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 that Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics after the Eudemian Ethics.


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," 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 the 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). His intention in saying this is not completely clear. It seems, though, that he means that he will examine the life in which action achieves the "best good" 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 exceedingly difficult to follow his train of thought in detail, but he seems to conclude that a life in which action acheives the "best good" is in fact the life of contemplation.

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 (τἀνθρώπινον ἀγαθόν)" (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 (εὐδαιμονίαν), and conceive of living well (εὖ ζῆν) and doing well (εὖ πράττειν) 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).
As a first step in his investigation in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle notes that it is generally agreed that the "best good" achievable in action is "happiness" (εὐδαιμονία).

This agreement, however, as he also notes, is not very helpful because there is no such agreement about what happiness is. So, to reach an understanding of what happiness is, he considers what he calls the "function" (ἔργον) of a human being. He argues that this function is "action of [the part of the soul] having reason (πρακτική τις τοῦ λόγον ἔχοντος)."

This function has its basis is in what a human being is. Aristotle thinks, as we have seen in previous lectures, that natural bodies behave in the ways that characterize 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 that belongs to the natural kind. For human beings, because they are rational animals, this behavior involves reason.

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 best good acheiveable in action is happiness
• a human being who in action achieves the best good is a good human being
• a good human being executes 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

• happiness is executing "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. We need to know

• what "action of the [part of the soul] having reason" is
• what is true of a human being who executes this action well

We can begin to find answers to these questions in Aristotle's discussion of "virtue" (ἀρετή).


"If we declare that the function (ἔργον) 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 (οἰκείαν ἀρετὴν), 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 (τὸ ἀνθρώπινον ἀγαθὸν ψυχῆς ἐνέργεια γίνεται κατ᾽ ἀρετήν, εἰ δὲ πλείους αἱ ἀρεταί, κατὰ 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).

The Virtues Proper to Reason

Given that happiness for a human being consists in executing the human function well, and also 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."

Given that the human function is "action of [the part of the soul] having reason," it follows that the virtues for a human being are the virtues of the part of the soul having reason.

So to understand Aristotle's thinking, we need to understand what "the part [of the soul] having reason" is, what its proper virtues are, and what it is for this part to have these virtues.

The Parts of the Soul

We can state briefly here, and consider the matter more detail in the next lecture what Aristotle thinks "the part [of the soul] having reason" is. This part of the soul subdivides into two parts: 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, Aristotle subivides the "part with reason" into what we for now can describe as

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

In this way, we can see that Aristotle's division is a version Plato's trpartite division in the Republic. For Aristotle, the soul has the thinking or cognition he calls "reason" (1a). In addition, he thinks there is cognition that is not "reason" but somehow can listen to and be controlled by "reason" (1b). The Tripartite Theory separates this into spirit and appetite.

Virtues of Thought and Character

Aristotle also recognizes a division in the virtues proper to "the part [of the soul] having reason." They are what he describes as virtues of "thought" and "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).

It remains, then, to know what these virtues of thought and character are and to understand what it is for the two parts of "the part [of the soul] having reason" to have these virtues.

The "Virtue of the Best Part of Us"

It also remains to know one further thing if we are to understand Aristotle's investigation into whether the life in which action achieves the "best good" is the life of contemplation.

To identify the life in which a human being achieves the "best good," Aristotle allows that "if there are several virtues, then [the good of man is activity] in conformity with the best and most the end" (Nicomachean Ethics I.6.1098a). Moreover, he thinks that in fact there are several and that among them one is the best. In Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, he refers to what he calls the "best virtue" and says that "activity in accordance with" it 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); and we have said this "...we have said (εἴρηται)..."
This is puzzling. The Nicomachean Ethics as we now have it contains no previous statement of this view.
an activity of contemplation" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1177a).

So Aristotle, it seems, thinks that there is "happiness" and "perfect happiness." Perfect happiness is activity of the part of the soul having reason in accordance with its most proper virtue. This virtue is what he describes as the "best virtue" and the "virtue of the best part of us."

We need to know, then, what virtue Aristotle thinks this "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 (ὁ σοφὸς μάλιστ᾽ εὐδαίμων)" (Nicomachean Ethics X.8.1179a). Aristotle does not explicitly identify this "best virtue," but given that it is the virtue proper to the "part [of the soul] with reason" that allows us "to think what is noble and divine," it seems that the virtue he has in mind is the virtue of thought he calls "wisdom" (σοφία).

The Search for More Answers

At this point, then, if we are to understand why Aristotle thinks that a life in which action acheives the "best good" is the life of contemplation, we need more answers. We need to know

• what the virtue "wisdom" is
• why wisdom is the "best virtue"
• how the "part with reason" acquires wisdom




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,"
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).




move on go back