The End of Our Actions

The Good Life and Happiness

The Aristotelian corpus contains two works on ethics: the Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics. The titles seem to refer to Aristotle's friend (Eudemus of Rhodes) and 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. It is traditionally thought that Aristotle wrote the Eudemian Ethics first.


An Outline of the Nicomachean Ethics:

NE I.1095a-I.1096a.         The best good
NE I.1097b-I.1098a.         The argument from function
NE I.1102a-II.1109b.        Virtue and the soul
NE III.1109b-1115a.         Necessary conditions for virtue
NE III.1115a-IV.1128b.    Virtues of character
NE V.1129a-1138b.           Justice
NE VI.1138b-1145a.         Virtues of thought
NE VII.1145a-1154b.        Continence, pleasure
NE VIII.1155a-IX.1172a.  Friendship
NE X.1172a-1181b.            Pleasure, happiness, legislation
The subject of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is the "end of the things we pursue in our actions" and what he calls the "best good" for a human being (Nicomachean Ethics I.2.1094a).

Knowledge of this "best good," Aristotle says, "is of great importance for the conduct of our lives." If we have it, and so know what this good in a human life is, then, "like archers who have a target, we are more likely to do what is needed" (Nicomachean Ethics I.2.1094a).

Aristotle says, at the outset, that "the [life] of contemplation (ὁ θεωρητικός)" is the life he will "examine in what follows" (Nicomachean Ethics I.5.1096a). What he means in saying this is not completely clear. It seems, though, that his intention is to examine the life in which action achieves the best good in order to determine whether it is the life of contemplation.

The conclusion Aristotle reaches is not easy to see, in part because the Nicomachean Ethics reads like a series of incomplete lecture notes, not a finished work intended for publication. This makes it difficult to follow his train of thought in complete detail, but he seems to conclude that the life in which action achieves the best good is in fact a life of contemplation.

We will try to follow the main lines of his argument in this and the next two lectures.

The Human Function



"[The science of politics] ... ordains which of the 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" (Nicomachean Ethics I.1.1094a).

"As far as the name [of the good at which politics aims] goes, we may almost say that the great majority of mankind are agreed about this; for both the multitude and persons of refinement speak of it as happiness, and conceive of living well and doing well as the same thing as being happy. But what constitutes happiness is a matter of dispute; and the popular account of it is not the same as that given by the philosophers" (Nicomachean Ethics I.2.1095a).

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

"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 a life of action of [the part of the soul] having reason (πρακτική τις τοῦ λόγον ἔχοντος)" (Nicomachean Ethics I.6.1097b).
Aristotle first notes that it is generally agreed that "happiness" (εὐδαιμονία) is the best good achievable in action. There are various goods a life can possess. It can be a life in which there is lots of money, for example, if money is a good, but the best of such goods is generally agreed to be happiness. This is the good in life that it benefits us most to achieve.

This agreement about what the best good is, however, as Aristotle also notes, is only a first step in the inquiry because there is no general agreement about what happiness is and hence what the good life is. So, to reach a deeper understanding, Aristotle turns his attention to what he calls the "work" or "function" (ἔργον) of a human being. He argues that the function of a human being is "action of [the part of the soul] having reason (πρακτική τις τοῦ λόγον ἔχοντος)."

This function has its basis is in what Aristotle thinks a human being is.

Aristotle thinks, as we have seen, that natural bodies behave in the ways that characterize the natural kind. 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 that belongs to the natural kind. For human beings, because they are rational animals, this behavior involves reason.

The Function Argument

We can better understand the relation between happiness and the human function if we set out in argument form what Aristotle seems to have mind. He argues, it seems, from the premises

• the good life is one in which a human being achieves the best good
• a human being who in action achieves the best good is a good human being
• a good human being is one who performs the human function well
• the human function is "action of [the part of the soul] having reason"

to the conclusion that for a human being the good life is

• a life of performing "action of the [part of the soul] having reason" well

This argument shows us premises we might want to reject, but more importantly (for the history of philosophy) it allows us to identify the questions whose answers we must find if we are to understand how Aristotle thinks about happiness and the good life. We need to know

• what "action of the [part of the soul] having reason" is
• what it is to perform this "action" well

Otherwise, we will not be able to understand why Aristotle thinks that the life in which action achieves the best good, and thus the life it benefits us most to live, is the life of contemplation.


"If we declare that the function of man is a certain life, and that this is an activity and action 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, then 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 (τὴν ἀρίστην καὶ τελειοτάτην). Moreover, to be happy takes a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief does not make a man supremely blessed and happy" (Nicomachean Ethics I.6.1098a).

