Happiness and Practical Wisdom

The Two Good Lives for a Human Being

To know how Aristotle understands the state of the λογιστικόν when it has practical wisdom, it is helpful to consider how he understands purposeful behavior in animals generally.

Purposeful Behavior in Animals

"[S]laves and animals have no share in happiness or in a life according to choice" (Aristotle, Politics III.1280a).

"Even some of the animals we say are sensible (φρόνιμά), namely those which display a capacity for forethought as regards their own lives" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.7.1141a)

"In the other animals choice does not exist, nor in man at every age or condition; for neither does deliberating and judgment about the why. It is possible that many have an opinion whether a thing is to be done, but not through reasoning. For the deliberative part of soul thinks about a certain cause. ... That for the sake of which something is or comes to be, we say is a cause, so the fetching of things is the cause of walking, if he is walking for the sake of this. So those who do not have an aim are not deliberative" (Eudemian Ethics II.10.1226b).

"If a living thing has the capacity for perception, it has the capacity for desire. For desire comprises appetite, spirit, and wish. All animals have at least one of the senses, touch. Where there is perception, there is pleasure and pain ..., and where there are these, there is appetite: for this is desire for what is pleasant" (On the Soul II.3.414b1).

"It is apparent that these two produce movement, desire and intellect, if we set down that imagination as a kind of intellect; for many follow their imaginations against their knowledge, and in the other animals neither intellect (νόησις) nor reasoning (λογισμός) exist, although imagination does. So both of these, then, intellect and desire can produce movement in respect of place, but intellect in which there is reasoning for the sake of something is practical; and it differs from the theoretical with respect to the end. Every desire too is for the sake of something; for the object of desire is the starting-point for practical intellect (πρακτικοῦ νοῦ), and the final step is the starting-point for action" (On the Soul III.10.433a9).
Aristotle thinks that although all nonhuman animals lack reason, some are capable of behaving in ways that benefit them. These animals are "sensible" (φρόνιμα). In the History of Animals IX.5.611a, for example, he reports that deer give birth alongside the road where fear of humans keeps predators from approaching. The deer, in this way, as Aristotle understands them, are "sensible," but he does not believe the deer or any nonhuman animals have reason.

Aristotle thinks that a defining feature of animals is the capacity for perception and that along with this capacity there is a capacity for desire and for pleasure and pain. Animals must behave in certain ways if they are to survive. Perception is how they become aware of their circumstances, and desire is what moves them to engage in appropriate behavior. All animals behave in this way, but for Aristotle none of this behavior is the result of reason.

In some animals, purposeful behavior is completely a matter of perceptions tied to specific desires. In the History of Animals V.16.548b10, Aristotle reports that sponges are thought to be animals and to have a capacity for perception in the form of touch. A sponge contracts when it is touched because it does not like being touched. It finds being touched painful, and so it contracts and thus moves in the only way open to it. This reaction to touch benefits the sponge because it helps prevent a predator from dislodging it from the place it is attached.

In other animals, purposeful behavior has more a complicated explanation. In the Nicomachean Ethics III.13.1118a18, Aristotle says that hounds take pleasure not in scenting hares but in eating them and that the scent makes them aware of the presence of a hare. He does not provide further explanation, but presumably he thinks that perception does not account for the representation of an object of desire. Perception allows the hound to perceive part of the current state of its environment, but to engage in purposeful behavior to change itself and its environment, the hound needs to envisage a prospective state of affairs in which it eats the hare. The hound, it seems, represents this prospective state of affairs in terms of "imagination" (φαντασία). It has eaten hares in the past, and it remembers these state of affairs as pleasant. Because the hound is hungry, the scent of a hare triggers an image in which it eats a hare. This image, it seems, functions as the desire whose object is the hound eating the hare.

"Animals are by nature born with perception, and from this some come to have memory, whereas others do not. The former are more sensible (φρονιμώτερα) and capable of learning than those which cannot remember. ... The other animals live by impressions (φαντασίαις) and memories, and have but a [comparatively] small share of experience (ἐμπειρίας), but the human race lives also by art and reasoning (τέχνῃ καὶ λογισμοῖς). It is from memory that men acquire experience" (Metaphysics I.1.980a).

