Aristotle’s Ethics

The question, what is the ultimate end of mankind? Is one that many have contemplated on a universal scale. Three hundred and fifty years before Christ this question was already being discussed, by a philosopher name Aristotle. In some of his writings on ethics, which later came to be titled Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle searched for ultimate end of humanity. His search led him to conclude that “happiness” or “eudaimonia”, in ancient Greek, was the end which all human endeavors strived for. Of course simply stating the ultimate end of mankind was happiness would be a gross oversimplification of Aristotle’s work. This essay seeks to examine what Aristotle meant by “happiness” and defend his position as the correct one.

The ancient Greek word “eudaimonia” should really be understood as “flourishing” rather than “happiness”.

From the first page of Nicomachean Ethics this concept of human flourishing captivates Aristotle, and indeed he spends the rest of his book articulating what it is and how exactly it functions in the human experience. From the very onset Aristotle proposes that there is an end beyond all others, that is to say an ultimate end. Aristotle explains that every action has an end, and because each action has an end, there are as many ends as there are actions.

It seems generally accepted to Aristotle that the end of each action could be, at least loosely, labeled a “good”.

But Aristotle submits that there is a good beyond each of these individual goods, a chief end or  greatest good that all mankind seeks. Aristotle thinks the answer is widely agreed upon, namely that the chief good is “eudaimonia” or human flourishing.

However although many people might agree that the chief end is happiness or flourishing, there is much debate about what constitutes human happiness or human flourishing. Aristotle seeks to provide a definition of happiness in Book X of his work Nicomachean Ethics.

The discussion in Book X begins with the observation that pleasure must have something to do with happiness. Aristotle reaches this conclusion by pointing out that “when we educate children, we steer them by pleasure and pain.”

Eudoxus (a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher c.390-c.340CE) is cited as claiming that pleasure is the ultimate good, primarily because all creatures seek pleasure. Both rational and irrational creatures seek pleasure in all that they do, making it the most “choice worthy”.

Aristotle objects to this, claiming that pleasure is certain a good, but is not the ultimate good. This is because if pleasure is added to another good, it is even more choice worthy than pleasure alone.

From is it is the Aristotle draws the conclusion that pleasure is but a good among other goods, not the ultimate good. Not only this but it appears that pleasures are different depending on the kind of thing something is, namely pleasures vary between species.

The ultimate good, or aim for the human species in happiness. This happiness is “not a state. For if it were, someone might have it and yet be asleep for his whole life.” Happiness is an activity, not the kind of activity that leads to some other end, but an activity for its own sake.

So what kind of activity, or what activity, is happiness? Aristotle thinks that the happy life is one that lives in agreement wisdom.

“If happiness is activity in accord with virtue, it is reasonable for it to accord with the supreme virtue, which will be the virtue of the best thing. The best is understanding, or whatever else seems to be the natural ruler and leader, and to understand what is fine and divine…Hence complete happiness will be its activity in accord with its proper virtue; and we have said that this activity is the activity of study…For this activity is supreme, since understanding is the supreme element in us, and the objects of understanding are the supreme objects of knowledge.”

It is the action of study therefore that Aristotle claims is happiness. He offers in support of this claim the following assertions. That study is a more continuous activity than any other action, and the pleasure that comes from study is the most “pleasant of activities in accord with virtue.”

The activity of study is also more self sufficient of any other activity, study is desired for its own sake, and most often discovered in leisure all of which is consistent with the human experience of happiness.

Happiness than for Aristotle is the activity in accordance with the highest virtue, that being wisdom, and as such the activity is that of study and contemplation. So the question now arises, is Aristotle right? Is the activity of study and contemplation true happiness and the ultimate end for humanity?


3 Responses to “Aristotle’s Ethics”

  1. I’m not sure where you’re getting your info,
    however great topic. I needs to spend some time studying much more or understanding more.
    Thanks for excellent information I used to be on the lookout for this info for my mission.

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