Function and Virtue

Given that the good life for a human being consists in performing the human function well, and the background premise that things perform their function well only if they have their proper virtue or virtues, Aristotle concludes that "happiness" and "the good of man" is

• "the activity of the soul in conformity with virtue, or if there are several
virtues, in conformity with the best and most the end among them."

Aristotle has in mind the "activity" or "action of [the part of the soul] having reason." So, to follow Aristotle's thinking, we need to know how he understands what

• "the [part of the soul] having reason" is

and what he thinks

• the virtues proper to this part of the soul are

Once we understand this, we will be in a better position to see what Aristotle thinks actually goes on in a life in which one achieves the best good achievable in action.

The Parts of the Soul

Aristotle's thinks of the parts of the soul is in some way the same as Plato's. Aristotle thinks that "the [part of the soul] having reason" consists in two parts. It has The human soul =
        1. part having reason
              1.a. part with reason
                    1.a.1. part with reason about theoretical matters
                    1.a.2. part with reason about practical matters
              1.b. part with reason as its controller
        2. part not having reason

• a part with reason
• a part with reason somehow as its controller

Further, he subdivides the "part with reason" into what we can describe for now as

• a part that reasons about theoretical matters
• a part that reasons about practical matters

One difference between this division and the one in the Republic is that Socrates separates the part that somehow has reason as its controller into "spirit" and "appetite."

Virtues of Thought and Character

Aristotle also divides the virtues in a way that is familiar from the discussions in Plato. Aristotle divides them into the virtues of "thought" and the virtues of "character."

"If we should say that this part has reason, then the part 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 are virtues of thought (διανοητικὰς) and others are virtues of character (ἠθικάς)" (Nicomachean Ethics I.13.1103a).

ἠθικάς is a plural adjective form of ἠθικἠ, which is the root the English word 'ethical.'

One Virtue is the Best

Aristotle says, as we have already seen, that "if there are several virtues, then [the good of man is activity] in conformity with the best and most the end."

Further, in the last book of the Nicomachean Ethics, he refers to what he calls the "best virtue" and says that the "activity in accordance with" this virtue is "perfect happiness."

The noun ἐνέργεια is formed from ἐν ("in") and ἔργον ("function" or "work"). A standard translation is 'activity.' "If happiness is activity (ἐνέργεια) in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable it should be in accordance with the best virtue; and this is the virtue of the best part of us. Whether it is intellect (νοῦς), or whatever else seems to rule and lead us by nature and to think what is noble and divine, this itself being divine or as being the divinest part of us, the activity of it in accordance with its proper virtue will be perfect happiness (τελεία εὐδαιμονία); "we have said (εἴρηται)..."
This is puzzling. The Nicomachean Ethics as we now have it contains no previous statement of this view.
and we have said this an activity of contemplation" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1177a).

We will not worry at this point about what Aristotle means by "perfect happiness."

The more immediate problem is to understand what he thinks goes on in the life in which the activity of "the [part of the soul] having reason" is in accordance with the "best virtue." To know that, we need to know what virtue Aristotle thinks the "best virtue" is.

"It seems likely that the man who whose activity is according to the intellect (ὁ δὲ κατὰ νοῦν ἐνεργῶν), and who cultivates his intellect and keeps it in the best condition, is also the man most beloved of the gods. For if, as is generally believed, the gods exercise some superintendence over human affairs, it will be reasonable to suppose that they take pleasure in that part of man which is best and most akin to themselves, namely the intellect, and that they recompense with their favors those men who esteem and honor this most, because these care for the things dear to themselves, and act rightly and nobly. Now it is clear that these attributes belong most of all to the wise man. He therefore is most beloved by the gods; and if so, he is naturally most happy. In this way too, then, the wise man is happy most of all" (Nicomachean Ethics X.8.1179a). Aristotle does not explicitly identify the "best virtue." This makes the interpretation uncertain, but his view seems to be that it is the virtue of thought he calls "wisdom" (σοφία).

The Search for More Answers

This interpretation so far, even if it is correct, does not tell us what goes on in this life of "activity" or "action of [the part of the soul] having reason" in accordance with the virtue of "wisdom." To know what Aristotle thinks goes on in this life, we need to know

• what the virtue "wisdom" (σοφία) is
• how "the [part of the soul] with reason" acquires wisdom

In addition, to begin to understand what Aristotle has in mind when he talks about "perfect happiness," we need to know why he thinks that wisdom is the "best virtue."

We will try to get these answers in the next two lectures.





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, ēthikē, adjective, "moral"
μακάριος (derivative of μάκαρ, epitaph of the gods in Homer, Iliad I.339), makarios, adjective, "blessed"
σοφία, sophia, noun, "wisdom"
σοφός, sophos, adjective, "wise"
τέλειος, teleios, adjective, "having reached its end, finished, complete"
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, 49-71).




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