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Aristotle on the Perfect Life$

Anthony Kenny

Print publication date: 1992

Print ISBN-13: 9780198240174

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198240174.001.0001

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Appendix 2 Nicomachean Ethics 1. 7, 1097a15–1098a20 (Translation)

Appendix 2 Nicomachean Ethics 1. 7, 1097a15–1098a20 (Translation)

Aristotle on the Perfect Life
Oxford University Press

LET us return once more to the good we are seeking, and ask what it could be. It seems to be different in different actions and crafts: it is one thing in medicine, another in strategy, and something else again in the other crafts.

What then is the good of each? Surely that for whose sake everything else is done. In medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in domestic architecture a house, in other cases something else, but in every action and choice it is the end. For it is for the sake of this that everyone does whatever else they do.

Therefore, if there is some end of everything that is achievable by action, this will be the good achievable by action; if there are several ends, these will be the goods achievable by action.

Our argument has come round, then, to the same point; but we must try to put this even more clearly.

Since there are evidently several ends, and we choose some of them (e.g. wealth, flutes, and instruments in general) because of something else, it is clear that they are not all perfect ends; but the chief good is evidently something perfect. Therefore, if there is only one perfect end, this will be what we are seeking; and if there are several, it will be the most perfect of these.

Now something that is pursued for its own sake we call more perfect than what is pursued because of something else; and something that is never chosen because of something else we call more perfect than the things that are chosen both for their own sake and because of the other thing; and what we call unqualifiedly perfect is that which is always chosen for itself and never because of anything else.

Now happiness, more than anything else, seems to be a thing of this kind; for happiness we choose always because of itself and never because of something else; whereas honour, pleasure, understanding and every virtue we choose indeed for their own sake (since we would choose each of them even if nothing resulted from them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, supposing that through them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these things, nor, in general, because of anything other than itself.

From self-sufficiency the same result seems to be reached: for the perfect good seems to be self-sufficient. What we mean by self-sufficient is not what is sufficient for a man by himself, living a solitary life, but also for parents, (p.144) children, wife, and friends and fellow citizens in general; since by nature a human being is meant for society. (Some limit must be set to this: if you proceed to ancestors and descendants and friends’ friends the line goes on for ever; but this must be examined on another occasion.) We define the self-sufficient as that which all by itself makes life worthy of choice and lacking in nothing; and such we think happiness to be.

Moreover, we think happiness to be the most choice-worthy of all things without being added to anything else; if so added it is clearly more choice-worthy in conjunction with even the least of goods; for what is added makes an extra amount of good, and the greater of two goods is always most choice-worthy. Thus it appears that there is something perfect and self-sufficient, namely happiness, which is the end of action.

Perhaps, however, to say that happiness is the chief good is a commonplace, and what is missing is a clearer account of what it is. This might be forthcoming if it could be ascertained what is the ergon of a human being. For just as for a flautist, a sculptor, or any craftsman, and in general for all things that have an ergon or activity, the good and the well seems to reside in the ergon, so it would seem to be for a human being, if a human being has an ergon. Does the carpenter then have an ergon and an activity, and the leather-worker too, and does a human being lack one, being functionless by nature? Rather, just as the eye, the hand, the foot, and in general each of the parts manifestly has an ergon, may we not ascribe to the human being some ergon distinct from all these?

What, then, could this be? Being alive seems to be something shared even with plants, and we are seeking what is peculiar to humans; so we should set aside the life of nutrition and growth. Next in order there would be the life of sense-perception, but that too seems to be shared by the horse, the ox, and every kind of animal. What remains is an active life of some kind belonging to what has reason (and this contains two parts, one as obeying reason, the other as possessing reason and engaging in thought); and as this too can be spoken of in two ways, we must state that we mean life in exercise, for this seems to be life more strictly so called. Now if the ergon of man is an activity of soul in accordance with reason, or not without reason, and if we say the ergon of a so-and-so is the same in kind as the ergon of a good so-and-so, as for instance of a lyre-player and a good lyre-player, and so in general in all cases, adding the surplus of excellence to the mere ergon (for the ergon of a lyre-player is to play the lyre, and of a good lyre player to play it well); 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 virtues, according to the best and most perfect.

But we must add ‘in a perfect life’. For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and thus too one day or a short time does not make a man blessed or happy.