Aristotle's Ethics: Book 10

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This book is divided into roughly equal parts: the first, a return to the discussion about pleasure, and the second, a summary of Aristotle’s thoughts on happiness and contemplation.

 

He begins by considering the importance of pleasure in any theory of ethics. He argues that pleasure lies at the heart of human nature. For this reason pleasure and pain are used in the education of the young, particularly as part of the process of creating a virtuous character, so that we enjoy what is good and dislike what is bad. But there is considerable disagreement among philosophers, some of whom are convinced it is the ultimate good, while others are convinced of the opposite.

 

As we all seek to avoid pain, pleasure must be a good. What’s more, it is chosen not as a means to some end, but as an end in itself. However, pleasure is not the ultimate good, just a good. Plato showed that a life of pleasure is more desirable with intelligence than without it and if the combination makes it better it cannot be the good. No addition to the good makes it more desirable when it is good in itself. The question is, therefore, what is it that cannot be better by the addition of some other good?

 

Against there are those who argue that there are disreputable pleasures, but we can argue that these are not really pleasures, but only pleasant to people of unhealthy dispositions. One might argue that pleasures are desirable in themselves, but not when they are achieved in a particular way. Pleasures are of different kinds: those that come from noble acts are different from those that come from base ones. It’s impossible to enjoy the pleasure of a just man unless one is just, as it is impossible to enjoy music unless one is musical. Moreover, there are many things we should want, even though they bring no pleasure, like sight, memory and knowledge. Therefore pleasure is not the good and not every pleasure is desirable. Some pleasures are desirable in themselves being superior in kind or in respect of the sources from which they come.

 

Aristotle then sets out his view of the nature of pleasure. He explains that pleasure is not a process, because every process is in time, it has an end and is complete once it has achieved its objective. A movement is not complete at any given time, whereas pleasure is: it is something whole and complete. Unlike movement, which must occupy time, pleasure does not, because that which is instantaneous is a whole. A movement or process applies only to those things that are not wholes and consist of parts. Pleasure is complete at every point while one is pleased.

 

We use our senses relative to an object and their activity is perfect when they are in good condition and trained on the highest object that falls within their range. The activity will be most perfect and most pleasurable, because there is a pleasure experience with the exercise of each of the senses, just as there is with thought and contemplation. The most pleasant activity is the most perfect. Activities are perfect when the organ is healthy and it is directed at the worthiest of its objects.

 

Pleasure perfects the activity not like the state that comes about as a result of the activity, by being immanent within it, but as a supervening perfection. There can be no pleasure without activity and pleasure perfects every activity and, therefore, perfects life to which all are drawn. Pleasure resides in the activity, which is perfected by that pleasure. The appropriate pleasure of an activity intensifies and improves it, because we improve at something if we enjoy it – we show better judgment and greater precision.   

 

The pleasure proper to a good activity is virtue, while the pleasure proper to a bad activity is evil. Every animal has a proper function and a corresponding proper pleasure that perfects it – the pleasure of exercising that function. With humans there is greater diversity: something that delights some will annoy others. But a good man’s pleasure is real and truly human.

 

Aristotle then begins a recapitulation of what has been said about happiness. He argues that it is not a state, otherwise a person in a vegetative state might be described as happy, but an activity chosen for itself alone – it is self-sufficient. Those chosen for their own sake are activities from which nothing is required beyond the exercise of the activity. This is an accurate description of activities that accord with goodness, because doing good acts is something done for its own sake.

 

But happiness must be distinguished from amusement. We choose everything for the sake of something else, except happiness, because it is the end. To argue that the goal of a person’s life and work is amusement would be absurd. Amusement is necessary to give relaxation, so someone can rest and then engage in serious work. The activity of man is always more serious in proportion as it is better. A happy life is a life in accordance with goodness.

 

If happiness is an activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable to assume that it is an activity in accordance with the highest virtue, which will be the virtue of the best part of us. The contemplative activity is the highest form of activity since it corresponds with the intellect, the highest thing in us. It apprehends the highest things that can be known. It’s a continuous activity which is self-sufficient, pursued for its own sake. Whereas with practical activities we expect something from them, with contemplation the only thing to be gained is the act of contemplation itself. Everything we associate with a good man exists in contemplation and the use of his intellect. A life of contemplation would bring perfect happiness for man.

 

But such a life is above man; it is in the divine domain. So it is possible only so far as man has an element of the divine within him. The intellect is that divine element in man. Man should strive, therefore, to live in conformity with the highest that is in him. This is our true self, the better part of ourselves. And what is best and most pleasant for any creature is that which is proper to it. Therefore, for man the best and most pleasant life is the life of the intellect, because this is, in the fullest sense, man. Consequently, those that lead a life of contemplation are the happiest of men.  

 

Life in conformity with moral virtue is happy in a secondary way, because it is concerned with human affairs. In contrast, the virtue of the intellect is separate from human feelings and, therefore, requires fewer external resources than moral virtue. Contemplation is the highest, most blessed activity of man, because it is closer to the activity of the gods. The more people contemplate the happier they are. Happiness is a form of contemplation.

