Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics I.9-12

by Peter Saint-Andre


Having mentioned in Nicomachean Ethics I.8 the desirability of external goods such as wealth and reputation, Aristotle naturally moves on to consider the causes of human flourishing. Is fulfillment something that can be learned through training and habituation, or is it a matter of fate or even chance? Well, he says, if flourishing and fulfillment consist in a certain kind of activity (ἐνέργεια), specifically working at the task (ἔργον) of living a complete human life in accordance with inherent thrivings of mind and character, then there must be effort involved. Although this kind of beautifully right (καλός) activity is consistent with human nature, still it needs to be acquired and practiced. This is why we don't say that a child has attained fulfillment: it's necessary to achieve reasonably complete excellence (ἀρετή) of mind and character in a reasonably complete life in order to be truly fulfilled.

But can't the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune throw even a fulfilled person off course? Aristotle introduces the example of Priam, the elderly king of Troy, whose city is destroyed, whose children are killed, and whose people are scattered by the Greek army, as related in Homer's Iliad. Priam seems to have led a blessed life until close to the end, when it all fell apart. This seems to be evidence for the ancient saying "call no man happy until after he has died"; and yet, although Aristotle grants the force of such examples, he also believes that the person who takes life seriously and succeeds at the task of being human will bear misfortune as beautifully and harmoniously as possible, since such a person is not easily dislodged from excellences attained through long years of striving to be good.

Even more importantly, such a person will make serious and beautiful use of whatever gifts of good fortune they are granted, for instance through admirable acts of generosity (more on that virtue when we get to Book IV).

Because excellence of character is acquired, it is also laudable: we praise people for their good deeds and good works, especially if they engage in these activities reliably, since that requires consistent endeavor and thoughtful deliberation throughout life.

By contrast, human fulfillment is not praised but prized: it is even better than virtue, and is thought to be glorious (τιμίων) and divine (θείων). The reason is that a life that fulfills our deepest human capacities and potentials is the complete good and therefore is the source and cause and culmination of all good things; as Aristotle puts it in a striking phrase, it is the completion of everything and complete in every way (1101a18-19).

Here Aristotle ends for the time being his consideration of the nature of eudaimonia. Beginning in I.13 and proceeding all the way through the end of Book V, he will delve deeply into the excellences of character, supplemented by Book VI on the so-called "intellectual virtues" of wisdom and sagacity. So we'll start on the consideration of ἀρετή in the next stretch of our walk with Aristotle.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal