Maarten Maartensz

Text Philosophy - Aristotle - Ethics - Book X

Nicomachean Ethics

Notes to Book X:
Maarten Maartensz

Note on these notes

These notes date from the beginning of 2007, and based on notes in my paper copy of the "Nicomachean Ethics" that date from 1968-1972.

The format is that I quote the text of Aristotle that I comment in blue, and write my own notes in black, with a "Back" at the end of every note that moves the reader back - provided he or she is on line, or has downloaded the relevant files in similar directories, or uses a CD of my site - to the beginning of the quotation in the original text that the note is concerned with. (See also the TOC.)

The result is that my quotations + my notes take more space than Aristotle's original text, but one advantage of the procedure I use is that the reader can read my quotations + my notes independently from the text, yet be moved thence - provisos as above - with a single click.

Chapter 1

[1] AFTER these matters we ought perhaps next to discuss pleasure. For it is thought to be most intimately connected with our human nature, which is the reason why in educating the young we steer them by the rudders of pleasure and pain; it is thought, too, that to enjoy the things we ought and to hate the things we ought has the greatest bearing on virtue of character.

Actually, Aristotle has already discussed pleasure, namely in Book .. See in particular ...


[2] For these things extend right through life, with a weight and power of their own in respect both to virtue and to the happy life, since men choose what is pleasant and avoid what is painful; and such things, it will be thought, we should least of all omit to discuss, especially since they admit of much dispute.

In fact, Aristotle states here the fundamental problems of morals that I discussed in note [6] and [17] to Book I, to which I refer the reader so as not to have to repeat myself. What I will repeat is the table that is in note  [17] to Book I for it may clarify matters considerably:

The table lists the possible logical relations between, on the one hand, "good" and "not good", and on the other hand "pleasurable" and "not pleasurable" - or any of the other terms in the above drawing:

  Good Not Good Sum
Pleasurable        α        γ α+γ
Not Pleasurable        β        δ β+δ
Sum      α+β      γ+δ   

It is - or should be - obvious that very many of the most ordinary moral problems arise from the fact that many things that are deemed good are not deemed pleasurable, and that many things that are supposed to be pleasurable are not supposed to be good.

It is a bit curious that Aristotle only in this last Book explicitly discusses the fundamental problems of morals, though it is true that he has alluded to the moral and practical oppositions between the good and the pleasurable repeatedly.

And I will assume here and throughout that all four entries in the above table, namely α to δ, are positive numbers, and accordingly and specifically that there are for everyone possible choices of the unpleasurable good and of the pleasurable non-good.


[3] For some say pleasure is the good, while others, on the contrary, say it is thoroughly bad - some no doubt being persuaded that the facts are so, and others thinking it has a better effect on our life to exhibit pleasure as a bad thing even if it is not; for most people (they think) incline towards it and are the slaves of their pleasures, for which reason they ought to lead them in the opposite direction, since thus they will reach the middle state. But surely this is not correct.

Aristotle discusses this in what follows, but it is well to register that among the Greeks as well there were differences of opinion how to behave with regards to the good and the pleasurable.


Chapter 2

[4] Eudoxus thought pleasure was the good because he saw all things, both rational and irrational, aiming at it, and because in all things that which is the object of choice is what is excellent, and that which is most the object of choice the greatest good; thus the fact that all things moved towards the same object indicated that this was for all things the chief good (for each thing, he argued, finds its own good, as it finds its own nourishment); and that which is good for all things and at which all aim was the good.

Let me first discuss this rather important argument in some detail, and then consider three more general arguments.

In detail:

Note first that this is much like Aristotle's own beginning of his Ethics in Book I. See [] ...

Next, the main problem with making "pleasure" the supreme good can be seen from the table in [2]: There are both good pleasurable things and bad pleasurable things.

And this may be somewhat generalized:

There are things that are valued and things that are pleasurable, and not everything that is positively valued is pleasurable and not everything that is pleasurable is positively valued.

And also somewhat specialized:

People - and presumably also animals - generally do things consciously because of the value or the pleasure they attribute to it.

Incidentally, such a value for animals may be prudence, as may move them to hide food for later consumption.

And then there is this point about the specialization, that concerns the last part of the quotation:

People call good what they hold to be valueable or pleasurable - and there are various kinds of things (activities etc.) men may hold valuable, in various degrees.

It follows, it would seem, that people may differ about what is good, yet be quite capable of understanding why others have their values and pleasures - for the pleasures tend to be alike and human and the values can be understood by reference to their systems of thought.

And also such differences and distinctions may be rationally discussed, though as personal and social interests tend to be involved, they may also give rise to conflicts of other kinds.

In more general terms:

First, there is this argument:

It seems that human beings, like other animals, are naturally attracted by what pleases, and naturally repelled by what hurts, but that even so what human beings and animals like best is not so much pleasure itself but to do what they please. This was very well expressed by Sophocles:

"The fairest thing of all is to be just;
The best to live without disease; most sweet
Power to win each day the heart's desire."
   (Quoted in Bowra, "The Greek Experience", p. 92)

In a similar vein (see [39] in Chapter 1) the Greek inscription at Delos:

 Most noble is that which is justest, and best is health;
       But pleasantest is it to win what we love.

It is not happiness nor pleasure that people seek, but power - the ability to do as they please when they please. And indeed, it is true that the main motive for this is that power gives happiness, which need not be pleasure but may be any feeling of well-being produced by seeing an end one has satisfied.

And it is well in this context to give a clear definition of power: A person a has power over a person b in respect of F iff b has F iff a desires that b has F. This also shows why self-control is desirable, and an end in itself, for if b=a in the definition of power, then a has power of himself precisely to the extent that a can do and achieve as a pleases - which is a condition that is very close to happiness.

Second, there is the argument of note [41]:

There are things people choose for their own sakes, such as knowledge, health, leisure, power, money, reputation, honor and other things that seem to improve our chances, our social standing, or our situation, that are not chosen because of their pleasure or happiness (as judged by the people who do the choosing), even if they may be considerations that enter.

And it is simply a matter of fact, for very many people, that they choose something else than their own present pleasure or happiness, quite possible as that may be, if only for reasons of gain, reputation, fear, egoism, etc. when they are given the choice.

