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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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Fortune and Virtue

Fortune and Virtue

(p.56) 5 Fortune and Virtue
Aristotle on the Perfect Life

Anthony Kenny

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Aristotle rebukes, in all his ethical treatises, those who identify happiness with good fortune; but he is always ready to recognize the role of luck in the acquisition and operation of the virtues whose exercise constitutes the happy life. This chapter is devoted to an examination of the Eudemian teaching on good fortune. Though the two states of mind are sharply distinguished in the common book B, episteme and its verb seem to be used to refer to practical wisdom in passages in the common book C and in Eudemian Ethics II. However, in this book of the Eudemian Ethics, wisdom and knowledge have been distinguished.

Keywords:   good fortune, luck, virtue, happiness, wisdom, knowledge, Aristotle

THE frailty of human life and the vulnerability of human goods mean that in the pursuit and retention of happiness there is great scope for good and bad luck. In all his ethical treatises Aristotle rebukes those who identify happiness with good fortune; but he is always ready to recognize the role of luck in the acquisition and operation of the virtues whose exercise constitutes the happy life.

The fullest treatment of the relation between luck, virtue, and happiness is to be found in the penultimate chapter of the EE, which is devoted to the topic of good fortune. This chapter, historically, has been the most influential passage in the entire EE. It circulated apart from the rest of the treatise (but along with the corresponding chapter of the Magna Moralia, 2. 8) in a Latin version under the title De Bona Fortuna, which was popular enough to survive in 150 manuscripts (compared with 55 of the Magna Moralia and none of the EE in Latin).

The present chapter will be devoted to an examination of the Eudemian teaching on good fortune. Because the Greek text is in a poor condition, and has often to be reconstructed with the aid of the Latin translation, I have printed in appendices both the Greek text which I take to be the closest approximation to the original and my own translation of that text. The paraphrase which follows should be read in conjunction with that text and translation.

Aristotle sets out the topic of his enquiry in these terms:

Since not only wisdom and virtue bring about well-doing, but we say also that the fortunate do well, on the assumption that fortune produces well-doing and the same results as knowledge, we must enquire whether it is by nature, or otherwise, that one man is fortunate and another unfortunate, and how matters stand on this topic.


Right at the beginning we meet a textual difficulty. However the text is read, it is clear that the point is being made that eupragia (well-doing) is caused not only by phronēsis (wisdom) but also by eutukhia (good fortune). What is doubtful, given the textual tradition, is (p.57) whether we say not only that both phronēsis and eutukhia can cause well-doing, or also that both these two sources can give rise to virtue or aretē.1 But the most likely sense of the passage is this: virtue and wisdom, in the normal case, are the causes of good action; but good action can be caused not only by virtue and wisdom, but also by good fortune.

In the previous paragraphs I have translated eupragia as ‘well-doing’. I take the word to mean the actions which a virtuous person does. It is common ground, in both the NE (1105b5–9) and in the EE,2 that one can do the acts of a virtuous person without being virtuous. Despite a weight of scholarly opinion, I do not think that eupragia in this context can mean anything like eudaimonia.3 Neither in the NE nor in the EE would Aristotle have agreed that true happiness could come about by mere luck.4

When Aristotle says that fortune produces the same results as knowledge (epistēmé), should the word here be taken as a synonym for phronēsis? Though the two states of mind are sharply distinguished in (p.58) the common book B, epistēmē and its verb seem to be used to refer to practical wisdom in passages in the common book C (II46b7 etc.) and in EE II (where the mean is said to be as epistēmē orders). However, in this very book of the EE wisdom and knowledge have been distinguished just four lines back (1246b36). If the two words are, none the less, used synonymously here, the sense is that good fortune can engender good action, and produce the same effects as (practical) knowledge. If the distinction is being preserved, then Aristotle is making the further point that luck can mimic not only the effects of wisdom, but the effects of science. Even on this second account, epistēmē must be being used in a broad sense, to cover tekhnē if not phronēsis; for there is no external product of strict knowledge as there is of skill and wisdom.

The next question which arises is whether this good fortune, which can rival the effects of wisdom and knowledge, is something that is inborn or not. According to the theory which occurs both in the EE (1234a28) and in the common book B (1144b1–16), neither wisdom nor virtue, strictly so called, is inborn; so from these two causes no one could be a good agent by nature. But if good action can be caused by good fortune, and good fortune is something inborn, then perhaps someone could, after all, be a naturally good agent. But are good fortune and bad fortune inborn?

