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.
See Important Quotations Explained
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
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
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.