Nick Gier, University of Idaho

In the early books of the Nicomachean Ethics (NE), one could say that in addition to the two explicit criteria for eudaimonia--finality and self-sufficiency--there are also two implicit requirements: (1) one achieves it on one's own initiative and power--let us call this the "humanistic" criterion; and (2) eudaimonia is unique to human beings. I believe the humanistic criterion is necessary to avoid the implication that the highest good is god-given, a suggestion that Aristotle appears to reject at 1099b15.

In Sec. 7 of Book Ten, however, the idea that eudaimonia is unique to human beings is directly challenged. Aristotle states that perfect happiness will come from that which is most divine in us. We do not share emotions with the gods, but we do share reason. So we must pursue the intellectual virtues of nous and dianoia to the exclusion of all else. Aristotle claims that they are relatively easy to do and they bring the most pleasure, a pleasure that has "purity and certainty."

Is this really in agreement with what Aristotle has said before? It does not seem to be. Yes, reason is the best thing in us, but that does not mean that the irrational parts of the soul are as bad as Aristotle now makes them out to be. In fact, Aristotle now says that the moral virtues, which require cooperation from the irrational parts of the soul, are inferior to the intellectual virtues. Aristotle even goes as far as to suggest that goods (both internal and external) necessary for the moral virtues are a hindrance to study and the life of pure theoria (1178b4). Furthermore, he states that the gods will love, honor, and "requite with good" our intellectual qualities but not our moral attributes (1179a28).

A philosopher by herself contemplating truth seems give a new meaning to the concept of self-sufficiency. Earlier self-sufficiency was socially defined as person happily interrelated to others with all of her needs met; and it was ethically defined in terms of an ensemble of virtues with none missing or incomplete. In Book Ten self-sufficiency appears to be defined as being self-contained and independent, just as the gods are. This seems to undermine the assumption that we are by nature social animals. Other people's company is necessary for the moral virtues, but "a wise man is able to study even by himself, and the wiser he is the more is he able to do it" (1177a33-35).

Is Aristotle shifting "highest goods" on us? In this discussion the "supremely happy" or "blessed" person is described alternatively by two different Greek adjectives: makarios and eudaimonia. One might say the former defined as "blessedness" is best applied to the gods, while the latter, which we might call "earthly happiness," is appropriate for human beings. Eudaimonia in this sense was of course the theme of the early books of the NE, but now makarios seems to be the focus.

Aristotle cannot decide about the feasibility of his new goal: at one point he says that we should try for it (viz., to become immortal), but then he says that it is "too high" for mortals. As J. L. Akrill states: "Aristotle's theology and anthropology make it inevitable that this answer to the question about eudaimonia should be broken-backed" ("Aristotle on Eudaimonia" in Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, ed. A. Rorty, p. 33). Book Ten does indeed drive a wedge between our humanity and our divinity: "a man who would live [theoria] would do so not insofar as he is human, but because there is a divine element within him" (1177b27-29). Even though the divine element is a "small portion" of our nature, we can still call it our "true self." These passages seem to undermine Aristotle's earlier emphasis on our composite nature and the psycho-physical monism that he offers as a counter to Plato's dualism. Now Aristotle defines human nature, as any good Platonist would do, exclusively in terms of the intellect: "Intelligence (nous), above all else, is man" (1178a8).


Is Book Ten an "aberration," as some have suggested? Could it be that the same thing that happened at the end of the Metaphysics happened to the end of the Ethics, viz., that an earlier work, perhaps more Platonic in character, was tacked on the end of Aristotle’s most mature work on ethics? This would explain the apparent shift to denigrate the body and the emotions and to favor the intellectual virtues over and the moral virtues. With regard to the Platonism of Book Ten, Ackrill observes that "Aristotle rejects with almost Platonic fervor the suggestion that a man should stay at the modest level of ordinary human affairs and not even try to spread his wings" (Aristotle the Philosopher, p. 138).