Before answering this question, Aristotle takes a step backward to ask whether fortunate people exist at all. For if there is no such thing as a fortunate person, it is futile to ask whether such a person owes his good fortune to nature or to something else. His answer appears to be a definite affirmative: that there are fortunate men is just something we see (1247a4).

There are people—stupid people—who get things right, often, in two different cases: first, in areas where luck rules; and secondly, in cases where, while there is an appropriate skill, there is plenty of room also for luck. Games of chance are the paradigm of the former case; Aristotle gives strategy and navigation as examples of the second. So, we have lucky gamblers, lucky generals, and lucky helmsmen. The question is: what kind of thing is this good fortune of theirs, their being fortunate or lucky? Is being fortunate an inborn or an acquired characteristic?

The question which I have just put could easily be put into Aristotelian terms. Is this quality (poiotēs) one that is natural (phusikē) or is it an acquired disposition (hexis)? But this does not appear to be (p.59) how Aristotle here puts the question, with his usual irritating nonchalance about the helpful distinctions which he himself has introduced. He asks ‘Are these people [such] through some disposition (hexis), or is it not through their possessing some quality (poiotēs) that they are capable of lucky action?’—a form of question which suggests that he is here using ‘quality’ (being polos) as a synonym for acquired disposition.5 He gives a provisional answer: as things are, people think that there are some who are by nature thus; for it is nature which gives people their qualities (poious tinas poiei), so that they differ right from birth. This suggests that he is here using ‘quality’ (being poios) as a synonym for an inborn characteristic. We have to look to the example he gives in order to seek clarification.

Put in concrete terms, Aristotle asks whether being fortunate or unfortunate is like being black-eyed or blue-eyed. Clearly, he thinks of this as a feature which is inborn, not acquired.6 So the sense of the passage is that people think fortune is something inborn: just as people are blue-or black-eyed, through the necessity of their being, so—on this view—are the fortunate and the unfortunate. From a later passage (1247a37) it is clear that Aristotle thought that blue- and black-eyed people saw differently: blue-eyed people do not see as clearly as black-eyed. So the thesis being considered here is that there is a hidden natural quality related to luck as visible eye-colour is to sharpness of vision.7

The argument for this thesis proceeds by ruling out the possible acquired hexeis which might be thought to make people fortunate or unfortunate. It is not by phronēsis that people succeed,8 because (p.60) wisdom is not inarticulate, but gives reasons for action; but the fortunate people could not explain how it is they succeed. Then comes a puzzling remark: ‘for [if they could] it would be tekhnē’.9 One might have expected ‘for it would be phronēsis’. For if fortune is supposed to be like wisdom except that it lacks reasoning, then it would be expected that if you added reasoning it would turn into wisdom. Why should it turn into something different, namely skill?

Possibly Aristotle’s meaning is as follows. If those who do morally well could give an account, it would not be a matter of luck that they do well, but wisdom; just as if those who do technically well could give an account it would be skill and not luck. If this seems excessively compressed, then perhaps he should be taken to be saying: it isn’t articulate, and that is enough to prove that it isn’t wisdom; but even if it were articulate it would not be wisdom but skill. The whole section, it is true, began with eupragia as the product of good fortune; however, the more recent examples discussed have been things like strategy and seamanship, which are skills. Aristotle is basically interested in the case where luck replaces phronēsis, and not when it replaces tekhnē; but he is following his usual method of using technical illustrations to make ethical points.10

It is obvious, Aristotle says, that some people do succeed in areas where they lack wisdom.11 What is obvious is not that some who are foolish in A succeed in B but that some who are foolish in B succeed in B. To illustrate the first case, Aristotle tells the story of a clever geometer who was cheated by the customs in Byzantium. This seems a little off the mark: it appears to be a case of someone clever in A failing in B (clever in geometry, failing to be streetwise). It illustrates only the general point that one can be skilled at one thing (geometry is presumably a tekhnē) and unskilled at another. What Aristotle wants is a case of someone succeeding in the area of the very skill which he lacks.12 The case he offers of those foolish in B succeeding in B is that of not very clever steersmen who sail well. These are compared with people (p.61) who throw sixes as being by nature luckier than those who throw blank (1247a22–3).13

What is being assumed here? Is Aristotle accepting that there is natural gambler’s luck, and extending the naturalness of this to technical luck? If so, there seems to be an argument in a circle. Aristotle wants to show that there is natural luck by eliminating the other alternatives; but here he assumes the existence of natural luck in the course of eliminating skill. It is clear, at all events, that dicing is not a matter of skill or wisdom; and perhaps all he needs is to make a comparison with the alleged case of a naturally lucky gambler, whether or not such a person genuinely exists.

