On the Good Life, Aristotle

Several scholars argued in the late nineteenth century that the Nicornachean Ethics was incoherent since, although Aristotle stressed both practical and theoretical virtues in his concept of happiness in much of the NE, he emphasized only one -contemplation – in Book X. The problem was that it was difficult to picture pleasure consisting of the fulfillment of a single desire rather than the fulfillment of many. However, by the late 1800s, the general opinion was that there was an implicit presumption that solved the problem. The assumption that the activity of happiness consisted in the satisfaction of a single desire whereas the life of happiness consisted in the satisfaction of a single desire whereas the life of happiness consisted in the satisfaction of several desires both practical and theoretical. However, these assumptions have raised questions because the notion of contemplating a completed picture of knowledge seems odd and boring and hardly the sort of thing one would need to express with the ecstatic Augustinian sentiments that Aristotle uses. Happiness is essentially a contemplation thus needs to include both practical and contemplative virtues. The treatments of self-sufficiency, completeness and function suggest that happiness needs to be inclusive.

Individuals need a full complement of external goods such as power, beauty and good fortune. However, Aristotle reiterates that contemplator requires only the bare necessities of life such as food, shelter and clothing. The equation of happiness may downgrade the ethical and political life to a mere means and not part of eudairnonia. In that sense, an action may seem right only when it makes contemplation possible. As a result, ethical activity may not have intrinsic value as reiterated by Aristotle. However, if ethical activity may become part of eudairnonia, then it may have intrinsic value because ethical activity acts for the sake of the final end of happiness and as part of happiness. Therefore, virtue is not just a mere means of happiness thought rather individuals need to take it for the sake of happiness and as part of happiness.

The political virtue and minimal political duties are central to individual’s life regardless of whether an individual lives a political or philosophical life. Therefore, while discussing the central concerns of individuals, the ethical and political activities paly an essential role in the conception of good life. In addition, Aristotle focuses on how the political life culminated in the life of the practically wise politician. The Aristotle’s arguments in books VI and X are consistent with the important arguments of self-sufficiency and completeness in book I.

Individuals are corrupted by pleasure because they pursue corruption to the exclusion of anything. According to Aristotle, individuals contemplate only when their natural states are restored by various processes such as eating and drinking and that such processes are pleasurable not in themselves but coincidentally, as they restore individuals to their normal state. Hence, virtue is concerned with pleasure and pain since all actions by individuals are related in one way or another. On that note, a temperate individual will act in accordance with the mean regarding pleasure. Thus such an individual may succeed in restoring his/ her body to its natural state and therefore contemplate. However, the presence of different virtues like temperance may imply the presence of practical wisdom which can imply the presence of virtue. Therefore, according to Aristotle, an individual can only contemplate when an individual is in harmony with oneself.

Virtue is a pragmatic requirement that provides a level of clear headedness that is necessary for an individual to contemplate. Contemplation is not only limited to philosopher but also involves the natural culmination of the practical life. In such a case, contemplation play an essential role of enabling individuals to overcome the problem of exclusiveness. Despite contemplation not being an easy aspect of good life to access, it does not restrict the possibility of good life to a small percentage of the population who are philosophers.

Contemplation requires an individual to contemplate as seems as an incommensurable better activity. Similarly, practical virtue is a necessary and sufficient condition that supports contemplation. Practical virtue is necessary for a philosophical contemplator because practical virtue restores the body to its natural state. According to books XII and IX, Aristotle claims that only the practically wise philosopher qualifies as a contemplator (Ackrill and John, 38). Thus, virtue is a necessary condition of contemplation. An individual with good life is friendly to oneself and his/her body remains in harmony such that an individual can activate and preserve an element that allows an individual to contemplate. But theoria is possible only when nous is in command and unifies the various elements of the soul, and nous is in command only in practically wise men. So while it is proper that the activity of the intellectual element within individuals is incomparably superior to any other activity. An individual cannot contemplate if he/she is not one with him/herself, and they cannot be one with themselves unless they are good.