And third, there are the points made earlier:

  • There are things that are valued and things that are pleasurable, and not everything that is positively valued is pleasurable and not everything that is pleasurable is positively valued.

  • People - and presumably also animals - generally do things consciously because of the value or the pleasure they attribute to it.

  • People call good what they hold to be valueable or pleasurable - and there are various kinds of things (activities etc.) men may hold valuable, in various degrees.

All of this seems to me to show that neither pleasure nor happiness, nor indeed any one other specific - kind of - thing or experience, is the good or the end, in any plausible sense, but what people take to be valueable or pleasurable, for their own reasons.

But these reasons are subject to - well: reason and argument, and may be more or less rational, well-supported, knowledgeable, informed, fair, equitable, practicable, realistic, feasible etc. and there is therefore little that is relative about it, other than states of ignorance or prejudice or intelligence - and indeed also moral fairness, honesty etc.

And there are good criterions to measure such arguments by, namely what is scientifically and technology possible or realized, and what is not, and by what is known about human nature, human societies, and human history, and by what is known to be fiction or utopian or well-sounding (political or religious) ideals with bad consequences for many.

And if "The Good" is anything realistic, in general human terms, it must be a humane, free, tolerant, fair and scientifically advanced human society, because this seems to give the largest proportions of humans the best chances to find their own kinds of satisfaction and happiness, and to produce high human civilization while doing so.

Finally, here is a note of mine to Leibniz's New Essays:

People seek to satisfy their desires rather than seek happiness

I noted already on p. 193 that happiness doesn't seem to move our desires, but rather that satisfaction of our desires results in happiness. Also, people do not merely and generally desire "happiness" but satisfaction of specific desires, resulting also in different kinds of pleasure (and lack of pains).

So Leibniz's reply

True happiness ought always to be the object of our desires, but there is some reason to doubt that it is. For often we hardly think of it, and unless appetite is directed by reason it endeavours after pleasant pleasure rather than that lasting pleasure which is called happiness (..)" (p. 199-200)

is correct, but he would have been more correct still if he had said that, then, the object of our desires should not be true happiness but to be directed always by reason, since reason is best able to provide the most satisfaction to our ends.UP


[5] His arguments were credited more because of the excellence of his character than for their own sake; he was thought to be remarkably self-controlled, and therefore it was thought that he was not saying what he did say as a friend of pleasure, but that the facts really were so.

We'll see whether "the facts really were so" in the next point and in this chapter and the next two, but no doubt there have been remarkable men with a high moral character and great self-control who claimed that pleasure was the final end or criterion, while clearly being no slaves to it. Another such one, who lived later than Aristotle, was Epicurus.


[6] He believed that the same conclusion followed no less plainly from a study of the contrary of pleasure; pain was in itself an object of aversion to all things, and therefore its contrary must be similarly an object of choice. And again that is most an object of choice which we choose not because or for the sake of something else, and pleasure is admittedly of this nature; for no one asks to what end he is pleased, thus implying that pleasure is in itself an object of choice.

The crux of the argument is in the last sentence of the quotation, but this does not answer the question about the fundamental table under [2]: How then is it possible that men sometimes choose or can choose what is good and not pleasurable, and sometimes what is not good and pleasurable?

Note the reasons for Eudoxes's opinion: pleasure is chosen for its own sake, and therefore is an end, and not a means to something else.

One may well inquire whether this is important or relevant. The fact is that human beings need and desire and value diverse things, whatever the further point what these are for, or whether they are intermediates or means to something else, that is also valued, needed or desired.

And the point that about pleasure one does not ask why one would want it can be answered by asking the question, and answering it: In fact one regularly asks oneself whether one does want to have this or that specific pleasure, or not, and may decide to choose another pleasure, or no pleasure but something useful etc.

Furthermore, there is this consideration: Suppose it is granted that pleasure and pain are natural sensations, which seems true at least where the body is concerned, then why make pleasure an end? (And why not breathing, say? Both seem pointless, since they are ends or criterions one uses anyway.)

Also, it is not as if it is the only possible end, even if one restricts oneself to pleasure and pain, for in many ways the prevention of pain is a better end than the pursuit of pleasure.


[7] Those who object that that at which all things aim is not necessarily good are, we may surmise, talking nonsense. For we say that that which every one thinks really is so; and the man who attacks this belief will hardly have anything more credible to maintain instead.

I suppose this harks back right to the beginning of the Ethics, where I commented on it in note [1] to Book I. In any case, it is not helpful.


[8] But perhaps even in inferior creatures there is some natural good stronger than themselves which aims at their proper good.

This Aristotle seemed to have meant in the sense: Living things have their own spark of divinity. But again that is not helpful.


[9] (..) if both pleasure and pain belonged to the class of evils they ought both to be objects of aversion, while if they belonged to the class of neutrals neither should be an object of aversion or they should both be equally so; but in fact people evidently avoid the one as evil and choose the other as good; that then must be the nature of the opposition between them.

No, that is too simple. What many presumably would agree to is something like the following:

  • What is pleasurable to one is good, unless it does bad, and what is painful to one is bad, unless it does good.

Hedonists and puritans may disagree, but most others will not, for most others will insist the good and the pleasurable are not identical, nor are the bad and the pleasurable.


Chapter 3

[10] The same proportion is not found in all things, nor a single proportion always in the same thing, but it may be relaxed and yet persist up to a point, and it may differ in degree.

This I extracted because I like it.


[11] (..) for the pleasures of learning and, among the sensuous pleasures, those of smell, and also many sounds and sights, and memories and hopes, do not presuppose pain.

This seems not to be so, in general, and for two reasons - and I am here not speaking of "memories and hopes", of which more at the end of this note.

First, there are smells that are so strong and foul that they make most men puke, and that anyway cause considerable distress, whereas also e.g. the sight of food that is coloured blue seems to be naturally unpleasant, and there are sounds most men dislike even if they are not overly loud, but because they are too high.

The cases mentioned seem mostly due to innate causes, and the distaste for blue food probably is related with the fact that blueness often is associated with rot.

Second, obviously any sensation may evoke memories of things or events that evoked the sensation before, and these memories may be unpleasant.

