Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle's Agathon

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

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.

Aristotle clearly holds that in a given motion or change, being "best" with respect to the preceding and following states is a necessary condition of being an end. (6) Thus, in his first discussion of the four causes he writes, "For not everything that is last claims to be an end, but the best." (7) When he recapitulates this discussion in 2.7, he refers to explanation in terms of an end by saying, "and because it is better thus, not simply but as regards the substance of each." (8) Conversely, in Metaphysics 3.2 he states, "everything that is good in itself and by its own nature is an end, and thus a cause for the sake of which other things come to be and exist." (9) In 2.2, moreover, he has already said that those who assert change to be unlimited, denying the existence of that for the sake of which, "remove the nature of the good unawares." (10) His strongest identification of the good with that for the sake of which, however, comes in Metaphysics 1.7, where he asserts that by making the good an origin of motion, his predecessors had identified only an incidental ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) role thereof. The good as such ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) is not an origin of motion but that for the sake of which things come to be and exist. (11) In other words, to be an end or that for the sake of which is a function of the good as good.

A possible objection to identifying the good with [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], or that for the sake of which, is that according to many contemporary authors, Aristotle's teleology is operative only in the world of living things. (12) If that were the case, then to claim that every good is an end and every end a good would be to make goodness a biological concept, and to say the least, this would be a striking contention. It is worth pointing out, therefore, that in none of the texts just cited does the goal-directedness proper to living things play a noticeable role. The Metaphysics as a whole, moreover, makes it clear that Aristotle counts the good as a highly general, and perhaps even universally applicable, causal principle. (13) This point alone is enough to call into question the biological reading of his teleology. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, a careful reading of Aristotle's nonbiological works reveals both teleological claims and attributions of goodness regarding the elements and their inanimate compounds. (14) In fact, Aristotle holds that goal-directedness is a basic feature of natural existence and activity. (15) By identifying the good with that for the sake of which, therefore, Aristotle is actually implying that nature as a whole is suffused with value.

Just as well-known as Aristotle's identification of the good with that for the sake of which is his claim that often, that for the sake of which coincides with form. An especially helpful statement of this thesis comes in Parts of Animals 1.1, when Aristotle writes that his predecessors failed to make use of teleological explanation because they had no clear notion of "what it was to be, of definition with respect to substance." (16) The terms [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], which Aristotle uses here to signify the form of a matter--form composite, are important in that they call to mind his emphasis on form as the actual being of the composite, a point to which we shall return later. In any case, Aristotle reiterates the relation between form and end, with respect at least to the generation of substances, in just about every possible way: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] is identified with form ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), (17) nature ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), (18) account ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), (19) and substance ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) which last, he adds, is in all things the "cause of being" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). (20)

In addition to these statements associating form with that for the sake of which, and thus indirectly with the good, there are others directly linking form with the good. In Generation and Corruption 2.6, for example, Aristotle writes that being in a certain state ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.])--in other words, the nature of each thing--is the well and the good. (21) In Physics 1.9, quarrelling with the Platonists regarding first principles, he states that form is "divine, good, and desirable," and that matter, in itself, is such as to desire it. (22) These texts have the same implication as the former: at least with regard to substances and their coming to be, what is good is form. Moreover, although we shall not consider until section 4 the precise sense in which nonsubstances can be called good, Aristotle's discussion of change in Physics 1 is about change in general, not just about substantial change. Therefore, the text from chapter 9 suggests that just as the form by which a substance exists is good with respect to its matter, so its secondary attributes are goods insofar as the substance itself is fully determined and actualized by them. This point will reappear immediately below, as we broaden our discussion to include not only form but also activity. (23)

A moment's reflection, in fact, is enough to realize that Aristotle cannot identify the good with form, even if substantial form is the central case of actuality in his metaphysics. This is because he also holds that mere existence is not the best state in which a substance can be. In the case of living things, to start with the easiest case, simply to live is not enough: complete goodness is attained only in activity. Aristotle applies this observation to humans in Nicomachean Ethics 1.7 (24) and to animals more generally in De somno 3. (25) The basic idea, expressed in the well-known "function argument" of Ethics 1.7, is that to each nature there pertain capacities ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) for certain typical activities ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), and that complete goodness for a substance consists in the exercise of these capacities with excellence ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). (26) Moreover, if we focus on the capacity and the corresponding activity rather than on the intermediate "state" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]--for example, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) that disposes a subject to act well or poorly, this model of complete goodness would seem to apply to inanimate substances as well. Nonliving bodies may not have [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], as do animals and plants, but in Ethics 6.2 Aristotle points out that the excellence ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) of a given capacity is relative to the corresponding activity or task ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). (27) Thus it is the activity, not the state, that is conceptually and ontologically central. Because Aristotle also holds that even the elements and the mixed bodies must be understood in terms of their [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], (28) we may conclude that goodness attaches to these activities as well. (29)

