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3 Eudaimonia and the ethical excellences

3 Eudaimonia and the ethical excellences

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instrumental) means to this goal, it contributes no more to their eudaimonia than

does engaging in public affairs. But with money to purchase the leisure to

contemplate, will they not be eudaimones?

What is troubling is that this group of people, singularly deficient in the

ethical excellence of justice, if in no other, should have any claim at all to be the

successful, admirable human beings that being eudaimones implies. Whatever

happened to the claim that eudaimonia consisted of the actualization of the

ethical excellences? What happened to the idea that to be just or temperate or

courageous, one has to choose to do just or temperate or courageous deeds for

their own sake, and to the implication that for a person with the excellence in

question, these deeds are worth doing for their own sake and are part of what it is

to live well (see Section 8.4)? What happened is that it was allowed that there

might be one excellence that would have to be cultivated and exercised above all

the rest (the ‘dominant view’). Once an excellence—in this case the intellectual

excellence of theoretical wisdom—is accorded that role, the only role remaining

to the ethical excellences seems to be that of instrumental means, of domestic

servants, to the one thing that really fulfills the life of a human being.

The image of the ethical excellences functioning as maidservants (with

phron sis functioning as chief housekeeper) to something else valued for its own

sake was applied by an opponent to the views of a philosopher, Epicurus, who

established himself during the generation following Aristotle’s death. We will

look at the views of Epicurus and how they differ from Aristotle’s in the

following chapter. Aristotle, however, does not appear to have been as

comfortable with leaving the exercise of the ethical excellences in this

subservient role as Epicurus was. Having reached the conclusion at the end of the

Nicomachean Ethics that the life of intellectual contemplation (the activity that

realizes theoretical wisdom) is the best, the most pleasant and the most eudaim n,

a new chapter continues to add support for this conclusion but begins:

Life in accordance with the other excellences [is eudaim n] in a secondary

way. For activities in accordance with these is human. Doing what is just

(right) and courageous (manly) and in accordance with the other

excellences toward one another in all our contracts and services and

actions and in the passions (emotions) —all this seems to be human.


The stress here on ‘human’ follows Aristotle’s argument that contemplation,

although characteristic of divine, god-like beings, is also characteristic of the

best in human beings.

On what basis can Aristotle claim that the ethical excellences contribute, even

in a ‘secondary’ way, to eudaimonia? Actualizing them is a function of our

mortality (gods do not engage in activity, praxis); it is unleisured, dependent on

other people, uses (apparently) the capacity for discursive thought in a

subservient way and is not directed toward the higher forms of reality. To have


an excellence, X, we have to act for the sake of doing X things, but the picture of

a life fulfilled by one supremely excellent intellectual activity raises the

question, ‘why do anything for the sake of anything other than this?’

It is important to bear in mind that, although the ethical excellences that Aristotle

identifies, analyses and discusses would facilitate social interaction in general,

they were selected as traits needed by those who undertake civic responsibilities,

those who are to manage the foreign and domestic affairs of a Greek polis.

However, much of what is involved in the (collective) management of a Greek

polis does not appear to Aristotle as being undertaken for its own sake (making

war, maintaining the public treasury, adjudicating disputes). Hence a life

exercising the ethical excellences is assigned at most to the second rank, and we

have no account that explains why, if a person were for some reason unable to

undertake the most fulfilling human activity, there would be any fulfillment

anywhere else.

However, if we took Aristotle’s principle that eudaimonia is to be sought in

doing well the things that humans characteristically do and made two

adjustments in the way the Nicomachean version develops that principle, a very

different conception of eudaimonia would emerge. One adjustment would accord

equal dignity to the function of discursive thought to govern —as in the

following passage from the Eudemian version, which does not move to treat

discursive thought in isolation from other general functions of the soul. The

vegetative part (the respect in which we are alive in the same way that plants and

animals are alive) is not relevant to our inquiry (1219b38—‘for no horse, bird, or

fish is eudaim n,’ 1217a26), but

considering human beings as human, they must have the power of

reasoning (logismos), as a determinant of action; now reasoning does not

govern reasoning but desire and affections, so humans [considered as

humans] must have these parts [i.e. capacities]. And as physical well-being

is made up of the excellences of the several parts, so also is the soul

considered as an end [or whole].