‘Or is it through being favoured, as they say, by a god?’ (1247a23). A new sentence begins here,14 and indeed we are turning to a different argument. Aristotle wants to exclude a second alternative to the possibility of natural fortune, namely that there is some source of good fortune external to the agent. Aristotle makes the comparison ‘A ship badly constructed often sails better, though not because of itself but because it has a good steersman.’ Here it is no longer the steersman who is the possessor of the luck: it is the ship which is lucky in its steersman. Decoding the analogy, the fortunate person would be like a lucky ship, because he has a divine being to steer him through life, or perhaps like a steersman who takes on a divine pilot. But this is rejected on the principle—later defended in the Christian era by the Pelagian heretics in controversy with St Augustine—that divine favour depends on human merit. ‘It is strange that a god or divine being should favour such a man, rather than the best or the wisest.’ Gods or guardian angels would need reason to love a human being, and this would be either virtue or wisdom (1247a28–9).

This whole section has been exploring three possible causes of the successful activity of the fortunate. One—intelligence (nous)—is ruled out, because phronēsis and tekhnē, the two relevant kinds of intelligence, are articulate, and the fortunate person is not. Another—guidance (epitropia)—has been ruled out on the Pelagian principle. That leaves the third possibility: nature. ‘So if success must come about either by nature or intelligence or some guidance, and it is not two of these, the fortunate must be so by nature’ (1247a29–31).

(p.62) Aristotle now turns to build up the other side of the aporia, by arguing against the view that good fortune is a gift of nature.

First, nature acts uniformly, or at least with a degree of regularity, while luck is irregular and unexpected. ‘Now if prosperity contrary to expectation seems to belong to luck—but if someone is fortunate he is so by luck—the cause would not seem to be the kind of thing that is universally or generally the same’ (1247a32–6).15

Secondly, if someone prospers or fails to prosper because of being of a certain kind, that is, having a certain poiotēs, in the way that someone sees poorly because he has eyes of a certain colour, then not luck but nature would be the cause of his prosperity or lack of it.16 Such a person should not be called fortunate, or blessed by luck (eutukhēs), but blessed by nature (euphuēs). But this leads to an absurd conclusion. For fortunate people are those whose goods are caused by good luck.17 But on this account we would have to say that the people we call fortunate do not owe their fortune to luck, since their goods are caused not by luck, but by nature. Therefore the fortunate are not fortunate, which is absurd.

We have met a difficulty, then, in each of the hypotheses we have explored: that fortune is a form of intelligence, or a divine guidance, or a natural endowment. This aporia is finally to be resolved when different kinds of fortune are distinguished. There is one kind of fortune which is the possession of natural good desires: this is indeed regular, and so there is no objection to saying that it is natural, but it is not a matter of luck. ‘Not all who seem to have good fortune prosper by luck, and not through nature’ (1248a12 ff.). And there is one kind of fortune which is indeed due to divine guidance (1248b4). Every kind of fortune is inarticulate (1248b6), and that makes it different from (p.63) wisdom and skill; but there is a role in it for intelligence or nous (1248a29).

This is not made fully clear until later on. At this point, having reached aporia about the nature of good fortune (eutukhia), Aristotle now raises the more fundamental question: Is there any such thing as luck (tykhē) at all? He mentions the possibility that there is no such thing as luck, but rejects it, without any general argument. The existence of luck belongs to non-ethical treatises: it is its effect on good and bad which matters here.

‘Will luck not exist at all, or will it exist, but not be a cause?’ Aristotle answers: it must exist, and it must be a cause. And if it is a cause, it will cause good and bad things to people—and therefore, we are left to conclude, there will be fortunate and unfortunate people (l247b2–4).

The passage which follows (1247b5–9) is puzzling.18 It can be read as meaning that Aristotle is not enquiring whether the notion of luck is a cloak for ignorance of causes, because that is something that belongs to another enquiry. The difficulty with this reading is that he then goes on to present the argument that if there was a hidden cause of luck, then lucky breaks would be a regular occurrence. So he is in fact undertaking the enquiry.

It seems preferable, therefore, to take the argument to run as follows: If we took the line that luck is a cloak for hidden causes, we would meet the following further problem—the problem which is then spelt out in the following lines, and which provides reinforcement for the view earlier stated brusquely, that luck does exist and is a cause.19

In 1247b9–18 the rejection of the suggestion that there is no luck, but only hidden causes, is presented in two parts. First, suppose that there is a single cause, which is unknown to us. In that case, we would expect not a single stroke of fortune, but repeated success:20 for if there is the same cause we would expect the same effect. But of course, ‘same cause, same effect’ does not imply ‘same effect, same cause’. Suppose then that the same outcome is the result of multiple and (p.64) undefined causes21—it will be good or bad22 but there will be no empirical science of it. If there were such a science, some of the fortunate would have learnt it (and would therefore be able to give an account of it and pass it on to others).

