Ethics By Aristotle Summary and Analysis Book X: Chapter VIII - Advantages of the Contemplative Life

Summary

The objects of the contemplative life are the unchangeable and eternal verities that underlie and govern the universe. From contemplation of these truths the soul derives a feeling of purity and stability. Contemplative happiness is not dependent on other men, it can be engaged in almost continuously, and is the kind of life that must be ascribed to the gods. It is the form of life in which human beings come most nearly to being divine.

There is another kind of happiness, based on moral virtue and practical wisdom, which is concerned with feelings that spring from man's bodily nature. It can be defined as the harmonious coordination of all parts of man's composite being. This kind of happiness is not as exalted as the contemplative, but it helps prepare us for the higher happiness and, since man is not all mind and reason, gives us something to fall back upon when we are unable to remain continuously at the higher level.

Aristotle's conception of supreme happiness has been criticized on three grounds:

  1. Because its relation to the lower form of happiness in practical life is obscure.
  2. Because its realization is possible only for a gifted few and only in the most exceptional circumstances.
  3. Because it seems to over-intellectualize man's inner nature and has an unnecessarily limited scope.

There is a further criticism which attempts to refute Aristotle's whole moral system — it can be said, briefly, that Aristotle works on the basis of assumptions that what is natural is moral (in the sense that one attains the good by fulfilling that which is the essential element of his nature), that it is possible to define the nature of something by determining its end, and, since man differs from all other animals in his possession of intelligence, that the fulfillment of human life (i.e., happiness) must be the exercise of his intelligence in a certain way.

Some critics assert that a major flaw in this system is the difficulty or even impossibility of determining what is natural. They say that it cannot cope with such propositions as, for instance, that human beings differ from other animals primarily because of man's unique ability to wage war or be lazy, and that happiness and the good, as fulfillment of man's special end, must really be extreme expressions of these human attributes. These critics add that Aristotle called intelligence the outstanding element of human nature because he considered intelligence the most admirable human characteristic, and actually was motivated as much by wishful thinking as by objective analysis. It has also been pointed out that Aristotle's system contains no imperative to guarantee that man will act always according to its principles, and that a moral system which lacks this is inadequate, even if its fundamental assumptions are correct.

Other scholars have said that the Aristotelian moral system and its definition of happiness is a noble and idealistic exaltation of the finest elements of the human spirit. They praise Aristotle's avoidance of absolute definitions and his emphasis on the practice rather than the theory of ethics, and state that one of the most valuable and "modern" features of his ethical system is its psychological basis.

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