Previous Lecture

1994 Lecture Notes


The notion of virtue as excellent suggested by Socrates and developed by Plato was refined and extended by Aristotle. Like those two, he held that it is the soul of the person that is virtuous, and it is so by virtue of attaining "the good for man as such." That is, the virtuous man achieves a good which is not subordinate to any other good; other goods are subordinate to it. Health, for example is a good, but it is not the good of man as such. It only contributes to that good.

So what is the good of man as such? Aristotle notes that we all agree that it is "happiness." Note that the Greek term eudaemonia, which is translated as "happiness," does not mean what we normally associate with the English word. In Aristotle's terms, eudaemonia is "living well and faring well." This is quite different from the feeling of well-being that we think of as constituting happiness. Recent scholarly translations use the phrase "human flourishing" instead. I will continue to use 'happiness' as does the text.

Agreeing on happiness as the good of man as such hardly solves the question, since it is really only an agreement to use the same word. What is happiness? Some say pleasure, others honor, and still others wealth. Aristotle found each of these inadequate to the notion of the good of man as such. Pleasure is the goal of the base, not the noble human being. Honor is bestowed by others. The good should be something "of one's own." In general, the good should be conceived as something which is desirable in itself alone. Wealth fails to meet this criterion. One who is wealthy but cannot use the money, or is beset by others to give it away, is not happy. Aristotle believed that the good for man is something self-sufficient, not dependent on anything else. So merely being wealthy is not something which by itself is desirable.

Happiness is what we seek when acting. When we act, we carry out a function of the soul. Happiness is the excellent exercise of the functions of the soul. So the good is "the activity of the soul in conformity with excellence." There are some qualifications on this. First, happiness needs a sort of prosperity, external things such as good looks and good children. Second, it is a condition of a person over a lifetime, not at one specific time.

The good for the human being as such, according to Aristotle, is happiness or flourishing (eudaemonia). Happiness has two components, which might be called external and internal. External goods such as an attractive appearance, wealth, etc. are the less important aspects of happiness. Indeed, the highest form of happiness (found in contemplation, discussed in Book X) is that which requires the minimum of external goods. The internal component is the excellence of the soul, and it is to this that we now turn.

Aristotle considered the human being to have three faculties. The vegetative faculty is what we share with all living thing, and it cannot be the seat of distinctively human excellence. Reason, which is characteristic of human beings, is not involved in processes such as digestion. The appetitive faculty is shared by animals, who have various passions such as anger. The rationality distinctive of humans is apparent here, in that the passions can be directed by reason. This use of reason is practical, in the sense that its use has practical results. My reason may calm my anger, which in turn may serve other ends I have.

The second kind of use of reason is theoretical. The possession of an intellectual faculty is what is most distinctively human in us. In fact, in Book X Aristotle stated that it is the divine element of the human soul. Consideration of excellence in the use of theoretical reason is given in Book X, which will await our discussion of practical reason in Books II and III.

There are several questions to be asked of excellence in the use of practical reason. The first is how it is attained. It is not by nature that we gain control over our passions; nature only gives us the potential to gain control. Young children lack practical reason, which must be distilled in them by habit.

The next question is how excellence can be attained in the direction of the passions. Here Aristotle raises the typical Greek model of good health. We attain good health only by avoiding the extremes of excess and deficiency. Too much exercise can be as harmful as too little; eating too much as bad as eating too little, and so forth. It is the mean between extremes which best promotes the health of the body.

The passions come in degrees as well. Courage is the mean between fear or cowardliness and over-confidence or rashness. Liberality (generosity) is the mean between prodigality (excessive lavishness) and meanness (lack of charity). Several other examples are discussed in section 7 of Book II. It is the excellence of the use of practical reason, then, to attain the mean. An excellence is what brings something into good condition, and in a human it is what makes a person good and acting well.