Finally, why Aristotle says "memories and hopes" "do not presuppose pain" is therefore unclear to me, unless he means that the processes of remembering and hoping themselves do not involve pain or pleasure, which seems true.


[12] And no one would choose to live with the intellect of a child throughout his life, however much he were to be pleased at the things that children are pleased at, nor to get enjoyment by doing some most disgraceful deed, though he were never to feel any pain in consequence.

I suppose this is so, at least for the vast majority, but one would like to know why. The most plausible explanation seems to be that the vast majority wants to be mostly like others, and not like some freak of nature, or like some weirdo, even if this would feel very pleasant to them.

Even so, it is a somewhat interesting question whether many men would accept a few years of guaranteed continuous bliss, happiness, satisfaction and joy, based on drugs or brain-surgery, followed by a painless death, over the more or less humdrum ordinary lifes they would lead otherwise - and it is well to keep in mind here that quite a few who go at least a considerable way along this path of pleasure by indulging their preferences for drugs or alcohol.


[13]  And there are many things we should be keen about even if they brought no pleasure, e.g. seeing, remembering, knowing, possessing the virtues.

This is true, and quite important in principle, because Aristotle will discuss in this chapter the question whether happiness is the summum bonum, and come to the conclusion that it is.

But then that conclusion is at variance with this true observation: People like many things that come with little or no pleasure, and people also like many things not in proportion to the pleasure they bring, but for other reasons, even if these may be as simple as the values they hold.


[14] It seems to be clear, then, that neither is pleasure the good nor is all pleasure desirable, and that some pleasures are desirable in themselves, differing in kind or in their sources from the others.

Indeed, but Aristotle will come to a somewhat different conclusion about pleasure, and in order to do so he will discuss the nature of pleasure.


Chapter 4

[15] Since every sense is active in relation to its object, and a sense which is in good condition acts perfectly in relation to the most beautiful of its objects (for perfect activity seems to be ideally of this nature; whether we say that it is active, or the organ in which it resides, may be assumed to be immaterial), it follows that in the case of each sense the best activity is that of the best-conditioned organ in relation to the finest of its objects. And this activity will be the most complete and pleasant.

This is quite plausible and sensible, in general terms, and comes to this:

Pleasure is generally associated, at least if it is bodily pleasure (!), with the proper and healthy functioning of one's organs and body, while bodily pain is generally associated with failing or unhealthy functioning of one's organs or body.

The reason why this would be so is also fairly obvious, at least from a Darwinian evolutionary perspective: Bodily pleasure and pain serve as indicators of what is helpful or dangerous for an organism, and thus are in the nature of reward and warning, respectively.

To this we should add two points, of which the first one was certainly not known to Aristotle, since it is a fairly recent finding of brain-physiology.

One. There is in the brain a certain region that, when stimulated, give a considerable burst of pleasure to the organism that has that brain. The region goes by the name of "pleasure-center", and rats, when given the opportunity to stimulate it by pushing a pedal seem to find very few things more interesting or rewarding to do.

Two. Though pleasure and pain can be explained fairly well from a Darwinian perspective, it should be mentioned that in many ways they seem to be rather crude indicators. Thus, relatively minor or unimportant wounds or ailments, such as a hole in a tooth, may cause great pain, which itself is not helpful and cannot be switched off, and likewise some things that are not very important for one's own existence, such as sex, give great pleasure.


[16] For, while there is pleasure in respect of any sense, and in respect of thought and contemplation no less, the most complete is pleasantest, and that of a well-conditioned organ in relation to the worthiest of its objects is the most complete; and the pleasure completes the activity.

Aristotle has a tendency in common with many moralists, namely an inclination to argue that the good and the pleasurable coincide, for those who are really and truly good.

This is not so, as I shall argue at various places. Here we can consider his saying that the strongest pleasure is "that of a well-conditioned organ in relation to the worthiest of its objects" - as if it would not be rather than "the worthiest" the most pleasing, in cases where pleasure is concerned.


[17] That pleasure is produced in respect to each sense is plain; for we speak of sights and sounds as pleasant. It is also plain that it arises most of all when both the sense is at its best and it is active in reference to an object which corresponds; when both object and perceiver are of the best there will always be pleasure, since the requisite agent and patient are both present.

Of course, pleasant "sights and sounds" comprise the beauties of nature, visual art, music and the singing of birds, for example. And it is an interesting fact, and one of the good things about life, that this is so, even though there seems to be no direct utility at all in these joys.


[18] Pleasure completes the activity not as the corresponding permanent state does, by its immanence, but as an end which supervenes as the bloom of youth does on those in the flower of their age. So long, then, as both the intelligible or sensible object and the discriminating or contemplative faculty are as they should be, the pleasure will be involved in the activity

This is an important point of principle about pleasure: It is an accessory to an activity, mostly, that belongs to or comes with the activity, and ceases when the activity ceases, and is also subject to other regularities that hold for activities, like habituation.

But perhaps there is another and more useful way of formulating this: Many pleasures and pains are kinds of information that one's organs produce in order to inform one about their states, activities and successes or failures.

The reason to add this is that there are quite a number of pains associated with malfunctioning or damaged organs, that also do not cease if the organ is not exercised.


[19] How, then, is it that no one is continuously pleased? Is it that we grow weary? Certainly all human beings are incapable of continuous activity. Therefore pleasure also is not continuous; for it accompanies activity. Some things delight us when they are new, but later do so less, for the same reason; for at first the mind is in a state of stimulation and intensely active about them, as people are with respect to their vision when they look hard at a thing, but afterwards our activity is not of this kind, but has grown relaxed; for which reason the pleasure also is dulled.

Indeed, and Aristotle here speaks of habituation. However, continuing what I said in the previous note, two general points about pleasure and pain should be made:

One. It seems that for the vast majority of human beings, as long as their natural needs are satisfied, and they are not in pain, not ill, and not in fearful expectation, being alive feels pleasant, in a mild way, even if one is not doing anything specific that pleases. (Being bored here is somewhat of an exception, but beyond noting it I will not discuss it here, except by the remark that it seems a concommitant of the healthy and well off who are fairly to very stupid, or are hemmed in by all manner of useless conventions.)

Two. Although generally pleasure ceases if the the activity with which it is associated ceases, this is not true of most pains, for these tend to endure until the malfunctioning or damaged organ has been repaired.