In addition to the texts just mentioned, there are several passages in which Aristotle explicitly states that all things, through the activities ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) proper to their nature, seek their own good. In an extended passage in De caelo 2.12, for example, he makes clear that every substance, whether its activities are one or many, tends through them to achieve its proper good, and that in possessing this good it comes as near the final end of the cosmos as its share in the divine principle permits. (30) Likewise, in De anima 2.4 he states that living things (aside from those spontaneously generated) produce individuals the same in [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] as themselves in order to participate in the eternal and divine. To support this claim, he asserts that such participation is that toward which all things strive and for the sake of which they carry out their natural activities. (31) In short, we should take Aristotle at his word when he says, in the second sentence of the Nicomachean Ethics, "It is well said that the good is that at which all things aim." (32)

What we have seen so far is that Aristotle identifies the basic good of a substance, and correspondingly of its coming to be, with its form. A substance is fully good, however, only through the activity that corresponds to this form--and, if that activity can be performed more or less well, through its performance with excellence. These two claims about goodness bring us directly to the thesis at which I have been aiming, because Aristotle's preferred way of expressing the relation between form and activity is through the concept of actuality. In De anima 2.1, after beginning his attempt to define the soul by distinguishing matter and form, he points out that form ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) is the actuality ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) of a composite substance. To avoid confusion, however, he explains that the term [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] can be used in two ways. (33) Using the example of our capacity for knowledge, he points out that both habitual knowledge and active reflection are actualities corresponding to this capacity. The soul, he continues, like habitual knowledge, is an actuality that leaves room for a further actuality, namely, the activities of the living thing. There is thus a definite progression from potentiality to first actuality, as Aristotle calls it, and then to second actuality. In the case of a substance, these three "levels" of being correspond to matter, form, and activity.

Aristotle's distinction between first and second actuality enables us to see that in connecting the good with form, on the one hand, and activity, on the other, Aristotle is identifying goodness with actuality. Actual being thus also serves as that for the sake of which natural substances come to be, exist, and act. In section 3, we shall consider Aristotle's explicit statements about the connection between goodness and being. First, however, we can enrich our understanding of his conception of goodness by considering its relation to some other important concepts.


In the following paragraphs, I shall briefly consider Aristotle's concepts of order, beauty, and nature in relation to his conception of goodness. First, I shall link the discussion of these concepts to the previous section by considering order as a kind of form. Next we shall consider beauty, contrasting it with goodness in order to shed light on the latter. Finally, we shall turn to the relation among order, beauty, goodness, and nature.

As I have just suggested, Aristotle's concept of order ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) is not unrelated to his concept of form. In Physics 1.7, for example, he uses the term "order" to signify the form by which bronze or another material constitutes a statue. (34) This order is, of course, the arrangements of parts whereby the bronze has one shape rather than another. (35) Because a statue is not a natural substance, the order by which it exists is not a substantial form in the strict sense. In Metaphysics 8.2, however, Aristotle gives a general account of actual being according to which the actuality of any composite is the formal principle that, whether or not it is an [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] strictly speaking, is analogous to the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] found in natural substances. (35) Thus, when we find him associating order with goodness, as below, it is reasonable to assume that the goodness in question is that of a principle of actuality, analogous to the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] of a natural substance, by which the things ordered constitute more than a random assembly.

Another concept that Aristotle frequently relates to goodness is, not surprisingly, beauty ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]).(37) The basic distinction he makes between goodness and beauty is that the former is always associated with [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], whereas the latter is found also in motionless things. (38) The language here is not exact, however, because in Metaphysics 9.6 he explains that not every [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] involves motion: some are [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], activities that do not strictly speaking involve any motion. (39) The exact distinction between goodness and beauty, therefore, seems to be that "good" applies whenever we can speak of actuality or fulfillment, as opposed to potentiality. Beauty, on the other hand, applies when these categories are not operative, as in the objects of mathematics. (40) The chief forms of beauty, Aristotle continues, are order ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), symmetry ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), and the definite ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). (41) At least two of these three are directly relevant to goodness as well: an animal's form, for example, involves both order and definiteness.

Because beauty is a broader concept than goodness, it is not surprising that Aristotle writes of the beautiful as well as the good in relation to form and that for the sake of which. In Parts of Animals 1.5, for example, he states that in the works of nature, "the end for the sake of which they are constituted or come to be has the place of the beautiful." (42) Likewise, in Metaphysics 1.3, that for the sake of which, as opposed to spontaneity or chance, is what causes things to come to be and exist well and beautifully ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). In other words, he adds, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] is the cause of the cosmos and of all order ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). (43) Within nature, therefore, goodness, order, beauty, and so forth are all intimately tied up with each other--and, when it comes to causes, with that for the sake of which.