Unlike the last book of the Metaphysics, however, Book Ten shows no significant breaks in style or thought between it and the previous ones. The beginning sections of Book Ten are consistent with points made in earlier books. Furthermore, the gods are used as a model for human happiness in another mature work (Politics 7.1). Finally, we know that Nicomachus, Aristotle’s son, edited this text not too long after his father's death, unlike the Metaphysics and other works, which were not edited until 150 years later.


Perhaps Aristotle sees human life as consisting of stages, a common view in the ancient world. The Indian view, for example, specified a student stage, a householder stage, a forest hermit stage, and, finally the wandering monk stage. Early in the NE Aristotle speaks of lives of pleasure, politics, and contemplation, and promises to get back to the third (1095b17-18). Aristotle suggests a major transition when he states that contemplation can begin in earnest only when "the necessities of life . . . have been adequately provided" (1177a30). Then the person is self-sufficient (i.e., in need of nothing), and then she can study, and the truly wise person studies best alone. Aristotle observes that political and military activity are "unleisurely" and no one would choose them simply for their own sake. (He goes as far as to suggest that these people cannot be happy [1177b16].) When one has fulfilled one's public duties, then one has the leisure to pursue the intellectual virtues, the only activities that one does for their own sake. In the Republic (498) Plato insisted that the philosopher kings retire from politics and devote the rest of their lives to philosophy. Aristotle seems to be following the same model.


Ackrill uses the life stage's solution to solve the tension between Book Ten and the early books. He proposes that the practical life of the moral virtues is necessary but only "secondary" (as Aristotle says) as a foundation for the life of pure contemplation. In other words, only a life of virtue will give human beings the stability and serenity for philosophical study. Richard Taylor offers another solution, an elitist position that might well have suited Aristotle. The life of the moral virtues is for common humanity, but the life of the mind is for the intellectual elite. For women this would mean that the moral life is perhaps available to them if their practical reason is functioning properly, but, as basically irrational beings, the contemplative life would be closed to them.


Rejecting Ostwald’s suggestion that we preserve the distinction between makarios and eudaimonia, Richard Kraut insists that there is ultimately no functional difference between the two. Kraut also rejects the "inclusivism" thesis where most commentators have understood Aristotle to mean that eudaimonia requires an entire ensemble of collateral goods (including external ones); indeed, eudaimonia is simply the "feeling" of living well that comes from all the virtues operating in their respective domains. If eudaimonia is indeed a good standing all alone as perfect contemplation, then the difference between the gods and human beings is overcome on this point. It is no surprise then to find that Kraut finds no great puzzles in Book Ten. If the inclusivism thesis is correct, then the lives of the gods and human beings are very different and such a view would insist that eudaimonia and makarios are distinctly different states. Aristotle expresses this point quite clearly when he states that the happiness of nous is "quite separate" from the "secondary" happiness produced by the moral virtues(1178a24). Kraut's solution then is to assign eudaimonia to the morally virtuous as "secondary" happiness and use makarios for the supremely happy philosopher.


The traditional view can be seen as a hierarchy in which eudaimonia is at the top of all intrinsic goods, being self-sufficient and in need of no other good. As the gods have none of these goods except contemplation, their makarios is qualitatively different from our eudaimonia. In contrast Kraut sees it as a self-contained good in need of nothing but contemplation. In this view it is clear that makarios and eudaimonia virtually merge into one. The traditional view would allow a person who has more pleasure than contemplation to count as just as happy as the one who had more contemplation and less pleasure, assuming the other intrinsic goods are in place. This, says Kraut, goes against everything Aristotle says in favor of the philosophical life. It is absurd to think that "one may be engaging in too much philosophical activity for his own good simply because that activity leaves too little time for the enjoyment of various physical pleasures" (Aristotle on the Human Good, p. 269). The arguments of Book Ten make it clear that Aristotle believes that the more one contemplates the happier that person will be.