The Good Life for a Human Being

Contemplation contributes to Happiness most of all

The Aristotelian corpus contains two works on ethics: the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics. The titles seem to refer to Aristotle's friend (Eudemus of Rhodes) and Aristotle's son (Nicomachus). The relationship between the Eudemian Ethics and Nicomachean Ethics is uncertain. Books IV, V, and VI of the Eudemian Ethics are identical to Books V, VI, and VII of the Nicomachean Ethics. The Nicomachean Ethics is traditionally thought to be the most authoritative. The subject of Aristotle ethical treatises is the good life for a human being.

The Human Function


"[The science of politics] ... ordains which of the sciences sciences are to exist in states, and what branches of knowledge the different classes of the citizens are to learn, and up to what point.... Inasmuch then as the rest of the sciences are employed by this one, and as it moreover lays down laws as to what people shall do and what things they shall refrain from doing, the end of this science must include the ends of all the others and so will be the human good (τἀνθρώπινον ἀγαθόν)" (Nicomachean Ethics I.1.1094a).

"The multitude and the refined speak of [the good at which politics aims] as happiness, and conceive of living well (εὖ ζῆν) and doing well (εὖ πράττειν) as the same thing as being happy (εὐδαιμονεῖν)" (Nicomachean Ethics I.2.1095a).

"To say however that the supreme good is happiness will probably appear a truism; we still require a more explicit account of what constitutes happiness. Perhaps we may arrive at this by ascertaining the function (ἔργον) of man" (Nicomachean Ethics I.6.1097b; cf. Euthydemus 278e).

"Life seems common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. So let us exclude the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but this also seems common to the horse, the ox, and every animal. The remaining possibility is some sort of life of action of [the part of the soul] with reason (πρακτική τις τοῦ λόγον ἔχοντος)" (Nicomachean Ethics I.6.1097b).
Aristotle says that the good life for a human being is a life of "happiness" (εὐδαιμονία).

This, however, seems trivial, as Aristotle notes. The philosophical problem is to identify the activity or activities in which this life consists. To solve this problem, Aristotle turns to the "function" (ἔργον) peculiar to human beings. He argues that this function is "some sort of life of action of [the part of the soul] with reason (πρακτική τις τοῦ λόγον ἔχοντος)."

Aristotle thinks that natural bodies behave in the ways characteristic of the natural kind to which they belong. They have this behavior because they are forms in matter. The form is the organization of the matter according to which there is an object of the natural kind. Because human beings are rational animals, this behavior involves the use of reason.

Aristotle, in this way, thinks that

• the good life for human beings is a life of happiness
• human beings are happy to the extent they exercise their function well
• the human function consists in certain exercises of reason


"If we declare that the function (ἔργον) of man is a certain life, and that this is an activity and business of the soul with reason (ψυχῆς ἐνέργειαν καὶ πράξεις μετὰ λόγου), and that the good of man is to do this well and beautifully, and that if a function is completed well when it is completed in accordance with its proper virtue (οἰκείαν ἀρετὴν), then from these premises it follows that the good of man is the activity of his soul in conformity with virtue, or if there are several virtues, then in conformity with the best and most the end (τὸ ἀνθρώπινον ἀγαθὸν ψυχῆς ἐνέργεια γίνεται κατ᾽ ἀρετήν, εἰ δὲ πλείους αἱ ἀρεταί, κατὰ τὴν ἀρίστην καὶ τελειοτάτην)" (Nicomachean Ethics I.6.1098a).

Aristotle, in this way, has a "perfectionist" conception of the good life. (His use of τελειοτάτην inspires the name.) According to perfectionism, one life is better than another to the extent that it is a more perfect realization of certain of the properties that constitute human nature. For Aristotle, on this perfectionist interpretation, the properties are the ones involved in living the life he describes as a "life of action of the [part of the soul] with reason."

  "The soul, has it a work (ἔργον) which you couldn't accomplish with anything else in the world, as for example, management, rule, deliberation (ἐπιμελεῖσθαι καὶ ἄρχειν καὶ βουλεύεσθαι),
and the like, is there anything else than soul to which you could rightly assign these and say that they were its peculiar work?
  Nothing else.
  And again life? Shall we say that too is the function of the soul?
  Most certainly.
  And do we not also say that there is an excellence or virtue (ἀρετήν) of the soul?
  We do.
  Will the soul ever accomplish its own work well if deprived of its own virtue, or is this impossible?
  It is impossible.
  Of necessity, then, a bad soul will govern and manage things badly while the good soul will in all these things do well.
  Of necessity.
  And did we not agree that the excellence or virtue of soul is justice and its defect injustice?
  Yes, we did" (Plato, Republic I.353d).

"Three elements in the soul control action and the attainment of truth: sensation, intellect, and desire (αἴσθησις νοῦς ὄρεξις). Of these, sensation never originates action, as is shown by the fact that animals have sensation but are not capable of action [as they are capable only of reaction to their sensations]. Pursuit and avoidance in the sphere of desire correspond to affirmation and denial in the sphere of the intellect. Since virtue of character is a state with respect to choice, and choice is desire informed by deliberation, it follows that what issues from reason must be true and the desire must be correct for choice to be good, as reason must assert and desire must pursue the same things. This thinking (διάνοια) and truth [in the virtue of character] is practical (πρακτική). Of thinking that is theoretical (θεωρητικῆς), not practical nor productive, the well and badly [in this thinking are in the attainment of] true and false. This is the function (ἔργον) of the whole of thinking, but of thinking that is practical, the function is truth agreeing with correct desire" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.2.1139a).