The concepts of beauty and especially of order are important not only for the light they shed on Aristotle's conception of goodness, but also for the strong connection they provide between goodness and nature. For example, in a passage concerning the heavens in Parts of Animals 1.1, he notes that the signs of action for the sake of something are order and definiteness ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.])--two of the forms of beauty we just noted--as opposed to randomness, chance, and disorder (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) (44) Likewise, in Generation of Animals 5.1, he states that explanation in terms of an end is required whenever we are dealing with the ordered and definite works of nature (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) The reason he gives brings us back to form and to being: we need explanation in terms of an end because coming to be (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) follows upon and is for the sake of being (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) rather than vice versa.(45)

In fact, Aristotle is quite clear that order is involved in the very existence of nature. In De caelo 3.2, he argues that any world containing a finite number of types (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) of cause will display order. Because causes are differentiated by their natural (typical) effects, this is simply to say that if there is natural movement, then there is orderly movement, because, as he puts it, a thing's nature is nothing other than the order proper to it. (46) The same point is clearly reflected in the opening statements of the Meteorology: natural phenomena are those that display a certain degree of order. (47) The phenomena of nature, then, are intrinsically ordered, and as we have already seen, the order and definiteness that they display constitute them as beautiful. Finally, because this beauty is bound up with the activities (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) of natural substances, it also qualifies as goodness. Nature as such, in short, is suffused with goodness.

The foregoing discussion of order, beauty, and nature in relation to goodness has been far too brief to count as a discussion of these concepts in their own right. It is, however, enough to establish a strong and interesting connection between Aristotle's concept of nature and his concept of goodness. Although I shall not comment further on this connection, it is worth keeping in mind as we proceed.


In Metaphysics 1.2, Aristotle concludes that wisdom or first philosophy is the knowledge of first causes. (48) This leads to an aporia that is especially interesting for our purposes. (49) Aristotle is convinced that there is at least one immaterial and immovable substance and that this substance, God, is the first and most universal cause of the phenomena of nature. Moreover, it would be perverse, he thinks, to deny that this first cause is good, especially given that in all things, as we have seen, the good above all is a principle. On the other hand, goodness is intrinsically linked to action and movement. How, then, can an immovable cause be good? The solution to this aporia (see below, also note 9) reveals the deeply metaphysical character of Aristotle's analysis of goodness by connecting goodness with the core topic of his first philosophy, being as such (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.).

There are at least two passages in which Aristotle writes explicitly that being is better than nonbeing. The first appears in Generation and Corruption 2.10, where he explains the "eminently reasonable" phenomenon--(TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.), he says--of eternal coming to be. The argument runs thus: (50)

(a) Nature always aims at what is best.

(b) Being (in the various recognized senses of this term) is better than not being.

(c) Not everything can exist eternally.

(d) So, aiming for the best involves stringing being together as well as can be managed (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.).

(e) God therefore completed the cosmos by making coming to be uninterrupted.

The starkness with which the principles of this argument are set forth is remarkable, even for Aristotle. We are simply told, as something presumably obvious, that being is better than not being (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) and referred "elsewhere" (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) for the various senses of "being." (51) Because this passage gives us no basis for expanding on the claim that interests us, we may turn immediately to the next.

In Generation of Animals 2.1, Aristotle gives an argument from final causality for the separation of the sexes observed in many animals. Once again, it will be helpful to analyze the complete argument: (52)

(a) To admit of both being and nonbeing is opposed to being eternal (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) and divine (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.).

(b) What is not eternal admits of being and not being, and so of better and worse.

(c) The cause of the better in what admits of better and worse is always, by its own nature, the noble (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) and divine.

(d) Soul is better than body.

(e) The ensouled is better, because of its soul, than the soulless.

(f) Being is better than not being, and living than not living.

(g) The nature of an animal prevents it from being eternal as an individual.

(h) It can, however, be eternal in (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.).

(i) Through their coming to be, therefore, living things attain the only kind of eternity possible for them.

(j) The proximate moving cause, insofar as (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) and (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) belong to it, is better and more divine than the matter.

(k) In generation the male is a principle of motion, whereas the female provides the matter. (53)

(l) It is better that the superior be separated from the inferior.

(m) Therefore, when and insofar as is possible, male and female are separate.

This argument tells us considerably more than the previous about the relation between goodness and being. Let us examine the relevant claims.

Aristotle's first premise, that eternal being is better than contingent and temporary being, is a straightforward consequence of the central claim that being is better than nonbeing. For if being, as such and as opposed to nonbeing, carries value, then necessary and eternal being is obviously better than the alternative. Premise (b) also follows immediately from the central claim: being is better, and nonbeing is worse. Premise (c), however is highly interesting. Aristotle is claiming not only that being is better than nonbeing, but that when being (and hence goodness) requires a cause--the substance in question also admitting of not being--then this cause is somehow to be found in that which has being necessarily and eternally. That which possesses being and goodness, in other words, tends to transmit it to things that do not exist but can. A corollary to this claim is found in (j): a proximate moving cause is better than the matter on which it acts. This follows, of course, because the moving cause exceeds the matter in being: it is capable of acting because it has the (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.), or (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.), that matter lacks (54)

In addition to these claims about the causal capacities, as it were, of being and goodness, Aristotle makes several related claims about the relation between better and worse within that which admits of being and nonbeing. First, (d) soul is better than body. This, of course, we already know from our discussion of form as that for the sake of which. However, the present context leads us to focus on soul not as form (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) but as actuality (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.). Soul is better than body because it is the actuality of the body and the cause of the composite's being. (55) Aristotle's next claim goes even further: (e) not only is soul better than the body whose actuality it is, but in general, what has soul is better than what does not. In other words, the presence of soul brings a new and superior level of actuality or being, one that is not found among nonliving things. As Aristotle goes on to say, therefore, (f) the superiority of being to nonbeing has as a corollary that the living is better than the nonliving.