This passage assumes that discursive thought in the guise of logismos has the

task of governing, and to the extent that it is suggested that eudaimonia depends

on excellences, the drift here seems to be toward a more inclusive view.

Assigning to the activity of governing by thought this role in eudaimonia could

qualify a number of lives for the dignity of eudaim n —artists, athletes,

agriculturalists, engineers and many more who invest discursive thought in what

they do.

A second adjustment would be to place as much emphasis on the claim10 that

humans are by nature city-dwelling creatures as on the claim that they think

discursively. In other words, acknowledge that human fulfillment consists not

merely of what is done by people when they have leisure but also in what is done


by them to sustain a common life (a ‘commonwealth’) in a public space. If that

involves defense, finance, adjudication, arranging festivities, regulating markets,

maintaining sewers, then doing these things well (under the guidance of

discursive thought, of course) will be what it is for a human to do well as a

human being. (And the other activities mentioned at the end of the previous

paragraph are all richer for their involvement both in narrowly professional and

in wider public spheres.)

Here a life exercising ethical excellences of the sort that Aristotle picked out

and discussed at length in both versions of the Ethics will be assigned first—

although not necessarily an exclusively first—rank. But to develop this requires

firmly setting aside the dominant view of eudaimonia and embracing the

inclusive view. It is interesting, therefore, that the Aristotle of the Eudemian

version appears far less ambivalent between the inclusive and dominant views in

his initial exploration of eudaimonia, and he makes no effort to mount a case for

theorein as the highest of human activities. A passage in the Eudemian version

that corresponds to those cited at the end of Section 9.1, uses the word teleion

not in the sense of ‘final’ but in the sense of ‘complete’.11 This is clear from

what is said in the following passage:

But since eudaimonia is something complete, and living is either complete

or incomplete and so also excellence—one excellence being a whole, the

other a part—and the activity of what is incomplete is itself incomplete,

therefore eudaimonia would be the activity of a complete life in

accordance with complete excellence.


With the stress on completeness, we are directed toward the inclusive view, and

the interpretation is confirmed by a remark a few lines later: ‘nothing incomplete

(atel s) is eudaim n, not being a whole’ (1219b7). There is no echo in the

Eudemian version of the cagey formula ‘and if there is more than one (end or

excellence), then the best and most final.’

The final book of the Eudemian version, however, presents something of a

puzzle. It concludes with the passage quoted at the head of this chapter, which

contains what appears to be a ringing endorsement of the position reached in the

Nicomachean version. We must measure all goods (or the good of all things) by

the standard of what ‘will produce the contemplation of god’; what is bad is

what ‘hinders one from the contemplation and service of god.’ The involvement

of ‘contemplation’ and ‘god’ in this conclusion comes as something of a

surprise; these notions are introduced without proper preparation or motivation,

and the reference to ‘service of god’ is doubly puzzling because of an

immediately preceding remark (1249b15) that ‘god needs nothing.’ The chapter,

indeed the whole of the Eudemian version, contains no extended case for

thinking that theorein is an especially worthwhile activity. If the Nicomachean

version does represent Aristotle’s more mature thinking, this passage might


reflect a later addition (by Aristotle and/or by an editor) in an attempt to bring

the two versions into line. It may also be the case that the notion of

‘contemplation and service of god’ has a different interpretation, one unlike that

suggested by the argument at the end of the Nicomachean version. The general

drift of the argument up to this puzzling passage is certainly very unlike that

found in the Nicomachean version.

