Aristotle on the highest good

Mandy asked:

What is Aristotle’s reason for thinking that the highest good is happiness?

Answer by tony Fahey

Aristotle’s philosophical approach in relation to the above question can be described as teleological. That is, he takes the view that everything in nature, including human beings, moves towards a particular end (telos). For example, the end or telos of the acorn is the mighty oak, the end of the artisan is to achieve the highest degree of excellence in his or her particular field of endeavour, and the end or final cause (the ultimate goal) of human existence is eudaimonia.

Although, as alluded to in the above question, eudaimonia is most commonly translated as ‘happiness’, a more accurate translation is ‘flourishing’. Aristotle believed that the desire to live a fulfilled life is part of what it is to be human. A eudaimon life is a life that is successful. It is important to realize that what Aristotle means by happiness/flourishing has nothing to do with physical pleasure, but is an activity of the mind/soul in accordance with virtue.(NB for the ancient Greeks, soul was a synonym of mind).

It should be noted that, for Aristotle, there are two parts to the mind/soul: the intellectual and the emotional. Correspondingly, there are two types of virtue: intellectual and moral. Moreover, virtue, whether intellectual or moral, is a disposition (a natural inclination) of the mind/soul, which finds its expression in voluntary action -that is, it is consciously chosen. Moral virtue is expressed in the choice of pursuit of a middle course between excessive and deficient emotion, and exaggerated or inadequate action: this is the famous doctrine of the Golden Mean, which holds that each virtue stands somewhere between two opposing vices. Thus, courage or fortitude is a mean between cowardice and rashness; and temperance is the mean between licentiousness or profligacy and insensibility. Justice, or ‘fairness’, the most important virtue of the moral virtues, is also concerned with a mean in the sense that it aims at each person getting neither more nor less than his or her due.

However, it is not like other virtues, flanked by opposing vices since any departure from the just mean, on either side, involves simply injustice. Moral virtue prevents disordered emotion from leading to inappropriate action. What decides, in any situation, what is appropriate action and the correct amount of feeling is the intellectual virtue of prudence or practical wisdom (phronesis): this is the virtue of that part of reason that is concerned with action. The virtue of the speculative part of the reaction is learning, or philosophic wisdom (Sophia): this virtue finds its most sublime manifestations in more or less solitary contemplation (theoria). Supreme happiness, according to Aristotle, would consist in a life of philosophical contemplation. However, whilst this would be the ultimate in human fulfillment, it is also a life that is beyond the realization of mere mortals. The best we can aspire to is the kind of happiness that can be found in a life of political activity and public magnificence in accordance with moral values.

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