Cf. History of Animals IX.37.621a.
In yet other animals, purposeful behavior involves the kind of cognition Aristotle calls "experience" (ἐμπειρία). Animals who have acquired "experience" are better at discriminating among things in their environment in ways that benefit themselves. So, for example, an older hound who has chased down many hares has gained "experience" with respect to the scent of the hare and its hiding place. This allows the older hound to react to the scent in a more nuanced way and thus make it a more successful hunter than the inexperienced hound.

Purposeful Behavior in Human Beings

"Wish is found in the part with reason and appetite and spirit in the part without reason " (On the Soul III.9.432b).

"Choice is not a wish, though they appear closely akin. .... We wish for ends, but choose the means to our end; for example we wish to be healthy, but choose things to make us healthy" (Nicomachean Ethics III.4.1111b).
In human beings, unlike in animals, reason is the source of some purposeful behavior. The cognition that underlies the "part [of the soul] with reason" Aristotle calls the λογιστικόν. He calls this cognition "calculation" and identifies it with "deliberation."

The cognition in the λογιστικόν is thinking about what to do to bring about an end. A human being has what Aristotle calls a "wish" (βούλησις) for an end. This "wish" stems from the belief that the end is good, and if deliberation has shown that taking a certain action is the best way to bring about this wished for end, "choice" (προαίρεσις) is the desire to take this action.

"Practical wisdom (φρόνησις) is not about universals only. It must also come to know particulars, since it is concerned with action and action is about particulars" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.8.1141b). "[A]lthough the young may be experts in geometry and mathematics and similar branches of knowledge, we do not consider that a young man can be practically wise. The reason is that practical wisdom (φρόνησις) includes a knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience, which a young man does not a possess..." (Nicomachean Ethics VI.9.1142a).

Practical Wisdom and the Virtues of Character

Someone is not practically wise simply by knowing; he must also act on his knowledge" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.10.1152a).

"The nutritive part shares in reason not at all, the part with appetites and generally desire shares in reason in a way, in so far as it listens to and obeys reason. It listens in the way we are said to listen to reason from father or friends.... [It] also obeys and is persuaded in some way by reason, as is shown by chastening, and by every sort of reproof and exhortation" (Nicomachean Ethics I.13.1102b).
The virtue proper to this "calculating"/"deliberating" is "practical wisdom" (φρόνησις). Further, in the tradition of Socrates and Plato, Aristotle thinks that

• the virtues of character are necessary and sufficient for practical wisdom

"It is not possible to be good strictly without practical wisdom, and it is not possible to be practically wise without virtue of character" (Nicomachean Ethics VI.13.1144b).

In a human being who possesses the virtues of character, the part of his soul "with reason as its controller" has developed dispositions to act in the appropriate ways in various circumstances. Someone who is brave, for example, is disposed to act in the appropriate ways in frightening situations. In these situations, he does not overly afraid or have excessive confidence.

Human beings acquire the virtues of character in practice. This trains the part "with reason as its controller" so that its desires are for what is appropriate in the circumstances.

"Virtue of character results from habit (ἔθους)" (Nicomachean Ethics II.1.1103a). "A state of character arises from the repetition of similar activities. Hence we must display the right activities, since differences in these imply corresponding differences in the states. It is not unimportant, then, to acquire one sort of habit or another, right from our youth; rather, it is very important, indeed all-important" (Nicomachean Ethics II.1.1103b).

The Failure in the Impulsive

An example helps to make what Aristotle has in mind a little clearer.

Aristotle says that "the impetuous are led by passion because they do not stop to deliberate" (Nicomachean Ethics VII.7.1150b). So, for example, sometimes when someone gets insulted, he gets so upset and angry that his anger preempts any thought he might have had about how to respond in the situation. Once he calms down, he might realize that in general he does not think this response is appropriate. At the time, though, he just acted out of his anger.