As we noted in Section 9.2, the shortlist of candidates for eudaimonia in the

Eudemian version differs in significant respects from the list in the Nicomachean

version: instead of recognizing the candidacy of the lives devoted to pleasure,

honor and contemplation, the Eudemian version shortlists pleasure, excellence

and phron sis. The last chapter of the Eudemian Ethics contains an evaluation of

these candidates, but by far the most attention there is devoted to excellence, and

consistent with the earlier emphasis on complete excellence Aristotle sets out to

describe the excellence that arises from the combination of the various

excellences (1248b10).

Aristotle appropriates the Greek word kalos for ‘the excellences and the works

that proceed from excellence’ (b37). Kalos is rendered as ‘noble,’ ‘fine,’

‘admirable’ or ‘beautiful’ by various translators. One good reason for adopting

‘admirable,’ which incorporates the concept of people drawn to look up to

something with approval, is that this is the closest English antonym to

‘shameful,’ ‘disgraceful,’ the meaning of the Greek antonym, aischros. Another

is the assumed connection between excellence and what merits admiration and

commendation (‘For all goods have ends which are chosen for their own sake.

Of these, we call kalos all those which are commended for their own sake’

(b20)). To merit admiration, to be admirable, does not mean actually being

admired or honored by other people. The excellent and the admirable are what

people ought to look up to, admire and try to emulate. Honor and admiration

depend on other people; being excellent or admirable can be achieved without

recognition by other people. This is the significance of the Eudemian selection of

‘excellence’ rather than ‘honor’ for the shortlist of candidates.

Kalos does not label complete excellence, the excellence that arises from the

combination of excellences. Aristotle adopts a portmanteau expression, kalos

kagathos, ‘admirable and good,’12 and he labors to explain the difference

between a merely good person and an admirable and good person. With a fairly

shrewd grasp of the class interest that lay behind the admirable Spartan civic

discipline (Section 3.1), Aristotle cites the Spartans to distinguish between

people who possess admirable goods and do admirable deeds and those who

possess admirable qualities and do admirable things for their own sake. The

Spartan elite possess admirable qualities and do admirable deeds for the sake of

holding on to their position of power and wealth. (Spartan aristocrats

accumulated considerable wealth and were noted for their lack of decorum under

the influence of wine when visiting foreign parts.) Complete virtue, like any

partial virtue, must, to be present in the full and proper sense, be sought for its

own sake. There is here no excellence, ethical or intellectual, that stands to usurp


the claims of the other excellences taken together and to turn them into its servants.

Eudaimonia is action in accordance with complete excellence.

Having concluded his summary discussion of complete excellence, Aristotle

takes up pleasure briefly, stressing that what is pleasant without qualification is

also admirable and that as pleasure is derived only from action, people who are

truly eudaim n (acting as they do with complete excellence) will live most

pleasantly. The doctrine here is familiar from both versions of the Ethics and

may be reduced to these claims (some of which will be treated in more detail in

the next chapter): pleasure is specific to activities (we cannot obtain the same

pleasures from different activities) and is not something separable from the

activities that give rise to it. The pleasure that appears as an alternative to

excellence is not pleasure without qualification, it is merely a mistaken

appearance of what is really good (1113a15–b1). The exercise of excellence has

its own specific pleasures (1104b4–28), and the aim in life is not to avoid

pleasure but to take pleasure in genuinely good things. Doing so is experiencing

pleasure without qualification (the really pleasant is good.) So in the Eudemian

version, instead of setting up pleasure as an alternative way of life (one that

perhaps only the immature and the children that never grow up will want to

pursue), pleasure is treated as a necessary constituent of eudaimonia.

Aristotle then turns to phron sis. Thirty-five lines from the end of the book

and the end of the Eudemian version, the discussion picks up a thread left

dangling from the last two sentences (1145a7–11) of the earlier book (common

to both versions) that discussed phron sis. There it was said that phron sis looks

after theoretical wisdom, just as medicine looks after our health or as politics (the

management of civic affairs) looks after (the communal religious observances

honoring) the gods. In the context of the Nicomachean version, this appears to

foreshadow the service that phron sis and the other ethical excellences will

render to the possibility of a life devoted to contemplation, but the Eudemian

version offers no apologia for contemplation.

