Summary and Analysis Book X: Analysis for Book X


It seems appropriate that the closing book of the Ethics should be devoted to a discussion of pleasure and its place in the good life. As we have noticed before reference to this topic has been made in some of the earlier books but there were questions which still remained and it was for the purpose of clarifying them that he returned to the same subject. That pleasure had a very important place in Aristotle's conception of the good life can be seen in the fact that it is always associated with the achievement of virtue. In fact he holds that one has not achieved excellence in the matter of character building until he has arrived at the place where he genuinely enjoys those activities which enable him to live at his best. It is true that one does not reach this point all at once for it requires a long period of discipline in which one trains himself to subordinate the pleasures of the moment in order to achieve the more lasting ones which have to do with life as a whole. During this disciplinary period one may be making progress toward the good life but he has not fully arrived until he enjoys most of all those goods which are most enduring.

Whether pleasure is something that is always good was a disputed question in Aristotle's day. There were those who held that pleasure is not only a good in itself but that it is the norm or standard by which the goodness of anything else could be determined. According to this view the good life is the pleasant life and for one to live at his best he must strive for the maximum amount of pleasure that can be obtained in life as a whole. At the same time there were others who held an opposite view. They regarded pleasures as evil and condemned those who made of it an end in itself insisting that they were living like the lower animals rather than as human beings. Aristotle does not support either of these views. He shows that both of them are based on a confused notion concerning the real nature of pleasure. His discussion of pleasure as a completed activity brings to light the important fact that pleasure is not a substance which exists by itself independent of activities. On the contrary it is an attribute rather than a thing. It is something that may or may not accompany activities but it is not to be identified with any activity itself. The activities in which one may be engaged can be either good or bad. If pleasure accompanies these activities it will naturally make them more attractive and this means that pleasure can contribute to either good or bad ends. It is only in this sense that we are justified in calling pleasures good or bad. Actually it is not the pleasure which is either good or bad but the various things with which it is associated. It is true that pleasure can enhance the values of activities which are good and it is in this sense that pleasure may rightly be regarded as good.

Further clarification concerning Aristotle's position in regard to pleasure is made when he distinguishes between pleasure and happiness. Although these terms have sometimes been used interchangeably it helps to avoid confusion if one uses the term happiness to refer to those enjoyments that are associated with virtue and which accompany those processes that make for the harmonious development of one's entire personality. Pleasure can then refer to those amusements and activities that are more directly concerned with the physical aspect of one's being. When the terms are used in this way it is happiness rather than pleasure that can always be regarded as good. It is in this connection that Aristotle refers to contemplation as the activity which can furnish the highest degree of happiness. The reason for this is that the mind is directed toward that which is eternal whereas in other activities it is centered on that which is temporal.

The book closes with some references concerning the relation between ethics and politics. Aristotle's view can be summarized in the brief statement that "political society exists for the sake of the good life."