- Numerals styled like this are "Bekker numbers" deriving from the 19th century Bekker edition of Aristotle's surviving works (Corpus Aristotelicum), still standard for references.
- I indicate where my commentary ends by using our writer's avatar where the primary text begins:
Chapter 1: Ends and goods
The aim is the good . . .
1094a EVERY art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. . .
[T]he good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.
Chapter 2: The highest good and political science
. . .the chief good — all other aims fall under it – . . .
Aristotle’s human being is every bit as much Homo politicus as Homo sapiens: hermits aren’t the ones who flourish; we’re a communal species. Hence, it’s Politics (Πολιτικά) whose supreme and noble aim is the good of many.
Chapter 3: The method of political science
. . .which we probably aren’t going to be able to define super-precisely.
These remarks about the student, the sort of treatment to be expected, and the purpose of the inquiry, may be taken as our preface.
Chapter 4: Common beliefs
The good at which all action ultimately aims is happiness — εὐδαιμονία (eu̯dai̯monía) in Greek. It’s probably better translated “human flourishing” than “happiness” (which isn’t always understood in the rich sense Aristotle intends).
Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. . . .
[T]he highest of all goods achievable by action . . . is happiness[:] living well and doing well.
Chapter 5: The three lives
Not all paths lead to happiness.
Sardanapallus was a late seventh century BCE Assyrian king with a reputation for living lavishly.
We had perhaps better consider the universal good and discuss thoroughly what is meant by it, although such an inquiry is made an uphill one by the fact that the Forms have been introduced by friends of our own. Yet it would perhaps be thought to be better, indeed to be our duty, for the sake of maintaining the truth even to destroy what touches us closely, especially as we are philosophers or lovers of wisdom; for, while both are dear, piety requires us to honour truth above our friends.
The men who introduced this doctrine did not posit Ideas of classes within which they recognized priority and posteriority (which is the reason why they did not maintain the existence of an Idea embracing all numbers); but the term ‘good’ is used both in the category of substance and in that of quality and in that of relation, and that which is per se, i.e. substance, is prior in nature to the relative (for the latter is like an off shoot and accident of being); so that there could not be a common Idea set over all these goods. Further, since ‘good’ has as many senses as ‘being’ (for it is predicated both in the category of substance, as of God and of reason, and in quality, i.e. of the virtues, and in quantity, i.e. of that which is moderate, and in relation, i.e. of the useful, and in time, i.e. of the right opportunity, and in place, i.e. of the right locality and the like), clearly it cannot be something universally present in all cases and single; for then it could not have been predicated in all the categories but in one only. Further, since of the things answering to one Idea there is one science, there would have been one science of all the goods; but as it is there are many sciences even of the things that fall under one category, e.g. of opportunity, for opportunity in war is studied by strategics and in disease by medicine, and the moderate in food is studied by medicine and in exercise by the science of gymnastics. And one might ask the question, what in the world they mean by ‘a thing itself’, is (as is the case) in ‘man himself’ and in a particular man the account of man is one and the same. For in so far as they are man, they will in no respect differ; and if this is so, neither will ‘good itself’ and particular goods, in so far as they are good. But again it will not be good any the more for being eternal, since that which lasts long is no whiter than that which perishes in a day. The Pythagoreans seem to give a more plausible account of the good, when they place the one in the column of goods; and it is they that Speusippus seems to have followed.
But let us discuss these matters elsewhere; an objection to what we have said, however, may be discerned in the fact that the Platonists have not been speaking about all goods, and that the goods that are pursued and loved for themselves are called good by reference to a single Form, while those which tend to produce or to preserve these somehow or to prevent their contraries are called so by reference to these, and in a secondary sense. Clearly, then, goods must be spoken of in two ways, and some must be good in themselves, the others by reason of these. Let us separate, then, things good in themselves from things useful, and consider whether the former are called good by reference to a single Idea. What sort of goods would one call good in themselves? Is it those that are pursued even when isolated from others, such as intelligence, sight, and certain pleasures and honours? Certainly, if we pursue these also for the sake of something else, yet one would place them among things good in themselves. Or is nothing other than the Idea of good good in itself? In that case the Form will be empty. But if the things we have d are also things good in themselves, the account of the good will have to appear as something identical in them all, as that of whiteness is identical in snow and in white lead. But of honour, wisdom, and pleasure, just in respect of their goodness, the accounts are distinct and diverse. The good, therefore, is not some common element answering to one Idea.
