The Life of Contemplation

The Happiest Life for a Human Being

Endymion is a character from myth who is said to have chosen eternal sleep so that his beauty would never fade.

In this context, the general meaning of θεωρία is "a looking at, viewing, or beholding." θεωρία transliterates as theoria and is the root of the word theory. In connection with the good life in Plato and Aristotle, "contemplation" is the traditional translation. This practice derives from the use of the Latin contemplatio to translate θεωρία in Plato and Aristotle.
"We all suppose that the gods are alive and in work, since surely they are not asleep like Endymion. And if someone is alive, and action is excluded, and production even more, nothing is left but contemplation (θεωρία). Hence the activity of the gods superior in blessedness is contemplation. The human activity most akin to this is most conducive to happiness. An indication is that other animals have no happiness, being completely deprived of contemplation. The whole life of the gods is blessed, and human life is blessed to the extent it resembles this sort of activity, but none of the other animals is happy because none shares in contemplation. Happiness extends just so far as contemplation, and those to whom contemplation more fully belongs are more truly happy, not incidentally but according to contemplation, since contemplation is valuable according to itself. It follows that is some form of contemplation" (Nicomachean Ethics X.8.1178b18).

Aristotle Transforms the Picture in the Academy

"The most sovereign part of our soul is god's gift to us, given to be our daemon (δαίμονα). ... It raises us up away from the earth and toward what is akin to us in heaven, as though we are plants grown not from the earth but from heaven. ... And so if, on the one hand, a man has become absorbed in his appetites or his ambitions and takes great pains to further them, all his opinions are bound to become merely mortal. ... On the other hand, if a man has seriously devoted himself to the love of learning and to true wisdom (περὶ φιλομαθίαν καὶ περὶ τὰς ἀληθεῖς φρονήσεις), if has exercised these aspects of himself above all, then there is absolutely no way that his opinions can fail to be immortal and divine, should truth come within his grasp. And to the extent that human nature can partake of immortality, he must fall short thereof in no degree. And inasmuch as he is for ever tending his divine part and duly magnifying that daemon who dwells along with him, he must be eminently happy (εὐδαίμονα). Now there is but one way to care for anything, and that is to provide the nourishment and the motion proper (οἰκείας) to it; and for the divine part within us the congenial motions are the intellections (διανοήσεις) and revolutions of the universe. These each one of us should follow, rectifying the revolutions within our head, which were distorted at our birth, by learning the harmonies and revolutions of the universe, and thereby making the part that thinks like unto the object of its thought, in accordance with its original condition, and having achieved this likeness attain finally to that goal of life which is set before men by the gods as the most good both for the present and for the time to come" (Timaeus 90a). The Timaeus provides the background for Aristotle's view. Timaeus explains that the universe is alive (Timaeus 30b). It is a soul in a body. Further, the bodily motions of the universe are somehow visible manifestation of the intellect in the soul of the universe (Timaeus 34a, 36a). To become happy, a human being must make the reason in his the soul like the reason in the cosmic soul. He must "rectify the revolutions" in his head that were "distorted" at birth. He must make them like "the harmonies and revolutions of the universe." Since these "harmonies and revolutions" are what the cosmic soul thinks, a human being who acquires this theoretical understanding of things transforms himself so that his existence resembles the existence of the cosmic soul enjoys.

Aristotle is Platonist and Platonic critic. He accepts this general conception of human beings and place in the universe, but he rejects the ontology in which Timaeus sets it out.

Aristotle thinks that a human being achieves the good life and happiness by transforming his psychology so that he becomes like the unmovable first mover as much as possible. In part, this happens according to nature. Induction is for the acquisition of reason and the knowledge that belongs to reason, but Aristotle thinks that human beings must perfect this cognition by acquiring expertise in theoretical science, most of all in the theoretical science of theology. The unmovable first mover is somehow fixed in a set of thoughts whose content is somehow the structure of existence, and a human being who transforms his psychology so that he has expertise in theology becomes as much like the unmovable first mover as human nature allows.

The Nature of Reason in the Human Soul

"Knowledge (ἐπιστήμη) is a demonstrative state (ἕξις ἀποδεικτική)" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.3.1139b31).

"Knowledge (ἐπιστήμη) is a taking up (ὑπόληψις) about universals (καθόλου), things that are by necessity" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.6.1140b31).

"Wisdom is intellect (νοῦς) plus knowledge (ἐπιστήμη)" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.7.1141a17).

"Now of the thinking states by which we grasp truth, some are always true, others admit of error. Belief (δόξα) and reasoning (λογισμός) admit error, whereas knowledge (ἐπιστήμη) and intellect (νοῦς) are always true. No kind other than intellect is more precise than knowledge. Whereas starting-points of demonstrations are more cognizant (γνωριμώτεραι) and all knowledge involves an account (λόγου), there will not be knowledge of the starting-points, and since except intellect nothing can be truer than knowledge, it will be intellect that apprehends the starting-points" (Posterior Analytics II.19.100b).