The direction of Aristotle’s argument is here uncertain: is he arguing from the fact that there is no science to the lack of cause; or is he arguing from the hypothesis of multiplicity of causes to the consequential lack of a science? It is not obvious what is premiss and what conclusion here. Do we conclude that there is no science (1) because if there were someone would know it, or (2) because the causes are indeterminate? Is the non-existence of a science a fact appealed to, or the consequence of a supposition? To answer this we have to emphasize the distinction between theoretical science and inductive or empirical science (1247a14). That there is no theoretical science is part of the initial hypothesis being explored (1247b8). That there is no empirical science is established by the fact that the fortunate have not acquired it.

‘Or would all the sciences, as Socrates says, be types of good fortune?’ (1247b15). The reference to Socrates is presumably to Plato’s Euthydemus, 279 D—a passage in which, like the present context, use is made of the example of lucky steersmanship. The reference is puzzling, because Plato’s Socrates seems to say not that all sciences are pieces of luck, but that all pieces of luck are really science. The allusion is perhaps best taken as a loose and light-hearted one: ‘We might as well say that Socrates was right, after all, to regard science and luck as coextensive!’

What, then, prevents such things from happening to somebody often in succession, not because that is what is appropriate for the kind of person he is, but like a permanent run of success in throwing dice?


This passage is puzzling. The argument hitherto seemed to be that there cannot be a cause of lucky phenomena, because they are irregular. If so, what is the relevance of saying that you might go on and on throwing sixes? It seems that the passage must be taken, not as a statement of Aristotle’s own position, but as a further exploration of (p.65) the Socratic suggestion. If there was no difference between science and luck, then every single case of scientific regularity would be no different from a dicer’s run of sixes.

We can now look back and try—with only very limited confidence—to outline the general course of the argument. We start from the hypothesis that luck is a cloak for hidden causes, causes of which there is no theoretical science. Now either there is a single hidden cause or there are multiple, indeterminate causes. If there was a single hidden cause, there would be regularity in the effect (which is inconsistent with the outcome being a matter of luck), and there would be a theoretical science of the cause-effect relationship (which is inconsistent with the hypothesis that the cause is opaque to reason). If lucky outcomes are the effects of multiple indeterminate causes, then indeed there could be no theoretical science; but there could be an empirical science. But there is no such science; for if there were, fortunate people would have learnt it. But they don’t seem to have done so: unless we accept the Socratic view that every lucky stroke is in fact an exercise of science. But if we take that view, then the difference between science and luck vanishes altogether, and there is neither luck nor science.

Aristotle has not yet finished piling up problems, and is not yet ready to take his own stand and outline the necessary elements for a solution. His final contribution to the aporia starts from a surprising point: an analysis of the nature of hormē or impulse in the soul.

At 1247b18 ff. we are told that there are two kinds of impulse in the soul: those from reasoning and those from unreasoned appetite (orexis). An impulse from reasoning would be a proairesis or purposive choice. An unreasoned impulse could be either an animal desire for pleasure (epithumia) or a general, undifferentiated appetite for goodness (boulēsis or volition).24 The unreasoned ones are prior: for the impulse which comes from the desire for pleasure is natural, and the undifferentiated natural appetite for good is prior to its specification by reason into particular choices. This means that everything has a natural tendency to goodness25

If then there are some people well endowed by nature (as musical people without professional knowledge of singing are well endowed in that respect) (p.66) and who without reasoning are impelled in accord with nature, and desire what they ought and when they ought, these persons will succeed even though they lack wisdom and reasoning, just as men will sing well who are incapable of teaching singing.


People like this, Aristotle concludes, will be fortunate—that is to say, people who succeed for the most part without reason or logos. So fortunate people would be thus by nature. This is the antithesis to the thesis argued for up to 1247a39. Which of the two positions does Aristotle really support? Does he believe there really are people of this kind? If so, does he regard them as genuinely fortunate? Before finding out the answer to this question we have to follow Aristotle through a number of distinctions. For at last, having built up the videtur quod sic and the videtur quod non, he now turns to solve the aporia by distinguishing between kinds of eutukhia.