Next, sofar I have mostly written my notes on the assumption that I am speaking of bodily pleasures and pains, but these are not the only pleasures and pains, for there are also mental pleasures and pains.

These seem to be related to our values and ends, and whether we succeeded or failed in furthering these, and it is noteworthy that these feelings - such as: love for a person, grief for a person's death, joy because one's group succeeded in something, fear because one's society is attacked - may be very strong, and have various bodily manifestations, like increased pulse, tremor, paleness, goose pimples etc., but generally have no specific organic location.

And what Aristotle has said about pleasure does not clearly apply to mental pleasures, even though these are quite important in a man's life. Also, it is important to underscore here that mental pleasures and pains do depend on one's values and ends - and that accordingly, these values and ends must have existed before these pleasures and pains, and be mostly independent from them.


[20] One might think that all men desire pleasure because they all aim at life; life is an activity, and each man is active about those things and with those faculties that he loves most; e.g. the musician is active with his hearing in reference to tunes, the student with his mind in reference to theoretical questions, and so on in each case; now pleasure completes the activities, and therefore life, which they desire.

Yes, this seems plausible, and in line with what was said under [19]


[21] But whether we choose life for the sake of pleasure or pleasure for the sake of life is a question we may dismiss for the present. For they seem to be bound up together and not to admit of separation, since without activity pleasure does not arise, and every activity is completed by the attendant pleasure.

Somewhat of an academic question, indeed. Besides there is a rather important fact of life: it is imposed on one. Everybody gets born without any say in it, nor about his or her native qualities and shortcomings.


Chapter 5

[22] For this reason pleasures seem, too, to differ in kind. For things different in kind are, we think, completed by different things (we see this to be true both of natural objects and of things produced by art, e.g. animals, trees, a painting, a sculpture, a house, an implement); and, similarly, we think that activities differing in kind are completed by things differing in kind.

Indeed, and in view of what was said above there may be as many different kinds of bodily pleasures as one has organs. This does not seem to be quite true, but in any case there are many kinds of bodily pleasure for any human being, and generally these are valued more or less, depending on many things, and there also normally are many kinds of mental pleasure for any human being, to which the same applies.

And mental pleasures seem to be mostly tied up with our own values and ends and their (apparent) satisfactions, although laughter or humor and beauty seem to involve special faculties - that may both have to do with proportion.


[23] (..)  each of the pleasures is bound up with the activity it completes. For an activity is intensified by its proper pleasure, since each class of things is better judged of and brought to precision by those who engage in the activity with pleasure; e.g. it is those who enjoy geometrical thinking that become geometers and grasp the various propositions better, and, similarly, those who are fond of music or of building, and so on, make progress in their proper function by enjoying it; so the pleasures intensify the activities  (..)


[24] This will be even more apparent from the fact that activities are hindered by pleasures arising from other sources. For people who are fond of playing the flute are incapable of attending to arguments if they overhear some one playing the flute, since they enjoy flute-playing more than the activity in hand; so the pleasure connected with fluteplaying destroys the activity concerned with argument. This happens, similarly, in all other cases, when one is active about two things at once; the more pleasant activity drives out the other, and if it is much more pleasant does so all the more, so that one even ceases from the other.

This is true, but the reason seems to be more general and related to attention: One's attention to things varies with the interest one takes in them (or in what they seem to bring), both positively and negatively.


[25] This is why when we enjoy anything very much we do not throw ourselves into anything else, and do one thing only when we are not much pleased by another; e.g. in the theatre the people who eat sweets do so most when the actors are poor.

See the previous remark, and note that the Greeks of Aristotle's days were quite similar to modern people.


[26] (..)  activities are made precise and more enduring and better by their proper pleasure, and injured by alien pleasures  (..)

Yes, but they are "injured" - diminished, hindered, upset - not only by "alien pleasures" but also by anything else that is different and catches one's attention.


[27] So an activity suffers contrary effects from its proper pleasures and pains, i.e. from those that supervene on it in virtue of its own nature. And alien pleasures have been stated to do much the same as pain; they destroy the activity, only not to the same degree.


[28] Now since activities differ in respect of goodness and badness, and some are worthy to be chosen, others to be avoided, and others neutral, so, too, are the pleasures; for to each activity there is a proper pleasure. The pleasure proper to a worthy activity is good and that proper to an unworthy activity bad; just as the appetites for noble objects are laudable, those for base objects culpable.

Yes, but in fact it would seem rather as if, then, it is not "the pleasures" that are chosen, but the activities that lead to pleasures one desires, even in such cases where these pleasures are what is aimed at, and not the activities that gives rise to them, or what is produced by these activities.

This observation is of considerable relevance for the question whether men desire pleasures, or whether doing what is pleasurable is the supreme end or standard of life.


[29]  But the pleasures involved in activities are more proper to them than the desires; for the latter are separated both in time and in nature, while the former are close to the activities, and so hard to distinguish from them that it admits of dispute whether the activity is not the same as the pleasure.

Indeed, and this is another important point of principle:

Supposing for the moment that what one desires to do is some activity, then there are two kinds of pleasure involved in this, namely the pleasure that comes with the doing of the activity, and the pleasure that comes from the result of the act.

I remarked before on this, under [15] in Book II.


[30] Each animal is thought to have a proper pleasure, as it has a proper function; viz. that which corresponds to its activity. If we survey them species by species, too, this will be evident; horse, dog, and man have different pleasures, as Heraclitus says 'asses would prefer sweepings to gold'; for food is pleasanter than gold to asses.

Indeed, and different kinds of animals have different constitutions, different organs, different senses, different niches in nature, different needs a.s.o. and what makes human beings special is their ability to reason, to think and to speak with one another about possibilities and alternatives, and to predict or foresee the future, and to use all manner of things as means towards ends.

Also, it seems to me that in this respect human beings, that indeed are animals, differ from all other animals: they are creatures of their own imagination; their reality is mostly not of the here and now, the present, or this day, but of their lifes, their hopes, their fears, their expectations, and the desires they mean to satisfy in many a year by their present efforts. All of this is imaginary, even if - as is often not the case - what is imagined is feasible or probable or practicable.


