Can Aristotle show that it is part of living well to act virtuously?


To answer this question, we must first understand just how "living well" and "acting virtuously" are to be understood.  In order to avoid any ambiguities, I will simply assume that by "living well" the title question means to refer to what Aristotle refers to with his use of the Greek word "eudaimonia".  Note that Aristotle's term "eudaimonia", which has variously been translated as "happiness," "flourishing," or "living well" means much more than what we normally associate with those English words.  In Aristotle's lexicon, eudaimonia means "living well and faring well."(NE 1.4)  But his conception of this is quite different from the subjective feeling of well-being that we think of as constituting "happiness".  More recent translations of Aristotle have used the phrase "human flourishing" rather than "happiness" or even "living well" to capture the difference between a subjective state of mind that ceases with the death of the mind, and an activity with objective standards of excellence that can remain relevant after the death of the actor.

I will similarly assume that by "acting virtuously" the title question means to refer to what Aristotle refers to with his use of the Greek word "areté".  The Greek word areté has in the past normally been translated into English as "virtue" but it can also be (perhaps more meaningfully) translated as "excellence".  So to "act virtuously" is to "act with excellence."  The ancient Greek notion of "areté" was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function (telos).  In the Homeric Greek Sagas, areté was courage and strength in the face of adversity.  By Aristotle's time areté applied to anything.  The excellence of a shovel, the excellence of a wine, or the excellence of a man.  The precise meaning of areté changes according to what it is applied.  Everything has its own peculiar telos or proper function, so the standards of excellence will vary according to that telos.  Hence the areté of a man is different from the areté of a shield.  "The root of the word is the same as aristos, the word which shows superlative ability and superiority, and aristos was constantly used in the plural to denote the nobility."(1)  (The aristocratic class was presumed, essentially by definition, to be exemplary of areté -- hence the root of "aristocracy.")  A flute player who fulfilled his function well, who lived up to his fullest potential as a flute-player would, in then common linguistic practice, be described with the adjective "areté".  In like manner, a Man who fulfilled his function well, who lived up to his fullest potential as a Man would, in then common linguistic practice, be also be described with the adjective "areté".  So to "act virtuously" is to live up to one's fullest potential as a Man -- to act with excellence according to the proper standards of excellence appropriate to the telos of Man.

Finally, I will adopt the simplifying assumption that by asking "can Aristotle …" the title question is inquiring whether Aristotle does in fact … .  Given the context of a course on historical perspectives on ethics, I will assume in what follows that the focus of the essay's title question is on an evaluation of Aristotle's historical perspective on ethics, rather than on an anachronistic reconstruction of what Aristotle might have been able to argue.

Therefore, the essay's title question will be interpreted as inquiring whether Aristotle does in fact actually demonstrate that his concept of "eudaimonia" is constituted, at least in part, by his concept of behaviour that qualifies as "areté".

The Answer

The Nicomachean Ethics constitutes Aristotle's attempt to answer this question.  In briefest outline, for Aristotle, eudaimonia involves activity, exhibiting areté (excellence, virtue) in accordance with reason.  This conception of eudaimonia derives from Aristotle's view that rationality is peculiar to human beings so that the function (ergon) of a human being will involve the exercise of his rational capacities to the highest degree.  The basic thought is that eudaimonia (well being, living well, flourishing, happiness) will be the supervening result when a creature develops its capacities properly.  Given that reason is a distinctively human capacity, it follows that eudaimonia (living well) for a human being involves the attainment of areté (excellence or virtue) in reason.  So it would seem, if Aristotle's reasoning is sound, that he does succeed in showing that it is part of living well to act virtuously.

Aristotle's analysis begins with an examination of how his fellow Athenian speakers of Greek, people with whom he is familiar, actually employ the concept of a "good man".  He is not attempting to provide an a priori analysis, or an ex cathedra declaration of how we ought to employ the label of a "good man".  Hence his starting point is an examination of how his fellow Greek citizens actually do, in fact, employ the label. 

In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics he begins with the principle then commonly accepted that all human activity is teleological -- all activity is in pursuit of some goal. 

"Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim." (NE 1.1) 

There is a hierarchy of these goods at which various activities aim.  Lesser goods are instrumental in the pursuit of (or partially constitutive of) greater goods. 

"But where such arts fall under a single capacity . . . in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued." (NE 1.1) 

The top of this hierarchy will be the final or highest goal of human activities -- something which is pursued for its own sake, and not for the sake of any other goal. 

"Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these . . . for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final.  Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking.  Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else." (NE 1.7)

This final goal, Aristotle observes, we all agree is "eudaimonia."  Eudaimonia is the one goal that we pursue for itself alone, and not as a means (instrumental or constitutive) of any other end.