Individuals can contemplate continuously if despite having moral obligations to fulfil.

Aristotle asserts that individuals may sustain contemplation longer than any other activity and involves leisure and freedom from other obligations (Ackrill and John, 41). If contemplation results from long process of philosophical or political training then the teaching process may take time. That is, one can only contemplate towards the end of one’s life when the training process is complete. Nevertheless this is also the time when the individual’s obligations to society and family are minimal and when in fact one’s needs are taken care of by one’s children. For example, when the older individuals who are provided a rest from active service, are appointed appropriately enough as priests for the churches.

Nicomachean ethics

The study of Nicomachean Ethics has changed following the acclaimed inconsistency in Aristotle’s conception of happiness in Book I (Ackrill and John, 34). Similarly, such claims have contributed to a series of changes in ethics since Aristotle’s main focus is to determine the nature of happiness. Aristotle’s stated view is that eudaimonia is a single activity. However, Hardie believes that it was Aristotle’s insight that no single desire can dominate life and that happiness must consist of satisfaction of several different important desires (Ackrill and John, 48). That is, Hardie supported the inclusive view as opposed to Aristotle’s dominant view. Aristotle believes that happiness is not a distinct end apart from the activities that are somehow means to it, for example dressmaking for the sake of a dress (Ackrill and John, 51). Nevertheless, happiness is an inclusive end not different from the activities that constitute it just as golfing, swimming and vacation are for the sake of having a good holiday but not different from what it means to have a good holiday. Thus eudaimonia is not something that one has to look forward to at the end of one’s life, but that the whole of one’s life is made up of bits and pieces of eudairnonia.

The total life of an individual consists of various activities such as thinking, perceiving, growing, and digesting. Aristotle referred to these activities as a life thus identified a certain type of life and happiness. That is, individuals need to understand life not as total life but in different sense of activities. The components of the total life on the other hand, will consist not only in the activities of primary and secondary eudaimonia and contemplation and practical virtues but those of nutrition and perception as well. Such a reading satisfies Hardie’s original intuition that a good life must include the fulfilling of a number of desires while at the same time retaining the primacy of theoria.

An individual’s endeavor may seem falling into several different hierarchies. Arguably, the final good at times is made up of several final goods that seem desirable for different individuals. Similarly, this intrinsic desirability about final good makes the activities of their hierarchies good. However, Aristotle leaves open this possibility. That means Aristotle has not yet proved that the human good is a single most final end, he does think that all human endeavor falls under this good in a single hierarchy. So the goods that constitute the hierarchy are good in light of the final individual.

Aristotle discusses the human good in the larger social context and not in terms of the individual. Aristotle does so because he believes that there is a preexisting area of study that is political science that is interested in determining the order of the hierarchy of the good in terms of the social order (Ackrill and John, 52). However it is much less obvious that the same thing goes on in the individual context. Second, because, the good is finer and more godlike to attain for a city than it is for an individual. Also, it is important because Aristotle explicitly suggests, contrary to what some scholars have thought for example Hardie that this final good is accessible to more than a privileged few (Ackrill and John, 35). Thus he states that happiness will also on this view be very generally shared for all who are not maimed as regards their potentiality for virtue may win it by a certain kind of study and care.

Aristotle is interested in laying out the objective order of goods, and not necessarily the subjective motivation for action within an individual’s life, a task best accomplished at the social level. That is, Aristotle disagrees with Hardy that final good may be the motive or end for all the actions of an individual. The final good that human aim for is happiness though there is disagreement with some scholars on what happiness consists of. Aristotle focuses on the kinds of lives that best embody the end or meaning of life. His focus lands in three major possible lives such as that of pleasure, politics or contemplation. Some individuals may take the end of life to be pleasure. However, Aristotle dismisses such a life and argues that the tyrants lacks understanding of life because their knowledge is limited to bodily pleasure. However, Aristotle further argues that the good man has tested both the pleasure of virtue and those of the body thus is in the best position to judge their value.

