Aristotle on the good life

Majithia, Roopen
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University of Guelph

In the 70s and 80s, scholars were convinced that the 'Nicomachean Ethics' was inconsistent because it seemed to them that while Aristotle emphasized both practical and theoretical virtues in his conception of happiness in much of the 'NE', in Book X he emphasized only one--contemplation. The problem was that it was hard to imagine how happiness could consist in the satisfaction of a single desire as opposed to the satisfaction of many desiderata. But the gathering consensus in the late 80s and 90s was that there is an implicit assumption that cleared up this difficulty; the 'activity ' of happiness was 'theor?ia' whereas the ' life' of happiness consisted in the satisfaction of several desires both practical and theoretical. Yet this has left many scholars dissatisfied for 2 reasons: (a) because the notion of contemplating a completed picture of knowledge seems odd and boring and hardly the sort of thing one would need to express with the ecstatic Augustinian sentiments that Aristotle uses, (b) and because whatever one may say about their consistency, it is clear that in Book I the hero is a less unfortunate Priam or a Pericles and therefore consists of a discussion of the political life, whereas the hero in Book X is an Anaxagoras and therefore is a discussion of the philosophical life. What I suggest is that (b) there are indeed 2 different lives being talked about here and that contrary to what has been thought all along, the practical life can also culminate in 'theor?ia' just as the philosophical one. This is seen with the help of a better understanding of (a). For ' theor?ia' is ultimately a religious experience, one that is accomplished when we turn our minds to God, the Active Intellect, and in a sense become him since the mind works by becoming one with the object thought. How this is accomplished is different for the different lives; in the practical life it has to do with acting virtuously and fulfilling our function, as well as with the relation of the practical 'kalon' to the divine one. In the theoretical, it has to do with an explicit ascent to the first principle of knowledge and Being as outlined in the 'Metaphysics'.

Aristotle, Good life, Nicomachean Ethics, Happiness, Contemplation