Nicomachean Ethics | Study Guide

Aristotle

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Nicomachean Ethics | Book 10 | Summary

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Summary

Section 1

Aristotle returns to the topic of pleasure for a more detailed analysis. Pleasure is a crucial topic in his examination of the virtuous life. Pleasure and pain last all our lives, and "enjoying and hating the right things" is key to developing virtue of character.

Disputes about pleasure get to the heart of what people think "the good" really is. Some people think pleasure is the ultimate good, while others think (or are persuaded to think) pleasure is evil. Some people think presenting pleasure as "base" will improve people's conduct, since common people are "slaves to pleasures" and may find a more moderate state if they avoid pleasure altogether.

Aristotle feels these inaccurate arguments are based on "actions and feelings" rather than facts, which are the basis of true arguments. Common people have trouble making distinctions between good and bad pleasures. Someone who blames pleasure for their corruption thinks of "every type of pleasure as something to seek" instead of approaching pleasure as something to find in the right ways and from the right sources.

Section 2

Some philosophers, like Aristotle's contemporary Eudoxus, think pleasure must be the highest good since all animals seek pleasure and avoid pain consistently. Aristotle agrees that pleasure is choice worthy in its own right. However, when combined with another good thing, such as a virtuous act, pleasure becomes even greater. Therefore, if pleasure can be increased when combined with something else, it is only "one good among others." Plato argues that pleasure must be combined with prudence to produce the highest good. However, as Aristotle argued earlier in the Ethics, the highest good will be self-sufficient without adding anything else. Therefore, pleasure cannot be the good, and "that is what we are looking for." Pleasure is still a type of universal good, sought by both "[animals] without understanding" and humans, who are capable of understanding and prudence.

Section 3

Aristotle believes pleasure is a good, one of many, but not the highest good. Pleasure can differ in quantity—someone can have more or less pleasure. In this respect, it is similar to health, since someone can be healthier or less healthy. By contrast, the highest good will be "definite" and not capable of increasing or decreasing.

Some people argue that pleasure is an incomplete "process [or] a becoming" and not complete the way good things are. However, pleasure is not a process, since someone can transition into a pleased state immediately. In addition, pleasure is not a "becoming" or a refilling. People often confuse pleasure with refilling because humans restore or refill themselves when enjoying food and drink. However, pleasures like learning, sights, sounds, and smells do not fulfill a previous lack. Aristotle decides pleasures must "differ in species." People will feel pleasure based on what is inside themselves or who they are. Aristotle gives the examples of needing to be just to feel the just person's pleasure or needing to be a musician to feel the musician's pleasure.

Some pleasures are fine and choice worthy while some others are shameful. However, the shameful pleasures are not actually pleasures "except to these people." Pleasure is usually an advantage but not something to be pursued at any cost. For example, wealth is a pleasure but wealth is no longer a pleasure if "you have to betray someone to get it."

To illustrate the different species of pleasure, Aristotle points out the difference between friendship and flattery. Someone can get pleasure from a flatterer's remarks, but only a friend's remarks will "aim at what is good." In addition, some virtuous or essential activities may bring pleasure, but pleasure is not the primary reason people engage in them. Aristotle points out that there are some pursuits people would still engage in even if they brought no pleasure at all, such as "seeing, remembering, [and] knowing."

Section 4

Aristotle repeats that pleasure is not a process or a becoming. Unlike processes and becomings, pleasure can be instant, complete, and whole at any time.

Aristotle determines that pleasure is a completion or consequence of an activity. Pleasure completes perpetual or ongoing capacities like sights and sounds, since people can see and hear pleasing things. In order to achieve pleasure in a sight, for instance, both the "perceptible object" and the "perceiving subject," or the viewer, need to be active and in the best condition. As long as both subject and object are in a good condition, pleasure will result. However, humans cannot be in a constant state of pleasure. Instead, pleasure arises as a "consequence" or result of a certain enjoyable activity. Living itself is "a type of activity" enhanced by pleasure, which is why everyone seeks pleasure in their lives in different ways.

