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.
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.