Poppa’s Notes: “Nicomachean Ethics” and Eudaimonia

aristotleIn a word, Eudaimonia. According to Aristotle, that’s what it’s all about. This is the highest good, what we should all be striving for. So what is it? According to my translator, Martin Ostwald, it is Happiness. But that’s not quite right (as I’m sure Ostwald would admit). Eudaimonia encompasses more than our notion of happiness – it is pleasure through health of spirit, virtue, wisdom, and through the external goods of beauty, wealth, friendship, and power. Now it’s starting to sound more like my definition of fulfillment, but, as Aristotle uses it, eudaimonia is not the same. Fulfillment, as I’ve discussed it, does not necessarily involve happiness, or pleasure; sometimes it comes through suffering and sacrifice. So I think fulfillment, regardless of happiness, is actually the highest good. Fulfillment may be closer to the Stoic definition of eudaimonia, which proposes that virtue is really all that’s needed to achieve it (or so Wikipedia tells me).

Aristotle and I agree that happiness – true, deep, lasting happiness – necessarily encompasses virtue. So for happiness, one needs some fulfillment. And I believe, even though fulfillment doesn’t require happiness, a fulfilled person is more likely to be happy, or at the very least, satisfied in living a virtuous life.

Following is a list of what I thought were some of the most important concepts from Nicomachean Ethics. I use “eudaimonia” rather than the translator’s “happiness.”

Nicomachean Ethics

Eudaimonia and Virtue

  • Eudaimonia is not just pleasure
  • Honor and excellence are not ends in themselves
  • Eudaimonia is the ultimate end
  • To be good, one must continually perform acts of excellence and virtue
  • One cannot be virtuous without acting virtuously
  • If one is noble, one will get pleasure from noble things
  • Pleasure is part of eudaimonia
  • A eudaimonic person acts nobly in the face of misfortune
  • One cannot have a eudaimonic life if that life ends ignominiously or unhappily
  • Moral virtue is formed through habit, and must be practiced
  • Acting right builds character
  • One must exercise self-control regarding pleasure and courage in the face of pain
  • Virtue and vice are voluntary characteristics, not emotions
  • It is harder to be good than bad; good is a narrower target
  • Virtue is the mean between two vices: excess and deficiency
  • We must each find our individual mean
  • Choice is voluntary, and involves deliberation
  • Virtue is within our agency

A list of characteristics where one can choose the mean, the excess, or the deficiency

  • Courage is doing right for the sake of rightness; Recklessness is ignorantly facing danger; Cowardice is giving into fear
  • Self-Control is avoiding excess pleasure; Self-Indulgence is giving in to excess pleasure; if one gets no pleasure from anything, one is not a man
  • Generosity is giving for the right reasons; Extravagance is giving too much, without good reason; Stinginess is either taking too much or not giving enough
  • High-Mindedness [perhaps this could be called magnanimity] is giving more than one receives without expecting praise; Vanity is feeling deserving when one isn’t; Small-Mindedness is feeling one is not deserving when one is
  • Gentleness is displaying the right amount of anger; Short Temper is being too quick to anger; being Too Gentle is foolish
  • Friendliness is being nice without ulterior motives; Obsequiousness and Flattery are false forms of friendliness; Grouchiness is not even trying to be friendly
  • Truthfulness is telling it like it is; Boastfulness is embellishing the truth; Self-Deprecation is sacrificing truth
  • Wittiness is cleverness used wisely; Buffoonery is excessive or clownish expostulating; Boorishness is not having anything useful to say
  • Shame is a little different: having the right amount of Shame leads to good actions, whereas Shamelessness leads to base actions

Justice, Wisdom, Self-Indulgence, Moral Weakness

  • Justice is the sum of all virtues
  • Justice is the state of being virtuous in society
  • One form of justice is receiving an equal return in proportion to one’s justice
  • Another form of justice is restorative: when something unjust has been done, it can be righted by restoring the balance
  • An unjust act doesn’t necessarily make one an unjust person
  • The soul is both rational and irrational
  • The rational consists of science and calculation
  • Sense perception, intelligence, and desire are three elements of soul that control action and truth
  • Soul expresses truth through art, science, practical wisdom, theoretical wisdom, and intelligence
  • Practical wisdom is the ability to deliberate, and is concerned with eudaimonia
  • Intelligence is an understanding of fundamental principles
  • Theoretical wisdom is intelligence and scientific knowledge, unchanging realities
  • Virtue requires wisdom
  • A self-indulgent person consciously chooses to do bad things, which is worse than a morally weak person
  • A morally weak person doesn’t want to do bad things, but does them anyway out of lack of strength or courage
  • A morally weak person doesn’t have practical wisdom

Pleasure and Friendship

  • There is a distinction between pleasures of the body, which are lower pleasures, and higher pleasures, like learning
  • Fortune plays a role in eudaimonia, because one can’t experience eudaimonia if one has experienced great misfortune
  • True friends must have good will for each other, wish for the good of each other, and be aware of that good will
  • Friendship that is based on usefulness or pleasure is not as strong as friendship that is based on good will
  • True friends must be good people
  • True friends not only provide good will, but also usefulness and pleasure
  • True friendship takes time to develop, and one cannot develop many true friends
  • Useful and pleasure friendships also require balance in give and take
  • Receivers of something should return something of equal value
  • Benefactors receive more pleasure than receivers
  • We have obligations to others, which differ depending on our relationship
  • Self-love is required for true friendship
  • Bad people cannot be true friends because they expect more from others than they are willing to give
  • True friends are good both in times of good and bad fortune
  • Not all pleasures are desirable, and pleasure is not the ultimate good
  • Thought pleasures are better than sensory pleasures

