate goal of all our other activities is happiness.
For Aristotle, the soul, or psuche (the root of our word psychology), is simply that which distinguishes living things from nonliving things. All living things have a nutritive soul, which governs bodily health and growth. Animals and humans differ from plants in having an appetitive soul, which governs movement and impulse. Humans differ from animals in also having a rational soul, which governs thought and reason. Because rationality is the unique achievement of humans, Aristotle sees rationality as our telos: in his view, everything exists for a purpose, and the purpose of human life is to develop and exercise our rational soul. Consequently, a human can “be human” well by developing reason in the way that a flutist can be a good flutist by developing skill with the flute.