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Topic #E46

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics x.6-8


21 January 2002
Scribe: Jeremy McMillan


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



                  Monday’s lecture consisted of a discussion of the end of Book X of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.  The professor noted that the end of Book X is where Aristotle returns to the question he left hanging in Book I: what kind of career path can lead to success?  Instead of answering this question immediately, Aristotle spends most of the work discussing the following: the virtues, the doctrine of the mean, justice, practical wisdom, weakness of the will, and friendship - a discussion which takes up a full 1/5th of his treatise and is more sophisticated than Plato’s treatment of the subject.  Aristotle begins Book X with a discussion of pleasure.  And in chapters 6-8, which was the focus of the lecture, he returns to the question he left unanswered.  Chapter 9 consists of a transition to his work on politics, which can be seen as the second volume of a two volume set, volume one being the Nicomachean Ethics.


                  The professor then noted that chapters 6-8 serve as the climax of the work.  He asked us to note how chapter 8 finishes with a rhetorical flourish.  This, the last paragraph of the chapter, has Aristotle arguing, by appealing to the highest value, that the wise man is the most successful.


Now then, while such things also carry some conviction, the truth in practical matters is discerned from the facts of life, for these are the decisive factor.  We must therefore survey what we have already said, bringing it to the test of the facts of life, and if it harmonizes with the facts we must accept it, but if it clashes with them we must suppose it to be mere theory.  Now he who exercises his intellect and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state and most dear to the gods.  For if the gods have any care for human affairs, as they are thought to have, it would bee reasonable both that they should delight in that which is best and most akin to them (i.e.  intellect) and that they should reward those who love and honour this most, as caring for the things that are dear to them and acting both rightly and nobly.  And that all these attributes belong most of all to the wise man is manifest.  Therefore he is the dearest to the gods.  And he who is dearest to the gods will presumably also be the most successful; so that in this way too the wise man will most of all be successful. (1179a17-32)


Indeed, this is clearly a carefully composed argument, and chapters 6-8 are more rhetorically developed than many other passages in Aristotle, showing that this portion of the text went through more revisions than other parts.  Hutchinson further noted that in content, as well as in style, these chapters are similar to his Invitation to Philosophy.  Moreover, the professor noted, we can be sure that Aristotle is very familiar with this topic by the time he discussed it in the Ethics.


                  While Aristotle does argue against the life of pleasant amusement, it is important to note that he is not also arguing that the political life is the wrong path to take.  Indeed, by removing the life of pleasure, Aristotle is showing the young person that there are two careers that are worth aspiring to: the political and the philosophical.  Nonetheless, while both paths are worthy of being traveled, the philosophical path is higher than the political one.


                  Hutchinson then noted that this notion has lead to widespread confusion amongst scholars.  For in Book I many readers think that they will get a decision about which principle, or value, is highest, the ones that answer to the political or to the philosophical way of life.  The professor argued that Aristotle is not endeavoring to give us a decision theory, but simply trying to give career advice.  And, of course, when giving general career advice, it is perfectly rational to say that both careers are worthy but that one has more advantages than the other.


                  The professor then examined why Aristotle ruled out the life of pleasure, noting that many students are not convinced by Aristotle’s arguments.  The professor noted that Aristotle’s key anti-pleasure argument is to be found in the bottom paragraph on pg.35.(2)


Now, as we’ve often maintained, those things are both valuable and pleasant which are valuable and pleasant to the good man; and to each man the activity in accordance with his own state is most desirable, and, therefore, to the good man that which is in accordance with virtue.  A successful life, therefore, does not consist in amusement; it would, indeed, be strange if the end were amusement, and one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one’s life in order to amuse oneself.  For, in a word, everything that we choose we choose for the sake of something else -- except succeeding in life, which is an end.  Now to exert oneself and work for the sake of amusement seems silly and utterly childish.  But to amuse oneself in order that one may exert oneself, as Anacharis puts it, seems right, for amusement is a sort of relaxation, and we need relaxation because we cannot work continuously.  Relaxation, then, is not an end, for it is taken for the sake of activity.  (1176b24-1177a1)


Essentially, Aristotle is arguing that the people we think of as ‘good’ don’t run after pleasure, but rather ‘amuse themselves so they may exert themselves.’ Hutchinson then transposed this argument into a modern example: our weekends are for the workweek and not vice versa.  The professor noted that many people find this hard to swallow, and believe that the opposite is true.