The good man by definition thinks virtue and not pleasure to be his end, thus the good man rejects pleasure as his final end. Notably, at this point Aristotle does not reject pleasure as part of the good and happy life. Second, to make amusement the end of everything we do is to trivialize life since serious things are thought to be better than trivial things. It is more appropriate therefore that individual amuse themselves for relaxation so that they can get back to serious work. All people who live the political life do so for the sake of honor or virtue. By honor Aristotle means the respect, admiration and even fear with which men in power are held. But this is quickly rejected as the final good, since the things we do to obtain honor are our own, whereas honor not only depends on others to give, but is easily lost for it depends on someone else to be ours. Thus honor cannot be the good an individual is seeking since the good is something that one can take to belong to him/herself.

Happiness is something that individuals can choose for itself and not for the sake of happiness. Therefore, Aristotle believes that there is only one final good for an individual that constitutes the essence of his/her happiness. Aristotle reiterates that certain good such as wealth are just means and not ends in themselves and thus final but also means to other ends ((Ackrill and John, 38)). Such would be honor, pleasure, reason and virtue in general, for all these are chosen for themselves as well as for the sake of happiness. Aristotle argues that contemplative is the final activity of man because it is virtuous activity of the highest element in an individual.

Besides, Aristotle further argues that the objects of contemplation are the highest possible objects. That is, if an activity X is higher in the hierarchy than activity Y, then X is more final compared to Y. Aristotle thinks that rational activity is higher and therefore more final than perceptual and nutritive activities. In addition, Aristotle believes that rational activities themselves rank in some order, based on their objects.

Contemplation and the ethical man

Aristotle acknowledges that pleasure is not a function of the restorative process but the activity of the still healthy disposition. Aristotle argues that disposition and pleasure are interrelated. Therefore in case the disposition is completely destroyed t it means the pleasure is equally affected. Also, there is a relation of pleasures associated with the restorative processes and those associated with the activities of the completely restored state. As stated in the previous paragraph that the virtue in charge of the appetites is temperance and it is only the temperate man who can correctly replenish his natural needs as opposed to being attracted to that which is contrary to what is pleasant by nature. Yet this is not all that would constitute a settled state from which the activity of contemplation arises. That is, a perfected nature must not only be free from the pains of appetite, but from unnecessary pain in general. Hence it must be the case that a perfect nature requires perfect virtue, since virtue is concerned with pleasure and pain. More importantly all the virtues, with some qualifications such as being disposed to actions that are done in the right way, time and amount are defined as states of impassivity and rest (Ackrill and John, 37). Thus change is good because of some vice for it is always simple to change a vicious man. Therefore, the nature that needs change is vicious because it is not good and simple.

Contemplative activity arises when the passions and appetites are controlled and brought to a state of rest, a control that only virtue provides. For virtuous actions are activities and ends in themselves and therefore complete insofar as they do not leave behind any residue of actions or passions which thus allows for theoria. Whereas vicious actions are processes that not only are incomplete in terms of the emotional residue they leave behind, but also because of the further action that they impel. While this may be true of the philosophically trained virtuous man, for example a good man needs to be good to do philosophy well and ultimately become a contemplator.

Aristotle focused on two major virtues about good life and happiness that is practical and theoretical virtues. At some point, Aristotle mainly focused on contemplation because it was not simple to imagine how happiness could consist in the satisfaction of a single desire. Aristotle argument that the activity of happiness was theoria whereas the life of happiness consisted in the satisfaction of several desires both practical and theoretical faced critics from various scholars. The scholars argued that the notion of contemplating a completed picture of knowledge seems odd and boring. Aristotle believes different activities that each separately constitute to a life and thus happiness. Aristotle believes that external goods are more important in some lives than in others which is why he does not say that they are necessary conditions of happiness, but simply needed in addition. Therefore in Aristotle discussion of good life, he concludes that a good man needs to be good to do philosophy and become a contemplator.


Ackrill, John L. “Aristotle On Eudaimonia (Book I. 1–5 [1–3] And 7–8 [5–6]).” Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics”. Brill, 2010. 33-52.

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