[31] So the pleasures of creatures different in kind differ in kind, and it is plausible to suppose that those of a single species do not differ. But they vary to no small extent, in the case of men at least; the same things delight some people and pain others, and are painful and odious to some, and pleasant to and liked by others.

See under [30]. It is difficult to pronounce with certainty on the feelings of other kinds of animals, but noteworthy that their nervous systems and also their neuro-transmitters and nerve-cells resemble the human ones, except that the latter may involve more complication.

There are at least two broad classes of reasons why different people have different pleasures: Different tastes or needs, and different values or ends.

Apart from that, it is at least somewhat interesting that many pleasures are acquired, and depend on learning and habituation, and that accordingly they may be unlearned as well. A good example are one's preferences in food.


[32] The same happens in other cases. But in all such matters that which appears to be good to the good man is thought to be really so. If this is correct, as it seems to be, and virtue and the good man as such are the measure of each thing, those also will be pleasures which appear so to him, and those things pleasant which he enjoys.

Yes, and while it might be objected that this sounds or is circular, this is appearance, for Aristotle has made it rather clear what he thinks is to be understood by "the good man" ......


[33] Those which are admittedly disgraceful plainly should not be said to be pleasures, except to a perverted taste (..)

No, I don't think so at all, for this smells too much of Politically Correct terminology, and it makes it also somewhat more difficult to understand bad men or bad acts if one is not allowed to say that they do the bad things they do predominantly because doing so gives them pleasure or gain, regardless of the consequent pains or losses of others.


[34] Whether, then, the perfect and supremely happy man has one or more activities, the pleasures that perfect these will be said in the strict sense to be pleasures proper to man, and the rest will be so in a secondary and fractional way, as are the activities.

Indeed, and in more modern terms one may say that every kind of character comes with its own needs and pleasures, that will be somewhat difficult to comprehend for those who have a quite different character.

A somewhat interesting system on these lines is that of Sheldon and ....


Chapter 6

[35] Now that we have spoken of the virtues, the forms of friendship, and the varieties of pleasure, what remains is to discuss in outline the nature of happiness, since this is what we state the end of human nature to be.

As I have pointed out before - see e.g. note [13] to Book I -  I do not believe that "happiness" is the right term here, or else, if it is, then I don't agree that it is "the end of human nature", for there is much more to life than merely feeling.

The much better term here is "well-being" or "the good life", or "living well and doing well", and if phrased in these terms there is much more to be said for Aristotle's contention.


[36] We said, then, that it is not a disposition; for if it were it might belong to some one who was asleep throughout his life (..)

However, it seems more plausible to suppose it is due to a disposition, that may be exercised ......


[37] (..) we must rather class happiness as an activity, as we have said before, and if some activities are necessary, and desirable for the sake of something else, while others are so in themselves, evidently happiness must be placed among those desirable in themselves, not among those desirable for the sake of something else; for happiness does not lack anything, but is self-sufficient.

Here we have again the difficulty that "happiness" is not a very apt term, and that, as I use it, it is a feeling rather than an activity. And if one substitutes "well-being" for "happiness", one has the difficulty that this too is not plausibly "an activity".



[38] Pleasant amusements also are thought to be of this nature; we choose them not for the sake of other things; for we are injured rather than benefited by them, since we are led to neglect our bodies and our property. But most of the people who are deemed happy take refuge in such pastimes, which is the reason why those who are ready-witted at them are highly esteemed at the courts of tyrants; they make themselves pleasant companions in the tyrants' favourite pursuits, and that is the sort of man they want.

Indeed, but then this is, or should be, a considerable problem for Aristotle, for what is the difference between "Pleasant amusements" and "happiness"? And if the supreme end is "happiness", then why would this supreme end not be served if the "happiness" one seeks is of the nature of "amusements" - TV, film, music, theatre and so on?


[39] (..) boys, too, think the things that are valued among themselves are the best. It is to be expected, then, that, as different things seem valuable to boys and to men, so they should to bad men and to good.

No doubt, but the moral problem here is that the "bad men" too will hold themselves to be good, or at least not silly and unpractical, and even good men may be mistaken. But Aristotle comes with something like an answer to this in the next point.


[40] Now, as we have often maintained, those things are both valuable and pleasant which are such to the good man; and to each man the activity in accordance with his own disposition is most desirable, and, therefore, to the good man that which is in accordance with virtue. Happiness, therefore, does not lie in amusement; it would, indeed, be strange if the end were amusement, and one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one's life in order to amuse oneself.

Even so, it would seem as if, in case Eudoxus and Aristotle are right that pleasure or happiness is the end of life, then so is amusement, even if a stern and strict philosopher may frown on trivial pleasures, for trivial pleasures are pleasures too.


[41] For, in a word, everything that we choose we choose for the sake of something else - except happiness, which is an end. Now to exert oneself and work for the sake of amusement seems silly and utterly childish. But to amuse oneself in order that one may exert oneself, as Anacharsis puts it, seems right; for amusement is a sort of relaxation, and we need relaxation because we cannot work continuously. Relaxation, then, is not an end; for it is taken for the sake of activity.

This does not seem to be so, in at least two ways - and also see under [6].

First, it seems not true that "everything that we choose we choose for the sake of something else - except happiness", for there are, at least, other things we choose for their own sakes, such as knowledge, health, leisure, power, money, reputation, honor and other things that seem to improve our chances, our social standing, or our situation.

And note that the possible retort "But knowledge, health, leisure, power, money, reputation, honor etc. have their pleasures too, and are chosen for their pleasure" is not relevant, in that the point is that one may choose either of these over any of the others, and in spite of the fact that one's choice, when measured in mere pleasure, may be inferior to another choice one might have made.

In brief, sometimes people do not choose the most pleasurable, but the more valuable - whatever their choices, reasons or motives.

Second, the argument that "Relaxation, then, is not an end; for it is taken for the sake of activity" is at best ingenuous but quite implausible or impossible if pleasure is an end, for then relaxation, which is chosen for the sake of pleasure, must be an end too. See under [40].

Furthermore, if this is not so in case of relaxation, there seems to be no reason why it would be so in case of pleasure, for about that one might also maintain that it is not chosen for its own sake, but to help one live life to its fullest extent, as a kind of food.