Clearly, the thread that unites Aristotle's claims about goodness in this argument is their relation to his views concerning being, potentiality, and actuality. The relation between goodness and actuality is something that we have already seen, first in the goodness of form and activity, in section 1, and then in the distinction between goodness and beauty, which we examined in section 2. In the argument that we have just considered, Aristotle does not explicitly mention either (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) or (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) these are metaphysical concepts, and in his works of natural science he generally prefers terms drawn from the study of nature. Nevertheless, the claims about "better and worse" that we find in this argument map neatly onto the conclusions about potency and act that Aristotle reaches in Metaphysics 9. In section 4, I shall show how a simple schema laying out Aristotle's views about being, potency, and actuality easily makes sense of everything that he says about goodness. First, however, we should look at a few more texts on the relation between being and goodness.

We have just noticed in Generation of Animals Aristotle's view that eternal being is superior to contingent and temporary being. This claim is spelled out in other texts, using a variety of terms and concepts. In Parts of Animals 1.5, for example, we read that substances by nature ungenerated (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.), indestructible (Greek text cannot be converted in ASCII text), and eternal (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) are more excellent (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) and divine (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) than those lacking these attributes. (56) In Metaphysics 12.7, it is the property of existing necessarily--which for Aristotle coincides with being eternaL (57)--that is highlighted. (58) Here we find that precisely insofar as the first mover is necessary, it exists nobly or beautifully (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) and so is a first principle. Moreover, Aristotle explicitly states in this passage that God's divinity and goodness amount to his being an eternal actuality. This actuality qualifies as life, a life that is best (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) and eternal. Later in the Metaphysics, we find the converse inference: it is precisely as something good, or as being in a good state (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.), that the primary and eternal being is indestructible (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) and possesses self-sufficiency (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) and security (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.). (59)

In short, Aristotle does not stop with the simple claim that being is better than not being. Rather, by using his concept of actuality to illuminate the notion of being, he expands on this basic assertion in a number of directions: the notion of being, and therefore of goodness, is verified most perfectly in what not only exists but exists without even the possibility of not being; which neither can nor needs to strive for fulfillment but possesses its activity so perfectly as simply to be that activity; which is, therefore, perfectly self-sufficient and secure in its being; and which, necessarily, is the cause of being and therefore of goodness in such beings as possess these only contingently and temporarily. In general, therefore, from the divine substance on down, the degree of goodness found in any substance depends on the way in which it has being.

In section 1, we saw that Aristotle finds a close connection between goodness, on the one hand, and both form and activity, on the other. The fact that he elsewhere characterizes form and activity as first and second actuality led to the conclusion that the central concept in his account of goodness is actuality or actual being. Thus, after a brief consideration in section 2 of how he understands order, beauty, and nature in relation to goodness, we have discussed in section 3 what he has to say explicitly about goodness and being. In doing so, we have seen how a number of attributes that Aristotle associates with goodness, such as form, life, activity, agency, eternity, necessity, self-sufficiency, and security, are all ways of spelling out his basic assertion that being--and in particular actual being--is better than nonbeing. In the following section, drawing on what we have already seen, I shall conclude by presenting a synthetic account of Aristotle's notion of goodness in terms of his concept of actuality.


In Nicomachean Ethics 1.6, Aristotle observes that the term "good" is applied properly to things in each of the categories. Priority, however, goes to what is good in the category of substance. Our concluding discussion of goodness and actuality, therefore, must begin with goodness among substances. I shall start, in particular, with goodness among destructible natural substances, because it is to the ontological structure of these that Aristotle devotes most of his efforts. I shall then briefly consider indestructible substances, and finally turn to some peculiarities of living substances in the sublunary realm. This will lead to a discussion of goodness in the other categories. I shall try to keep my comments brief, although much could be said on each of the topics just mentioned. Throughout, my focus will be on the relation between goodness and actuality.

First, then, in substances that come to be and pass away--those composed of matter and form--what is good is the form. Form is, universally, that for the sake of which these substances come to be and exist; hence it is the good of each thing. From the metaphysical point of view, form is that in virtue of which each thing exists as itself; it is the substance's actuality. (60) Indeed, as we saw in Generation of Animals 5.1, the status of form as that for the sake of which depends on its status as actuality or substance (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.). Correlatively, it is as actuality that form is the good of a composite: being is better than not being. (61) In Metaphysics 9.8, finally, a text that we have not yet considered, Aristotle explicitly states that actuality, as opposed to potentiality, has the character of an end and that for the sake of which. (62) Because only what is best qualifies as an end, this statement implies that actuality as such, by contrast with potentiality, is good. (63)

However, as we saw in section 1, a substance does not possess its complete goodness simply by existing. A thing's nature is only fully revealed, and its complete actuality attained, when it passes from the first actuality of simple being to the second actuality of its natural activity. (64) From a theoretical point of view, this claim is sufficiently established by the text just cited from Metaphysics 9.8: nature, though an actuality itself, is also a potentiality for activity in the broad sense of potentiality (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) at work in 9.8. (65)Thus, like all potentialities, it is acquired and exists for the sake of the corresponding actuality. (66) In other words, Aristotle does indeed think that fire actually heating is superior, as fire, to fire only potentially heating, because the capacity to heat has come to be for the sake of heating, and this capacity is the very nature of fire.

