This paper deals with Aristotle’s argument on the identity between theoretical/contemplative activity and the highest human happiness, which Aristotle opposes to partial happiness derived from activities of ethical virtues. The author examines strengths and weaknesses of the Aristotelian view on the connection between contemplative life and happiness, offering the points of both agreement and disagreement with Aristotle’s conclusion on the subject matter.
Keywords: philosophy, ethics, theoretical knowledge, Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
The Conclusion of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
The Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia, or a happy and virtuous life, is predicated on the idea of hierarchy of virtues, which corresponds to the inherent entelechy (i.e. completeness and the highest objective) that a human being was considered to possess. Whereas a ‘theoretical’ component of human soul was regarded by Aristotle as the internal principle informing its entelechy upon a human subject, it is natural that, in Aristotelian ethics, it is the intellectual or contemplative/theoretical activity (bios theoretikos) that would be both the highest life purpose and the paramount form of ethical activity. However, while Aristotle’s arguments presented thereto in Nicomachean Ethics appear convincing, they are characterized by certain imprecision that would potentially make logical foundation of his intellectualist ethics wanting.
The main argument offered by Aristotle in the defense of his claim is the conceptualization of intellect (nous) as “the relatively divinest element” of a human being, and of “activity of contemplation” as being “in accordance with the highest virtue” (Nicomachean Ethics, 10.7.1177a16-17). This notion is ultimately based on the concept of reason as a part of human soul that “is thought to rule and lead” human life (Nic. Eth.10.7.1177a15). Baracchi (2008) emphasizes that for Aristotle, ethical activity is first and foremost an activity of a soul striving for happiness in accordance with its entelechy (2008, p.80). Thus, the divine potential of contemplative life is presented as a link connecting human beings with a “consciousness or vision (the%u014Dria)” of immortal gods (Baracchi, 2008, p.86). Therefore, this concept is predicated on the idea of concrete and tangible existence of divine beings, which is paradoxical, given that Nicomachean Ethics does not involve itself with the discussion of virtues of piety or devotion. However, one should note that an idea of the divine as a source of awareness and consciousness informs the whole discourse of Aristotelian ethics, as demonstrated by Kosman (2009). Aristotle’s maxim that one “must not follow those who advise” humans, “being mortal, [to think] of mortal things” but to “make [oneself] immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing” in human soul and reason, testifies to his deep conviction that human mind is essentially divine (Nic. Eth. 10.7.1177b30-33).
Another aspect of a concept of contemplative life as the highest happiness and virtue is based on the notion of its self-sufficiency. Reeve (2002) observes that from an Aristotelian viewpoint, a “primary eudaimonia” is invariably connected with complete satisfaction that cannot be attained in pursuit of lesser “virtue-related” activities (2002, p.117). The latter may be regarded as producing a potentially infinite chain of desires and ends that are chosen not for themselves but for satisfaction of subsequent goals (Burger, 1995, p.79). In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asserts that while a philosopher may possess the same physical needs as the individuals practicing virtues of the soul, he is completely independent from the others in his contemplative activities, being free “to contemplate truth” alone (Nic. Eth. 10.7.1177a30-35). However, this exaltation of individual contemplation may be taken as running counter the basic tenets of Aristotle’s own political philosophy, with its upholding of sociability as the core feature of a proper human existence. As the Aristotelian concepts of psychology (knowledge of a soul), ethics and politics are integrally connected, the contradiction between the two ideals of bios theoretikos and bios politikos implies the presence of a hidden tension between the ideals of individual and collective ethics (Depew, 2009, p.415). However, following Bush (2008), this apparent contradiction may be resolved if one is able to recognize that Aristotle did not attempt to present bios theoretikos as a conventional ethical ideal, or even to suggest that its complete realization might be possible in individual human beings. For Aristotle, an ability to lead contemplative life was a sign of one’s divine nature, and, as humans were only partially adjacent to the divine, they could not embody this potential in its fullness (Bush, 2008, pp.69-70). Nonetheless, the assertion of political life a form of happiness in Nic. Eth. 1178a9-10 demonstrates that Aristotle was aware of a possible controversy involved (Lear, 2004, p.176).
