After listening to Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle1, then listening to The Ethics of Aristotle on of the Great Courses lecture series by Joseph Koterski,2 as well as coming to the conclusion, in my search for purpose in my life that I want to be more loving, I have recognized that I should spend some time digging more deeply into this work of Aristotle, who argues in Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, that happiness is obtained by being virtuous. I want to review that argument here for a more clearer understanding of his reasoning, and as further motivation for pursuing a virtuous life.
What is the Chief Good that All Human Activity Pursues?
We all are pursuing some end which Aristotle calls a ‘good’ either to obtain some other end, or that good can be the ultimate end, ‘which we desire for it’s own sake (everything else being desired for this),’ which Aristotle calls the ‘chief good’.1.2* Aristotle wants to discover that chief good because as he says,
Will not the knowledge of [the chief good], then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right?ARISTOTLE, NICOMACHAEN ETHICS, BOOK 1 CHAPTER 2
All Agree the Chief Good is Happiness, but What Is Happiness?
Aristotle states that he has come to the conclusion that people of all levels of refinement would agree that the chief good is happiness. People do not agree about how to define happiness, e.g., those who are ill thinking happiness is health; those who are poor thinking happiness is wealth; and those who are conscious of their ignorance thinking happiness is knowledge.1.4 However, Aristotle points out that most men would identify happiness with pleasure obtained from pursuit of the chief good.1.5 He also points to three types of lifes, one in which the individual seeks pleasure, one in which the individual seeks honor, usually people of superior refinement leading a political life.1.5, 3 It seems to me that honor is an end pursued to obtain another end, glory or kleos4, and, maybe from the ancient Greek point of view, a sense of eternal existence through in the minds of others. Alternatively, Aristotle suggests that virtue maybe a more thorough description of the chief good for these refined people, particularly those pursuing a political life.1.5, 3
Aristotle uses an alternative logic to come to the same conclusion, that the chief good, that which, without qualification, is always desirable in itself and is not used to achieve any other good, is happiness.1.7 Even pleasure and honor are obtained to be happy.1.7, 3 Furthermore, happiness is self-sufficient, meaning it makes life desirable without further action.1.7
Now such a thing, happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them, but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.aRISTOTLE, nICOMACHAEN eTHICS, Book 1 Chapter 7
How Do We Obtain Happiness?
What is unique about humans is their ability to reason.1.7, 3 The function of a person is to perform an activity that is in accord with reason, i.e., what makes the most sense with regard to our particular skills and experience, and to do it with excellence, which Aristotle says would be ‘well and finely’.1.7 I interpret this to mean that an orientation towards this function which is in accord with our ‘soul’, gives each person a sense of purpose, and by its achievement ‘well and finely’, we obtain a sense of happiness.
Certain external resources, such as wealth, a spouse, children, may make it easier to obtain happiness.1.8, 3 However, a person who pursues virtue can find happiness independent of their external resources.1.9, 2, 3
…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…in a complete life.ARISTOTLE, NICOMACHAEN ETHICS, BOOK 1 CHAPTER 7
A life of virtue then in addition to a complete life focused on an activity in accord with ones sole, i.e., ones true purpose.1.7, 1.9, 1.10, 3, 5
What is Next in My Search for Happiness?
Book 1 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics leads him to examine virtue, as this is important to having a happy life.1.12, 1.13, 3 I will do likewise in future posts – not just the virtues espoused by Aristotle, but also those of other thought leaders. One that comes to mind is Benjamin Franklin, but I am sure there are many others who develop Aristotle’s thinking more formally.
- Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Tantor Audiobooks. Chirp. March 31, 2011. Accessed January 8, 2021. https://www.chirpbooks.com/audiobooks/nicomachean-ethics-by-aristotle.
- Koterski, Joseph. The Ethics of Aristotle. 12 vols. The Great Courses. The Teaching Company, 2001. https://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/ethics-of-aristotle.
- LitCharts. “Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1: Summary and Analysis.” Accessed January 8, 2021. https://www.litcharts.com/lit/nicomachean-ethics/book-1.
- Homer, “Iliad.” In Wikipedia, December 27, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Iliad&oldid=996610687.
- Kelley, Tim. True Purpose: 12 Strategies for Discovering the Difference You Are Meant to Make Perfect. First Edition. Transcendent Solutions Press, 2009.
* Rather than using footnotes, I have used references to the specific place in the Nicomachean Ethics using Book.Chapter such as 1.2 in superscript, which represents Book 1, Chapter 2. If there is no period between numbers, then it is a reference found in the Reference Section here.