 

But still, a person must have enough external things, like food and nourishment. However, this doesn’t mean that we cannot be happy without these things and that to be really happy we must have much more on a grand scale. With modest means a man’s life will be happy, if he acts in accordance with virtue.

 

Aristotle finishes by arguing that laws are necessary to ensure that citizens lead virtuous lives. Theorizing about moral virtues, he argues, is not enough. To make a practical difference we also need to act. While theorizing might influence those idealistic characters who are susceptible to virtue, it will do nothing to impel the masses towards human perfection. Most people are guided by fear rather than shame. They refrain from what is bad not because of disgrace, but because of the threat of punishment.

 

It is also difficult for argument to change behavior that has been embedded in a character as a result of long-standing habits. Someone who lives according to his feelings is not going to listen to arguments, so the minds of pupils must be prepared in their habits to enjoy what is good and hate what is bad. We must have a character to work on that has some affinity for virtue. Therefore, as feelings don’t yield to argument, but only to force, the activities of the young should be regulated by law so they will become accustomed to take pleasure in what is good. Paternal commands lack the force and compulsive power necessary.

 

But if the state neglects this duty to form virtuous citizens, it’s right for the individual to help his children and his friends become virtuous. And he would be better able to do this if he became a legislator, although this calls for some knowledge in legislative science. The question, then, is where do we get this education? Presumably, as in the case of other sciences, we get it from teachers of political science. But although the Sophists profess to teach it, none of them practise it. That is done by politicians who do it from a mixture of ability and experience, rather than by an exercise of reason.

 

So, it seems those who aspire to scientific knowledge of politics need practical experience as well. On the other hand, the Sophists are ignorant of both the nature of the subject and the matters of which it deals. Laws are the products of the art of politics and you can’t teach a man about politics by just teaching him the laws. We don’t teach people medicine by just reading handbooks. These are helpful to the experienced, but useless to the layman. (This discussion is continued in The Politics).

 

Analysis

 

In this book Aristotle returns to the subject of pleasure that he last dealt with in book 7. Then his aim was more to describe pleasurable activities, while in this book he is concerned with the nature of pleasure and how and why it comes from an activity.

 

He makes it clear that he disagrees both with those who believe that pleasure is an evil and those who believe it is the ultimate good. Pleasure lies at the heart of human nature and for this reason we use pleasure and pain to educate the young, so it cannot be regarded simply as an evil. All the empirical evidence shows that it must be a good, after all we all seek to avoid pain and maximise pleasure. But it cannot be the ultimate good, because a life of pleasure is more desirable with intelligence that without it and anything that can be improved in this way cannot be the ultimate good. One of the characteristics of the ultimate good is that it cannot be improved. It is the good in itself, so no addition to it can make it more desirable.

 

Moreover, pleasure on its own is not sufficient for a good life. To pursue pleasure without regard to virtue or reason would be to lead a life of no greater value or significance than that of an animal. So, although pleasure is part of the experience of leading a good life, it is neither the definition nor the ultimate goal. Rather, good acts are accompanied by pleasure; it perfects the activity. He explains that the appropriate pleasure of an activity intensifies and improves it. It does this not like the state that comes about as a result of the activity, by being immanent within it, but as a supervening perfection.

 

Each activity has its appropriate pleasure. The pleasure proper to a good activity is virtue, while the pleasure proper to a bad activity is evil. Man, like every animal, has a proper function and a corresponding proper pleasure that perfects it – the pleasure of exercising that function. But a good man’s pleasure is real and truly human. It is not physical or manifested through the senses, but rather the product of the inner harmony of a virtuous person.

 

At this point he turns his attention to happiness, the other subject of this final book, and, like his examination of pleasure, he picks up issues already examined, in this case in book 1. The happiness of man is defined by his proper function. But, unlike plants and animals, it cannot be just nourishment and reproduction. His one defining characteristic is that he is rational. So his proper function must be found in the practical life of a rational man, that part which is driven by his purposeful rational conduct. Happiness consists in performing this function well: in exercising the rational part of man in accordance with excellence or virtue.

 

It follows, then, that if happiness is an activity in accordance with virtue, it must be an activity in accordance with the highest virtue, which will be the virtue of the best part of us. And this is contemplative activity, the form of activity that corresponds with the intellect, the highest thing in us. It is superior to all other virtues, because it alone possesses all the qualifications for happiness: it is a continuous activity which is self-sufficient, pursued for its own sake and constitutes the most pleasant virtuous activity. Whereas with practical activities we expect something from them, with contemplation the only thing to be gained is the act of contemplation itself. Everything we associate with a good man exists in contemplation and the use of his intellect. A life of contemplation would bring perfect happiness for man.

 

But, of course, we all have to live in the real world and search out the necessities of life. At these times we must forego contemplation. Nevertheless, living according to the moral virtues still yields happiness, albeit a less divine happiness than that of the contemplative man.   

 

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