It begins with the image of medicine giving orders by reference to a standard,

namely the health of the body. So, when it comes to choosing things that relate to

wealth and good fortune (the things that are naturally good, but only if carefully

and intelligently managed), the good man needs a standard. To specify the

standard, Aristotle reminds his audience that humans have a ruling element

(thought) and a subject element (feeling), and that one should live according to

the former. And here phron sis is once again portrayed as issuing commands

(like a physician) on behalf of our ability to contemplate, as though that ability

were our health. The passage that appears at the head of this chapter is worth

repeating here:

What choice, then, or possession of the natural goods—whether bodily

goods, wealth, friends, or other things—will most produce the

contemplation of god, that choice or possession is best; this is the most

admirable standard, but any that through deficiency or excess hinders one


from the contemplation and service of god is bad; this a man possesses in his

soul, and this is the best standard for the soul—to perceive the irrational

part of the soul, as such, as little as possible.


Is ‘contemplation’ (observing, watching over?) simply the activity of an alert

‘ruling element?’ Then why is its object ‘god?’ If its activity is to govern, why

should it perceive the irrational part of the soul as little as possible? Because of

the misleading appearances of what is good that this part is likely to generate?

The drift up to this point has been that the three candidate lives of the

Eudemian version do not represent exclusive alternatives, but that eudaimonia

consists of all three, if properly related to one another. The end of this version

may well point to the same line taken at the end of the Nicomachean version, but

from within its own development it appears rather to be an attempt to hold the

ethical and intellectual excellences together in a tight package and to offer their

collective exercise as true human fulfillment. Phron sis, we learned earlier (from

the common book devoted to it; see Section 8.4, under (4)), is related to the rest

of the excellences as an eye that helps them to see where true excellence lies,

that is to see what is truly admirable. The ability to contemplate, see clearly and

accurately, the highest things would have to be the health of that eye; it cannot,

the earlier discussion of phron sis made clear, exist without the ethical

excellences. ‘God’ would then have to be identified in some way with those

‘highest things,’ which may in themselves need nothing from us, but

nevertheless realizing them in the particular circumstances that make up our lives

is a kind of service to them. Kenny speculates that,

the service of God could well include acts of moral virtue. These are the kalai

praxeis [admirable deeds] of the kalos kagathos [admirable and good

person] which are the subject of the early part of the chapter; they could

well be regarded as the many noble things which we, under the arkh

[leading principle] of God, find our fulfillment in performing and by which

we make our contribution to the splendour of the universe.


Regrettably, the Eudemian version seems to have left us needing to speculate.

The question ‘Which of these versions represents the considered opinion of

their reputed author?’ will continue to be disputed by scholars. Regardless of

whether and how that question is to be settled, the two versions examined here

represent interesting alternative outcomes of the attempt to deliberate about what

for humans is living well, or what human flourishing is. The Nicomachean

version offers a view from the perspective of human beings regarded as

individuals. In the next chapter, we will see just how close it comes to the most

self-consciously anti-public, anti-political of the ancient Hellenistic schools, that

of Epicurus, The Eudemian version offers a view from the perspective of human


beings as essentially social creatures. To wind up this chapter, it will be useful to

compare its vision with that of a radically different culture and philosophical

tradition. Confucianism did not pose its questions in anything like the form

‘What is it for human beings to live well, to flourish?’ but, as we will see, it

contains sufficient material for an answer to be constructed.


A Confucian take on eudaimonia

Blending reason and ritual

Aristotle believed both that humans naturally form associations wider than

families and close friendships and that the second of these contribute in important

ways to the health of the wider associations (cities; poleis): ‘For friendship we

believe to be the greatest good of cities and what best preserves them against

civil strife’ (1262b7–8). Having allowed that the eudaimonia of a friend (of

‘another self,’ see Section 10.2) can contribute to one’s own eudaimonia,

Aristotle is certainly open to the claim that seeing one’s city collectively do

admirable things and contributing to the collective effort can be a constituent of

one’s own eudaimonia. In his Politics, Aristotle considers what it is for a city to

qualify as eudaim n, but apart from insisting that a eudaim n city is one that is

best and acts well (1323b30), we are not given much idea of what Aristotle

would count as ‘the good society.’ We are told unequivocally that conquering

and tyrannizing one’s neighbors is no part of doing well (1324b23–41), but we

are given no guidance regarding the extent to which erecting public buildings,

staging festivals, providing amenities, is part of what it is for a city to do well.

