Aristotle on Ultimate Happiness

By Susan J. Fleck.  December, 1992.

Happiness: Action Versus Form

"I'm so happy!"  This is what you would expect to hear from someone who had e.g. just been married; had their first baby; bought a new home or car; graduated from college; landed the job they wanted; etc.  To be happy - is this just a fleeting, momentary event or feeling-related thing?  Or -  can one expect to achieve "happiness", a more permanent 'state' of being which is not just tied to a specific celebration in life?  This paper will explore Aristotle's view on the 'ultimate' happiness - why we must plan for it, what it really is, and how his view conforms to his view of man's basic nature.

In dealing with ethics, Aristotle does not promise precision or certainty:  "We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premises to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premises of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better" (6, 17).

Plato identified the highest good with the Form or the Idea of Good, which is the metaphysical source of the goodness of all other good things.  Aristotle had various arguments against Plato's Forms in general, but in particular, he felt that the 'Good' Form's nature was only to be good, and this was not something that we can pursue in action or possess.  We could not aim at a good that was describable only as 'good',; there would be nothing to give us any direction.  Since ethics is concerned with the highest good that is humanly practicable, then it is not concerned with the Form (6, 22).  Morality for Aristotle consists in doing actions not because we see them to be right in themselves, but because we see them as bringing us nearer to the 'good for man' (4, 188). 

What is Happiness?

He asks- "What is the good we are looking for..? ... Not all ends are ultimate ends, whereas the supreme good is something final.  So if there is some one thing that is alone ultimate, this is what we are looking for; .. just by itself makes life worth choosing, and lacking in nothing" (1, 292).  Otherwise, our desire would be 'empty and futile', since the pursuit would go on to infinity.  But what is this supreme good?  Aristotle accepts from popular opinion that the end is 'happiness' (eudaimonia) - and agrees that this means the same as living well and doing well.  And since no one can give a reason for wanting it (and one would not say 'I want misery instead'), then it must be the ultimate end.  I.e. happiness is not a means to yet another end.

But the difficulty comes in translating the word 'happiness' (eudaimonia) - there is little agreement.  As Aristotle says, "For the [many] think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or honour; they differ, however, from one another - and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor, but, conscious of their ignorance, they admire those who proclaim some great thing that is above their comprehension"  (e.g. the Platonists) (6, 24).  Aristotle's discussion swings between the notion of the supreme good as a certain sort of life, and the notion of it as some element within a life which may dominate, or typify, it (6, 26).

In any case, it is a life of action.  His first sentence in the Ethics shows his teleological viewpoint:  "Every art and every enquiry, every action and choice, seems to aim at some good; whence the good has rightly been defined as that at which all things aim" (4, 188).   Aristotle thinks humans always act with some end - some desire -  in view (except aimless behavior).   Although it makes no sense to say we are aiming for something that we do not want, or that is bad for us, Aristotle points out the error of our ways: 

But most people do not [engage in right actions], but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do.  As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy.   (6, 20)

Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living.  Aristotle said that an unplanned life is not worth examining, because it is one in which we do not know what we are trying to do or why, and one in which we do not know where we are trying to get or how to get there.  It is also not worth living because it cannot be lived well (2, 77) -   "... since not to have one's life organized in view of some end is a sign of great folly" (5, 17).

Most Final End

According to Aristotle, there is only one right plan for achieving happiness, and it involves us in seeking and acquiring all the things that are good for us to have.  These are things that we need not only in order to live, but to live well (2, 89).  Aristotle has written much in his Ethics about the good things we should have in and of and for life.  According to Hardie, Aristotle comes near to facing that within the human good there are many activities desired for themselves and not only one - that there is a place in the good life for 'theory', and there is also a place for family and friends and an active moral life as a citizen.  In Ethics X.8 he explicitly asserts that human happiness has these two main forms.  In I.7 he admits that the 'human good' must be ready to allow a plurality of ends (5, 22).   But he goes on to say that if there is more than one final end, the object of our search is most final.  What is the right ultimate end, for which we need the right plan to seek?   Aristotle gets to the heart (or mind) of the matter:

