BMCR 2004.06.46

Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

, Happy lives and the highest good : an essay on Aristotle's Nicomachean ethics. Princeton: Princeton University, 2004. 1 online resource (viii, 238 pages). ISBN 9781400826087 $35.00.

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The fundamental subject of the Nicomachean Ethics is human happiness, i.e., eudaimonia. From the very beginning of the treatise Aristotle links happiness with the ends of human action and therefore also with human goodness. He proposes early on that finality and self-sufficiency are two defining features of happiness. However, he is discontent with the generality of this determination and pushes the argument to greater specificity so that by Book I chapter 7 he is able to articulate an initial, more particular, and more substantive conclusion to the question which concerns him. Eudaimonia, as it turns out, is rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, i.e., arete, or excellence. The continuation of his argument in Books II through VI, as amplified by Books VIII and IX, appear, almost without exception, to indicate that the relevant rational activity is practical. The virtue or excellence of this practical intellect is phronesis, or practical wisdom, which operates in connection with the moral virtues and is ordered, paradigmatically, to the political life. Thus far, then, Aristotle’s argument indicates that eudaimonia is virtue in the practical life so understood. Surprisingly, however, as Lear emphasizes in the very beginning of her book, Aristotle shifts his focus in NE Book X from the practical to the speculative or theoretical intellect. In chapter 7 thereof he argues that the most final human happiness is the noetic function of theoria, i.e., the philosophic contemplation of truth, and that to this intellectual activity the life of political virtue stands secondary. It is this tension in Aristotle’s treatment of human happiness that is, at its broadest level, the subject of L.’s book.

More particularly, L. defends a monistic version of philosophic contemplation as ultimate human happiness. Thus her book is the newest addition to a longstanding debate among Aristotelian scholars between monistic and inclusivist interpretations of NE. To the inclusivist eudaimonia is essentially a class of human goods of sufficient intrinsic value to be regarded as constituents of human happiness. To the monist, on the other hand, eudaimonia is not a class of goods but rather one or more independent activities, standing in some form or another as the final cause of other relevant human goods. L.’s own position is, in essence and in outline, that practical rationality, exhibited in the activities of moral virtue is 1) an end in itself, but also 2) ultimately choice-worthy for the sake of philosophic contemplation. Contemplation, therefore, can be understood as the only human good choice-worthy for itself alone and not for the sake of anything else and thus as Aristotle’s monistic eudaimonia. The problem is how practical rationality in general and the acts of moral virtue in particular can be ordered to contemplation as the final and monistic human end, if they are also ends in themselves. This is what L. calls the problem of mid-level ends. What is new in her approach is the nature of the ordering between the life of moral virtue and the contemplative life of philosophy. In her view the activities of moral virtue are approximations of the proper activity of contemplation. She defines the approximation in relation to truth as the object of rational capacity taken in its totality, both practical and theoretical. L. in a sense coins this word “approximation” for the purpose of her argument, and the essential integrity of her account stands or falls with her development of this idea.

Aristotle’s texts are somewhat special in the classical corpus (as are other Greek philosophical writings of similar originality and depth) because they present some issues which are properly the province of the professional classicist and others which are more properly the province of the professional philosopher. Thus one can usefully divide approaches to Aristotle according to this distinction. L.’s work aligns significantly in the direction of the purely philosophical. While L. describes her work as “an interpretation of the Nicomachean Ethics” (p. 5) her hermeneutics is finally at the service of her philosophic project, as she herself reveals in moments of more candid admission: for example: “Aristotle never explicitly says that excellent practical reasoning is good because its essence is defined with reference to wise contemplation” (p. 90).

L. apportions her argument into eight chapters. In chapter 1 she provides a general introduction. In chapter 2 she attempts to distinguish Aristotle’s particular understanding of teleology as applied to the finality of eudaimonia. In chapter 3 she focuses on self-sufficiency, interpreting it as a function of finality. In chapter 4 she develops the notion of approximation as a general solution to the problem of mid-level ends. Chapter 5 is the heart of her argument: there she applies her theory of approximation to the practical rationality of moral virtue. In chapter 6 she discusses the relation to practical rationality of to kalon, translated throughout as “the fine.” In chapter 7 she applies the theory of approximation to the particular virtues of courage, temperance, and greatness of soul. And finally, in chapter 8 she comes back to philosophic contemplation and pragmatic approximation through the query why should a philosopher also choose the moral life. L.’s argument is full, intricate, and, I think it fair to say, in places controversial. My procedure here will be to describe in clear and brief summaries the central proposal of each chapter, with some general comments about her overall project reserved for final remarks.

