Ethics By Aristotle Summary and Analysis Book I: Chapter VII - Definitions of the Good and Happiness

Summary

What then is the good? Its specific character seems to vary in different arts and different activities, yet in all it appears to be that for the sake of which everything else is done — the end or purpose of the particular activity in question (e.g., health in the case of medicine, a house in the case of building).

Since there are many different ends and we choose only some of these, as a means to something else, it is obvious that not all ends are final (i.e., chosen for their own sakes and not for the sake of something else). That which is pursued as an end in itself is more final than that which is pursued for the sake of something else. That which is never chosen as a means to something else is more final than that which is chosen both as an end in itself and as a means to something else. Thus, what is always chosen as an end in itself and never as a means to something else is called final in an unqualified sense. This description applies to happiness above all else, for happiness is always chosen as an end in itself and never for the sake of something else. Such things as honor, pleasure, intelligence, and virtue, are all chosen only partly for themselves, because while they are all goods, we assume that they lead to happiness. Conversely, no one chooses happiness for the sake of honor, pleasure, or anything else.

We are led to the same conclusion by another argument. It is generally accepted that the final good is self-sufficient (i.e., something which by itself makes life worth living, and which is not limited to the good of a man alone but also includes his family, friends, etc.). The final good cannot be defined by reference to self alone, for man is a social and political being and does not live in isolation. A self-sufficient thing is that which taken by itself makes life something desirable and not lacking in anything. Happiness fits this description, for happiness is the most desirable of all things and is not counted as one good among many. Thus, it can be said, in summing up, that happiness is the end toward which all conscious acts are directed; it is both final and self-sufficient.

To call happiness the highest good is a platitude, and a more clear account of it is still required. It will be easier to understand the nature of happiness if we can ascertain the proper function of a human being. This will give us another view of the end of human life, already referred to as a guide for defining happiness.

It is clear that the mere act of living is not a function peculiar to man, for even vegetables and plants experience nurture and growth. A step higher than the vegetative life is the life that is confined to the experience of sensation, but this is shared with men by the brute animals. About the mode of life that remains, it is possible to make two statements; (a) that it belongs to the rational part of man, (b) that it finds expression in action.

Now, the rational part of man can be active or passive. It is passive in that it follows the dictates of reason. It is active in that it possesses and exercises the ability to reason. Similarly, since the reasonable element in rational life may be active or passive, we must make it clear that we are discussing a life determined by the use, as opposed to the mere possession, of the rational faculty.

Let us make certain assumptions and follow them to their conclusion.

  1. That the proper function of a man is the activity of his soul in conformity with a rational principle or, at least, not divorced from it.
  2. That the proper function of an individual and of a good individual of the same class (e.g., a harp player and a good harp player) are generically the same, except that the proper function of the latter (the good individual of the same class) requires superiority in accomplishment (i.e., the harp player's function is to play the harp, the good harp player's function is to play well).
  3. That the function of man is thus a certain form of life in combination with a rational principle or reasonable ground of action (as shown above).
  4. That the function of a good man is to enact that form of life well.
  5. That a function is performed well when performed in accordance with the virtue or excellence appropriate to it. Thus, we have demonstrated that the good for men is an activity of the soul in accordance with excellence or virtue, or, if there should be more than one form of goodness, in accordance with its best and most complete form. This activity must be carried out over an entire lifetime, for happiness is more than a momentary state. A single day or brief period of felicity does not make a man entirely and perfectly happy.

This is only a brief outline of the good. The details must still be filled in, but the most difficult part of the study has been accomplished, for the foundation has been provided for the remainder of our analysis. It must be remembered, though, that ethics is not an exact science. Precise conclusions cannot be reached and we must be satisfied with approximations. Different subjects have different requirements and depend on different kinds of conclusions. A carpenter and a geometrician both seek right angles, but with different aims and needs, depending on the problems posed by their occupations.

Also, ethics is a practical science, and it is often not necessary to inquire after causes or to reason why something is what it is (i.e., to seek first principles). In ethics the very existence of a fact is often the existence of the principle too. Some fundamental principles can be determined by indirection, some by sense perception, some by habituation or learning, and others by other means. Each must be determined by the appropriate means and must be defined correctly.

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