The Activity of Happiness in Aristotle's Ethics

By Gurtler, Gary M. | The Review of Metaphysics, June 2003 | Go to article overview

The Activity of Happiness in Aristotle's Ethics


Gurtler, Gary M., The Review of Metaphysics


I

THERE HAS BEEN A LONGSTANDING DEBATE about the relation of virtue and happiness in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle seems to have two contradictory positions. One position is found in book 1, chapter 7, where happiness is the highest good, an activity of soul in conformity with virtue. In context, this seems to indicate human virtue as a whole, involving both moral and intellectual virtues. The other position occurs much later in book 10, chapters 6-8, where happiness is identified with wisdom alone. This later context seems to posit an opposition between a supreme happiness related to wisdom and contemplation and a secondary happiness associated with justice and the moral virtues. The debate centers on how to reconcile these two positions.

One group of commentators takes book 10 as determinative and thus tortures the text in book i to say the same thing. This position is described as intellectualist or exclusivist and produces certain puzzles in reading Aristotle's ethical theory. These puzzles are not benign since the privileged position given wisdom in book 10 seems at odds with the discussion of virtue in book I and its development in the Nicomachean Ethics as a whole. Indeed, Aristotle appears inconsistent or even contradictory, recommending in these two brief chapters of book 10 a life devoted to contemplation that only grudgingly allows for the necessity of the practical life discussed in such detail in the rest of his ethical works. If this is the case, under what conditions are we expected to forgo contemplation to engage in the various activities of the moral virtues? Since no conditions are spelled out in the text, the range of speculation is confused and ways around the apparent inconsistencies complex.

The other group takes 1.7 as determinative for the definition of human virtue, and its task is to explain whether 10.7-8 fits into Aristotle's general ethical position. In this view, virtue is understood inclusively, with both ethical and intellectual components. So far no satisfactory account of 10.6-8 has been able to integrate it into Aristotle's account of virtue and happiness, with the result that it is either ignored as an aberration or left as an anomaly. The goal of this paper is to provide a reading of 10.1-8 that can show how Aristotle's account of contemplation and the moral virtues is part of a single vision of happiness. (1)

I will endeavor to argue that the discussion of pleasure in 10.1-5 is continuous with that of happiness in 10.6-8. One aspect of this continuity is that pleasure and happiness are both defined as the same kind of activity, one that accompanies certain other activities under specific conditions. Another aspect of this continuity is that Aristotle distinguishes different kinds of pleasure, those related to bodily conditions and those related to activities desirable in themselves. He ends this account of pleasure by mentioning that each animal has its own specific pleasure. This last topic leads directly into the discussion of happiness, where Aristotle distinguishes different kinds of activities associated with happiness and seeks to determine which activity is the happiness specific to the human soul. The continuity of the discussion as a whole also provides the context in which Aristotle distinguishes between pleasure and happiness. Their structure as activities makes them similar, which leads some to hold the opinion that pleasure is in fact happiness.

Aristotle, however, holds that they are different. First, pleasure has its origin in the basic need of an organism to preserve itself. No matter how much pleasure can be associated with activities done for their own sake, this root meaning keeps Aristotle from identifying pleasure with happiness. Second, the definition of happiness becomes increasingly refined until it is identified with contemplation of the divine. The first element of this discussion of contemplation has long been recognized, evaluating the opinions that a life of pleasure, a practical life, or a contemplative life constitutes happiness. …

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