After her introduction L. develops in chapter 2 what she sees as the correct understanding in NE of the conception of acting for an end. She sets her view against the inclusivists’ misunderstanding, as she sees it, of Aristotle’s ethical teleology (p. 3). Notwithstanding that the bulk of NE pertains to human choice, L.’s position is that for Aristotle human action aims not so much at an object of desire as at a goal that functions as a “normative standard” (p. 12) defining the final fulfillment of human activity and therefore also its precise and particular good (p.13). L. looks to Aristotle’s natural philosophy for the paradigm of final causality. In natural processes Aristotle sees the “essence or form” of a natural entity as that which defines the proper specifications and final completion of natural motion. Thus essence or form is the end of natural motion and as such determines its value and defines its proper goodness. L. applies this conception of teleology to several passages in NE that describe happiness as the convergence of the various areas of human good (pp. 21 ff.) and as the most hierarchical of ends (pp. 23 ff.). From these premises she constructs a monistic interpretation of Aristotle’s argument wherein eudaimonia becomes the normative standard of all human action determining both its proper limits and final fulfillment. At the end of this first chapter L. reinforces her teleological interpretation by: 1) suggesting that all terminology of desire in NE be construed normatively, e.g. haireta understood to mean “choice-worthy not “chosen” (pp. 34 ff.); 2) arguing that the internal and external ends of mid-level activities cannot be explained as either coinciding by chance (pp. 37 ff.) or exhibiting separate functions, e.g., one determining the value of the mid-level activity and another determining its limitation (pp. 38 ff.); and 3) dismissing Akrill’s well-known idea that mid-level activities are instrumental to eudaimonia precisely because they are valuable in their own right as ends of human action.

In chapter 3 L. accounts for the self-sufficiency of happiness in terms of its finality. She rejects explicitly the inclusivist’s interpretation that self-sufficiency means the inclusion within “happiness” of all or most other significant human goods (p. 48); indeed, she discusses Plato’s Philebus to highlight Aristotle’s departure from his master on this point. For L. happiness is an organizing principle that determines the sufficiency of all goods chosen for its sake. In this way self-sufficiency is a function of the normative aspect of the finality of eudaimonia. Thus: “A self-sufficient final cause makes the network [leading to it] lack nothing further [emphasis hers] for its desirability” (p. 52). All, or at least most, goods ordinarily thought to be significantly desirable, i.e., essential to a happy life, must be desirable because happiness is their final cause. A corollary of her conception is that it is no contradiction to the notion of self-sufficiency for one or more significantly desirable goods to be lacking from the happy life. L. braces against the tempting objection that her account opens an inclusivist door reintroducing desire to the causality of action by emphasizing that her version of self-sufficiency is a form of objective “teleological subordination” (p. 59).

Chapters 4 and 5 contain the core of L.’s fundamental thesis. First in chapter 4 she argues that mid-level ends can both be choice-worthy for their own sakes and also choice-worthy for the sake of a more final end by virtue of approximating the proper activities of that end. Despite a long prefatory attempt to find forms of approximation in the final causality of Aristotle’s Prime Mover,1the crux of her argument involves again an application of Aristotle’s natural philosophy. In De Anima (415a25-b7) Aristotle explains reproduction as an animal’s attempt to “participate” in the eternal and divine in the only way possible for it. In On Generation and Corruption (337a1-7) he speaks of coming to be and passing away as an imitation of divine circular motion. L.’s analysis merges all distinctions between participation and imitation into the general modality which she calls “approximation” (p. 85). In a very brief paragraph (p. 86) she adds a second premise critical to her project that approximating an intrinsically valuable end makes the approximation also an end in itself. Then in chapter 5 she argues more particularly that the rational activity of practical intellect in the life of moral virtue, while an end in itself, is also an approximation of theoretical rationality. Because it is such an approximation, it is therefore also choice-worthy for the sake of the more perfect end of philosophic contemplation. The connections, simplified, are as follows: truth and precision are proper functions of both practical and theoretical reasoning; theoretical intellect, however, both in terms of its precision and in terms of its proper object, grasps truth in a more perfect way ( cf. p. 114); therefore, practical rationality is an approximation of “contemplative truthfulness … as a target of emulation” (p. 122). Thus, in her view, approximation allows for the ordering of practical rationality to theoretical rationality in graduated levels of finality, mid-level to supreme.