Once we have the goodness of form and of activity firmly in place, little work is required to add the habitual goodness that, as we have seen, Aristotle calls (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.). (67) What we need first are substances whose typical activities can be done well or poorly. This condition is clearly instantiated in the case of sight, for example, and even more in the case of practical reason. Some kinds of animals see better than others, and within the same species some individuals see better than others. Among humans, practical reasoning will be more or less excellent from one individual to the next. Second, the capacity for the activity in question must admit of an intermediate state, by which the subject of the capacity is disposed more or less well with respect to the activity in question. Health in the eye, physical strength, practical wisdom, and the moral virtues are all examples of such states, and they are all good because they dispose their subjects to actualize fully their natural potentialities for sight, for bodily activity, and for activity in accord with reason.

It is true, of course, that actions and states are not, strictly speaking, in the category of substance. Nevertheless, they must be discussed in relation to substance, because they have being and thus--as we shall see goodness only as modifications of substance. Before dealing with goodness in the other categories as such, however, we should look briefly at two types of substance that require additional comment: the living and the eternal.

The being of an eternal substance might seem to create a difficulty for the idea that goodness is actuality. On the one hand, Aristotle thinks that eternal substances have a greater goodness than those that are not eternal. On the other hand, eternal substances have no matter for coming to be; their substantial being, therefore, is not the actuality of any potentiality. How, then, can goodness be always associated with actuality? The answer is straightforward. Because actuality is prior in substance (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) to potentiality, not only in particular cases but generally and as such, we can legitimately speak of being in actuality even where there is no corresponding potentiality. This is, in fact, what Aristotle does in Metaphysics 9.8. In his last argument that actuality is prior in substance to potentiality, he writes that "the eternal are prior in substance to the destructible, and nothing eternal is in potentiality." (68) Eternal substances, in other words, are always and necessarily actual.

With regard to animals and plants, Aristotle holds that these substances can suffer a kind of harm that others cannot, namely, mutilation. (69) This point suggests in turn that living substances possess their good in a unique way, and this is not hard to see. The actuality of a living body, Aristotle tells us in De anima 2.1, is distinguished in that it is the actuality of an organic body, one whose parts differ in their qualities and thus, like so many tools (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.), contribute in different ways to the being and activity of the whole. (70) Each part has its own activity, and the complexity of activities mirrors the complexity of parts. (71) This means that living things are characterized by obvious means-to-end relations among their activities and their parts. It is therefore, as Aristotle himself explains, much easier to distinguish matter (the parts as bodily) from form (the capacities for activity) among living things than among the nonorganic substances of which they are composed. (72) Given this complexity of activities, each clearly distinct from the corresponding potentiality and from the part that embodies this potentiality, and each, moreover, playing a definite and discernible role within the life of the animal or plant, it is not surprising if we recognize order, beauty, and goodness most readily in the phenomena of life.

Finally, then, we come to the attribution of goodness in categories other than substance. This final step in the argument is an important one, because it leads us straight to a discussion of the ways in which "good" is predicated of various good things. By bringing our discussion of Aristotle's conception of goodness down to the different types of things that can be called good, and by noting how the term "good" is predicated of each of them, we can further validate the conclusions we have reached so far. The text for our discussion is, of course, Nicomachean Ethics 1.6. In this chapter, addressing the Platonists, Aristotle considers in what way we can speak of a "universal good." To argue that the notion of a single "form" or "idea" of the good is incoherent, he focuses on the different ways in which the term "good" is predicated.

Aristotle's first objection to the notion of a universal good is that things are called good both in the category of substance and in the other categories. (73) Items in the categories other than substance, however, are essentially posterior to substance; they are like "offshoots" or accidents of substance and exist only with respect to (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) it. Therefore, any good found in these categories is dependent on substance in such a way that it cannot be called good in the same sense as can substances. The next objection is closely related to the first: things are called good in as many ways as they are said to be, and so, once again, there can be no single account of goodness. (74) Together, these related objections bring us to a first point about the predication of "good."

In the course of his second objection, Aristotle gives examples of goods found in the various categories. His examples in the category of substance, God and (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.), provide no new insights. When it comes to the accidents, however, it is clear that what he attributes to his examples is goodness with respect to some substance that possesses or makes use of them. For the most part, the accidents he mentions are not even good as secondary actualities of substances, but rather as means to their successful activity. Thus, for quality he mentions the virtues, for quantity what is moderate, for relation the useful, for time the opportune, and for place an appropriate environment. Each of these attributions of goodness makes sense only relative to the goal-directed activity of substances; in other words, predication of goodness across the categories seems to be an instance of homonymy pros hen. This conclusion is supported by the fact that being, and therefore actuality, is also predicated pros hen across the categories, insofar as everything other than substance exists in relation to substance. (75) It seems, therefore, that for Aristotle there are as many ways of being good as there are substances, on the one hand, and ways of contributing to the complete actuality of those substances, on the other.