Section 5

He returns to the way pleasures differ in species and kind. The enjoyment of sights and sounds or "capacities for perception" is not the same as the enjoyment of pleasant thoughts. Each pleasure is appropriate to the activity it's completing. Some pleasures, for instance, can interfere with each other—a music lover may be distracted from a good conversation by hearing music. The best or "proper pleasure" comes from and improves the activity at hand, rather than distracts from it. In addition, like activities, pleasures can be good or bad. Virtuous pleasure comes from a good activity and base pleasure from a bad activity, just as good or bad desires lead to good and bad activities.

However, pleasures and activities are distinct, although they may appear the same. Different people can participate in the same activity, but some enjoy it and others do not. So which are the best pleasures? Again, Aristotle refers to the excellent or virtuous person as the standard. True pleasures or "fully human pleasures" are whatever pleasures complete the virtuous person's activities. Any other pleasures are secondary to humans.

Section 6

After discussing virtue, friendship, and pleasure, Aristotle is ready to return to the question at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics: what is happiness? He has established that happiness is a self-sufficient activity and desirable in its own right. However, some harmful pleasures meet these criteria, like the amusement enjoyed by tyrants, or any pleasures causing harm to people's physical health. The activities enjoyed by the excellent person, again, set the standard. Virtuous people do not live their lives seeking amusement and relaxation constantly. The virtuous life requires a focus on "serious actions." In addition, bodily pleasures cannot provide complete happiness either, since even base people enjoy these.

Section 7

If happiness is the supreme goal of humans, what "supreme virtue" can lead them there? Moreover, what action or state leads to this supreme virtue? The state of understanding, Aristotle decides, is what gets humans closest to the divine. Understanding is reached through study or "activity in accord with wisdom."

Study meets all the criteria for an action to bring complete happiness. It is continuous and can last throughout a life. It is self-sufficient and does not require other people, as other virtues do. The just person, for instance, needs others to be "partners and recipients" in their actions. People enjoy study for its own sake, not as a means to an end. Study is leisurely, and happiness most frequently comes in leisure and peace. A brave person can exercise virtue in a war, and a politician can achieve honor through political activity, but these endeavors "require trouble" and aim at a further goal. Study also fulfills humans' function to reach for their fullest potential. By developing their "controlling and better element," their capacity for understanding, humans can live the life they were designed to life.

Section 8

What about the other significant virtues Aristotle has discussed? Virtues of character are essential, and so is prudence, which is a vital part of virtue. Nevertheless, these virtues are all "human conditions," which humans can exercise only in their lives with others and cannot share with the gods. In this way, all other virtues are secondary to wisdom, understanding, and study. Most of the character virtues rely on external resources. A generous person needs money, a brave person needs power, and a temperate person needs freedom to make decisions. Even the greatest actions require "external goods," and the better the action, the more goods it requires. A wise or studious person needs none of these goods, although he or she will choose virtuous actions anyway. Study is also the most godlike virtue, since gods do not need to take actions to improve their characters or to moderate their appetites. The more someone studies, the happier they will be.

Although study is the key ingredient to a happy life, it does not complete the picture. A happy person needs physical health, food, and other essentials, but not many. People with moderate resources can be virtuous. In fact, "private citizens" are actually more likely to do well than the rich and powerful are. Aristotle thinks Solon summed up happiness well: a life of moderate resources, fine actions, and temperance. Since "the many" tend to judge people on obvious resources, like wealth and power, a truly happy person might seem "absurd" to them.

Aristotle says readers should apply the principles he is discussing to their lives and see if they are useful. He concludes the wise person "whose activity accords with understanding" will be the most blessed by the gods. Since understanding is the most godlike activity, it is reasonable for the gods to favor humans who enjoy understanding.

Section 9

As Aristotle transitions into the topics he will discuss in Politics, he repeats that people need to act on the knowledge in the Ethics. Although "civilized" young people can learn about virtue and practice it, "the many" still have not mastered virtue. They avoid bad actions only because they fear punishment, and they seek mediocre pleasures.