The status of theoretical activity as the highest human good is underpinned by its alleged finality, i.e. its status as a most perfect expression of a human’s function. Lear (2004) notes that Aristotle’s emphasis on the correlation between a finality of the virtue and a soul’s necessity for acting in accordance with it can be interpreted as a sign of his conviction of the basically contemplative function of a human mind. Aristotle justifies this claim in Book X of Nicomachean Ethics, reflecting that “the activity of contemplation may be held to be the only activity that is loved for its own sake…, whereas from practical activities we look to secure some advantage, greater or smaller, beyond the action itself” (Nic. Eth. 10.7.1177b1-4). The philosopher attempts to demonstrate that the morally virtuous actions such as war or statecraft necessarily entail the unwanted consequences leading to their unnecessary perpetration, while the life of contemplation is bereft of the need to pursue specific goals distinct from the activity itself (Lawrence, 2006). According to Aristotle, warfare and politics “are unleisured, and directed to some further end” (Nic. Eth. 10.7.1177b17-18), while contemplative activity is both a result of absence of pressing concerns of daily life and the only choiceworthy end for free human being to strive for (Baracchi, 2008, p.300). However, this connection between the end’s finality and the leisure accompanying it is rather problematic, as the Aristotelian ethics consistently denies the principle of leisure as an end goal (Lear, 2004, p.185). Therefore, the emphasis on leisure as a positive factor may be justified only by assuming that in Book X, Aristotle construes ‘leisure’ as a state of being free from having to satisfy one’s pressing desires (Baracchi, 2008; Lear, 2004).
At the same time, for Aristotle, contemplative life implies the experience of pleasure which is far more intense than anything derived from the morally virtuous activities. Aristotle believes that the life of theoretical contemplation is bound “to offer pleasures marvellous for their purity and their enduringness” (Nic. Eth. 10.7.1177a25-26). This perspective may be thought to be problematic, for pleasure itself is not regarded as a separate good in Aristotelian ethics (Lear, 2004, p.202). However, in Nicomachean Ethics (1177b20), Aristotle observes that contemplation may be viewed as having “a pleasure peculiar to itself… augmenting its activity”. While such formula seems to be in agreement with the previous discussion of pleasure as the mere augmentation of virtue (see Book 2 of Nicomachean Ethics; Lear, 2004, pp.201-204), the paradox of describing pleasure as one of the core aspects of contemplation’s superiority appears to be visible, which might lead one to question Aristotle’s consistency here.
More importantly, though, the contemplative life is not dependent on external resources and/or opportunities. Whereas the brave, temperate, liberal or just man would need the respective “external equipment” (Nic. Eth. 10.8.1178a24), whether it be material resources or other individuals to orient their activity toward, to efficiently practice their virtues, a philosopher is in no need to rely on the external things to conduct his activity. As this argument effectively enjoins the one on self-sufficiency (see p.4), it is understandable that Aristotle utilizes the same criterion here. Accordingly, the same criticism may be applied to this line of argument, as the philosopher’s contemplation taken alone would not contribute to the good of his polis in total, thus leading to a potential friction between bios theoretikos and bios politikos.
The notion of the contemplation’s continuity performs an important function in Aristotelian conceptualization of theoretical activity as the highest one. Indeed, for Aristotle, contemplation is not only the “highest” but also “the most continuous, for we can reflect more continuously than we can carry on any form of action” (Nic. Eth. 10.7.1177a27). The importance of contemplation’s continuity is underscored by Aristotle’s emphasis on the contemplation being “superior in serious worth” to military and political affairs (1177b20), which, together with its attribute of “freedom from fatigue” for the contemplatives (1177b22), seems to be indicating the importance of continuity as the factor influencing the desirability of contemplative life. However, Aristotle did not elaborate this point in greater details, which potentially makes his discussion incomplete. Nonetheless, it may be discerned that the contemplation’s continuity may be connected with its supposed affinity to the divine (Nic. Eth. 10.8.1178b20-25).
Finally, contemplation is held to be the essence of human happiness as such. Aristotle proceeds from the assumption that apart from the gods, only human being is capable of experiencing happiness, precisely due to human ability for contemplation (Nic. Eth. 10.8.1178b25). The philosopher assumes that “happiness therefore is co-extensive in its range with contemplation: the more a class of beings possesses the faculty of contemplation, the more it enjoys happiness” (1178b30), thus asserting the contemplation’s axiological value per se. Moreover, as Kraut (1991) duly notes, such perspective enables better understanding of the link between continuity and contemplation, for the duration of the divine contemplative activity is assumed to be far exceeding that of humans, providing a rationale for Aristotelian claim on the gods being happier than humans (Kraut, 1991, p.41).
From the viewpoint of modern philosophy, the arguments presented by Aristotle in Book 7-8 of Nicomachean Ethics may be both strong and weak. Their weakness rests on the basic assumption of certain activities being intrinsically ‘better’ than the others, as well as on the presumed link between the transcendental (i.e. the divine) and immanent dimensions of ethics, which would blur the lines of discussion. The claim on the morally virtuous activities’ dependence on the results and means exterior to them may be countered with the observation that contemplative activities are frequently engaged in as the interlude and preparation for acts of moral virtue; thus, in modern world at least, contemplation is not characterized by its finality. On the other hand, the contemplative life may be considered superior to empirically oriented worldly activity due to the potential for enquiring into existential principles and reasons which surpass the superficiality of mundane morality. In this sense, the life of contemplation may indeed be considered ‘divine’ and important for human happiness.