"Now such a thing [i.e the highest good] eudaimonia, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of eudaimonia, judging that by means of them we shall be happy.  Eudaimonia, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself." (NE 1.7)

Aristotle then proceeds to examine just what this eudaimonia must be if it is the "highest good".  And as he did with the concept of "a good man", he approaches this analysis from the starting point of how his fellow Athenian citizens employ the concept "good" in normal conversation. 

"For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the 'good' and the 'well' is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function." (NE 1.7)

In sharp contrast with the modern understanding of the "ethical good", Aristotle is setting up a clearly functional concept.  To be properly called a "good flute-player" one must fulfill with excellence the proper function of a flute-player.  And by analogy, Aristotle concludes that to be properly called a "good man" one must fulfill with excellence the proper function of Man (if he has one).  The two key observations to note here are: (i) the word that Aristotle actually employs in this passage is "areté"; and (ii) he is taking his cue from the standard linguistic practice of his community. 

Aristotle next explores what might be the proper function ("ergon") of man.  Aristotle concludes that since Man is a social and political being, then the appropriate standards of excellence for Man will consist of those aspects of behaviour which best enable Man to fulfill that social and political function.  Since he is looking for a specifically human function, he dismisses anything that might be shared with plants or animals -- which rules out nutrition, growth, and the life of sense perception.  Aristotle claims that the only remaining choice is "an active life of the rational element."  The excellence of Man is therefore going to depend upon the extent to which this unique function manifests itself.

"Now if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle, and if we say 'a so-and-so' and 'a good so-and-so' have a function which is the same in kind, . . . eminence in respect of goodness being added to the name of the function . . . : if this is the case, and we state the function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete." (NE 1.7)

Notice particularly how Aristotle sets up his reasoning in this last quote:  IF the ergon (proper function) of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle;  and IF standard linguistic practice is that eminence in respect of areté (excellence / virtue) is added to the name of the ergon;  and IF any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the standards of areté appropriate to the particular ergon;  THEN eudaimonia turns out to be activity in accordance with the appropriate standards of areté  ("goodness", "excellence", or "virtue"). 

In other words, using the terminology of the essay's title, if the proper function of Man is "life of the rational element", and if we are to follow the standard linguistic practices in the use of "virtue", then "living well" turns out to be acting virtuously. 

But notice that Aristotle's conclusion is a conditional -- a conditional based on a very challengeable premise.  This premise is his assertion that the life of reason is the proper function of Man.  Aristotle's supporting reasoning for that assertion is very weak -- consisting of a very brief passage of a few short sentences. 

"Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be common even to the horse, the ox, and every animal. There remains, then, an active life of the element that has a rational principle; of this, one part has such a principle in the sense of being obedient to one, the other in the sense of possessing one and exercising thought. And, as 'life of the rational element' also has two meanings, we must state that life in the sense of activity is what we mean; for this seems to be the more proper sense of the term." (NE 1.7)

The conclusion is debatable at best.  It might have seemed more reasonable in Aristotle's time, since Man was conceived as a special creation of the Gods.  But even given that, there seems to be no over-riding reason why Man's peculiar function could not be shared with other forms of life.  So one might reasonably claim that this premise of Aristotle's argument to be completely unsupported.  And on that basis we would have to conclude that Aristotle in fact does not successfully show that it is part of living well to act virtuously.  His argument is flawed by an unsupported premise.

Even if we grant Aristotle's point about the nature of our unique and defining function, it still remains the case that Aristotle is taking his connection between eudaimonia and the virtues from the common linguistic usage of his community.  He is not attempting to show that eudaimonia necessarily demands behaviours that would fall into the categories of the virtues.  What he is doing is claiming that to live a fulfilling and flourishing life in the eyes and minds of his fellow Athenian citizens, one must those traits of character that his fellow Athenian citizens regard as worthy of the praiseworthy label of "excellence" (areté).  Aristotle was very clear at the start of the Nicomachean Ethics, that it was the usage of "eudaimonia" and "areté" by his fellow Athenian citizens that was to guide his investigations.  So it was not his function to show that it is part of living well to act virtuously.  It was rather stipulated by the linguistic usages of his fellow citizens that acting with excellence is the definition of living well.



 (1)  Jaeger, Werner; Paideia; the Ideals of Greek Culture, Oxford University Press, NY, 1945. Vol. I, pg 5.

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Translated and introduced by David Ross, revised by J.L. Ackrill and J.O. Urmson;  Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 1980.  ISBN 0-19-283407-x  (referred to in the text with chapter and section numbers as "NE n.n")

Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics: Books I, II, and VIII (Clarendon Aristotle Series). Translated by Michael Woods; Oxford University Press, USA; 2 edition; 1992. ISBN 978-0198240204

Kraut, Richard, "Aristotle's Ethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

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