Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics
Aristotle (384-322 BCE.) treated ethics as an independent branch of social science, though he incorporated many points from philosophy into the doctrine. In the Nicomachean Ethics (EN) the philosopher presented the concepts of happiness as the ultimate human good, virtues of character and of thought, preconditions of virtue (voluntary action and responsibility), friendship and pleasure. Aristotle’s ethical theory was tensely linked to political science and tackled upon both individual and community ethical natures, since in the philosopher’s conceptualization “a human being is a naturally political [animal]” (EN I.
The goal of the present paper is to discuss Aristotle’s views of the parts of the human soul which manifest themselves in human action on the pursuit of happiness as the ultimate good. The soul according to Aristotle is the subject of development and change. Either intentionally or unintentionally an individuals may mould his soul to live either the life of gratification, or of political activity, or, the most advisedly, of study.
In discussing the specific ways that individuals can follow in shaping their souls so as to live the best life, Aristotle emphasized that each human being was responsible for developing virtues and vices. He remarked that, “It is not only vices of the soul that are voluntary; vices of the body are also voluntary for some people, and we actually censure them” (EN III.5.§15.1114a23-1114a24: 38-9). This saying speaks on behalf of the individual playing an important role in structuring his own life and the life of other people within a political system.
Though the philosopher named a human being “an animal,” he showed the key distinctions between the two creatures in regard to the capacities and states of the soul. Aristotle seemed to create a two-fold system in relating to the human soul against the counterpoint of rationality or reason. In his opinion, there were the nonrational and the rational (the part which had reason) parts of the human soul (EN I.13.§9.1102a29-30: 17).
It seems clear why the philosopher dismissed the purely nonrational part from his classification. The so-called cause of nutrition and growth (EN I.13.§11.1102b1: 17) was hardly to participate in ethical firmament of an individual because it was believed to be shared by both humans and nonhumans alike (EN I.13.§12.1102b5: 17). Specifically human parts of the soul were, thus, the nonrational sub-part nursing appetites or nonrational desires, and the rational part in its two variants: the one which “will have reason fully, by having it within itself,” and the one which “will have reason by listening to reason as to a father” (EN I.13.§18.1103a3-4: 18). Therefore, reason seems to be the guiding principle of the human soul.
To reach the ultimate good or happiness (eudaimonia), a rationally functioning individual should seek to balance the nonrational and rational parts of his soul against each other. At the same time, one should not suppress completely the nonrational desires so as they add more value to the rational desires aimed at doing well in life: “The nonrational part also [obeys and] is persuaded in some way by reason, as is shown by correction, and by every sort of reproof and exhortation” (EN I.13.§18.1102b34-5: 18). The philosopher, therefore, seemed to value the process of learning and refinement in reaching the ultimate goal of human functioning, happiness.
Both the nonrational and the rational parts of the human soul are manifested through a specific human function – the action. To understand how the human soul functions in the diversity of human action, Aristotle highlighted three capacities of the human soul – sense perception, understanding, and desire or appetite (EN VI.2.§1-2.1139a: 87).
Desires trigger intentional, voluntary and specific actions being achievable with the means of individual internal resources (EN VII.3.§6.1147a: 103) to get some result. This concept of action is individualistic and contingent, highly specific (“it is particulars that are achievable in action,” EN VII.3.§6.1147a3: 103); and the agent of every particular action holds responsibility for it (e.g., for health and learning, EN III.2.§24.1111a32: 33). Children and nonhuman animals are able to conduct such types of actions (EN III.§22.1111a26: 33). It speaks on the fact that the actions being guided by non-purely rational and voluntary desires constitute the lowest class of any possible human actions.
The rational actions being performed on a decision form a higher class in Aristotelian hierarchy. They are also voluntary as well as the previous class of actions; though, the rational voluntary actions are more structured than the actions being done “on the spur of the moment […], but not to accord with decision” (EN III.2.§2.1111b11: 33).
The highest type of action is the rational actions that have their own result or end, and the result by itself is not the ideal aim of the action. Aristotle wrote that “the highest of all the goods achievable in action” in perception of people “both the many and the cultivated” was happiness (eudaimonia) or, using the other elements of the equation, “living well and doing well” (EN I.4.§2.1095a17-9: 3). This statement needs to be discussed in details.
The discourse on happiness or doing well takes an important place in Aristotelian ethical theory. Aristotle stressed the specific function of a human being – “some sort of life of action of the [part of the soul] that has reason” (EN I.7.§13.1098a3-4: 9). So far as action is the path to happiness, any action is marked by the milestones of principles or ethical axioms (EN I.7.§20.1098b1-3: 9).