Later in the chapter, Aristotle explicitly raises the question of how "good" is predicated of various things. (76) After distinguishing between things good in themselves and those that are good as means, he points out that even goods in themselves--such as honor, wisdom, and pleasure taken precisely as good, have different accounts. At the same time, the attribution of goodness to all these things does not seem to be an instance of homonymy pure and simple. This leaves two options: the various goods in themselves are good either by homonymy pros hen or by analogy. Aristotle does not comment on the first option. After raising the second, however, he adds, "for as sight is in the body, so is understanding (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) in the soul, and another indeed in another." (77) At this point, he remarks that such abstract considerations are inappropriate to a work on ethics, and moves on.

In fact, it would seem that both homonymy pros hen and analogy are at work in the predication of "good." With regard to the pros hen, we have already suggested that this is operative in the predication of goodness across categories. Even within a given category, moreover, it is surely complete actuality, whether form or activity, that is good in the primary sense. What can we say, therefore, about capacities and incomplete actualities, such as motions or states? Unless we want to say that these are not good at all or good only instrumentally, then we must conclude that they are good in virtue of their relation to complete actuality. Although Aristotle does not explicitly say that either goodness or being is predicated pros hen of potentiality and actuality, this mode of predication seems more accurate than either analogy or unqualified homonymy, and it fits his conclusions in Metaphysics 9.8 about the priority of actuality to potentiality. We may safely conclude, I think, that capacities, motions, and states can be called good because they are capacities for, motions toward, or states that conduce to the corresponding good actuality.

Finally, Aristotle's remark about sight and understanding makes it clear that "good" is predicated not only pros hen, but also by analogy. Because the various senses of "good" correspond to the senses of "being" and hence to those of "actuality," this conclusion also follows from the fact that the predication of "actuality" is itself analogical. As we read in Metaphysics 9.6, "Not all things are said to be actually in the same sense, but proportionately: as this is in this or to this, that is in that or to that." (78) Even in its primary or focal meaning, therefore, which we might render as "complete actuality in the category of substance," the term "good" is predicated not univocally but analogically.

To conclude, we have seen in last few paragraphs how recognizing the connection between goodness and actuality enables us to see, first, how items in all the categories can be called good with reference to substance, and second, how goodness can be predicated without equivocation of beings that do not share any categorical attributes. The use of analogy and pros hen homonymy thus enables us to arrange the various possible uses of "good" around the central case in which it signifies actuality in the category of substance. This central case, as we have seen, includes both first and second actuality. Because Aristotelian natures are defined in terms of their characteristic (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.), moreover, and because these (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.) are for the sake of and therefore ontologically posterior to the corresponding activities, Aristotle's focal meaning of goodness applies not to any existing substance, but only to the fully actualized specimen. The good substance in general, like the good human of the Nicomachean Ethics, is indeed the measure.

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(1) Allan Gotthelf, "The Place of the Good in Aristotle's Natural Teleology" (hereafter, "Place of the Good"), Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 4 (1988): 130-1.

(2) Edward Halper, "The Substance of Aristotle's Ethics," in The Crossroads of Norm and Nature: Essays on Aristotle's Ethics and Metaphysics, ed. May Sim (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995), 3-28. Unlike Gotthelf's brief comments (see n. 1), Halper's arguments concerning ethical and political goodness do not include an explicit claim that Aristotle identifies goodness and actuality in general. However, his more focused discussion shows how the general account of goodness with which I am concerned can be used to understand the goodness of two particular entities, human individuals and states.

(3) Thomas Aquinas, In decem libros Ethicorum Aristotelis ad Nicomachum expositio, bk. 1, lect. 1, nn. 11-12; compare Summa theologiae I, q. 5, a. 1.

(4) Metaphysics 12.10.1075a37. All translations of Aristotle are mine; I have tried to be as literal as possible. I have occasionally consulted the Loeb and revised Oxford translations of the various texts.

(5) NE 1.1.1094a3.

(6) This does not mean that we cannot understand Aristotle's teleology without explicit reference to the good. Rather, the concept of actuality undergirds both Aristotle's teleology and his understanding of goodness (compare Gotthelf, "Place of the Good," 130-1).

(7) Physics 2.2.194a32-3; compare Politics 1.2.1253a1-2. The statement from Physics 2.2 follows Aristotle's well-known denial that death is an end ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), despite the fact that it is obviously last ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). In a related passage from Metaphysics 5.16, he states more fully that death, and in general the outcome of passing away, can be called an end only metaphorically (1021b23-30).

(8) Physics 2.7.198b5-9.

