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Ancient Greek Philosophy Part 7 - Aristotle

PillarofCreationAug 25, 2018, 8:57:43 PM

Aristotle is likely the most far reaching philosopher to have ever lived. This despite the fact that only about 30 of the supposed 200 works he wrote survived to the modern era. Aristotle covered every possible field of philosophy available to him at the time, and is credited as the inventor of the first formal system of logic. It's also worth noting that Aristotle's work had a profound effect on Medieval Christian Philosophy via the works of Thomas Aquinas. Covering the breadth of Aristotle's works in a short article is impossible, so here I'll focus on Nicomachean Ethics and Aristotle's views on the nature of human good.

"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." - Nicomachean Ethics Book 1.1

This is the first sentence of Nicomachean Ethics, and already Aristotle is very much in alignment with my own views on the nature of good. That is, good is subjective and relative to the needs and wants of living entities. Aristotle is not defining good as some objective reality that exists independently of our ability to reach it, the way Plato would. Aristotle understood the true nature of the term. The good is simply what we want. With this definition established, Aristotle attempts to identify the highest good.

"If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this)..., clearly this must be the good and the chief good." - Nicomachean Ethics Book 1.2

To determine the highest human good, we must find the thing which humans desire above all else, which is the ultimate end of all other means. First Aristotle considers political science as a possible answer, as politics often seeks to inform and direct the purposes of the people. But even political science is itself a means to an end.

"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." - Nicomachean Ethics Book 1.4

And so Aristotle arrives at the conclusion that the highest human good is happiness, but that happiness is something people find difficult to define specifically, because point-of-view varies from person to person. Aristotle does his best to define happiness anyway, but he is unable to shake the subjective nature of the term.

"...happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue." - Nicomachean Ethics Book 1.13

Happiness as described by Aristotle is much more than just pleasure or fulfillment. The happiness of which he speaks, as an activity of soul, is something exclusive to humans, or at least sapient life, as only creatures who exhibit rational thought can be said to have souls, at least for the purposes of this discussion. But what of virtue?

"Virtue is a state of character concerned with choice...the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well." - Nicomachean Ethics Book 2.6

Since we are considering good to mean "what we want," the full definition of happiness (the highest human good) being expressed by Aristotle is something like; "The ongoing state of being in which a person has made (and continues to make) choices that have made said person into who they want to be, thereby enabling them to effectively achieve their chosen purpose in life." A byproduct of defining happiness this way is the assertion that no one is truly happy by accident. Only by knowing what we want, and deciding to become who we need to be in order to attain it, can one achieve the highest form of happiness.

Other blogs on the Ancient Greeks:

Part 1 - Thales of Miletus

Part 2 - Heraclitus of Ephesus

Part 3 - Pythagoras of Samos

Part 4 - Parmenides and Zeno of Elea

Part 5 - Socrates

Part 6 - Plato