The two kinds of good fortune are distinguished on the basis of two kinds of action: action in accordance with impulse, and action of the opposite kind. The distinction made here at 1247b29–30 is later echoed at 1248b5–6,26 where we are told that there are in the end only two forms of good fortune, one in accordance with impulse and one contrary to impulse. One of these two kinds of good fortune is divine (but it is not immediately clear which of the two) and one of them is continuous (but again it is not clear which).27 The important point is that the parallel text at the closure indicates that from this point onwards Aristotle is presenting his own account of the two genuine cases of good fortune.

What is meant here by impulse (hormē)? We saw a little earlier that there are three kinds of impulse: choice, desire, and volition.28 One kind of impulse in which Aristotle is especially interested is pre-reflective wanting, whether sensual desire or the imprecise wanting of the good typical of naturally good people. For instance, in the discussion of natural virtue in the common books, at B 1144b3 ff. we are told that each ethical characteristic is present in a manner naturally; as children and from birth we have natural qualities resembling courage and justice, but we seek to have the real virtues in a different form, because without intelligence the natural virtues can be harmful. It is phronēsis or wisdom that makes the difference between natural virtue and genuine virtue.29

(p.67) Frequently, when Aristotle uses the word hormē he uses it as a genus to cover the contrasting impulses of sensual desire and rational choice (e.g. NE 1102b21; EE 1224b9). In this passage the one kind of good fortune is said to be connected with the things ‘that come from impulse and from people who choose to act’. Is Aristotle thinking here of a single case, the ‘and’ being epexegetic, so that what he has in mind is action on impulse, that is to say in accordance with choice? Or are there (at least) two cases: one from an impulse such as desire (case 1), and the other from choice (case 2)? Correspondingly: what is the opposite? Is it: not from choice; or not from epithumia; or not from either of the two?

From what follows it seems that what Aristotle has in mind is the case of an agent who has not just a general volition for the good, but a volition which has, through reasoning, become a specific choice; only, the reasoning has been faulty, and so the choice is only of an apparent and not a real good. ‘In those cases if people succeed in things in which they seem to have reasoned badly,30 we say that they have also been fortunate.’31

What are the cases which Aristotle is calling ‘those cases’? Are they the cases of action in accordance with impulse, or the cases of action against impulse? The cases in accordance have been mentioned more distantly, and there is reasoning where there is choice, whereas if there was no reasoning at all there could not be bad reasoning. So it must be the case in accordance with hormē that Aristotle has in mind.

‘So again in these cases, if they wanted a different, or a lesser good than they have received’ (1247b33–4). ‘These cases’ are the cases of action contrary to hormē. The point to be made is, crudely, that one way of being fortunate is to achieve good when what you want is evil. But as all wanting must be for a good of some kind, bad desire must be desire for a lesser good. So there is a class of eutukheis who want an inferior good and get a greater good against their wishes (against hormē).

(p.68) If we presume that in this second case of good fortune there is nothing wrong with the reasoning—the agent reasons correctly how to satisfy his bad desire, but fails to carry out his plan—we can compare the elements of the two cases in the following way:

In the first case there is good volition; bad reasoning; unsuccessful choice; successful action.

In the second case there is substandard volition; good reasoning; unsuccessful choice; successful action.

In each case the action finally performed is contrary to prohairesis or choice: that is where the luck comes in. But only in the second case is the action performed contrary to the initial hormē or underlying desire for good. Later, in his final description of the two kinds of eutukhia, Aristotle says they are both unreasoning (1248b6). But this does not mean that no reasoning takes place in the agent; it means that the action actually performed is not an action in accord with the agent’s reasoning, an action which he could justify by pointing to his reasons for acting.

The first class, Aristotle goes on to say, are fortunate by nature, because their appetite (orexis) and impulse (hormē) were for the right thing, even though their reasoning was naive. Are appetite and impulse the same here? Or is one initial undifferentiated desire, and the other the choice which is the result of the faulty reasoning? If so, which is which?

It is not easy to answer these questions with confidence. Instead, let us sketch out the kind of concrete case which Aristotle may have had in mind. Let us suppose that the administrator of a city has a firm basic desire for justice. He believes—wrongly, according to Aristotle—that justice involves distributing to each according to his need. He then calculates the distribution of the goods at his disposal on this principle, but confuses the calculation and comes out with a result which reflects not the needs, but the deserts, of the original citizens. When he makes his distribution on this basis, he performs an act of justice (according to Aristotle), but he does so by luck and not because of good reasoning. But his final intention to give X ten drachmas, Y five drachmas, and so on, as well as his initial volition for justice, are good desires.

