Aristotle on Pursuits of Good, the Nature of Political Science, & Happiness


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Aristotle – The Nicomachean Ethics


Chapter I: The Object of Life

I. Every rational activity aims at some end or good. One end (like one activity) may be subordinate to another.

Arts, sciences, etc. All of these strive for the outcome of a good or purpose (Aristotle defines good as ‘that at which all things are aimed’), some activities are thus directly linked to outcomes that are done for a particular end goal in mind. Some are done for their own sake, while others are done for a ‘supreme good’. Aristotle uses the example of horse trapping being subordinate to horsemanship which is related to military action with the intended outcome being of victory. It doesn’t matter what you are doing only that all outcomes are recognized to be generally achieved for the good. Does it not follow, then, that a knowledge of the good is of great importance to us for the conduct of our lives? Are we not more likely to achieve our aim if we have a target? This is why Aristotle believes it is important to outline the definition of what is ‘Good’ and how that is achieved by these (or specific) activities.

II. The science that studies the supreme good for man is politics.

Here, Aristotle points out that political science when done as served, facilitates the good of all man. Or, at least, that it should. Politics makes use of other activities and sciences for the aim of a desired ‘good’, it tells us what we should do and what we shouldn’t in most, if not all, things. But Aristotle highlights that a more perfect achievement and thus a greater good is that of the community, rather than of the individual. For while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime.

III. Politics is not an exact science.

This needs little explanation from Aristotle, but how you can have separate political forces with polarizing agendas on how to achieve this “good” is verifiable in modern day. Instances of morally fine and just conduct–which is what politics investigates–involve so much difference and variety that they are widely believed to be such only by convention and not by nature. Instances of goods involve a similar kind of variety, for the reason that they often have hurtful consequences. So which is the right way and which is the wrong way? Aristotle says we must approach these disagreements by arguing for what can broadly be defined as true with premises and conclusions drawing along the same level of validity, but that it is still an imperfect model given the nature of political science. For demanding logical demonstrations from a teacher of rhetoric is clearly about as reasonable as accepting mere plausibility from a mathematician.” 

The student should have some general knowledge and experience of life.

Upon first glance, it may appear that Aristotle is being ageist in the assumption that youth cannot understand politics due to lack of life experience and knowledge, but that’s not at all what he is suggesting. “It makes no difference whether he is young in age or youthful in character; the defect is due not in lack of years but to living, and pursuing one’s various aims, under sway of feelings; for to people like this knowledge becomes as unprofitable as it is for the incontinent.” What is more dangerous than someone who knows what is right but does not act on it? Or, alternatively, someone who acts willfully on feelings alone without restraint or forethought? Aristotle is suggesting that someone who does not regulate their impulses, or live their life in congruence with these principles of knowledge, has no business participating in political science.

IV. The end is no doubt happiness, but views of happiness differ.

Now that Aristotle has established that all knowledge and pursuits aim at a good, what is the highest form of good for political science? Happiness. Of course, since Aristotle is a philosopher, he has issues with the definition of happiness and what that might entail. Some people say happiness is health, some say it to be pleasure, others financial security. So which is real happiness? Aristotle also cautions that people have a tendency to go along with whatever smarter people say, Conscious of their own ignorance, most people are impressed by anyone who pontificates and says something that is over their heads.

Learners must start from beliefs that are accepted or at least familiar.

Those who do have a handle on themselves as described above, are ready to invest themselves in the study of ethics and political science. But it is important to start with what is already known, and that can be both what is known to the individual and what is also known as an absolute truth (Think, the sky is blue). This is where Aristotle references Hesiod’s line about wisdom.

V. The three types of life. Neither pleasure nor public honour seems to be an adequate end; the contemplative life will be considered later.

The three main types of happiness in life, according to Plato’s Republic as denoted by Pythagoras is: Pleasure, political, and contemplative. Aristotle is sure that people who seek only pleasurable experiences are basic and servile, plebeians in both nature and potential. People with an ounce more culture will seek honor as their happiness, but this too might be superficial. Honor is given and people seem to seek it in order to convince themselves of their own goodness. He argues that it might seem that this goodness, then, is the intended outcome but that this is an active nature that can not be done while asleep or dormant, and that sometimes the act of being good is in retaliation to atrocities and suffering, which can’t then have anything to do with happiness. Aristotle supposed there might be something more sufficient in contemplation. He also notes that for the life of a businessman who seeks money as his source of happiness, “Wealth is obviously not the good that we are seeking, because it serves as a means for getting something else.”


In the next section to be continued, Aristotle takes a few swipes at Plato, discusses the concept of a Universal Good, and further attempts to define Happiness!


Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Aristotle, The Nicomacheon Ethics. Trans. A.K. Thomson, Penguin Classics. 2004 ed.

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