Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics I.7

by Peter Saint-Andre


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 philosopher.coach.)


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