A complicating factor is the role of pleasure and pain. Suppose you go to an expensive restaurant and order the finest champagne to impress your date, charging it to an American Express Card you have not the funds to pay off. Surely this behavior will be highly pleasurable, but there is a painful price to pay later on. We will have more to say about pleasure and pain later, but at least it can be said now that pleasure and pain are a kind of wild card, not correlating with excellences. Reason often has a difficult time finding the mean, due to the often-misleading accompaniment of pleasure or pain.

The excellences are the seat of praise and blame. We do not praise or blame anyone for the passions they have. Anyone can feel great anger at being wronged, for example. But we can blame a person for not keeping the anger under control. On the other hand, we praise people for their self-control. The 'self' in 'self-control' implies a voluntariness in action. If a person becomes less angry as a result of swallowing Prozac, the diminution of anger is not something voluntary.

In general, what is involuntary is what gets its impetus from without. The Prozac put in my drink diminishes my anger in a way having nothing to do with my reason. Often we do things voluntarily, in this sense, when we have "no choice" to do otherwise, say when one surrenders one's cash when held up at gun point. Here, Aristotle says that in a sense the action is involuntary, in that we are motivated by consequences no one would choose to suffer. When such circumstances arise, we tend to forgive people who would otherwise be blameworthy.

The final question arising about excellence in practical reasoning is the manner in which it takes place. We make choices based on deliberation. Aristotle believed that deliberation concerns what contributes best to given ends. It is not the choosing of "noble" ends themselves, but recognizing the means best to accomplish those ends, which constitutes excellence in the exercise of self-control. Thus to save the country from invasion is an end Aristotle would consider as noble. One exerts mastery of fear in order to act courageously in fighting to defend the motherland.

This way of understanding practical reason differs greatly from accounts which emphasize consequences. The excellent person for Aristotle is one who cultivates a certain kind of character. Happiness for the most part consists in the achievement of certain habits which generally promote noble ends. For example, a hedonist believes that one ought to pursue pleasure. On Aristotle's view, this is simply self-indulgence which does not require mastery of the passions in order to achieve the temperament that allows the accomplishment of noble deeds. The utilitarian believes that one should do what produces the maximum of pleasure and minimizes pain overall. But aside from the essential emphasis on pleasure and pain, this view also differs from Aristotle's in that it places all the emphasis on the actual outcome of given actions, not the building of a character that will behave nobly.

Now I will turn to the question of what constitutes the highest excellence of human reason, which is purely intellectual. Reason here is not practical but theoretical, and has nothing to do with the passions which constitute the animal side of our composite nature. Instead, the exercise of theoretical reason is something divine, and its objects, which are eternal, are the best of objects. Further, purely intellectual activity satisfies Aristotle's requirement that the good for man as such be self-sufficient. It requires nothing else for its achievement and is not a means to any other end (thus distinguishing it from practical reason). External things are of little import here: living the contemplative life requires few resources.

Few people attain this state of excellence, which is not natural for the human animal. Pleasures of the flesh deter us from undertaking the rigors of intellectual training. The passions stand in the way, demanding our attention. The only way people can attain to this highest form of life is through training beginning at an early age. If they acquire the habit of contemplation, they will attain the highest form of pleasure.

The vision of the good we have developed from Socrates through Plato and Aristotle has certain apparent weaknesses when viewed from a distance. Recall that the good life for Aristotle is acting excellently while in possession of the certain external goods. Acting excellently means practicing the moral virtues, and the intellectual virtues. The medievals classified the moral virtues as these: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Each is a form of mastery of reason over the passions. Intellectual virtue is to be found in pure theoretical contemplation, divorced from the practical matters of life.

One question that comes immediately to mind is what significance this vision has for those lacking in the external accompaniments of the good life or for those not in a position to practice intellectual virtue. Is Aristotle's ethics for the elite only? Does it have any meaning in a society that is not stable, well-fed, of high cultural attainment, and so forth?

Aristotle has also been criticized for promoting an essentially selfish practice, contemplation, as the highest activity. Scholars argue about this point, but it seems that social activity takes a back seat to the solitary activity of contemplation.

Next Lecture

1994 Lecture Notes Menu