It is cases such as these which Aristotle has in mind when he goes on to say: ‘In the case of these people, when reasoning seems not to be correct, but desire happens to be present as a cause, the desire being (p.69) rightly directed comes to the rescue.’32 Of course, Aristotle adds, in other cases reasoning on the basis of epithumia could lead to misfortune. He must have in mind bad reasoning on the basis of good desire. If it was good reasoning on the basis of good desire, it could not lead one astray. If it was good reasoning on the basis of bad desire, then it would be worse than misfortune. As Aristotle pointed out in the common book C at 1142b18: the incontinent man gets what he wants by his reasoning, but acquires a big evil. The case which Aristotle has in mind here is different: it is the case of a bad outcome turning out against one’s impulse.

What of the case where the desire is bad and the reasoning is erroneous? If, despite all that, the action performed is not a bad one, then we have the other case of good fortune. If we look for a concrete case here, we do not need to invent one: Mozart and Da Ponte have done so for us. In The Marriage of Figaro the unfaithful Count Almaviva desires to seduce his wife’s maid Susanna. But when he goes to keep his assignation with her, the woman he meets is in fact the Countess in disguise. Despite his evil desire, because of the foiling of his plot he fails to commit adultery. This is a case of good fortune contrary to impulse—contrary to the Count’s lecherous impulse. It is of cases such as this that Aristotle raises the question in 1247b39 ‘In the other cases how can there be good fortune in accordance with a good endowment of appetite and desire?’ So the Almaviva case must be the other, non-natural kind of good fortune.

The section ends with the question ‘But then if on this side there are two kinds of luck and good fortune, is the good fortune on the other side one and the same, or are there more than one?’33 This question itself raises many questions. What is ‘this side’ and what is ‘the other side’ (literally ‘here’ and ‘there’)? Are we being invited to consider a (p.70) fourfold kind of eutukhia, with two subdivisions of the two kinds of good fortune?

The answers seem to be as follows. ‘On this side’ refers to the case of the natural good fortune; it looks back to the immediately preceding words ‘in accordance with a good endowment of appetite and desire’. On this side there are two kinds of luck, and there is good fortune. This does not mean that there are two kinds of good fortune: there is good and bad luck, but only one kind of natural good fortune. The two kinds of luck are good and bad luck arising from bad reasoning with good desire (1247b37–8). On the other side, there is the non-natural good fortune such as Almaviva enjoyed. The answer to the rhetorical question is that it is not the same kind of good fortune as the good fortune ‘on this side’, but that good fortune does indeed come in more than one kind. But we have so far only two, not four, kinds of good fortune. However, Aristotle now goes on to take a closer look at natural good fortune, and to make some further distinctions.

We see some people, he says, having good fortune contrary to every sort of knowledge and correct reasoning. These appear to be the people whom we have already met in the section on natural good fortune (1247a16, 1247b25–7). In such a case Aristotle says it is clear that something else (i.e. something other than reasoning) is the cause of their fortune. But now a new question is put: is this really good fortune at all?

Aristotle’s answer, on reflection, seems to be: No, it is not; it is the result partially of natural good desire and partially of distorted reason; but it is not something which is caused by luck. Unless, that is, natural good desire is itself caused by luck. But if it is, then even good deliberate action will be caused by luck (for this first appetite is what starts the whole deliberative process). But natural good desire is not from luck, but from God.

It is difficult to spell out the detailed steps of this argument in the text. Of the section 1248a7–16, Woods says ‘This passage raises perhaps the worst textual problems in the chapter; and it is not possible to reconstruct more than the general sense.’34 The conclusion, however, seems to be clear enough: not all those who seem to be fortunate succeed through fortune; some of them succeed through (p.71) nature. The argument does not show that luck is in no way a cause of anything, but only that it is not the cause of everything it seems to be the cause of. So here we seem to have two kinds of good fortune: good fortune by nature, and good fortune by luck. But only the latter really deserves the name ‘good fortune’.

Now good fortune by nature is the good fortune whose cause is good natural desire. Suppose that we go on to ask the question whether luck is the cause of that cause; whether luck is the cause of one’s desiring what one should when one should. Well, if so, luck will be the cause of everything—not just of the success which is not preceded by reasoning, but also of the success which is so preceded. For deliberation cannot arise from deliberation, nor thought from thought, for ever:

For even if someone deliberated after having deliberated, he did not deliberate in turn about that; there is a certain starting-point. Nor did he think, having thought before thinking, and so on to infinity.


We must come to a stop somewhere; and what should be the stopping-point except luck? In that case everything (sc. in the soul) will be from luck.