The picture of the texture of social life in what Aristotle would regard as an

admirable city seems to consist of citizens deliberating as among friends about

how their polis can achieve what is admirable and good. Perhaps this vagueness

is the result of the room that these citizens need to determine through

deliberating for themselves what that is.

The stress on ritual interaction in the Confucian tradition produces an

interesting contrast. To draw it out requires addressing an Aristotelian question

to the Confucian sources: what for a Confucian counts as

eudaimonia? Confucians would certainly be comfortable with Aristotle’s

(‘humanist’) assumption that the best that could be achieved by human action

does not answer to any higher goal. Confucians do not look beyond human beings

and their natural environment for sources of moral authority any more than did

Aristotle.13 Aristotle’s chief device for clarifying human good is in terms of an

account of human nature. This move is likewise accessible to Confucians. Hsün

Tzu offers a sketch of a hierarchy of being—inanimate, plant, animal, human—

that would be instantly recognizable to Aristotle (as well as to Hellenistic

philosophers who came after him), even if accounts of how to characterize the

stages would differ.


Fire and water possess energy but are without life. Grass and trees have life

but no intelligence. Birds and beasts have intelligence but no (sense of)

righteousness (yi). Man possesses energy, life, intelligence, and in addition

(a sense of) righteousness. Therefore he is the noblest being on earth.

(Watson 1963–1:45)

The crucial difference between animal and human, according to Aristotle, is

logos, discursive thought. The crucial difference between animal and man,

according to Hsün Tzu, is the possession of yi, (a sense of) what is right or


Logos is what Aristotle sees as the key to the sort of social formations

characteristic of the human species. Hsün Tzu goes on from the lines quoted

above to explain why humans are organized in a manner superior to other

creatures. With yi, humans set up hierarchical divisions (accept lines of

authority), which in turn create harmony and ensure (social) unity. In unity is

strength; in strength lies the power to conquer all things. ‘Thus men can dwell in

security in their houses and halls. The reason that men are able to harmonize

their actions with the order of the seasons, utilize all things, and bring universal

profit to the world is simply this: they have established hierarchical divisions and

possess yi.’ The absence of yi leads to quarreling, chaos, fragmentation and

weakness—Hsün Tzu moves immediately to link yi to li (ritual propriety), a pair

(translated ‘ritual principles’ by Watson) that occurs frequently in the texts

attributed to Hsün Tzu14— ‘This is why I say that ritual principles must not be

neglected even for a moment’ (46).

Although Aristotle emphasizes logos, he sees this as linked to the very feature

of human beings that for Hsün Tzu distinguishes them from animals. To quote

again (see Section 8.4 under (3)) from the Politics, ‘For what distinguishes

human beings from the other animals is their having a perception of good and

bad, right and wrong and the other [things of this sort], and the sharing of these

makes a household and a city’ (1253a16–18). However, Aristotle does not

immediately go on to stress the importance of a hierarchy of authority or of any

recognized forms of conduct that would keep a hierarchy firmly in place. Social

unity is based on common conceptions of how to judge things and on the practice

of deliberation in which those common conceptions are used to govern

collaborative activity. Social unity in Hsün Tzu’s Confucian conception of

society is based on everyone knowing his or her place in a hierarchy and

employing a grammar of conduct, referred to as li-yi, that facilitates interaction

between levels.

He who can follow them (li-yi) in serving his parents is called filial; he

who can follow them in serving his elder brothers is called brotherly. He

who can follow them in serving his superiors is called obedient; he who

can follow them in employing his inferiors is called a ruler.


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3 Eudaimonia and the ethical excellences

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