                  A student then protested against Aristotle, arguing that we can’t work for work’s sake, but rather that we work for the sake of a higher good.  The professor noted that Aristotle said that we work for the sake of some self-justifying activities, though not pleasure.  But Hutchinson noted that he finds no logical reason to show that pleasure hunters, like, for example, Aristippus, need to accept arguments like the ones Aristotle provides.  Thus, Aristotle’s arguments are not fatal to the point of view of someone like Aristippus, who thought intelligently about pleasure.


                  Hutchinson then noted that Aristotle spends two to three pages discussing why the highest life answers to the divine part in us.  This, he noted, strikes many people as a strange argument for Aristotle to employ, for he is usually taken as the ‘worldly philosopher’ whereas Plato is considered the ‘otherworldly philosopher’. But this characterization, as we can see, is not fully true, for here we have Aristotle saying that we ought to develop our inner divinity as much as possible.


But such a life would be too high for a human being, for it is not insofar as he is a human being that he will live in that way, but insofar as something divine is present in him; and by so much as this is superior to +our composite nature is its activity superior to that which is the exercise of the other kind of virtue.  If intellect is divine, then, in comparison with the human being, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life.  But we must not follow those who advise us, being human, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us: for even if it be small in size, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything.  This would seem, too, to be each person, since it is the authoritative and better part.  It would be an absurd result, then, if he were to choose the life of something else, not of himself.  And what we said before will apply now too: that which is proper to each thing is by nature best and most pleasant for each thing, for a human being, therefore, so is the life according to intellect, since this, more than anything else, is the human being. (1177b26- 1178a7)


Indeed, Aristotle is identifying our inner-nature with our divine inner-spark, which is our higher and more exalted nature.


                  A student then asked the following question: in Aristotle, that which is pursued for itself is highest, but this divine spark has power and worth.  To what end are power and worth for?  The professor responded by saying that power is for the sake of something else, but worth is not; worth is a higher status.  And in this idea, Aristotle is claiming essentially what Plato was: this divine inner spark has intrinsically great power, but is hard to reach, and is sometimes blocked in its activity.


                  The professor then noted that the reasons that Aristotle gives for choosing the intellectual life over the life of political action are suspect and seem contradictory  (cf. last complete paragraph of p.37).  Aristotle argues that to throw one’s weight around in the political arena, for instance, one needs such resources as friends and money.  But the man who is contemplating truth needs no such resources.  Indeed, the contemplative life seems ‘to need little by way of external equipment, or less than moral virtue does.’ (1178a22-1178b7)  And, for Aristotle, the contemplative life is better because it requires fewer resources.  But this seems to contradict what he says about self-sufficiency in Book I.  There he argues that self-sufficiency shouldn’t be applied to the individual (as it is here) but rather to the community.


                  A student then asked, noting that Aristotle held the contemplative life to be the most successful, whether it was possible to reach divine intellectual perfection? The professor noted that it was possible to attain the intellectual life, which aims at, and can often attain, truth.  Also, he noted that Aristotle found the contemplative life to be the best way to express the divine in oneself.  We should keep in mind that the Good is not to actually become and have the perfections of a god, which is impossible, but to have a share in the activity of the gods, which is possible.


                  The same student then asked how one can measure being successful.  Hutchinson noted that Aristotle found that there is indeed difficulty in assessing the success of anyone’s life, especially if it’s not yet over.  But even when it is over, it can still be hard to determine whether it was successful.  Hutchinson further noted that although success can be hard to determine, that is no argument against Aristotle’s conception of the successful life.  And while it can be hard to determine success, it is not impossible; there are means to make this determination.


                  The professor then gave his account of what he takes success to be.  He noted that for himself, success is not what the many take it to be (e.g. acquisition of automobiles), but rather being able to, at the end of one’s life, say ‘that was a successful life.’  He then told the class that we ought to act as though we have been given a terminal diagnosis, which, of course, we have been (we are perfectly aware that we are mortal), and ask, ‘what have I been doing with my life?’  If what we have been doing is worthwhile, then our life has been, so far, successful.  The professor then argued that while he agrees success must be an activity, and that the intellectual life is a candidate for the successful life, he is not sure that the life he chose, the contemplative one, is necessarily better than the political life, which he didn’t choose.


                  Hutchinson then noted that, unlike Plato, Aristotle believes in the philosopher un-king.  Aristotle gave up on the idea of sending the philosopher back into the cave to rule.  However, the professor noted that the philosopher and the statesman are both good career choices, and that Aristotle is being self-congratulatory in arguing the merits of the intellectual life over the political one.  Hutchinson noted that many students see -- and often resist -- this.  For most people are not independently wealthy and must choose what Aristotle regards as ‘Plan B’, the political life.