Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics


Gabriel Richardson Lear presents a bold new approach to one of the enduring debates about Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: the controversy about whether it coherently argues that the best life for humans is one devoted to a single activity, namely philosophical contemplation. Many scholars oppose this reading because the bulk of the Ethics is devoted to various moral virtues--courage and generosity, for example--that are not in any obvious way either manifestations of philosophical contemplation or subordinated to it. They argue that Aristotle was inconsistent, and that we should not try to read the entire Ethics as an attempt to flesh out the notion that the best life aims at the "monistic good" of contemplation.

In defending the unity and coherence of the Ethics, Lear argues that, in Aristotle's view, we may act for the sake of an end not just by instrumentally bringing it about but also by approximating it. She then argues that, for Aristotle, the excellent rational activity of moral virtue is an approximation of theoretical contemplation.

Thus, the happiest person chooses moral virtue as an approximation of contemplation in practical life. Richardson Lear bolsters this interpretation by examining three moral virtues--courage, temperance, and greatness of soul--and the way they are fine. Elegantly written and rigorously argued, this is a major contribution to our understanding of a central issue in Aristotle's moral philosophy.


Aristotle invites us to conceive of the human good as a special kind of end (telos). In the very first line of the Nicomachean Ethics (NE) he says, “Every craft and every inquiry, and likewise every action and every choice, seem to aim at some good; for which reason people have rightly (kalôs) concluded that the good is that at which all things aim” (1094a1–3, my emphasis). He calls this ultimate goal of the successful life eudaimonia, or happiness (1097a28–34). Just as an archer aims at a target, so, Aristotle thinks, the happy person aims at the human good in everything he does (1094a22–24). In effect, he proposes that we think of happiness not as the property of being happy—a certain feeling of contentment or satisfaction— but as the goal or end for the sake of which the happy person acts. Aristotle's investigation into happiness is thus decidedly practical. Not only does he want to arrive at a theory of happiness that will actually help us to live well, his investigation is guided by the thought that happiness is the ultimate object of rational desire and action. If we know what a good must be like in order to serve as the end of all of our rational pursuits, then we can use those criteria to evaluate goods, such as pleasure, wealth, honor, moral virtue, and philosophical contemplation, which people have at one time or other taken to be keys to happiness.

Notice that for Aristotle the happy life needs to focus on a single kind of good. Throughout the Nicomachean Ethics he envisions the happy life as a life of devotion to a single supremely valuable thing (or kind of thing). This is the natural way to read the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics. In NE I.4–5 Aristotle considers whether lives characterized by the pursuit of pleasure or wealth are happy, and he criticizes the idea that honor or moral virtue is the good at which the political life aims, apparently as a preliminary to supplying his own account. Then in NE I.7 he argues that the highest good must be activity in accordance with virtue, “and if there are several, in accordance with the best and most final” (1098a16–18). It is natural (although certainly not necessary) to interpret Aristotle as saying here that happiness, the ultimate goal of the happy life, is a single kind of virtuous activity, that is, it is a monistic good. When we reach the final book of the Nicomachean Ethics, the impression that happiness is a single kind of good for the sake of

All translations are mine unless noted otherwise. However, my translations of the NE have
often been influenced by the excellent translations of Ross (in Barnes 1984) and Crisp 2000.

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