Aristotle, the Goal of All Human Action, and How Knowledge of This Goal Can Guide Us (v.1)

    An Introduction to Eudaimonia and the Nicomachean Ethics      

The topic at hand is Aristotle’s theory of the telos or ultimate goal of human action as presented in Book I, Chapter 1 through Chapter 7, §8 of his Nicomachean Ethics (NE). This is a very small cross section of the work as a whole. The limited breadth of material to be explored will allow us to retrace the steps Aristotle takes through his reasoning, with commentary, critique, and attention given to how his claims and arguments relate to a theory of the aims of human action, and how this theory can guide a successful life (if it can at all).

        Aristotle begins by discussing ends. He first notes that every craft, inquiry, action and decision seeks a good, and that these goods are as great in number as the pursuits themselves (NE I.1.§§1-3). These manifold sought-after goods are not things which are in the contemporary moralistic sense qualitatively good, but might be better elucidated as desired goals, ends, or products. The craft of essay writing, for example, does not seek as its end any activity related to writing an essay, but a product, namely, an essay. So the “good” that essay-writing seeks is a finished essay. But Aristotle also discusses relations of subordinate and superordinate goods. To illustrate: essay-writing as an activity can be thought of as subordinate to the practice of meaningful scholarship. And the practice of meaningful scholarship can be thought of as superordinate to the goods of multiple activities, such as studying and productive classroom discourse. Aristotle believes that the superordinate goods are always “more choiceworthy” than the subordinate goods (NE I.1,§4). This means that aiming towards the superordinate good of meaningful scholarship, which entails many subordinate goods, should ceteris paribus always be preferred to aiming at any one of its subordinate goods. This “choiceworthiness of superordinate ends” is a critical notion as related to his overall theory of aims and is an early example of how Aristotle’s theory may provide criteria for success, or at least how it may serve as a guide to right action.

        In the next chapter, Aristotle proposes that there must be a highest end or greatest good that superordinates over all human activities and he asks (rhetorically) whether knowledge of this good will “carry great weight for our way of life…like archers who have a target to aim at [and are better able] to hit the right mark” (NE I.2§§1-2). Based on the preceding notion of the choiceworthiness of superordinate ends, it seems trivial to say that if there is a most superordinate end, it will be the most choiceworthy, providing a target for our lives. He argues for the existence of a singular end by saying that if there is not such an ultimate end, that human desire becomes “empty and futile.” In other words, it seems he proposes that if all activity is means to an end, but these activities lead to no ultimate end sought after for its own sake, that all activity would be rendered futile; human life would be reduced to a circle of occupation and dissatisfaction.

Now, we should grant this for the sake of interest in the rest of Aristotle’s argument, but it does not immediately seem necessary that all activity point to the same singular ultimate end even if activity is directed toward an ultimate end; there may be ten ultimate ends consisting of activities which are self-sustaining, or there may be clusters of subordinate activities which lead to one ultimate end but which are distinct from other clusters that lead to other ultimate ends. Or perhaps there are many motivating states of consciousness derived from individual desiderative sets which determine the ultimate end of actions, i.e., there are goal-states for particular human lives, valid to pursue for particular reasons at particular times, but none that is/are strictly universal. We might even simply agree that human desire in the broad sense (as opposed to the narrow sense of desires considered individually) is in fact frequently or always empty and futile, as many widespread philosophical traditions have done.

But Aristotle would likely call this entire discussion confused and premature. After all, it is a matter of fact that most people, cultured and uncultured, wise and foolish alike, then as well as now, would agree that a good life, characterized by flourishing (living and doing well) is the ultimate goal toward which human action is implicitly and explicitly directed (NE I.4,§2). The greek term that encompasses the italicized notion is eudaimonia. But even if this is the case, that a life of eudaimonia is the most superordinate end, our probing questions and comments above still remain. It is as much a matter of fact that people disagree on what it means to have a eudaimonic life as it is that they agree on the importance of eudaimonia. However, Aristotle’s approach is pragmatic; he is of course aware of the infinitude of beliefs about eudaimonia, and considers it “rather futile to examine all these beliefs…it is enough to examine those that are most current or seem to have some argument for them” (NE I.4.§4).

This leads him, in chapter 5, to discuss the three lives, each of which implies a particular conception of the good from the actions taken by an individual leading them. In doing so Aristotle answers a potential objection to his broad thesis, the objection that we rarely direct individual actions toward some grand design for our lives. In modern terms, we might say that a person who acts unreflectively is analogous to a blindfolded person driving their car in an arbitrary direction; just because they do not know where they are directing themselves does not mean we are forbidden from saying that they are directing themselves somewhere. Nor does it mean that we cannot tell where they will end up if they are driving west toward the edge of a pier, or that we are forbidden from pointing out that his driving toward the ocean depends on many small actions not seemingly individually directed at driving into the ocean, such as starting the car and hitting the gas. In summary, the lack of conscious direction of individual actions toward some “grand end” does not preclude unconscious direction toward such an end. Aristotle means to show three common ways people drive off the pier.

