back to PHL200Y home page

back to course outline


Topic #E45

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics i.1-7


18 January 2002
Scribe: Paula Viola


These minutes were spoken on 21 January; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



                  Friday’s lecture began with the distinction between two different approaches to philosophy. Doxographers, among the most famous of whom was Aristotle, survey previous authoritative texts to sift for truth.  In contrast, anti-doxographers, or radicals, including the distinguished philosopher Descartes, wipe their minds clean of past opinions, thus starting fresh.  As perhaps the most famous doxographer, Aristotle compiled an extensive amount of research, most of which remains the most comprehensive account of earlier ancient philosophical thought available to modern day scholars.


                  Throughout Ethics, Aristotle comments, quite controversially on the concept of chance, or good fortune, as an essential element of a truly successful life.  By analyzing the life of the prominent political figure, Pierre Trudeau, the distinction between Aristotle’s conception of success and good fortune become apparent.


                  Initially, however, it is important to note that Aristotle’s Ethics seem to have both a presupposed audience and a somewhat revised set of ideas.  Both the introduction and the conclusion of Ethics lead scholars to believe that the work was intended to consist of two volumes, the second volume of which was something like the Politics that we know.  Finally, the introduction seems to have been modified to highlight the notion of politics and its significance in society.


                  It is apparent that Aristotle considered political ability superior to all other skills; in fact, he considered politics the highest, master art. He believed that such subjects as microeconomics and rhetoric, in the context of politics, ought to be taught in schools. According to Aristotle, the achievement and maintenance of social order was only possible through politics. Furthermore, he believed that social order created an environment conducive to individual success.  Since human beings are truly social creatures, success is impossible if they are detached from society.  However, the desire to be successful is insufficient; humans should strive for a larger conception of success. 


In Ethics, Aristotle discusses the notion of success in an abstract way. He begins by addressing the popular question: “How can I live a successful life?” Similarly, Professor Hutchinson discusses Aristotle’s notion of living successfully in his chapter entitled “Ethics”, published in the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle (see p.199ff.), which can be paraphrased as follows.


Aristotle acknowledges that it is important to live one’s life with goals and objectives of success in mind.  However, one should not define success by the acquisition of wealth or power, nor should one confuse being successful with being a virtuous person.  Success is rooted in the active use of one’s virtues.  Therefore, living a successful life means that the individual participates in successful activities consistently throughout his or her life.[1]


But how can we be certain that life is worth living at all?  As Professor Hutchinson states: “nobody in his right mind would choose to live in order to sleep (like plants), or to eat and have sex (like animals), or to have immature fun (like children), or to go about the drudgery of one’s daily existence (like most adults)”.[2]  Evidently, there seem to be only three reasons to support the assertion that life is worth living.  First is the enjoyment of superior pleasures; second is earning a good name for oneself, both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others in the community; and third is the appreciation and understanding of our universe.  In order to live successfully, one must chose a career that corresponds to one of the above reasons. Therefore, one must engage in a life of public service, a life of pleasant amusement or a life devoted to the study of philosophy.  Aristotle emphasizes the point that no one who earns his or her own living can possibly live a successful life, for they lack personal independence and the freedom to choose how to live.  Seen in this light, only those who do not have to work for a living can enjoy a successful life.[3]


In the following passages, Aristotle elaborates on the concept of success.  He believes that success is the greatest thing human beings can attain, since animals cannot attain it, and the gods enjoy an alternative form of existence, of which success has no part.[4]


Aristotle makes note of the fact that humans should not trouble themselves with unrealistic goals nor with matters over which they have no control. Instead, humans should focus their energy on a particular type of achievement, like running a mile or maintaining the physical fitness of their bodies: specifically, achievements that are reached for the sake of something else.  Aristotle asserts that the skills we make use of are a means for attaining something greater than the original objective. Therefore, if there is one thing that is greater than all others, we should attempt to understand it as much as possible, for it is the greatest thing in life.  This thing, Aristotle calls success, and living well.[5]


However, acting alone is insufficient, for a truly successful life requires an element of good fortune.  It impossible, asserts Aristotle, to be happy if you are ugly or born into a lower stratum of society, just as it is impossible to serve the public well without the aid of friends, wealth and political influence.[6]


The above statement is highly controversial, and consequently it sparked a response from many of the writers of last week’s position papers.  The topic was good fortune and success; the question posed was whether or not success is contingent on good fortune.  From a Stoic perspective, the two are indeed not connected, for Stoics believe that what is in our control, is similarly in our zone.  For this reason, individuals should make use of opportunities as they present themselves.  This belief is not out of touch with Socratic belief.  Scholars of the first century A.D. some two hundred years later focused on a kind of Platonism/Stoicism, which concentrated on the notions of luck, contingency and happiness.


According to Aristotle, this notion of contingency in no way implies that good fortune and success are synonymous nor does it indicate that success needs a large amount of good fortune. Aristotle warns that too much good fortune can spoil some people.  He asserts that the perfect amount of success makes us “take notice of the irrational part of our soul as little as possible”, and allows us to lead a life that is guided by reason.[7]  Therefore, a truly successful person, worthy of the highest moral praise, is one who is confident in his possession of all the moral virtues, and confident of deserving what he deserves.”[8]


Perhaps the best example of a successful individual is Pierre Trudeau, who will also aid in the distinction between success and happiness.  As one of the most remembered and cherished Canadian prime ministers, Pierre Trudeau certainly distinguished himself as a successful politician.  However, despite his political success, he endured two incredibly painful experiences: the loss of a child, and a failed marriage.  This example highlights the point that whether or not our lives are successful is in our control; however, whether our successful lives are happy is beyond human control.


Success in this context has been translated from eudaimonia, which is often translated as “happiness”.  The word happy comes from the Greek makarios, usually translated to mean, “blessed”, or “enjoying something like the felicity of the gods”.  Certainly Pierre Trudeau exemplifies the fact that both financial and political success do not guarantee human bliss or even happiness.

[1] The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, p. 199ff.  (NE 1098b29-99a7, 1099a22-31)

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle. (NE 1095b14-96a10)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. (NE 1094a1-24, 1095a14-20, 1099b32-1100a1)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. (NE 1099a31-b9, 1124a1-4)