Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics I.8

by Peter Saint-Andre


Amidst all the excitement (for philosophy scholars!) about the "function argument" in Nicomachean Ethics I.7, Chapter 8 is often overlooked. Yet there are valuable insights here, too.

To start with, Aristotle re-uses a traditional division of the good things of human life into those which are external (e.g., wealth, fame, prestige), those which pertain to the body (e.g., health, strength, good looks), and those which pertain to the soul (e.g., character, knowledge, wisdom). The latter are the most "governing" or "authoritative" (κυριώτατα) goods and the ones that are "especially" or "most of all" (μάλιστα) good things. The active working-at-a-task (ἐνέργεια) that he lauded in Chapter 7 counts as a good of the soul (ψυχή), so this is another a sign that it is the complete good.

He also observes that his account is in harmony with those who say that the complete good accords with excellence of character, for what matters is not merely having such a trait but actively putting it into practice, which again is one kind of working-at-a-task. It's the people who take action in the correct (ὀρθῶς) ways who succeed at the task of living.

He goes on to argue that people who live well in this fundamental sense also enjoy life. The reason is that those who take life seriously - who love and practice what is beautifully right - also inherently value and pursue the best activities (άρἰσται ἐνέργειαι), and these are what is enjoyable "by nature".

Yet Aristotle emphasizes that it's not enough to be a good person: you also need those external goods to some extent in order to truly flourish and lead a blessed life (e.g., you can't be generous if you don't have anything to give). Aristotle definitely recognizes that people who live in poverty, who have no friends or family, who are powerless in the face of a tyrannical government, who are extremely ugly, whose children are incorrigibly bad (etc.) can have a hard time of it in life. But these external goods can depend on the whims of fortune, which raises the question of how much control you really has over your level of fulfillment in life. He will explore that topic in Chapters 9-12, the next destination in our long walk with Aristotle.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)


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