How can someone get off to the right start for a virtuous life? Does nature, habit, or teaching make people good? Aristotle thinks all three—nature, habit, and teaching—need to be combined. A good person should be born with "a character suitable for virtue," be trained and educated correctly, and practice virtues until they become habit.

However, since most people "yield to compulsion more than to argument," a society needs laws if it wants virtuous citizens. The laws should encourage good actions and punish bad actions. Good people can become good only if their lives follow "understanding and correct order." Laws can compel good behavior in a way parents and other individuals cannot, since people do not consider it a burden to follow laws. Aristotle defines law as "reason that proceeds from ... prudence and understanding." Legislators do not typically tend to the upbringing of citizens, so the community should step in. Community upbringing and individualized education are ideal for raising good citizens and good people.

People in many different professions can contribute to the common good, but anyone who "wishes to make people better" should reach for universal good by studying legislative science. Aristotle considers how aspiring lawmakers and politicians should educate themselves. Skilled politicians, he decides, need both academic study and real-life experience. Many activists and teachers in Athens, like "political activists" and the Sophists, have either study or experience but not both. Can someone learn legislative science through the study of other communities' laws? Aristotle invites the reader to join him in a study of "collected political systems" to learn more.

Analysis

Because Aristotle is a scientist at heart, he wants to know if the theory he posed about happiness in Book 1 can be proven by the time he reaches Book 10. He laid out all the evidence and it is time for a conclusion.

He returns to the biological basics of human existence. He has already proven that happiness will involve pleasure somehow. However, is pleasure the "highest good" he has been seeking all along? Aristotle considers common misconceptions about pleasure based in "actions and feelings" and compares them to the facts. Just as people confuse self-love with selfishness, people confuse true pleasure with selfish enjoyments. Moreover, anyone who argues against pleasure is still human—they will not be able to avoid seeking enjoyment sometimes.

The famously pleasure-seeking Greek philosophers who became known as Hedonists believed the purpose of life was to enjoy it as much as possible. Eudoxus, the scholar Aristotle cites, was not a Hedonist, but he did notice the connection between pleasure and choice. Aristotle agrees that humans will usually choose pleasure over pain. The key element missing from both Hedonist and anti-Hedonist views, he believes, is the importance of where people find pleasure. An example in Section 3 compares a friend and a flatterer. Both say pleasing things, but only the friend's remark can give both friends the genuine pleasure that is a part of happiness. The flatterer's remark offers a false pleasure with the wrong motive.

The discussion of pleasure and activity establishes that the highest good will involve an activity humans can take part in throughout their lives. It will be unique to humans, using reason and providing enjoyment. It will require virtue and understanding but not external resources; it will be self-sufficient. Study, or the gathering of wisdom, is the only activity Aristotle finds to meet all the criteria for the highest good.

He does not mean a happy life has to be singularly devoted to academic study. After all, enjoying the company of others is still invaluable. However, a happy life will include and prioritize study. Learning more about the world, understanding the truths behind scientific knowledge, and exploring ways to create a better community can all be aspects of study leading to wisdom. Study and contemplation will lead to awe and wonder—the closest humans can get to the eternal, whether the eternal comes in the form of cosmos or deities. Aristotle's comments on the absurdity of gods wasting their time with human actions remind the reader that wisdom transcends pedestrian concerns of human life.

Section 9 serves two purposes. It sends readers off with an imperative to "act on [their] knowledge," and it reiterates the significance of moral education. The section also transitions into the Politics, Aristotle's famous treatise examining political life. He has outlined how humans should behave. How should lawmakers behave? The practical aim of the Ethics is to improve human life, which means improving the polis. Any plan for happiness must extend beyond the individual to the community, and this plan starts with moral education, which Aristotle says begins with the state. The "collected political systems" he references are constitutions from different governments compiled by Aristotle's students at the Lyceum. The Politics will serve as a companion piece to the Ethics, completing Aristotle's design for the ideal life.

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