Thought and Character

Given that the good life for a human being consists in performing the human function well, and that things perform their function well when they have their proper virtue or virtues, Aristotle concludes that the good life is the "the activity of his soul in conformity with virtue, or if there are several virtues, in conformity with the best and most the end among them."

• things perform their functions well when they have their proper virtues

Given that the good life for a human being is one in which the part of the soul with reason has its proper virtue or virtues, the proper virtues are virtues of this part of the soul.

• for a human being, the proper virtues are of the part of the soul with reason

Aristotle thinks that the part of the soul with reason has two parts: a part with reason and a part capable of being controlled by reason. (He further divides the part with reason into a part that reasons about theoretical matters and a part that reasons about practical matters.)

The virtues proper to these two parts of the soul (the part with reason and the part capable of being controlled by reason) are the virtues of "thought" and virtues of "character."

"If we should say that this part has reason, then the part [of the soul] that has reason will have two parts, one that has authority in itself, and one that listens as to a father. The distinction between virtues also reflects this difference. We say that some virtues are virtues of thought (διανοητικὰς) and that others are virtues of character (ἠθικάς)" (Nicomachean Ethics I.13.1103a).

Courage and temperance are virtues of character. Aristotle discusses the virtues of character in Nicomachean Ethics III and IV. "Wisdom" (σοφία) and "practical wisdom" (φρόνησις) are virtues of thought. Aristotle discusses the virtues of thought in Nicomachean Ethics VI.

The Human Function and the Divine

Aristotle, like Plato, thinks that something in human beings is divine or like the divine.


The noun ἐνέργεια is formed from ἐν ("in") and ἔργον ("function" or "work"). A standard translation is 'activity.'

"Man, instead of forelegs and forefeet, has arms and hands. He is the only animal that stands upright, and this is because his nature and essence is divine (τὴν φύσιν αὐτοῦ καὶ τὴν οὐσίαν εἶναι θείαν). Now the business [or: function] of that which is most divine is to think and to be intelligent (ἔργον δὲ τοῦ θειοτάτου τὸ νοεῖν καὶ φρονεῖν); and this would not be easy if there were a great deal of the body at the top weighing it down, for weight hampers the motion of the intellect and of the general sense (τὴν διάνοιαν καὶ τὴν κοινὴν αἴσθησιν)" (Aristotle, Parts of Animals IV.686a).
"The other so-called virtues of the soul do seem akin to those of the body. They really do not exist before and are added later by habit (ἔθεσι) and practice. But the virtue of thought (φρονῆσαι), it seems, is certainly something more divine ..." (Plato, Republic VII.518d).

"If happiness (εὐδαιμονία) consists in activity (ἐνέργεια) in accordance with virtue (ἀρετὴν), it is reasonable that it should be activity in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be the virtue of the best part of us. Whether then this be the intellect (νοῦς), or whatever else is thought to rule and lead us by nature and to have cognizance of what is noble and divine, this itself being divine or as being relatively the divinest part of us, the activity of it in accordance with the virtue proper to it will be perfect happiness (τελεία εὐδαιμονία); and it has been stated already that this activity is contemplation (θεωρητική)" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1177a).

Aristotle's view about reason and the "intellect" (νοῦς) and the part of the intellect that is most divine is not completely clear, but he seems to think that the good life consists in certain exercises of reason, that the exercise of reason is the function of the intellect, that the activity of the divinest part of the intellect in accordance with its proper virtue is "contemplation" (θεωρία), that engaging in contemplation is the way in which human beings are most like the divine, and that therefore contemplation contributes to happiness and the good life most of all.

In this way, about the good life and happiness, Aristotle is a Platonist. Plato and Aristotle both think that what contributes to happiness most of all is a certain kind of cognition or thinking. They identify this thinking as an exercise of reason they call "contemplation" (θεωρία), and they conceive of this thinking as the activity of something divine in human beings.

Aristotle, however, unlike Plato, does not think that "contemplation" (θεωρία) is sufficient for "happiness" (εὐδαιμονία). Aristotle thinks external goods are necessary.

"[I]t is manifest that happiness also requires external goods in addition [to the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue]" (Nicomachian Ethics I.9.1099a). "The happy man (εὐδαίμων) requires in addition the goods of the body, external goods and the gifts of fortune, in order that his activity may not be impeded through lack of them. Those who say that, if a man be good, he will be happy even when on the rack, or when fallen into the direst misfortune, are intentionally or unintentionally talking nonsense" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.14.1153b).




Perseus Digital Library:

Plato, Euthydemus, Republic
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἐνέργεια, energeia, noun, "activity,"
ἔργον, ergon, noun, "work,"
εὐδαιμονία, eudaimonia, noun, "happiness,"
ἠθική, ἠθική, adjective, "moral,"
τέλειος, teleios, adjective, "having reached its end,"
τελειοτάτην, teleiotatēn, adjective, superlative of τέλειος

Arizona State University Library. Loeb Classical Library:
Aristotle, Parts of Animals




"Aristotle thinks objects have a function. We can readily understand what he means in the case of artifacts: they are constructed the way they are constructed to fulfill a certain task or to exhibit a certain kind of behavior. Fulfilling this task or exhibiting this behavior is their function; and if they do exhibit this behavior, we say they are functioning. Aristotle, like Plato before him, extends the notion of function to natural objects, especially to living things. If a living thing is functioning, it will behave in a certain, characteristic way; to behave in this way is its function. In addition, Aristotle thinks that the capacity of an object to behave in this characteristic way depends on its organization, structure, and disposition, indeed, he thinks that it is just this disposition or organization that enables the object to behave the way it does. Now, for Aristotle, the form is this disposition or organization, while the matter is what is thus disposed or organized" (Michael Frede, "Individuals in Aristotle," 65-66. Essays in Ancient Philosophy (University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 49-71).




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