[42] The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement.

Here things seem to go thoroughly confused, for clearly the life that is "virtuous" is good rather than happy, and there is no impossibility at all in conceiving a good man with an unhappy life - one may be and do good without becoming happy because of this at all. 

However, Aristotle seems bend on "proving" that the good man must be happy. This seems to me unwise and untrue, for the rather simple reasons that, first, one may be a good man who must try to survive in bad circumstances, and second, even for a thoroughly good man, the chances of happiness in the Aristotelian sense, throughout one's life, for nearly all men, at least, tend to be very much more dependent on external circumstances than on one's own efforts.


Chapter 7

[43] If happiness is activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be that of the best thing in us. Whether it be reason or something else that is this element which is thought to be our natural ruler and guide and to take thought of things noble and divine, whether it be itself also divine or only the most divine element in us, the activity of this in accordance with its proper virtue will be perfect happiness. That this activity is contemplative we have already said.

Here we have another instance of Aristotle's penchant for making values and facts hang together, which I don't believe makes sense, as I also don't believe in a "divine element in us".


[44] And we think happiness has pleasure mingled with it, but the activity of philosophic wisdom is admittedly the pleasantest of virtuous activities; at all events the pursuit of it is thought to offer pleasures marvellous for their purity and their enduringness, and it is to be expected that those who know will pass their time more pleasantly than those who inquire. And the self-sufficiency that is spoken of must belong most to the contemplative activity.

This should be doubted....


[45] For while a philosopher, as well as a just man or one possessing any other virtue, needs the necessaries of life, when they are sufficiently equipped with things of that sort the just man needs people towards whom and with whom he shall act justly, and the temperate man, the brave man, and each of the others is in the same case, but the philosopher, even when by himself, can contemplate truth, and the better the wiser he is; he can perhaps do so better if he has fellow-workers, but still he is the most self-sufficient. And this activity alone would seem to be loved for its own sake; for nothing arises from it apart from the contemplating, while from practical activities we gain more or less apart from the action.


[46] And happiness is thought to depend on leisure; for we are busy that we may have leisure, and make war that we may live in peace.

Indeed, but this again introduces a good and an end that is not "happiness" yet one that is indeed the reason why people work, which can be defined as efforts that are not pleasant themselves, mostly, and that are directed at the realization of pleasant or desirable ends.



[47] (..) the action of the statesman is also unleisurely, and - apart from the political action itself - aims at despotic power and honours, or at all events happiness, for him and his fellow citizens  (..)

This passage is extracted to show that Aristotle was capable of being as realistic about politicians and rulers as Machiavelli, while it is also noteworthy that what Aristotle says here about politicians and their ends not only agrees well with Machiavelli, but also with Max Weber's definition in 'Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft'.


[48] (..) the activity of reason, which is contemplative, seems both to be superior in serious worth and to aim at no end beyond itself, and to have its pleasure proper to itself (and this augments the activity), and the self-sufficiency, leisureliness, unweariedness (so far as this is possible for man), and all the other attributes ascribed to the supremely happy man are evidently those connected with this activity, it follows that this will be the complete happiness of man, if it be allowed a complete term of life (for none of the attributes of happiness is incomplete).

Actually, this gets - it would seem - more true and of wider application if "the activity of reason" is replaced by "the activity of fantasy", since this seems to be what motivates most men and women: Their fantasies - hopes, expectations, ends - about what they do things for.

See also under [30], for the activity or fantasy or the imagination seems to be typically human.


[49] But such a life would be too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him; and by so much as this is superior to our composite nature is its activity superior to that which is the exercise of the other kind of virtue. If reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life.

Note that when this is restated in accordance with [48], what we get is a far more realistic sort of human end: A life directed at one's imaginary ideals, whatever these may be, however (un)reasonable or (im)moral.

For this seems to be the life most people lead in fact, though their imaginary ideals tend to be everyday and material: To keep up with the neighbours, and to have sufficient money to indulge one's chosen pleasures, say.


[50] But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything.

Aristotle believed that there was something like a divine spark in human beings, and that it mostly coincides with, or at least is known as, one's sense of self.

I see no good reason for making such a divine assumption, but I agree that there is a sense of self, and indeed a theory of oneself, that all adult people have and adopt, and that it is this sense of self, in sofar as it is mostly based on facts, is the best approximation to what a person is. For more, see the next point.


[51] This would seem, too, to be each man himself, since it is the authoritative and better part of him. It would be strange, then, if he were to choose not the life of his self but that of something else. And what we said before will apply now; that which is proper to each thing is by nature best and most pleasant for each thing; for man, therefore, the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man. This life therefore is also the happiest.


Chapter 8

[52] But in a secondary degree the life in accordance with the other kind of virtue is happy; for the activities in accordance with this befit our human estate. Just and brave acts, and other virtuous acts, we do in relation to each other, observing our respective duties with regard to contracts and services and all manner of actions and with regard to passions; and all of these seem to be typically human. Some of them seem even to arise from the body, and virtue of character to be in many ways bound up with the passions.


[53] Practical wisdom, too, is linked to virtue of character, and this to practical wisdom, since the principles of practical wisdom are in accordance with the moral virtues and rightness in morals is in accordance with practical wisdom. Being connected with the passions also, the moral virtues must belong to our composite nature; and the virtues of our composite nature are human; so, therefore, are the life and the happiness which correspond to these.


[54] The liberal man will need money for the doing of his liberal deeds, and the just man too will need it for the returning of services (for wishes are hard to discern, and even people who are not just pretend to wish to act justly); and the brave man will need power if he is to accomplish any of the acts that correspond to his virtue, and the temperate man will need opportunity; for how else is either he or any of the others to be recognized?


[55] It is debated, too, whether the will or the deed is more essential to virtue, which is assumed to involve both; it is surely clear that its perfection involves both; but for deeds many things are needed, and more, the greater and nobler the deeds are.

See the Philosophical Dictionary under Willing.


[56] But the man who is contemplating the truth needs no such thing, at least with a view to the exercise of his activity; indeed they are, one may say, even hindrances, at all events to his contemplation; but in so far as he is a man and lives with a number of people, he chooses to do virtuous acts; he will therefore need such aids to living a human life.


