One Small Voice

The Journal of Peter Saint-Andre

About | Archive | Best | Blogroll | Feed

Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics I.7


Book I, Chapter 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics is one of the most consequential and intensively studied passages in all of Aristotle's writings, so it will behoove us to look at it closely. As mentioned last time, it's a rather knotty line of reasoning, but I'll try to describe it as briefly and simply as I can.

Aristotle picks up where he left off before I.6, reminding us that every type of craft and activity seeks its own characteristic τέλος (often translated as end or purpose). For our purposes here I'll translate τέλος as "completion", since that aligns so well with the working title of my forthcoming book on Aristotle: Complete Yourself. As one example, the doctor's activity and the craft of medicine achieve what they are seeking and reach their completion in the health of the patient. By contrast, the τέλος of generalship is victory, the τέλος of housebuilding is the completed house, etc.

Yet, paradoxically, not all the completions are complete. The purpose of the house is not just to sit there unoccupied, but to be a home, to be the primary place where a family pursues its life activities together; those are the activities that truly complete the house. Similarly, health is not an end in itself but a necessary precondition for the activities of one's life, and victory is not an end in itself but a necessary precondition for the freedom of a community or a nation to pursue peaceful activities.

Aristotle argues that the highest good achievable through human action must be something whole and complete. The criteria he specifies include: other goods (like health and wealth) are pursued for its sake, it is always chosen for its own sake (never for the sake of something else), all by itself it makes life valuable and worthwhile, it lacks nothing significant or meaningful, and it is the ultimate completion for all of our activities.

That's a tall order, but Aristotle proposes a natural candidate for this complete good: εὐδαιμονία. Traditionally rendered as "happiness" and often in more recent scholarship as "flourishing", I translate it as "fulfillment". However, he notes, we need say more about what exactly this fulfillment is - and we'll be able to get closer to a correct account if we can grasp the nature of a human being's ἔργον (task, work, job, characteristic activity). It might sound strange to say that a human being has a task to complete or a job to do, but Aristotle argues that if that weren't true then by their fundamental nature people would be ἀργόν: idle, inert, inactive, indolent, lazy, languishing, etc. Moreover, it doesn't make sense that every part of a person - eyes, heart, hands, feet, and so on - has a characteristic activity, whereas the overall person does not.

So what could this task be? Well, he says, it must be something distinctively human, not something we share with plants (a life of growth, nutrition, and reproduction) or animals (a life of perception and locomotion). Thus it must be some sort of active life of the part in us that has λόγος, i.e., our thinking, speaking, reasoning capacities for understanding things. Yet understanding (ἐπιστήμη) is meant in two ways: it's one thing to merely have understanding (e.g., a mathematician eating lunch with a friend), but it's another thing to actively use that understanding (e.g., a mathematician actively solving problems). It's this active being-at-work or working-at-a-task (ἐνέργεια) that matters most.

Here Aristotle warms my musician's heart by introducing the example of playing the kithara, the distant ancestor of the modern guitar. Just as it's the serious (σπουδαῖος) guitarist who plays the guitar well and beautifully, so it's the person who takes life seriously who lives well and beautifully, whose actions are accompanied by a correct account of what it is to be a human being, whose soul is in good shape, whose being-at-work is in accordance with human excellence. And not just for a day or a year, but for a lifetime. Thus the complete good is not some abstract rule like Plato's Form of the Good, but the best human life we can achieve.

This, at least, is Aristotle's rough outline of the complete good. It's precise enough for our purposes, he says, because our philosophical conversation in the Nicomachean Ethics only needs to be useful for the practical work of becoming better human beings; we need to know only what the best life consists in, not why it is that way in every theoretical detail. Thus we're less like geometers (who need a precise mathematical definition of right angles) and more like house-builders (who need to make sure that the walls are perpendicular to the foundation). Indeed, you could say that we're life-builders, whose task is to realize the highest good achievable through human action.

Onward and upward!

(Cross-posted at


Tao Te Ching §44: Ageless Life


I continue to ponder various poems from the Tao Te Ching with an eye toward perhaps setting them to music. Here is my provisional rendering of chapter 44:

Fame or self, which is dearer?
Self or wealth, which is greater?
Gain or loss, which cuts deeper?

Craving makes great luxury
Luxury makes deeper loss

Be content, avoid disgrace
Know when to stop, risk no loss
This way leads to ageless life

As usual with the Tao Te Ching, there are paradoxes here. How can gain cut deeper than loss? Is it really possible to live an ageless life?

Although many Taoists after Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu turned away from philosophy and toward the pursuit of life extension or even immortality, I don't read that here; instead, an "ageless life" is at one with the ageless Way of the Tao. Such a life can be achieved through moderating your desires, steering clear of fame and wealth, being satisfied with what you have, and pulling back from greed.