(9) Metaphysics 3.2.996a23-7. This assertion occurs in the course of an aporia that is raised again in 11.1 (1059a34-8). It is risky to attribute to Aristotle claims that occur in the statement of an aporia. However, this particular puzzle turns out to be caused not by the premise quoted but by the erroneous equation of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]--with which goodness and thus that for the sake of which are correlative (see the clear statement at 13.3.1078a31-2)--with motion. In 9.6, Aristotle argues that [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] must be distinguished into [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (motions, or actions that involve motion) and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (actualities, or activities that do not involve motion) (1048b18-30). This distinction helps him to retain the connection between the good and that for the sake of which, while also holding that not every good thing is subject to change.

(10) Metaphysics 2.2.994b9-13.

(11) Metaphysics 1.7.988b6-16.

(12) The most important variants of this view are well expressed by Allan Gotthelf, "Aristotle's Conception of Final Causality," with "Postscript 1986," in Philosophical Issues in Aristotle's Biology, ed. Allan Gotthelf and James G. Lennox (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 204-42; David Charles, "Aristotle on Hypothetical Necessity and Irreducibility," Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 69 (1988): 1-53; Michael Bradie and Fred D. Miller, Jr., "Teleology and Natural Necessity in Aristotle," History of Philosophy Quarterly 1 (1984): 133-46; and Susan Sauve Meyer "Aristotle, Teleology, and Reduction," Philosophical Review 101 (1992): 791-825. For a good review of the literature on Aristotle's teleology see Allan Gotthelf, "Understanding Aristotle's Teleology," in Final Causality in Nature and Human Affairs., ed. Richard F. Hassing, vol. 30 in Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997), 71-82.

(13) See Metaphysics 1.2.982a19-b10, 1.3.984b8-22, 2.2.994b9-16, 12.7, 12.10, 13.3.1078a31-b5.

(14) This argument can be found my dissertation: "Teleology in Generation and Corruption and the Meteorology," chap. 1 in "Aristotle's Teleology and Modern Mechanics" (Ph.D. diss., University of Notre Dame, 2004). I focus on these two works, as opposed to De caelo, because although it is generally acknowledged that for Aristotle the cosmos as a whole is goal-directed, this direction is sometimes considered too closely related, or at least too strongly analogous, to that found in the biology for it to conflict with the biological interpretation of Aristotle's teleology. The main texts that I examine are GC 1.7.324b14-20, GC 2.6.333b5-20, GC 2.9, Meteorology 4.2.379b18-80a1, and Meteorology 4.12.

(15) For nature and that for the sake of which, see chapter 3 of my dissertation, "Teleology and Continuous Change," which addresses Aristotle's views on what sorts of change are for the sake of their outcomes.

(16) PA 1.1.642a25-7. The context makes clear that Aristotle is referring primarily, at least, to the early naturalists, whom he thinks routinely failed to recognize the actual ontological structure of living substances and thus misinterpreted the phenomena of their coming to be.

(17) Physics 2.7.198a24-7.

(18) Physics 2.2.194a27-b9.

(19) PA 1.1.639b15-17.

(20) De anima 2.4.415b10-22.

(21) GC 2.6.333b16-19.

(22) Physics 1.9.192a16-25.

(23) Aristotle's attribution of goodness to form has two interesting corollaries worth nothing here. The first has to do with the relation between Aristotle's conception of goodness and that of Plato; the second with the goodness peculiar to living things.

First, then, Aristotle consistently characterizes [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] as a motionless cause of change. By definition, indeed, that for the sake of which is not something that changes but rather an end, or limit, of change. Therefore, unlike the principle from which change proceeds, it causes change without itself being subject thereto (Physics 2.7.198a35-b5; Physics 5.1.224a34-b13; De anima 3.10.433b13-16; Metaphysics 11.11.1067b7-12; Metaphysics 12.7.1072b1-3). This does not necessarily mean that every good, as an end, is eternal, but that any noneternal form must come to be and cease to be without undergoing a process of change (see Metaphysics 7.8.1033a24-b19; 8.3.1043b15-18). We might want to resist saying that Aristotle identifies goodness with being as opposed to becoming, but the temptation is strong.

Second, in his discussion of unity in Metaphysics 5.6, Aristotle gives special attention to what he calls "wholes" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), explaining that there is a sense of "one" that applies only to what has a single form ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), and therefore qualifies as a whole (1016b11-17). His examples are a shoe and a circle: the former is organized functionally, and the parts of the latter are neatly embraced in a single formula. This relation of parts to whole is later summarized, conversely, in terms of unity: a whole in the relevant sense, we read in 5.26 (1023b27-8), is something that contains its parts in such a way that they constitute a single thing ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). In chapter 27, on "mutilation," it becomes clear that this type of unity has evaluative implications. Aristotle explains that a thing can be mutilated only if it is, to put it briefly, a divisible whole whose unlike but continuous parts differ essentially in position (Metaphysics 5.27.1024a11-28). In other words, there is a kind of damage that can befall only things whose forms give them an above average degree of unity. In De iuventute, correspondingly, Aristotle distinguishes animals that are divisible from those whose functional diversity of parts makes possible "the greatest possible unity," as he puts it (Iuv. 2.468b9-13). He refers to the latter also as "best constituted" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), and it is clearly this more perfect, because more unified, constitution that makes such animals capable of suffering harms like mutilation. The cause of this unity is a form that subjects the various parts, with their capacities, to the animal as a whole.