But what then do we mean by the good? It is surely not like the things that only chance to have the same . Are goods one, then, by being derived from one good or by all contributing to one good, or are they rather one by analogy? Certainly as sight is in the body, so is reason in the soul, and so on in other cases. But perhaps these subjects had better be dismissed for the present; for perfect precision about them would be more appropriate to another branch of philosophy. And similarly with regard to the Idea; even if there is some one good which is universally predicable of goods or is capable of separate and independent existence, clearly it could not be achieved or attained by man; but we are now seeking something attainable. Perhaps, however, some one might think it worth while to recognize this with a view to the goods that are attainable and achievable; for having this as a sort of pattern we shall know better the goods that are good for us, and if we know them shall attain them. This argument has some plausibility, but seems to clash with the procedure of the sciences; for all of these, though they aim at some good and seek to supply the deficiency of it, leave on one side the knowledge of the good. Yet that all the exponents of the arts should be ignorant of, and should not even seek, so great an aid is not probable. It is hard, too, to see how a weaver or a carpenter will be benefited in regard to his own craft by knowing this ‘good itself’, or how the man who has viewed the Idea itself will be a better doctor or general thereby. For a doctor seems not even to study health in this way, but the health of man, or perhaps rather the health of a particular man; it is individuals that he is healing. But enough of these topics.
Chapter 7: An account of the human good
Let us again return to the good we are seeking, and ask what it can be. It seems different in different actions and arts; it is different in medicine, in strategy, and in the other arts likewise. What then is the good of each? Surely that for whose sake everything else is done. In medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house, in any other sphere something else, and in every action and pursuit the end; for it is for the sake of this that all men do whatever else they do. Therefore, if there is an end for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and if there are more than one, these will be the goods achievable by action.
So the argument has by a different course reached the same point; but we must try to state this even more clearly. Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these (e.g. wealth, flutes, and in general instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.
Happiness is wanted for its own sake, and not for any ulterior reason.
Isn’t self-sufficiency in some tension with Aristotle’s idea that “man is born for citizenship,” not for a solitary life? Perhaps this is part of why he gives Politics (Πολιτικά) such weight and holds it in such high esteem: it is in the political community (koinōnia politikē) that the elements of a good life are found, and it is that community, the Polis (πόλις), which is most self-sufficient.
Aristotle considered life in political community to follow from our distinctively human nature — in something like the way that beavers build dams out of their distinctively beaver nature. Do most creatures structure their worlds as part of their way of life? In any case, politics, for Aristotle, is part of our species-identity — a defining human characteristic.
Look for happiness by looking to the concept of proper function (Greek: ergon).
Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is [is] still desired. This might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function. Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he born without a function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these? What then can this be? Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be common even to the horse, the ox, and every animal. There remains, then, an active life of the element that has a rational principle; of this, one part has such a principle in the sense of being obedient to one, the other in the sense of possessing one and exercising thought. And, as ‘life of the rational element’ also has two meanings, we must state that life in the sense of activity is what we mean; for this seems to be the more proper sense of the term. Now if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle, . . . if this is the case, and we state the function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.
[T]he function of man [is] a certain kind of life . . . . [H]uman good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.
But we must add ‘in a complete life.’ For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy . . .
Chapter 8: Defense of the account of the good
As much as Aristotle enumerates others’ views of happiness with an eye to keeping what’s best in those accounts and jettisoning the rest, he also thinks that agreement with “what is commonly said” contributes a degree of confirmation of his own conclusions.
Is the chief good possession of virtue or virtuous activity?
‘Virtue’ in Greek: aretē.
With those who identify happiness with virtue or some one virtue our account is in harmony; for to virtue belongs virtuous activity. But it makes, perhaps, no small difference whether we place the chief good in possession or in use, in state of mind or in activity. For the state of mind may exist without producing any good result, as in a man who is asleep or in some other way quite inactive, but the activity cannot; for one who has the activity will of necessity be acting, and acting well. And as in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete (for it is some of these that are victorious), so those who act win, and rightly win, the noble and good things in life.