(Cross-posted at


Modernizing Aristotle's Ethics: A Review


This is just a brief note that folks interested in Aristotle, Ayn Rand, the psychology of happiness, or any combination thereof might enjoy my review of Roger E. Bissell and Vinay Kolhatkar's new book Modernizing Aristotle's Ethics: Toward a New Art and Science of Self-Actualization, just published in Issue 44, No. 1 of the interdisciplinary journal Reason Papers. Check it out!

(Cross-posted at


Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics I.6


After the preliminaries in Nicomachean Ethics I.1-5, Aristotle considers a rather abstract question: is there some universal good or "Form of the Good" that is common to all good things? Aristotle's friends in Plato's Academy thought so, but in pursuit of truth Aristotle finds that he must disagree, for several reasons.

First, because "good is meant in as many ways as being is", we can't provide a unified account of the good that explains the goodness of entities that are inherently valuable (e.g., god), good qualities (e.g., the excellences of character), good amounts (e.g., the right level of wealth), good relations (e.g., the usefulness of a tool in relation to a given task), good occasions (e.g., the opportune moment to praise someone), good places (e.g., a dwelling), etc.

Second, if there were one Form of the Good then one kind of knowledge or understanding would encompass them all. However, in fact, the opportune moment (say) in war is studied by the craft of generalship, whereas in health it is studied by the craft of medicine.

Third, it's unclear how knowledge of the universal good (even if we could even acquire it) would actually help weavers or carpenters or doctors to better practice their craft; the gulf between the universal and the particular is too wide: a doctor treats human beings or a particular person, not "the good" in general.

In short, the universal good is not the kind of thing that a human being could know or do or have; what we are seeking is the highest good achievable through human action, not an abstraction beyond our ken. Although Aristotle has his unworldly moments, as we'll see, in general his inquiries stay grounded in human life and human experience. Good thing, too, because we're about to move on (in I.7) to a rather knotty line of reasoning about the characteristic activity or "task" of human beings...

(Cross-posted at


Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics I.1-5


Here in the late stages of preparation for writing my book Complete Yourself: Aristotle on Human Fulfillment, I've started a close re-reading of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (to be followed by a similar reading of his Eudemian Ethics). Because it might prove useful both to myself and to others, I'll post notes on my readings as I go along, in a new series entitled "Walking with Aristotle".

In the first five chapters of Book I, Aristotle lays out some preliminary considerations for our journey with him.

First, what is the goal of our inquiry? It is to elucidate the highest good achievable through action, not merely in theory but also in practice so that we can become better human beings. And "everyone agrees" that this highest good is living well and acting well, which is the same thing as eudaimonia (commonly translated as "happiness", although I prefer "fulfillment").

Second, what level of precision should we expect from our inquiry? There is much disagreement and inconsistency about these matters (e.g., on its own wealth is a good thing, but depending on who has the money the result of great wealth could be a great evil). Thus the best we can do is to provide a rough outline of the highest good.

Third, in what direction will our journey proceed? We are travelling inductively from what's near and familiar to us toward the ultimate sources and principles of things, rather than deductively from the ultimate sources and principles toward what's near and familiar to us. Thus we'll judge theories based on the degree to which they accord with human actions and the human way of life, not judge human actions and the human way of life based on the degree to which they accord with some pre-existing theory.

Fourth, what kind of person is our ideal conversation partner? Someone who has a certain level of maturity (e.g., whose actions and commitments are guided by their best experiential understanding of human capacities and the highest good) and who cares to keep improving as a human being. Pointedly not someone who acts badly (e.g., who is pushed along by their every random feeling and impulse) and who needs to be convinced to become good, because the claims of wisdom have no hold on such a person.

Here Aristotle also introduces, almost by the way, a number of concepts that will loom large in our conversation with him (see my Aristotelian glossary for more about these terms):

He also briefly mentions four ways of life that the ancient Greeks traditionally considered and contrasted with each other: the lives of money-making, of pleasure and enjoyment, of honor and status through civic leadership, and of inquiry and contemplation.

We'll see how many of these ideas come together as we take this long walk with Aristotle.

(Cross-posted at


Nietzsche's Teachings


The other day a friend of mine asked me for my overall assessment of Friedrich Nietzsche. At first I jokingly replied that each of the seventy-two poems in my book Songs of Zarathustra might present a unique perspective, whereas all together they might not yield a unitary view. Then I decided to re-read the book, which led me to identify six main themes in what I take to be Nietzsche's positive philosophy of life:

  1. Be radically honest with yourself, with the goal of enlightenment.
  2. Find your own truth, with the goal of liberation.
  3. Craft your own life, with the goal of independence.
  4. Cultivate what is near and dear, with the goal of simplicity.
  5. Be moderate and self-controlled, with the goal of tranquility.
  6. Pursue work over happiness, with the goal of greatness.

There's a reason, perhaps, why the two words most often rhymed in these poems are "soul" and "goal", for it strikes me that Nietzsche's overarching message is the deep significance of self-mastery.

(Cross-posted at


About | Archive | Best | Blogroll | Feed

Peter Saint-Andre > Journal