(24) NE 1.7.1098a5-7, 1098b32-9a3.

(25) De somno 3.455b13-28.

(26) NE 1.7.1097b22-8a18.

(27) NE 6.2. 1139a16-17.

(28) See Meteorology 4.12.

(29) This goodness would, of course, be not absolute goodness but goodness relative to the natural capacities of the substance in question: see Physics 2.7.198b5-9.

(30) De caelo 2.12.292a19-b25.

(31) De anima 2.4.415a27-b8.

(32) NE 1.1.1094a3.

(33) De anima 2.1.412a20-9.

(34) Physics 1.7.190b28.

(35) Given the context, it seems possible that Aristotle borrows this concept of order from Democritus. See Physics 1.5.188a24.

(36)Metaphysics 8.2, esp. 1043a4-9.

(37) In other contexts the term [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] is sometimes translated "noble" or "fine," but for present purposes "beauty" is clearly correct.

(38) Metaphysics 13.3.1078a31-2.

(39) See n. 9.

(40) In fact, Aristotle's comments about goodness and beauty in Metaphysics 13 are made with a view to the place of beauty in mathematics. He wants to deny the contention that the good cannot be a universal principle because it is not found in mathematical objects (see the aporia posed in Metaphysics 3.2.996a21-b1). In his response he suggests that beauty, rather than goodness in the strict sense, will do.

(41) Metaphysics 13.3.1078a36-b5.

(42) PA 1.5.45a25-7.

(43) Metaphysics 1.3.984b11-18. With regard to the cosmos as a whole, this passage is echoed in terms of goodness and order in Physics 2.4.196a24-b5 and Metaphysics 12.10.1075a11-25.

(44) PA 1.1.641b16-24.

(45) GA 5.1.778b2-7.

(46) De caelo 3.2.300b32-301a12.

(47) Meteorology 1.1.338b20-2.

(48) Metaphysics 1.2.982a19-b10.

(49) Metaphysics 3.2.996a21-9; 11.1.1059a34-8.

(50) GC 2.10, 336b25-7a1.

(51) Michael Loux has suggested in conversation that Aristotle's phrase (TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.)--literally, "to say (something) in many ways'--should not be taken to imply that the term in question has several senses, but rather that it is true, in a single sense, of things that share no common nature, such as items from different categories (see De sophisticis elenchis 11.172a36-7, for possible textual support). If this is the case, then the claims I make here and in section 4 about the senses of "being" and "good" may be restated as claims about the kinds of things of which "being" and "good" are said.

(52) GA 2.1.731b24-2a10.

(53) Unfortunately, Aristotle's account of sexual generation provides one of the clearest examples of how an individual's or culture's understanding of gender can influence scientific theory.

(54) The argument for this claim, along with possible qualifications to it, is found in Metaphysics 7.7-9.

(55) See De anima 2.4.415b10-22.

(56) PA 1.5.644b22-6.

(57) See GC 2.11.337b35-8a4.

(58) Metaphysics 12.7.1072b10-30.

(59) Metaphysics 14.4.1091b16-21; on self-sufficiency as characteristic of "the end and the best," see also Politics 1.2.1253al-2.

(60) See, for example, De anima 2.1.412a6-10.

(61) See the above discussions of GC 2.10.336b25-7al, and GA 2.1.731b24-732a10.

(62) Actuality is prior to potentiality "also in substance (Greek text cannot be converted in ASCII text), first because things later in coming to be are prior in form and in substance, as man is to child and human being to seed, for the former has the form already whereas the latter does not; and second because everything coming to be proceeds to a principle and an end (for that for the sake of which is a principle, and coming to be is for the sake of the end), and the actuality (Greek text cannot be converted in ASCII text) is an end, and the potentiality is received for the sake of (Greek text cannot be converted in ASCII text) this" (Metaphysics 9.8.1050a4-10).

(63) Not that potentiality is bad, but its goodness depends on that of the corresponding actuality. Compare Metaphysics 9.8.1050a4-bl, on the ontological priority of actuality to potentiality, as well as 9.9.1051a4-21, on the superiority of good actuality to good potentiality.

(64) Once again, see NE 1.7.1098a5-7, 1098b32-9a3; De somno 3.455b13-28.

(65) Metaphysics 9.8.1049b5-10.

(66) Metaphysics 9.8.1050a4-10.

(67) See NE 1.7; 2.5; 6.2.1139a16-17; compare also Metaphysics 5.14.1020b 13-25.

(68) Metaphysics 9.8.1050b6-8.

(69) See n. 23.

(70) De anima 2.1.412a28-b6.

(71) See PA 1.5.645b15-6a2; 2.1,646a12-7a3.

(72) Meteorology 4.12.

(73) NE 1.6.1096a17-24.

(74) NE 1.6.1096a24-9.

(75) See above, as well as Metaphysics 4.2.1003a33-b10, 6.1.1028a10-21, 8.1.1045b27-32.

(76) NE 1.6.1096b13-30.

(77) NE 1.6.1096a29-30.

(78) Metaphysics 9.6.1048b6-9.

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