[57] Now if you take away from a living being action, and still more production, what is left but contemplation? Therefore the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness.


[58] This is indicated, too, by the fact that the other animals have no share in happiness, being completely deprived of such activity. For while the whole life of the gods is blessed, and that of men too in so far as some likeness of such activity belongs to them, none of the other animals is happy, since they in no way share in contemplation.

No, or the sense in which Aristotle uses "happy" here must be limited to human beings anyway. In any case, it seems cats and dogs can be quite happy (contented, joyful, pleased, etc.), and the same seems to be true of other mammals and of birds, though it should be admitted that the happiness of animals is of a kind that apparently is mostly peculiar to their species, and that certainly cannot involve the speculations, expectations, hopes, fears, ideals and values that are typically human, and dependent on language.


[59]  Happiness extends, then, just so far as contemplation does, and those to whom contemplation more fully belongs are more truly happy, not as a mere concomitant but in virtue of the contemplation; for this is in itself precious. Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation.

Aristotle again seems to indulge in wishful thinking, for clearly there is a lot of human and animal happiness outside contemplation. In any case, and only considering humans, I would assume that for most men there is not much happiness to be found in contemplation, and that most men seek most of their joys in some kind of bodily actitivity, whether sport, sex or vacation.


[60] But, being a man, one will also need external prosperity; for our nature is not self-sufficient for the purpose of contemplation, but our body also must be healthy and must have food and other attention. Still, we must not think that the man who is to be happy will need many things or great things, merely because he cannot be supremely happy without external goods; for self-sufficiency and action do not involve excess, and we can do noble acts without ruling earth and sea; for even with moderate advantages one can act virtuously (..)



[61] (..) private persons are thought to do worthy acts no less than despots - indeed even more (..)

Indeed, and one reason that the good private persons do is more worthy than the good done by dictators and people in power is that it tends to involve more risk to the doer and to be more difficult to do.


[62] (..) the life of the man who is active in accordance with virtue will be happy. Solon, too, was perhaps sketching well the happy man when he described him as moderately furnished with externals but as having done (as Solon thought) the noblest acts, and lived temperately; for one can with but moderate possessions do what one ought.

Yes, but I deny once more that "the life of the man who is active in accordance with virtue will be happy", for he may well be virtuous in a bad society, and be cruelly punished or persecuted in result.


[63] Anaxagoras also seems to have supposed the happy man not to be rich nor a despot, when he said that he would not be surprised if the happy man were to seem to most people a strange person; for they judge by externals, since these are all they perceive. The opinions of the wise seem, then, to harmonize with our arguments.

Yes, and it seems fair and reasonable to say that the happiness ordinary men seek, which mostly consists in social conformism in the hope of obtaining the social benefits of such conformism, is mostly illusory, in that there is, apart from safety, little human happiness to be found in comformity, for human happiness seems to depend on being who one is, and living in accordance with one's talents and values.


[64] (..) the truth in practical matters is discerned from the facts of life; for these are the decisive factor. We must therefore survey what we have already said, bringing it to the test of the facts of life, and if it harmonizes with the facts we must accept it, but if it clashes with them we must suppose it to be mere theory.

Quite so.


[65] And that all these attributes belong most of all to the philosopher is manifest. He, therefore, is the dearest to the gods. And he who is that will presumably be also the happiest; so that in this way too the philosopher will more than any other be happy.

On one level we have here a philosopher who proves to his own satisfaction that philosophers are dearest to the gods and the most happy of mortals - and accordingly a certain partiality may be suspected.

-- scientists


Chapter 9

[66] Surely, as the saying goes, where there are things to be done the end is not to survey and recognize the various things, but rather to do them; with regard to virtue, then, it is not enough to know, but we must try to have and use it, or try any other way there may be of becoming good.

This is true, of course, but one important problem is that, while most or all of the rules of morals that are widely acceptable to men, such as the Golden Rule, have been known for thousands of years, even so during all these years there have been wars, enslavements, murders and repressions in great number, and with horrible effects. Aristotle addresses the problem in the next selection.


[67] Now if arguments were in themselves enough to make men good, they would justly, as Theognis says, have won very great rewards, and such rewards should have been provided; but as things are, while they seem to have power to encourage and stimulate the generous-minded among our youth, and to make a character which is gently born, and a true lover of what is noble, ready to be possessed by virtue, they are not able to encourage the many to nobility and goodness.

Here are at least two points that have to be considered.

First, homilies, sermons and tracts on morals have not made a much better world, even though some may have prevented it of becoming worse than it would otherwise be.

The main reason is that the vast majority has no other effective choice than to conform in most things to their social surroundings, if they want to survive or live tolerably in it. And indeed, in Chamfort's words

"Les hommes sont si pervers que le seul espoir et même le seul désir de les corriger, de les voir raisonnables et honnêtes, est un absurdité, une idée romanesque qui ne se pardonne qu'à la simplicité de la première jeunesse."

Second, one may well ask - seeing the ordinary state of the world, that has been, once again, well summarized by Chamfort:

"Presque toute l'Histoire n'est qu'une suite d'horreurs."

- whether "the many" want "nobility and goodness" or are capable of it.

The answer must be that they neither want it nor are capable of it, on their own initiatives and strengths, and that the most they are capable of, usually, is to try to have a pleasant life for themselves, their family and their friends, while conforming to the norms and uses of their own society, whatever these may be.

This does not exclude the possibility of their being brave, noble, courageous or good, but only if this mostly conforms to the norms of their society or if the individuals involved are themselves extra-ordinary individuals.


[68] For these do not by nature obey the sense of shame, but only fear, and do not abstain from bad acts because of their baseness but through fear of punishment; living by passion they pursue their own pleasures and the means to them, and and the opposite pains, and have not even a conception of what is noble and truly pleasant, since they have never tasted it. What argument would remould such people? It is hard, if not impossible, to remove by argument the traits that have long since been incorporated in the character; and perhaps we must be content if, when all the influences by which we are thought to become good are present, we get some tincture of virtue.

Here is Aristotle's version of the argument under [67]: Ordinary people are moved mostly by fear, not morality; they are motivated mostly by pleasure and pains, not by ideals or values; and they are not capable of feeling the joys the most intelligent or artistic are capable of feeling through philosophy, contemplation or art.