In chapters 6 and 7 L. reaches the moral virtues themselves as a testing ground of her theory of approximation. She argues first in chapter 6 that moral action is an end in itself because it is kalon or fine. In her analysis this means that moral choice of the intermediate is 1) beautiful because it is ordered, symmetric, and bounded and 2) visibly determined by the final and highest human end of philosophic contemplation. This is so because the act of practical rationality in moral choice is an approximation of the rationality of contemplation. She intends this proposition as an objective notion because, for her, moral agents need not be conscious of the relation of their actions to contemplation; indeed, only the moral agent who is also a philosopher will ever be actually and fully conscious of this relationship (p. 132). Then in chapter 7 L. considers the particular moral virtues of courage, temperance, and greatness of soul. In the case of courage — let this suffice for an example — L. weaves connections from death in battle to philosophic contemplation. Acts of courage are ordered to the preservation of the good of political freedom. When the moral agent chooses death in battle for the sake of this particular good, he exhibits a commitment to its best use which is the life of leisure. Since the highest and best use of leisure is philosophic contemplation, the courageous act is an objective and visible, if not conscious, commitment to contemplation as the highest and best use of the very life which courage aims at preserving. Indeed, literally for L., “the life of contemplation is what makes courageous actions worth undertaking” (p. 160) and “we can conclude, although Aristotle does not do so in his discussion … that the activity of courage is ultimately choiceworthy for the sake of contemplation” (p. 162).

In her final chapter L. examines from a slightly different perspective the relationship between the life of practical rationality in its paradigmatically political form and the more divine-like life of philosophic contemplation. Through a reading of NE Book X she attempts to answer the question why the philosopher, who is already committed to the divine life of contemplation, should choose also to live a moral life. After all Aristotle assigns this life in Book X only a secondary status. L. contends that the political life is also divine and as such worthy of the philosopher’s choice. She rejects all dualistic notions of the human being as partly political and partly philosophic. She also rejects any notion that happiness consists in a simple maximization of contemplation. Rather the key to a full monistic happiness is the teleological relationship between practical and contemplative rationality. The activity of intellect in the moral choices of political life approximates the intellection of contemplation. In this light L. holds that the activity of practical rationality is a kind of contemplation, a theoria tis as she calls it (p. 205). To act morally in this highest political sense is in L.’s view consistent with the organization of one’s entire life toward contemplation. The philosopher himself knows this teleological reality better than any, and in those instances when practical action is inevitable, it is the morally virtuous choice which maintains his disposition to the life of contemplation. In this sense the two lives, the life of politics and the life of philosophy, are the modalities by which the political animal best and most fully honors the divine life of nous in himself.

At the center of L.’s project, various meandering musings notwithstanding, is the application of Aristotle’s scheme of final causality in natural philosophy to his ethical thinking. It is through such an application that L. approaches the important relationship in NE expressed in the phrase “that for the sake of which.” This transference raises many technical questions, not the least of which is the removal of awareness from final ethical causality. One clear and clearly intended consequence of L.’s project is that the moral agent as such pursues his ultimate human happiness unconsciously. Thus she commits herself to the unusual, if not nonsensical proposition that the soldier who takes a bullet pro patria does so, ultimately, but without the slightest inkling, for the sake of the philosophic life. That the philosopher alone is fully aware of his true human purpose seems a counsel of despair for the vast majority of the human race. Problems of this sort are always the wedge between the monist and the inclusivist. For this reason, while L.’s reading of NE is extremely clever, it is doubtful whether it will convert committed inclusivits or others who wish to connect awareness with meaningful human action. However, the cleverness is precisely the value of her work. It is genuine philosophizing prompted by significant problems in an important text and will cause readers to have to consider again their own thinking in order to address adequately her more provocative points. Accordingly, the book is worth the considerable effort it will take to give it a fair and thorough reading.

[[For a response to this review by Gabriel Richardson Lear, please see BMCR 2004.07.34.]]


1. In an Appendix on Plato’s view of love in the Symposium L. continues the line of thought begun with reference to Aristotle’s Prime Mover. She tries to show that approximation is also at play in Diotima’s account of the love of the beautiful. The connection in her mind seems to be an approach to divine final causality which Aristotle first learnt from Plato. Otherwise L.’s treatment is peripheral to the proof of her main thesis.