Now, as Aristotle said in §1 of chapter 5: “let us begin again from the point from which we digressed.” Aristotle moves to discuss the life of gratification, the life of political activity, and the life of study.

The first life Aristotle discusses in chapter 5, led by “the many and the most vulgar,” seems to identify a eudaimonic life with a life of pleasure and gratification. Aristotle calls the life of gratification “completely slavish…a life for grazing animals” and recognizes that it is widely adopted (NE I.5,§3). Interestingly, beyond the deployment of pejoratives, Aristotle does not immediately present arguments against the pleasant life. However, if Aristotle had in mind the lives of people who live selfish and isolated lives, barely functioning except to facilitate their next indulgence, or people who are not functional at all,  such as drug addicts, chronic gamblers, and so on, then we can hardly fault him or call him unreasonable for being dismissive of the life of gratification. It is almost trivial to say that the exclusive pursuit of pleasure manifested in these ways can lead to one being deficient in other areas necessary for leading a complete life, for example prudence and discipline.

Aristotle claims that the second life, concerned with the pursuit of prestige, seems to have its ends confused (NE I.5,§§4-6). How can it be that the proper life is one of honor if honor only matters when it is bestowed by the virtuous? Doesn’t this mean that virtue is actually more highly valued than honor? And if possession of both virtue and honor constitutes good living, does that mean that a virtuous, honored man in a coma or struck with cancer is living a good life? It seems wrong to say so. So the pursuit of prestige implies an inadequate picture of the good and insufficient criteria for a flourishing life.

The third life, the life of study, Aristotle only mentions briefly before using money as an example of an instrumental good that people mistakenly pursue as though it were an absolute good (NE I.5,§§7-8). In the terms that I have been using, this pursuit is mistaken because something instrumental like money is obviously subordinate to whatever end it seeks to facilitate and is of no use in-itself, so it cannot be the most choiceworthy path.

It is worth noting that each of the three lives Aristotle mentioned has as its focus — pleasure, social ties and esteem, knowledge and wisdom — something that can be considered an important subordinate component of eudaimonia that can even be valued in-itself, but which in isolation is not sufficient to make a life complete. Money, and other things with instrumental use, are subordinate to these components of eudaimonia because they should only be valued instrumentally, and not in-themselves at all.

The formations so far have been basically negative. Much of Aristotle’s discourse so far has been focused on narrowing the possible telos of human action. While it is instructive and useful to know what to avoid, without knowing what the highest good actually is, it seems impossible to have actionable criteria for success. Thankfully, in Chapter 7, Aristotle makes qualities of the highest good explicit. In §3-4, Aristotle reformulates the notion of the choiceworthiness of superordinate ends in terms of completeness; among ends, or goods, the best good will be the most complete good, and the most complete good is the good which is not considered instrumental to anything else, but is realized by the synthesis of many other instrumental goods. In §5, he names eudaimonia as being the good which most satisfies this condition, since other things that are satisfying in themselves such as pleasure, honor, and a well-developed understanding all contribute to eudaimonia, but the reverse is not true. This formulation reflects a synthesis of the three lives he presented in Chapter 5. In Chapter 7, §6-8, he argues that eudaimonia can by itself make a life choiceworthy, which means that eudaimonia is self-sufficient — it is by definition the superordinate good which contains within it all concepts that contribute to a flourishing life.

So in, what ways can this presently developed notion of eudaimonia guide a person toward success as a human? Aristotle develops the concept further in the Nicomachean Ethics, narrowing its scope, but even as it is now, it proves to be a useful and robust concept. For one, holding eudaimonia as our goal reminds us to balance our many desires and needs. It is a holistic concept that contains within it a reasonable and pragmatic view of human nature; we enjoy pleasurable things, but preoccupation with pleasurable things distracts and detracts from our capacity for fulfillment in other spheres. We are social beings, so we should seek to establish some social ties, but there is room for variance in the desired quality or quantity of social ties on a person-by-person basis. If we lack sufficient education to already understand the value of virtue, well, since we desire to be esteemed, and esteem means most when it is bestowed by virtuous people, and virtuous people are often thought to be prudent (wise in practical judgment, e.g., of character) and outspoken against viciousness, a very good way to get in their good graces is to be virtuous ourselves, and aspire to sincerity in practicing virtue. In this way, recognizing and aspiring to eudaimonia can give us pragmatic justification for growing out of blunt egoism and virtueless incontinence.

In eudaimonia we find our well-being tied up with the well-being of those around us; in order to facilitate flourishing for ourselves and others, we should seek out things like moderate wealth, wisdom, and bodily health. In doing so we should find that wisdom and bodily health are also satisfying to possess in their own right. Or, if we seek out wisdom and bodily health for our own sake, we will also find them useful for facilitating overall well-being.

Now, this is not the limit of application of the concept of eudaimonia as a guide for living, but it does all serve to illustrate the utility of eudaimonia considered as arising from the gestalt state of a fully engaged human life and the correct telos of human action.


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