In this example of what Aristotle calls "impetuous ἀκρασία," the "part [of the soul] with reason" fails to control the "part with reason as its controller." This happens because of some failure in the past. A human being who acts this way failed to submit himself to the training necessary to ensure that "the part with reason as its controller" has reasonable desires, that he acts for reasons, rather than on the basis of passion, and hence that, if there is a conflict between the two parts of his soul, he acts on the basis of "the part [of the soul] with reason."

The Happiest Life a Human Being can Live

"A human being's perfect happiness will be this activity [the activity of contemplation].... Such a life as this however will be higher than the human level: not in virtue of his humanity will a man live it, but in virtue of something within him that is divine; and by as much as this something is superior to his composite nature, by so much is its activity superior to the activity according to the other virtue. If then the intellect is something divine in comparison with man, so is the life of the intellect divine in comparison with human life" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1177b).

"But the one who contemplates has no need of the external goods for his activity; but we might even say they are impediments, at least to contemplation; however, as he is a man and lives with a number of others, he chooses to do those things that are in accordance with virtue; he will therefore need such things with a view to living as a man" (Nicomachean EthicsX.8.1178b).

"Being human he will also need external prosperity, for his nature is not self-sufficient for the activity of contemplation, but he must also have bodily health and a supply of food and other requirements" (Nicomachean Ethics X.9.1178b).
At this point, now that we understand a little more clearly what Aristotle thinks the virtues of "wisdom" and "practical wisdom" are, we are in a position to consider which he thinks is the life in which action achieves the "best good" and whether it is the life of contemplation.

There are four logically possible lives to consider. There is the life of the activity of reason

• in accordance with wisdom but not practical wisdom
• in accordance with wisdom and practical wisdom
• in accordance with practical wisdom but not wisdom
• in accordance with neither wisdom nor practical wisdom

We can rule out the last possibility immediately. It is not a life Aristotle thinks is good.

If in the "life according to the intellect" the ἐπιστημονικόν has wisdom and in the "life according to the other virtue" the λογιστικόν has practical wisdom, there are two possibilities. One is that the first and second best lives in which action achieves the "best good" are

(a) the "life according to the intellect" =
life of the activity of reason in accordance with wisdom but not practical wisdom

(b) the "life according to the other virtue" =
life of the activity of reason in accordance with wisdom and practical wisdom

If Aristotle follows Plato and thinks that practical wisdom is necessary for a human life of activity of the soul in accordance with wisdom, the first life is not a human life. In this case, the first and second best lives in which action achieves the "best good" are

(b) the "life according to the intellect" =
life of the activity of reason in accordance with wisdom and practical wisdom

(c) the "life according to the other virtue" =
life of the activity of reason in accordance with practical wisdom but not wisdom

On this interpretation, just as Aristotle seems to suggest at the outset (Nicomachean Ethics I.5.1096a), the life in which action achieves the "best good" is a life of contemplation. It is the second life (b). This is the form a life of contemplation life takes for a human being.

"Perfect happiness, he [Aristotle] says, consists in contemplation; but he indicates that the life devoted to practical thought and ethical virtue is happy in a secondary way. ... [This life, however,] has a major defect ... because it is a life devoid of philosophical understanding and activity" (Richard Kraut, "Aristotle's Ethics, 10. Three Lives Compared." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). The life (c), however, is a little puzzling on this interpretation.

Aristotle says that "secondly the life according to the other virtue is happiest" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1178a). It is not clear, though, whether he thinks it is "happy" (εὐδαίμων) or whether it is just happier than the life with neither wisdom nor practical wisdom. If he thinks it is εὐδαίμων, then he thinks that θεωρία is not necessary for εὐδαιμονία.

Questions about the Arguments

Given how unusual the life (b) is, one might wonder whether it is a life of "happiness" (εὐδαιμονία) at all. Aristotle, it seems, has two arguments.