More Eudaimonea

  • Eudaimonia is not a characteristic, but an activity, and it is the ultimate good
  • A eudaimonic life is one of virtue
  • Theoretical knowledge, contemplation, and intelligence are the highest virtues
  • Complete eudaimonia utilizes knowledge, contemplation, and intelligence
  • People need external goods for eudaimonia, but not in excess
  • Studying and knowledge should lead to action
  • Fear drives most people to avoid base actions, but it should be good-ness that drives this
  • Words don’t have the power to turn the average person to good

A few random thoughts on the book

  • Aristotle believed that eudaimonia was the ultimate end, but couldn’t virtue, wisdom, and beauty all be considered ends in themselves, not necessarily leading to eudaimonia?
  • Aristotle seemed to believe that the political system in his time was just and attracted virtuous politicians. While it is not all bad, our political system certainly doesn’t attract the most virtuous among us. Is this a cultural failing or a systemic failing, or both? How could we promote more virtue in our political system? Campaign finance reform is a start, which would begin to attract more people whose primary motivation is something other than greed.
  • Megalopsychia was the Greek word for what we call magnanimity. Aristotle’s definition of this seems a little more like megalomania to me.
  • Aristotle mentions that lovers often start as pleasure friends, but that they can become good friends if they have similar good will to offer each other, beyond pleasure. I agree that lust can blind us early in relationships, so it’s important to try to see, beyond the simple pleasures, whether that partner is compatible for a longer term relationship.
  • I’m less of a teetotaler than Aristotle when it comes to bodily pleasures. Occasional excess seems like a good thing.
  • Is it possible for one to be happy without contemplation? Aristotle repeatedly dismisses beasts and children (and women), saying they can’t be happy because they are not thinking beings. But, in true Aristotelian fashion, if we look at the reality around us, it’s obvious that most children and many beasts (and even some women) lead happy lives. The problem here is likely something being lost in translation. If one makes a distinction between eudaimonia and happiness, this makes more sense (although I do believe women are capable of achieving eudaimonia).
  • A couple of millennia after Aristotle’s time, science has revealed the true nature of what were just shadows on the wall of Aristotle’s world (for all he knew, there were cyclops and sea monsters populating the earth), so it’s pretty amazing that so much of what he had to say is applicable today (and of course we’re still living with a lot of shadows on our walls). Not bad for a 2400-year-old.

Some of my favorite quotes from Aristotle

  • “The good and noble things in life are won by those who act rightly”
  • “Men who love what is noble derive pleasure from what is naturally pleasant”
  • “Praiseworthy characteristics are what we call virtues”
  • “Pleasure makes us do base actions and pain… prevents us from doing noble actions”
  • “The best works done and those which deserve the highest praise are those that are done to one’s friends”
  • “To perceive what we are perceiving or thinking means that we exist” [Sound like anybody? Descartes: “I think, therefore I am” or “Cogito ergo sum.” Personally, I subscribe to the motto: “Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum.”]
  • “A life guided by intelligence is the best and most pleasant for man… this life is the happiest”
  • “We should try to become immortal, as far as that is possible, and do our utmost to live in accordance with what is highest in us”
  • “Self-sufficiency and moral action do not consist in an excess of possessions”
  • “The life of a man whose activity is guided by virtue will be happy”
  • “A wise man attains a higher degree of happiness than anyone”

Want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, rather than just reading my semi-digested regurgitation? Read the book – get it here or, even better, check it out at the library (just don’t take notes in the book like the guy who had it before me did – not very virtuous of him). I’ll leave you with some of Aristotle’s quirkier thoughts (many taken way out of context).

  • Common people are like cattle
  • Horses, oxen, and all beasts, including children, can’t be happy because they don’t perform noble actions
  • Honest men have better dreams than average men
  • Stones don’t move up, fire doesn’t move down
  • Politicians are good, because they make people good, which is their aim
  • Adultery’s not good even if you do it with the right woman
  • We pity those who are blind by nature, but blame those whose blindness comes through drunkenness
  • Professional soldiers are wimps; volunteer soldiers are heroes
  • Beasts are only motivated by pain, not courage
  • Optimists aren’t courageous, just deluded
  • Dogs don’t really take pleasure in the smell of rabbits, just in eating them
  • One is bestial if one takes inordinate delight in eating and having sex
  • It’s OK to take pleasure in being touched on some body parts but not on others
  • Children are self-indulgent little pleasure seekers because they’re senseless, like beasts
  • Pimps and usurers are occupations not fit for free men
  • Poor men can’t be magnificent
  • Comedians shouldn’t wear purple – it’s absurd!
  • It’s OK for a magistrate to hit a commoner, but not vice versa
  • It takes a lot of shoes to pay for a house – that’s why money is good
  • It’s OK to have sex with another man’s wife one time, but don’t keep doing it lest you become an adulterer
  • Don’t sacrifice two sheep when you should sacrifice one goat
  • It’s kind of OK to hit someone if you don’t know why, how, or who it is
  • Lesbians have some flexibility in how they apply lead to stone
  • Pleurisy is worse than tripping, unless in tripping you hurt yourself egregiously
  • Healthy and good men are different from healthy and good fishes
  • Children and beasts have natural qualities, but without intelligence these are bad
  • Sophists are idiots
  • Women can’t be morally weak because they’re passive at sex
  • Watch out for those brutish women who rip the fetuses out of pregnant women and eat them
  • It’s OK to drag your father around if he dragged his father around
  • One can’t think straight when having sex
  • Old people are grouchy and don’t seek friends
  • Democracy is a perverted form of timocracy (rule by property owners)
  • Persians treat their sons like slaves
  • Womanish men like to commiserate
  • Manly men don’t share their pain with friends
  • An ass finds chaff more pleasant than gold

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