"There are two things that most define the soul: movement in respect of place and thinking (νοεῖν), being sensible (φρονεῖν), and perceiving (αἰσθάνεσθαι). Thinking and being sensible are regarded as a kind of perception (for in both the soul discriminates (κρίνει) and is cognizant (γνωρίζει) of something). Indeed the ancients go so far as to say that being sensible and perceiving are the same. ... But it is apparent that being sensible and perceiving is not the same, for perception is present in all the animals but only some are sensible. Further, perceiving is distinct from thinking. In thinking we find right and wrong. We find right in being sensible, knowledge (ἐπιστήμη), true belief (δόξα ἀληθής), and we find wrong in their opposites. But perception of the special objects of the senses is always true, and is found in all animals, and while it is possible to think falsely, thinking is found only where there is reason (λόγος)" (On the Soul III.3.427a17).
Aristotle is part of the philosophical tradition going back to Parmenides (middle of the 6th century BCE to middle of the 5th century BCE), in which there is a distinction between "reason" and "experience." This distinction first appears in an indeterminate form. Parmenides gives an example of reason. He argues that nothing comes into or goes out of existence. In addition, Parmenides associates experience with perception broadly speaking. He does not set out the distinction any more precisely, but the way he champions reason over experience in connection with what exists was influential in the subsequent philosophical tradition. In this tradition, reason rather than experience is the correct form of cognition for understanding things. Later, under the influence of Socrates and Plato and also Aristotle, it became part of this tradition that reason is a form of cognition that that makes human beings into the distinctive kind of being they are.

Aristotle divides the part of the soul with reason divides into two parts. The first is the ἐπιστημονικὸν, the part capable or suited to ἐπιστήμη. The traditional translation of ἐπιστήμη in this context is 'knowledge,' but the English is not a perfect match for the Greek. For Aristotle, ἐπιστήμη grasps relations of consequence and incompatibility among universals.

"We said before that there are two parts of the soul, one with reason (λόγον) and one without reason (ἄλογον). Now we should divide in the same way the part with reason. Let us assume it has two parts, one with which we consider beings whose origins do not admit of being otherwise, and one with which we consider beings whose origin do admit of being otherwise. For when the beings are of different kinds, the parts of the soul naturally suited to each are also of different kinds, since the parts possess awareness by being somehow similar and appropriate to their objects. Let us call one the part for knowledge (ἐπιστημονικὸν), and the other the part for reasoning (λογιστικόν), since deliberating (βουλεύεσθαι) is the same as reasoning, and no one deliberates about what cannot be otherwise. ... Hence [to understand the good life] we should find the best state of each part, for this is the virtue of each" (Nicomachean Ethics V1.2.1139a3).

Aristotle's discussion of this part of the soul is an effort to clarify the distinction between "reason" and "experience." He conceives of the cognition specific to the "intellect" (νοῦς) as "thinking" (νοεῖν), and he conceives of "thinking" as a form of "discrimination" (κρίσις). The "intellect," in this way, grasps the universals that are the starting-points for demonstration. Further, since Aristotle seems to hold that the "intellect" does not grasp the universals one by one in isolation, "thinking" does not take place without the advent of "knowledge" (ἐπιστήμη).


"Whereas the other animals live by impressions and memories, and have but a ([comparatively] small share of experience, the human race lives also by art and reasoning (τέχνῃ καὶ λογισμοῖς). ... Experience seems very similar to science and art, but actually it is through experience that men acquire science and art (ἐπιστήμη καὶ τέχνη). ... Art is produced when from many notions of experience a single universal (καθόλου) judgment is formed with regard to like objects. To have a judgment that when Callias was suffering from this or that disease this or that benefited him, and similarly with Socrates and various other individuals, is a matter of experience; but to judge that it benefits all persons of a certain type, considered as a class, who suffer from this or that disease (e.g. the phlegmatic or bilious when suffering from burning fever) is a matter of art. ... We consider that knowledge and proficiency belong to art rather than to experience. .... Men of experience know that the thing is so, but do not know the why, while the others know the why and the cause (οἱ μὲν γὰρ ἔμπειροι τὸ ὅτι μὲν ἴσασι, διότι δ᾽ οὐκ ἴσασιν: οἱ δὲ τὸ διότι καὶ τὴν αἰτίαν γνωρίζουσιν)" (Metaphysics I.1.980b25).
Aristotle's contrast (in the Metaphysics) between the medical practitioner and theorist helps show how he understands the cognition he identifies as "knowledge (ἐπιστήμη). As a matter of "experience" (ἐμπειρία), the practitioner forms the generalization that patients who look a certain way respond to a certain treatment. The practitioner, however, does not have "knowledge" (ἐπιστήμη) because he does not grasp the universal feature that distinguishes those who benefit when they suffer from the disease from those who do not benefit. Aristotle cites having a phlegmatic condition is the example of such a feature. It is only by grasping such a feature that a human being can form more than the empirical generalization and thus have the knowledge in the judgment that all patients characterized by the feature will benefit from the treatment. The universal is part of the account of why the patients benefit. There is a necessary and hence universal connection between patients of the kind and benefiting from the treatment, and Aristotle thinks this connection explains why the treatment is successful for patients with the disease.

The Happiest Life for a Human Being

"That which is proper (οἰκεῖον) to each thing is by nature the best and most pleasant for it. For man this is the life according to the intellect (ὁ κατὰ τὸν νοῦν βίος), if this [the intellect] more than anything else is man. Therefore this life will be the happiest" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1178a5).

1. What is most proper to a thing is best and most pleasant for it.
2. The intellect is most proper to human beings.
3. If (1) and (2) are true, "the life according to the intellect" is the happiest for a human being.
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4. "[T]he life according to the intellect" is the happiest for a human being.

Aristotle is Platonist about the good life and happiness. He accepts Plato's view and casts it in a new ontology and provides a clear and more detailed understanding of reason in human beings.




Perseus Digital Library:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
εὐδαιμονέστατος, eudaimonestatos, adjective, superalative of εὐδαίμων ("happy"),
οἰκεῖος, oikeios, adjective, "proper, fitting, suitable"




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