One argument, which we have seen, has its basis in Aristotle's theological cosmology:

1.  Perfect happiness is the activity of the gods.
2.  The activity of the gods is contemplation.
3.  If (1) and (2) are true, then the life (b) is the happiest life for a human being.
4.  The life (b) is the happiest life for a human being.

This argument, however, is not likely to convince anyone who does not accept the broad framework of Platonism and its conception of human beings.

The other argument is that contemplation meets the necessary conditions for happiness Aristotle lists and that therefore the life (b) is the happiest life for a human being.

"The activity of the intellect is felt to excel in serious worth, consisting as it does in contemplation, and to aim at no end beyond itself, and also to contain a pleasure proper to itself, and therefore augmenting its activity: and if accordingly the attributes of this activity are found to be self-sufficiency, leisuredness, such freedom from fatigue as is possible for man, is perfect human happiness—provided it be granted a complete span of life, for nothing that belongs to happiness can be incomplete" (Nicomachean Ethics X.7.1177b)

Perseus Digital Library:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἀκούσιος (Attic contraction for ἀεκούσιος), akousios, adjective, "unwilling"
ἑκούσιος, hekousios, adjective, "willing"
ἀκρασία, alternate spelling of ἀκράτεια
ἀκράτεια, akrateia, noun, "incontinence"
βουλεύω, bouleuō, verb, "take counsel, deliberate"
βούλησις, boulēsis, noun, "willing"
προαίρεσις, proairesis, noun, "choice"
διανοητικός, dianoētikos, adjective, "intellectual"
νόος, noos, noun, "mind"
φρήν, phrēn, noun, "the wit of a person"
φρόνησις, phronēsis, noun, "practical wisdom"
φρόνιμος, phronimos, adjective, "in one's right mind, in one's senses, showing the presence of mind, sensible"

"In Aristotle's view, there is a certain good which we all will or want to attain in life, namely, a good life. As grown-up human beings we have a certain conception, though different people have rather different ones, of what this final good consists of. So in a particular situation we shall, as mature human beings, choose what to do in light of our conception of this final good, because we think, having deliberated about the matter, that acting in this way will help us attain this good. But this is what willing to do something is: desiring to do something, because one thinks that it will help one attain something which one considers a good and which one therefore wills or wants. Hence choosing is just a special form of willing" (Michael Frede, A Free Will Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought, 27).

"As then the question of legislation has been left uninvestigated by previous thinkers, it will perhaps be well if we consider it for ourselves, together with the whole question of the constitution of the State, in order to complete as far as possible our pursuit of knowledge [or: "philosophy"] of human affairs (τὰ ἀνθρώπεια φιλοσοφία)" (Nicomachean Ethics X.9.1181b). "[T]his is the conception of wisdom Aristotle has, and accordingly he conceives of philosophy. Wisdom is theoretical. ... But if we look at what this means for Aristotle's conception of philosophy, ... we wonder where this leaves practical philosophy, that is ethics and politics. ... Aristotle hardly ever talks of ethics or practical philosophy as 'philosophy.' One place in which he does so is at the very end of E.N [Ethica Nicomachea or (translated from the Latin into English) Nicomachean Ethics].X.9.1181b15, where he speaks of 'the philosophy concerning human affairs' (τὰ ἀνθρώπεια φιλοσοφία). Thus he implicitly contrasts it with first philosophy [πρώτη φιλοσοφία] which is concerned with wisdom which is divine and of matters divine, for instance God. It is wisdom which affords us the contemplation of truth, of which Aristotle earlier in E.N.X tells us that it makes our life like that of gods, to the extent that this is humanly possible. But first philosophy is concerned with the good or with what is best, and its concern is a theoretical concern, a concern aimed at satisfying our need to know and understand what is the most important thing to understand, namely, God, a principle of all things. By contrast, ethics is just concerned with the human good, and this concern is not theoretical, but a practical concern. It is aimed at being good and living well" (Michael Frede, "Aristotle's Account of the Origins of Philosophy," 23-24. Rhizai. A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science, 1/2004, 9-44).

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