... then it (happiness) must be the best activity, i.e., that of the best in man.  Whether it is mind or something else that seems naturally to rule and to lead, and to take notice of good and divine things - whether it is itself divine, or the most divine thing in man - the activity of this in accordance with its own proper virtue will be complete happiness.  This is contemplation.  This is the best activity:  The mind is the best in us and also the most continuous.    (1, 369)

Contemplation alone is to be admired for its own sake.  In matters of action, we hope for something more or less apart from the action. ... they aim at an end; and they are not chosen for their own sake.  But the activity of the mind - contemplation - seems to be outstanding in its seriousness, and it has no goal apart from itself.  It has its own pleasure, which increases the activity, and it has its own sufficiency; and it is leisurely and unlaborious. ... this will be complete human happiness ... for there is nothing incomplete in the case of happiness.     (1, 370)


The above translation uses the word 'contemplation' for the Greek theġria.  As long as we do not think of a 'fixed gaze' often associated with that word, it probably best describes Aristotle's perfect happiness.  Theġria is not merely study or speculation, rather it covers any sort of detached, intelligent attentive pondering and can denote the intellectual or aesthetic exploration of some object.  But it can not be equated with search for solutions to problems or the quest of scientific or metaphysical explanations.  Aristotle says that it is pleasanter to know than to be seeking knowledge (6, 401).  Since contemplation is self-sufficient, a source of pure pleasure, something we can engage in continuously, and is the most excellent of activities - these are all the ingredients of happiness that Aristotle set out in Book I of the Ethics.

According to both the Eudemian Ethics (EE) and the Nicomachean Ethics (NE) intellectual goods are preferred to other more 'human' goods.  But the EE indicates that the intellectual concerns are to be pursued only once the moral virtues are met:  that one would live his life in the midst of social and family connections, but would make as much room as he could, with no failing in any requirement of virtue, for intellectual things (3, 142).  However, the NE puts much more emphasis on the intellectual life - indicating that flourishing is "excellent spiritual or mental activity, or, if there are several forms of excellence, spiritual activity expressing the best and most final excellence."  In the tenth book the intellectual life is pronounce "most flourishing," while the moral life is given the rank of "flourishing in the second degree. ... For we deal justly and bravely and in other ways virtuously with one another ... and these are all obviously typically human things. ... But the excellence of the intellect is separated [from the emotions]."  Aristotle is comparing two distinct modes of life - he does not mean the intellectual life and the moral life of a single person.  According to the Greek expressions, he can only mean two different lives led by two different kinds of persons (3, 158).

Questions About Intellectualist View

It seems that Aristotle is saying that the best plan of life is to pursue constantly the single end of theoretical contemplation.  This does not seem to be a 'common sense' approach to anyone who regards himself, as Aristotle seemed to do in the EE as not merely an intellectual but also an emotional being.  He also spent much of the time in the NE describing the values of 'human' needs, goods and virtues.  Before NE X.7 and 8 'contemplation' was hardly existent, now it seems to be the center of happiness.  Broadie points out several questions that occur as a result of this intellectualist view - only a few are listed here:

1.Does the NE harbor a radical contradiction concerning the nature of happiness?

2.Does X introduce an additional conception of happiness or does it replace the one expounded earlier?

3.Is the life of practical excellence inferior to that of theoretic wisdom?

4.Is activity of practical wisdom and moral virtue in some sense a means to theġria? (6, 372)

Ergon (Function) Argument

This life-goal of contemplation makes more sense, perhaps, in light of what Aristotle claims is the correct view of a human being.  Then such a life may appear entirely appropriate.  His 'identification' of human beings provides the grounding for the intellectualist ideal of flourishing.  Aristotle brings forward the idea that one ought to conceive of oneself as identical exclusively with one's pure intellect (nous):

".. it would be strange, then, if he were to choose not the life of himself but that of something else.  And what we said before will apply now; that which is proper to each thing is by nature best and most pleasant for each thing; for man, therefore, the life according to nous is best and pleasantest, since nous more than anything else is man."    (6, 404)