Note that one main implication of this and the previous point is that the best way to get a good society is to try to find good laws for it, and see to their maintenance: One can improve the majority of mankind only by improving the laws by which they live - and only to the extent that they are capable of such improvements.


[69] Now some think that we are made good by nature, others by habituation, others by teaching. Nature's part evidently does not depend on us, but as a result of some divine causes is present in those who are truly fortunate; while argument and teaching, we may suspect, are not powerful with all men (..)

--> Gibbon as q by Feynman


[70] For he who lives as passion directs will not hear argument that dissuades him, nor understand it if he does; and how can we persuade one in such a state to change his ways? And in general passion seems to yield not to argument but to force. The character, then, must somehow be there already with a kinship to virtue, loving what is noble and hating what is base.


[71] But it is difficult to get from youth up a right training for virtue if one has not been brought up under right laws; for to live temperately and hardily is not pleasant to most people, especially when they are young. For this reason their nurture and occupations should be fixed by law; for they will not be painful when they have become customary.

It is highly likely that the sort of education that young men get in modern Western Europe and the US would have seemed to be one that is virtually certain to guarantee the existence of a large majority of weak, effeminate and improperly educated and ignorant "democratic electors".

For more on this, see Kitto's "The Greeks"; Bowra's "The Greek Experience", Burckhardt's "Griechische Kulturgeschichte" and Thucydides' "The Pelopponesian Wars".


[72] (..) most people obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than the sense of what is noble.

This is true and important, and one of the fundamental problems of both ethics and morals, and of politics:

The great majority of human beings is neither very rational nor very moral, and both seem to be mostly due to innate incapacities, and not to education.

If this is true, it also means that those who want to change the world in any major or radical way are probably mistaken, as are those who believe major changes are possible by changes in education.

If previous ages allow any estimate of men's capacities for good and evil, then what men have done in these ages show their capacities - and these must remain roughly the same until the human genome has been altered.


[73] This is why some think that legislators ought to stimulate men to virtue and urge them forward by the motive of the noble, on the assumption that those who have been well advanced by the formation of habits will attend to such influences; and that punishments and penalties should be imposed on those who disobey and are of inferior nature, while the incurably bad should be completely banished.

This accords with Greek practice in Aristotle's time, but the general recipe involved, namely that "legislators" are to decide not only the laws of society but also regulate the education it provides, suffers from the problem phrased by Juvenal as "Quis custodiet ipse custodies?" - say in the present terms: Who or what then guarantees that the "legislators" are any good, or always wise and beneficient? Or that power is not abused by the powerful in their own interests?


[74] However that may be, if (as we have said) the man who is to be good must be well trained and habituated, and go on to spend his time in worthy occupations and neither willingly nor unwillingly do bad actions (..)

... then there will be no more than a small minority of such men in any human society, it seems to follow.


[75] (..) the law has compulsive power, while it is at the same time a rule proceeding from a sort of practical wisdom and reason. And while people hate men who oppose their impulses, even if they oppose them rightly, the law in its ordaining of what is good is not burdensome.

This shows a very optimistic view of the working and reception of "the law" - as if for many it has not appeared that the laws of their society mostly existed and worked to protect the interests of the rich and the élite, but not of them.


[76] In the Spartan state alone, or almost alone, the legislator seems to have paid attention to questions of nurture and occupations; in most states such matters have been neglected, and each man lives as he pleases, Cyclops-fashion, 'to his own wife and children dealing law'.

No doubt both Plato and Aristotle deplored this, and therefore it is well to point out that, at least as far as the men are concerned, in case that "each man lives as he pleases", such men are free, at liberty to do as they please or see fit, even if their wifes and children may deplore the use made of this.



[77]  Now it is best that there should be a public and proper care for such matters; but if they are neglected by the community it would seem right for each man to help his children and friends towards virtue, and that they should have the power, or at least the will, to do this.


[78] It would seem, then, that the detail is worked out with more precision if the control is private; for each person is more likely to get what suits his case.


[79] And surely he who wants to make men, whether many or few, better by his care must try to become capable of legislating, if it is through laws that we can become good.


[80] Must we not, then, next examine whence or how one can learn how to legislate? Is it, as in all other cases, from statesmen? Certainly it was thought to be a part of statesmanship. Or is a difference apparent between statesmanship and the other sciences and arts?


[81] But those of the sophists who profess the art seem to be very far from teaching it.

Possibly so, but one must bear in mind that Aristotle probably looked down on Machiavellian approaches to politics, in which - if so - he was mostly mistaken.

In any case, Thucydides shows clearly that the Athenians were quite capable of understanding Machiavelli, formulating much of his thoughts for themselves, and could be very ruthless and cruel, especially if this furthered their own interests.


[82] Surely, then, while collections of laws, and of constitutions also, may be serviceable to those who can study them and judge what is good or bad and what enactments suit what circumstances, those who go through such collections without a practised faculty will not have right judgement (unless it be as a spontaneous gift of nature), though they may perhaps become more intelligent in such matters.

Aristotle is reputed to have collected some 150 constitutions of Greek city-states of his time, but only that of Athens has survived. In any case, it seems as if he seriously and empirically investigated the problem of what "collections of laws" may do to mould people.


[83] Now our predecessors have left the subject of legislation to us unexamined; it is perhaps best, therefore, that we should ourselves study it, and in general study the question of the constitution, in order to complete to the best of our ability our philosophy of human nature.

Of course, this is not quite correct, as Aristotle must have known, for e.g. Plato's "Republic" and "Laws" do consider legislation, and in considerable if not realistic detail also.


[84] First, then, if anything has been said well in detail by earlier thinkers, let us try to review it; then in the light of the constitutions we have collected let us study what sorts of influence preserve and destroy states, and what sorts preserve or destroy the particular kinds of constitution, and to what causes it is due that some are well and others ill administered. When these have been studied we shall perhaps be more likely to see with a comprehensive view, which constitution is best, and how each must be ordered, and what laws and customs it must use, if it is to be at its best. Let us make a beginning of our discussion.

And here Aristotle moves on to his Politics, at least in his edited collected works, to which the Ethics, accordingly, serves as an introduction.