The regress argument presented here has been much discussed in modern times, but it is not always realized that it was initially formulated by Aristotle. Alasdair MacIntyre devotes a chapter of his book Whose Justice? Which Rationality? to Aristotle’s account of practical rationality. In the course of his discussion MacIntyre says that a rational agent has to construct a major premiss which states truly what good it is which is his particular good here and now. He will have to derive this from a set of ultimate first principles and concepts, which specifies the good for human beings as such: the completion of this derivation is the central task of deliberation. But, MacIntyre continues:

There is an initial problem here to which Gilbert Ryle first drew our attention (The Concept of Mind, London, 1949, p. 67). If all rational action is to be preceded by deliberation, while deliberation is itself a form of rational activity, as it surely must be on Aristotle’s view of it, we seem to be committed to a vicious infinite regress. For any particular piece of deliberation would, in order to be rational, have to be preceded by some further deliberation, and so proceed ad infinitum.36

MacIntyre then goes on to make a suggestion of his own with a view to exonerating Aristotle from this charge.

(p.72) Because he concentrates almost exclusively on the NE, MacIntyre does not seem to have noticed that this problem was formulated by Aristotle himself. It was, as we shall see, to have a long history for centuries before Ryle. The argument presented here in the EE has been criticized by Woods, who says: ‘Aristotle is correct in holding that a vicious regress will result if each mental act is held to originate in another act of the same type But why should it be supposed that each mental act is initiated by another of the same type?’37 But Aristotle is not making this assumption: he is perfectly ready to accept that a state of desire may precede an act of deliberation. But the question is: What is the cause of this desire itself?

Aristotle answers the question with another one: ‘Is there an archē [a starting-point or principle] which does not have another principle outside itself and which because it has being of a certain kind can do this kind of thing?’38 We are looking for nothing less than the ultimate principle of movement in the soul.

This is the same as the principle of the correct desire which lies at the back of intelligence and deliberation. It is the trigger of desire. Well, what is it? The answer, according to Aristotle, has to be God.39 ‘As God moves everything in the universe, so he moves everything here, by intelligence. For what moves in a manner everything is the divine in us’ (1248a26–7).

In NE 10 there is a divine element in human beings, which is identified with nous or understanding, the power which enables us to philosophize and contemplate. The divine element here in EE VIII is something different, something superior to intelligence, which makes use of it. The principle of reasoning is not reasoning, but something superior to it; and nothing is superior to knowledge and intelligence, save God only. Moral virtue is not, for virtue is an instrument of (p.73) intelligence; it is intelligence that uses virtue, not virtue using intelligence.40 The divine element of this EE passage most resembles the one described in the common book C, 1153b31:

All things, brutes and men, pursue pleasure…and perhaps they actually pursue not the pleasure they think they pursue nor that they would say they pursue, but the same pleasure; for all things have by nature something divine in them.

In contexts of this type the divine element in humans belongs on the appetitive, not the intellectual, side of the soul.

At this point (1248a30) we return for the final time to the topic of eutukhia. Up to now we have been talking of those who do have aretē and epistēmē; in them, as well as in those who lack knowledge, there is the supreme divine arkhē. But now we turn back to the fortunate people. These are the people who succeed in what they want without reasoning and who gain no benefit from their deliberation. ‘For they have a principle that is better than intellect and deliberation.’ What does the ‘for’ explain? Why are they called lucky? Why deliberation does not benefit them? Neither of these, but simply why they succeed.

But doesn’t everyone have this principle, including those with wisdom and understanding? Yes, the phronimoi and the sophoi do; but not everyone—not the wicked. ‘Those who do have reason, but do not have this nor inspiration, cannot do this’41—i.e. succeed. What is meant by the reference to inspiration? Aristotle goes on to explain.

They attain to a power of divination which is swifter than the reasoning of the wise and learned; indeed, the divination which comes from reasoning should almost be done away with. But some people through experience and some through habit have this power of using the divine element in their enquiry: and this sees well both what is and what is to come, even in the case of people whose reasoning is thus disengaged.


This gives us a fuller description of the inspired people who form one category of the fortunate. Whereas the wise and learned have logos, these instead have inspiration; and inspiration enables them to do without logos and hit the mark at least as fast as the normal wise. (p.74) Just as some people by experience, lacking professional training, can do as well as those who possess a skill, so these people can in their practical enquiries do as well as the wise by ‘making use of the divine’, consulting, as it were, an inner oracle. This oracle can tell of the future as well as the present; and it is more audible in the soul of those who are not distracted by the prattle of reason; just as blind people, so we are told, have better memories because of being undistracted by a constant input of visual data.

It is difficult to be certain what is here being described. It may be that Aristotle has in mind the unreasoned decisions that Socrates attributed to his daimōn and that preserved him from wrongdoing. Certainly it seems to be a different kind of divine element, and a different kind of good fortune, from that involved in the initial good impulses of the persons of ordinary virtue.