Aristotle connects the function of a thing with the good at which it characteristically aims.  E.g. a cabinet is the productive activity, or good, of a carpenter.   Aristotle pondered a typifying activity for man: "What, then, could this be? ... The remaining possibility, then, is some sort of practical life of the part of the soul that has reason."  He identifies the self with mind or intelligence and reason is our most important characteristic (6, 34).  Cooper felt that Aristotle is splitting the intellectual powers from the others and in some obscure way constituting a soul on their own - that strictly it is a man's intellect that makes him what he is and therefore any choice of ideal other than the maximum development and exercise of the mind would be low and unworthy (3, 176).   The origins of Aristotle's thought is in Plato's Republic, according to Cooper.  Plato's hybrid of a many-headed wild beast (appetite), a lion ('high spirit'), and a man (the mind), where the mind was represented by a little man inside of the large man.  Plato calls the mind the 'best' and the 'most divine' part (3, 168).  Aristotle says:

"But such a life would be too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him; and by so much as this is superior to our composite nature is its activity superior to that which is the exercise of the other kind of excellence.  If nous is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life."   (6, 402)

Toward the Divine

The implication is that a life centered on contemplation would not be a human life at all.  But this is exactly why theġria is the best life, because it is divine.  Aristotle says "But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything" (6, 404).  He argues that the gods, whom everyone assumes to lead a blissful life, must be thought to be constantly engaged in theorizing, and he infers that the same activity must constitute happiness for humans as well.  This is the only kind of activity we know of that it makes sense to ascribe to a god.  If we look at activity which manifests an ethical virtue; justice, courage, liberality, temperance - Aristotle says "Will not the gods seem absurd if they make contracts and return deposits and so on? ... Therefore the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be the happiest" (5, 343). 

A Life Parallel to that of the Gods

But how can it follow that human happiness consists in the same as that of the gods?  Divine activity should seem foreign to humans.  Theġria also seems to be trivial, pointless and non-productive.  It seems to show contempt for human values if we are to center our ethical lives around contemplation.  Why would Aristotle take this intellectualist turn?  According to Cooper, Aristotle's psychology in his De Anima encourages the idea that a human is essentially godlike, and therefore the idea of flourishing in NE X is a natural consequence (3, 177).  The theme that happiness is divine was not new with Aristotle, but it does dominate his final arguments in Ethics, and  there seems to be a religious dimension to his ethics.  But we must remember, as Broadie points out,  the culture of his times, where the gods were not a species separate from the humans.  There was parallel behavior, communication and family relationships - Zeus was the 'father of gods and men'.  It was quite human to aspire to 'live as the gods' (6, 409).

While the Eudemian Ethics presents a mixed 'down-to-earth' life as the highest ideal, the Nicomachean Ethics presents the intellectualist 'divine' life as the happiest, with virtuous activity taking a secondary position.  The older (EE) view continues to survive for those who do not regard only their intellectual nature as essential to what they are.  Having studied all of this, I am not sure I know how to plan for my 'ultimate' happiness.  In either case, Aristotle points out the necessity and values of a morally virtuous life and the values of an intellectual life.  He certainly knew that man could not be happy living in isolation from other humans - that we are social animals.  The only practical sense I can make of either view is that we should plan to devote as much time as posible for contemplation - because that is where we will receive our highest fullfillment, our highest happiness - but contemplation does not excuse us from our lives as family and citizen persons.

Works Cited

1.Bambrough, Renford.  The Philosophy of AristotleNew York: Penguin Books, 1963.

2.Adler, Mortimer J.  Aristotle for EverybodyNew York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1978.

3.Cooper, John M.  Reason and Human Good in AristotleCambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.

4.Ross, W.D.  AristotleLondon: M.A. Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1923.

5.Hardie, W.F.R.   Aristotle's Ethical TheoryOxford:  Clarendon Press, 1980.

6.Broadie, Sarah.  Ethics With AristotleNew YorkOxford University Press, 1991.


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