Aristotle (384–322 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 17, 2018, from

26. Two conceptions of happiness?

Although Aristotle emphasizes the other-regarding, social aspects of happiness, he also advocates pure intellectual activity (or ‘study’, theōria) – the contemplation of scientific and philosophical truths, apart from any attempt to apply them to practice (Nicomachean Ethics X 6–8). The connection between the human function and human happiness (see §21) implies that contemplation is a supremely important element in happiness. For contemplation is the highest fulfilment of our nature as rational beings; it is the sort of rational activity that we share with the gods, who are rational beings with no need to apply reason to practice. Aristotle infers that contemplation is the happiest life available to us, in so far as we have the rational intellects we share with gods (see §16).

According to one interpretation, Aristotle actually identifies contemplation with happiness: contemplation is the only non-instrumental good that is part of happiness, and the moral virtues are to be valued – from the point of view of happiness – simply as means to contemplation. If this is Aristotle’s view, it is difficult to see how the virtues of character are even the best instrumental means to happiness. Even if some virtuous actions are instrumental means to contemplation, it is difficult to see how the motives demanded of the virtuous person (see §§24–5) are always useful, rather than distracting, for those who aim at contemplation.

Probably, however, Aristotle means that contemplation is the best component of happiness. If we were pure intellects with no other desires and no bodies, contemplation would be the whole of our good. Since, however, we are not in fact merely intellects (Nicomachean Ethics 1178b3–7), Aristotle recognizes that the good must be the good of the whole human being. Contemplation is not the complete good for a human being.

If this is Aristotle’s view, then contemplation fits the conception of happiness that is upheld in the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics and in the other ethical works. The virtues of character, and the actions expressing them, deserve to be chosen for their own sakes as components of happiness. In the virtuous person, they regulate one’s choice of other goods, and so they also regulate one’s choices about contemplation. The Politics may be taken to develop this conception of happiness, since (in book VII) it sets contemplation in the context of a social order regulated by the moral virtues.

Citing this article:
Irwin, T.H.. Two conceptions of happiness?. Aristotle (384–322 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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