Aristotle by Francesco Hayez, a 19th century Italian Romantic painter

Aristotle by Francesco Hayez, a 19th century Italian Romantic painter

We have now come to the Nicomachean Ethics.  In Book 1, Aristotle seems to repeat a theme that began his Politics.

The aim of every action is toward some good.  We learn that our actions, all of them, aim not at meaninglessness, but at some purpose.  On the most serious level, we find that we choose the end for itself, and not for the sake of something else.

Politics, then, or political science, is the greatest of all the arts for it is concerned with the most important things–the greatest good (1094b10).  The architectonic science is political science.

What is the good?  Aristotle writes in chapter 4 that it is happiness.  The problem is that there are many views about it.  What is happiness?

Opinions on Happiness

There are three views here.  The most vulgar view says that it is connected to pleasure.  This leaves two others that are more serious–these two occupy much of Book 7 of the Politics.  They are the political life, or the life dedicated to contemplation.

Happiness Defined

After an interlude where there is some mild criticism of Plato, Aristotle proceeds to define happiness and explicate more on the good.  We see here that the good is not attainable except by action.  We also read that the highest good is the final good, or that attaining it is final.  This “final” means that it is “complete” or an end entirely self-sufficient and chosen for its own sake.  We do not choose the highest good in order to receive something else.  Happiness would come (and it cannot be done alone it seems) when this good is attained.  Happiness is thus the most desirable thing we humans ought to strive for–it is the end of our actions.

So what is this end?  At 1098a15 he tells us that the “human good comes to be disclosed as a being-at-work of the soul in accordance with virtue.”  This means the soul must be put to work to be virtuous and attain virtue.  There are several repeat topics from the Politics in the chapters that follow.  For example, how is this happiness attained?  By learning?  By nature?  By the gods? Can a human be happy in his or her lifetime?

The Problem of the Soul

There are several “impasses” raised by Aristotle which he attempts to navigate.  But suffice to say, he makes it clear, that the soul is the most important thing for humans, not the body.  We may become happy through the soul, or by the work of the soul.  The problem with the soul is that it has elements that war within it.  In the end, the life according to reason is the most choice-worthy, and reason is the most important part of the soul that leads us to happiness.  The other parts of the soul must be forced to obey the dictates of reason.