The principle of an action – the source of motion, not the goal – is decision; the principle of decision is desire and goal-directed reason. That is why decision requires understanding and thought, and also a state of character; for acting well or badly requires both thought and character. (EN VI.2.§4.1139b33-6: 87)
Thus, one observes that the most organized of all the soul capacities is the one of understanding which, being interwoven with the virtuous state of character, constitute fully-valued human action aimed at good. The thing is that the abovementioned capacities of the soul are distinguished from a feeling and from a state of virtue (EN II.5). Happiness appears to be reached not by any (sic!) action but by a virtuous action (EN I.13).
It has been already mentioned that Aristotle acknowledged both rational and nonrational parts of the human soul with appropriate appetites or desires. Accordingly, the philosopher mentioned the virtuous states of the soul in regard to both the rational and the nonrational parts participating in the acquirement of happiness. The virtues of the nonrational part intermingling with the rational elements are called the virtues of character (EN II-V), whereas the virtues of the rational part are called the virtues of thought (EN VI).
All the elements of the ethical system – feelings, capacities and virtues – in the process of action being guided by either a desire or decision cooperate to constitute the sequential path to happiness. Aristotle said:
Thought by itself moves nothing; what moves us is goal-directed thought concerned with action. That is why decision is either understanding combined with desire or desire combined with thought; and this is the sort of principle that a human being is.
(EN VI.2.§5.1139a37-1139b4-6: 87)
The quotation is better understood on the following example. Let us take an individual who possesses a knack for teaching and feels disposition and love for children. If this person does not use his capacity in the appropriate environment or uses it not to teach important and appropriate issues but to diminish the child’s impetus to learn, this person cannot be virtuous in teaching. To be a good teacher, the aforesaid individual needs to know how to teach (transmit information and display appropriate models) whom in the right situations, and have positive feelings and desires. Besides, this individual must concentrate his capacities and feelings onto the right goals.
To return to the EN, Aristotle argued that a human being might choose between three types of life: the lives of gratification, of political activity, and of study (EN I.5.§2.1095b17: 4). The philosopher ascribed the first type of action in its universal sense to “the most vulgar” people whom he called “slavish” and being like “grazing animals” in their substituting “the good and happiness” with pleasure (EN I.5.§2-3.1095b18-22: 4).
Then, since the philosopher considered political life to be the most refined type of human existence, he supposed that the more cultivated people took good for honor as the pursued end in their lives of political actions. Aristotle argued that people of political life searched acknowledgement from prudent people for the goal of being praised for virtue and goodness. Aristotle dwelled on the problem if virtues were contained in actions or agents of actions. As it was shown on the example of a person with teaching skills, teaching by itself (action) can be virtuous but an individual (agent) is virtuous since he or she performs the virtuous action deliberately and for its own value: “we intuitively believe that the good is something of our own and hard to take from us” (EN I.5.§4.1095b26-7: 4).
It seems that in his conceptualization Aristotle equated the ultimate good with the reason of human intellect enabling an individual to be active and to use all the potential being given by nature and acquired in training.
If happiness is activity in accord with virtue, it is reasonable for it to accord with the supreme virtue […]. The best is understanding, or whatever else seems to be the natural ruler and leader, and to understand what is fine and divine, by being itself either divine or the most divine element in us. Hence complete happiness will be its activity in accord with its proper virtue; and we have said that this activity is the activity of study. (EN X.7.§1.1177a13-18: 163)
Therefore, the virtuous person does not hesitate to display an appropriate feeling in an appropriate situation but seeks for harmony and agreement between the nonrational and the rational part under the umbrella of the rational part, the intellect. To be virtuous, each individual should decide for himself if he follows the path to happiness.
Aristotle proposed a useful guideline for the human beings looking for ultimate virtue and happiness:
[…] we must draw the outline first, and fill it in later. If the sketch is good, anyone, it seems, can advance and articulate it, and in such cases time discovers more, or is a good partner in discovery. (EN I.7.§17.1098a22-5: 9)
It means that the deliberate and voluntary action being performed in the pursuit of truth and happiness should be planned and developed in a sequence to incorporate all the spiritual elements.
To draw a bottom line, Aristotle stressed that a human being was unique in his composite ethical structure of the nonrational and the rational parts which should be kept in balance. The human being strives to reach the ultimate good or happiness (eudaimonia) through actions, of which the rational actions having their completed result are the most appraised. The most valued and unique characteristic of the human soul is the state or the virtue which is the guiding principle of rational actions in reaching happiness. Of all the possible lives the philosopher seemed to value the lives of political activity and of study. Under those lives an individual agent was virtuous since he performed the virtuous action deliberately and for its own value, hold all the elements of the soul in harmony and saw to the situation. No interpreter could formulate those principles better than Aristotle himself:
[…] the function of a harpist is to play the harp, and the function of a good harpist is to play it well. Moreover, we take the human function to be a certain kind of life, and take this life to be activity and actions of the soul that involve reason; hence the function of the excellent man is to do this well and finely. (EN I.7.§14-1098a13-5: 9)
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Transltr. Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1985.
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Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics. (2016, Jul 21). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/aristotle-nicomachean-ethics/