[I]n the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete.
Virtue feels good. And, because happiness is virtuous activity…
Most noble is that which is justest, and best is health;
But pleasantest is it to win what we love.
For all these properties belong to the best activities; and these, or one — the best — of these, we identify with happiness.
Happiness also depends on “external goods” too, not virtue alone. So there is an aspect of fortune in it, as well.
Chapter 9: How is happiness achieved?
How is happiness acquired?
Does this sound like Socrates in Alcibiades?
Does it sounds like Aristotle thinks we’re born good or bad? Or neither?
It makes sense that if “the best” comes as a result of learned abilities, then cultivating those abilities should require significant effort and care.
Does Aristotle think a government should be concerned with shaping citizens? Or should it remain neutral about how best to live?
(Again, Politics aims at happiness.)
Aristotle distinguishes his conception of ‘happiness’ (eu̯dai̯monía) from what we might call “a pleasant life.” While children and nonhuman animals may enjoy the latter, they don’t have “what it takes” to participate in the flourishing that characterizes Aristotle’s happiness. Do you recognize such a distinction?
Don’t declare it till death?
Chapter 10: ‘Happiness’ applies primarily to a whole life – not moments
Aristotle considers others’ views as to whether we can declare one happy prior to death…
Does death seal it?
Happiness shouldn’t be thought to be too precarious . . .
- when he is happy the attribute that belongs to him is not to be truly predicated of him because we do not wish to call living men happy, on account of the changes that may befall them,
- and because we have assumed happiness to be something permanent and by no means easily changed,
Happiness does not depend mainly on fortune; but nor is it completely secure and under one’s control.
Happiness is stable.
Now many events happen by chance, and events differing in importance; small pieces of good fortune or of its opposite clearly do not weigh down the scales of life one way or the other, but a multitude of great events if they turn out well will make life happier (for not only are they themselves such as to add beauty to life, but the way a man deals with them may be noble and good), while if they turn out ill they crush and maim happiness; for they both bring pain with them and hinder many activities. Yet even in these nobility shines through, when a man bears with resignation many great misfortunes, not through insensibility to pain but through nobility and greatness of soul.
If activities are, as we said, what gives life its character, no happy man can become miserable; for he will never do the acts that are hateful and mean. For the man who is truly good and wise, we think, bears all the chances of life becomingly and always makes the best of circumstances, as a good general makes the best military use of the army at his command and a good shoemaker makes the best shoes out of the hides that are given him; and so with all other craftsmen. And if this is the case, the happy man can never become miserable; though he will not reach blessedness, if he meet with fortunes like those of Priam.
Nor, again, is he many-coloured and changeable; for neither will he be moved from his happy state easily or by any ordinary misadventures, but only by many great ones, nor, if he has had many great misadventures, will he recover his happiness in a short time, but if at all, only in a long and complete one in which he has attained many splendid successes.
The account of happiness.
That the fortunes of descendants and of all a man’s friends should not affect his happiness at all seems a very unfriendly doctrine, and one opposed to the opinions men hold; but since the events that happen are numerous and admit of all sorts of difference, and some come more near to us and others less so, it seems a long — nay, an infinite — task to discuss each in detail; a general outline will perhaps suffice. If, then, as some of a man’s own misadventures have a certain weight and influence on life while others are, as it were, lighter, so too there are differences among the misadventures of our friends taken as a whole, and it makes a difference whether the various suffering befall the living or the dead (much more even than whether lawless and terrible deeds are presupposed in a tragedy or done on the stage), this difference also must be taken into account; or rather, perhaps, the fact that doubt is felt whether the dead share in any good or evil. For it seems, from these considerations, that even if anything whether good or evil penetrates to them, it must be something weak and negligible, either in itself or for them, or if not, at least it must be such in degree and kind as not to make happy those who are not happy nor to take away their blessedness from those who are. The good or bad fortunes of friends, then, seem to have some effects on the dead, but effects of such a kind and degree as neither to make the happy unhappy nor to produce any other change of the kind.