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Topic #E46

Aristotle, NE x.6-8

21 January 2002

Scribe: Aaron Walton


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



Let us now, for posterity’s sake, set forth an account of the lecture on Aristotle given by Professor D. S. Hutchinson on January 21, 2002.  In the said lecture, we learned the following:


Book X, Chapters six to eight of Nicomachean Ethics is the work’s climactic portion.  The final paragraph of chapter 8 is a peroration; a conclusive, knock-down argument with appeal to the highest value – in this instance to approval from the Gods, for Aristotle insists that if we accept what he has said earlier and embrace activities that lead to the most successful life, we will be “dearest to the Gods” (1179a17-32).  This is Aristotle in his most polished form.  It is the professor’s opinion that this part of the work has gone through more drafts than other parts; and is testimony to Aristotle’s having ruminated about its subject matter at greater length than he perhaps did about other topics on which he wrote. 


The climax is sequential: chapter six is a discussion of pleasure, chapter seven is on the disadvantages of the political life compared to the philosophical life, and chapter eight is on the advantages of the philosophical life over the political life.  Yet while Aristotle here privileges the life of the philosopher over the life of the statesman, it is not the case that he thinks the political life is worthless.  Rather, he urges that the life of philosophy has slightly greater merit; both politics and philosophy are legitimate endeavors.  By contrast, the life devoted to pleasure is not legitimate. 


As to why Aristotle rules out pleasure as a worthwhile end, it is largely because the people who we think of as good don’t make a point of running after it.  In 1176b24-1177a1 we read that a successful life “does not consist in amusement” and that “to exert oneself and work for the sake of amusement seems utterly childish”.  Further, “to amuse oneself in order that one may exert oneself…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.” 


With this sentiment the professor begs to differ; he offers his own account of the purpose of relaxation.  We need periods to goof off for the sake of goofing off, he says.  The notion that the weekends are for the sake of the workweek is particularly difficult to swallow.


To this a student objected strongly; for she asked: why shouldn’t the weekend be for the sake of the workweek?  Another student believed that, unlike Aristotle, some people do pursue amusement for its own sake; for such people the weekend can be an end in itself. 


Nonetheless, it is Aristotle’s contention that there are some self-justifying activities, such as knowledge, while other activities, such as amusement, are not self-justifying.  This being said, there is no logical reason why the seeker of pleasure needs to accept Aristotle’s argument.  An example of an individual who opposes Aristotle’s stance is Aristippus, a “professional voluptuary”. 


However, Aristotle is thoroughly in favour of pleasure, as long as it is not taken as an end in itself.  Elsewhere in his writings he may seem something of a puritan, and in fact there is an undercurrent of general opposition to pleasure throughout his works.  Yet while he is cautious of pleasure – and reasonably so – he is suggesting that it should be a subordinate interest to other higher pursuits, not that it should never be indulged in at all. 


Aristotle believes that the highest life is attained when humans become close to, and as much like the Gods as possible.  In 1177b26-1178a7 he says that the human being has “something divine present in him”.  This divine ‘spark’ is what permits a human to become close to the Gods. 


A student found problematic the following contention of Aristotle’s: that the intellect, which is worth pursuing as one of the highest goods, has in it power and worth.  This seems contradictory she thinks, since elsewhere he says that only those things that are self-sufficient are the highest, yet power and worth are for the sake of something else.


The professor held that Aristotle views power as being for the sake of something else, but worth as being self-sufficient and intrinsic in the life dedicated to the cultivation of our divine inner spark.  So perhaps the intellect is high, but becoming close to the Gods is higher.     


One of Aristotle’s main reasons for asserting that the political life is inferior to the philosophical life, is that in the former, a person needs a lot of clout (money, friends); while in the latter, there is less of a requirement of things other than one’s intellect.   


Another student thought that the notion that the best life consists of an attempt to become intellectually perfect is difficult to accept, since he felt that perfection is unattainable.  Yet it is more that Aristotle thinks that contemplation of the truth is the best life, not that he advocates achievement of perfection; the objective is an open-ended one of trying, as much as possible, to have the awareness that the Gods have.


The same student replied, finding this too open-ended.  Success, he thinks, is about accomplishment, but saying that we should try to get as close as possible to something is too nebulous to be a useful goal.  Saying that a perpetual, unbounded stroking of the intellect is the highest good seems strange.  But there is difficulty in assessing how successful a person’s life is in any case.  In making this type of assessment, it would seem best to wait until a person’s life is over before drawing any final conclusions.  Success is also largely a private thing; we may not know whether a Nobel laureate or a patient in a mental institution who claims to have direct knowledge of the divine is more successful – if they themselves both claim to be so. 


The professor estimates how successful his own life is by asking himself if the activities he has pursued permit him to look back on a certain segment of his life and say, for example, “that was a well spent year” or “that was a well spent decade”.   He also believes that it is more likely that an early death could end a successful life of a person who dies in their thirties or after, whereas if someone dies in their twenties or earlier, it is less likely we can tell whether their life was successful or not.  The professor is also in agreement with Aristotle when the latter says that the kind of activity one pursues can be a measure of success; but while the professor believes intellectual activity is one of the higher pursuits, he does not think that the life of the intellectual is the best life necessarily.


It is worth noting that though Aristotle thinks philosopher rulers are ok, he seems to have given up Plato’s idea of training them to appreciate the purely intellectual forms, then sending them down, so to speak, to govern societies.   


                   Aristotle, it may be said, seems overtly self-congratulatory.  The professor finds in position papers that many students are unreceptive to this.