Aristotle's Agathon

Article excerpt

THERE ARE ANY NUMBER OF REASONS for wanting to know what Aristotle means by "good" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). For students of Aristotle, understanding his conception of goodness would provide an authentic Nicomachean metaethics, so to speak, a clearer view of his natural teleology, and a great deal of help in making sense of his cosmology and his metaphysics, especially the theological bits. For the less historically minded, the rebirth of virtue ethics makes the relation between nature and norm an important problem, with implications not only for ethics proper but also for social philosophy and the foundations of the social sciences. Epistemology and the philosophy of science finally have begun to take questions of value more seriously, and therefore they ought also to be interested in possible connections between knowledge of nature and the apprehension of value. Aristotle's conception of goodness is relevant to all these questions.

In the following pages I shall sketch, therefore, as concisely as possible while staying close to the texts, the most prominent outlines of Aristotle's understanding of goodness. My conclusion is that goodness for Aristotle is simply actuality, considered as a standard and goal for all being. Although I am not aware of any careful argument for this thesis, I should note that it was suggested in passing by Allan Gotthelf in an essay published almost fifteen years ago. (1) More recently, Edward Halper has implied the same conclusion by using the account of substance in Metaphysics 7-8, together with the distinction between first and second actuality, to illuminate Aristotle's account of the good for individuals and states. (2) Moving back a few centuries, Thomas Aquinas was clearly aware that Aristotle identified goodness with actuality, a position that he himself also adopted. (3) In any case, a more thorough and systematic investigation will improve not only the evidence in hand that this is, indeed, Aristotle's view, but also our understanding of the view itself.

My argument proceeds in four stages. In section 1, I shall consider Aristotle's identification of the good with that for the sake of which. By the end of this section, we shall already have reason to think that Aristotle understands goodness in terms of actuality. In section 2, in order to enrich the conception of goodness with which the previous section leaves us, I shall turn briefly to the relations between goodness, beauty, order, and nature. Then, resuming in section 3 the main thread of the argument, we shall consider the texts in which Aristotle associates goodness with being. Finally, in section 4 we shall see that the identification of goodness with actuality gives us a unified account of Aristotle's claims about what counts as good and why. Through the use of pros hen homonymy and analogy, the various senses of "good" are united around a core meaning in typically Aristotelian fashion.


Many of Aristotle's best known statements concerning the good have to do with its causal role in nature as that for the sake of which ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). In Metaphysics 12.10, criticizing previous treatments of the good's causal role, he indicates how seriously he takes this identification of end and good--not just in human action, as in Nicomachean Ethics 1, but across the board: "In all things the good, especially, is a principle." (4) In the following paragraphs I shall examine the good as a causal principle, beginning by considering it as an end or that for the sake of which. Because Aristotle holds that end and form often coincide, we shall next consider his identification of the good, in many cases at least, with form. Finally, returning to the good as that for the sake of which, we shall look at cases in which the good is something other than form by examining Aristotle's endorsement in Ethics 1.1 of the adage that "the good is that at which all things aim." (5) By the end of this section we shall have on the table, ready for further discussion, the thesis that Aristotle understands goodness in terms of actuality. …