The long discussion is finally summed up:

It is obvious that there are two kinds of good fortune. One of them is divine, which is why the fortunate person seems to succeed through God. This man is the one who is successful in accordance with impulse, the other is so contrary to impulse; but both are non-rational. And the one kind of good fortune is continuous, and the other non-continuous.


Throughout the treatise on good fortune, it is difficult to see which of the many distinctions Aristotle makes are meant to be equivalent to each other, and which are intended to further subdivide classes already divided. But in the light of our previous discussion, we can say that there are four types of candidate for being fortunate.

First, there are those to whom God gives a good nature, which leads, via correct reasoning, to virtuous action. These are the people of normal virtue. Though the original gift of good nature is something outside their power, it is the whole foundation of moral virtue. This is spoken of as true good fortune in the NE (1179b20–3); but here, though mentioned at 1248a17, it is not regarded as a genuine case of luck.

Secondly, there is the case in which God gives good nature, which leads via bad reasoning to a successful outcome (1247b37). Neither is this really good fortune: it is fortune through nature, and the only real case of good fortune is fortune through luck.

The third and fourth cases are the two that Aristotle regards as the genuine cases of luck, and lists as the two kinds here at the end of the chapter. In the third case, God gives us inspiration that leads from (p.75) good desire to good outcome: there is no reasoning, but something more valuable than reasoning. It is a kind of luck that is in accordance with impulse. It is this luck that is described as divine in the EE. This is continuous good fortune (which means that it too is only doubtfully worthy of the name, since irregularity is taken by Aristotle as one of the characteristics of luck). Finally we have the case in which somebody with bad desires performs good actions, the kind illustrated by Almaviva’s lucky escape from adultery, good fortune contrary to one’s impulse. This is a genuine kind of luck; it is the non-divine, irregular kind mentioned last of all by Aristotle.


(1) This turns on whether we read, at the end of 1246b38, ἀpετή or ἀpετήv. With the first reading, the sense is that it is not only wisdom and virtue that can cause well-doing, but also good fortune; with the second reading, the sense is that not only wisdom, but also good fortune, can cause virtue. The second reading is better supported by the MS tradition (PL) than the first (C); but the second reading goes very much against the Aristotelian doctrine, to be found equally in the NE and the EE, that ϕpóvησis is necessary for there to be ἀpετή. According to that general teaching, mere luck might cause correct action (εν̕πραγíα), but not α̕ρετή or πρāξiς κατʼ α̕ρετήv. The reading α̕ρετή, though less well attested, is preferred, surely with reason, by the new Oxford edition.

(2) See p. 10 above on the Laconian person and the continent man.

(3) I disagree, therefore, with the translations of Woods (‘welfare’) and of Decarie (‘bonheur’). Cooper, ‘Aristotle on the Goods of Fortune’, 192–4, seems to me much better inspired when he says that the fortunate person mimics the virtuous person in action. However, I think he overstates the similarity when he says ‘The good fortune of the fortunate person consists primarily in his regularly achieving by his actions the more particular goals that the virtuous man would aim at were he in the same situation.’ This seems to confuse the πρᾶξις which marks the virtuous man with the ποíησις which consists in the achievement of particular desirable goals.

(4) There are other textual problems in this section. In line 1247a1 should we prefer εὐτνχίας εν ποιούαης (L), εὐτorνχεíας εν̓ποιούσης (PC) or εμγποιούσης, as Fritzsche conjectured? Or should we simply leave out the εν with Spengel and the Oxford text)? Again, in the same line, should we read                    Fortune and Virtue, as the MSS say, or τà                    Fortune and Virtue, as Spengel conjectured, followed by the Oxford text? These are matters which affect the concinnity of the Greek, but not much the sense of the text. For my part, I would prefer to accept Fritzsche’s conjecture (the emendation being very simple, and the word                    Fortune and Virtue of frequent occurrence in Aristotle in similar contexts, such as NE 4, 1126a22); and to preserve the MS reading                    Fortune and Virtue as an abbreviation for something like                    Fortune and Virtue which makes the text read more smoothly than Spengel’s emendation, accepted by the OCT.

(5) Dirlmeier suggests, perhaps rightly, that one does not have to read this text in the natural way as offering a choice of the form ‘Is it þ or not-þ’ but rather as running ‘Is it þ? Or is it not rather q?’ If the text can be read in this way, then ποιóτης is a natural disposition after all.

(6) The terminology to express this is here made obscure, once again, by textual difficulty. The MSS at 1247411–12 say                    Fortune and Virtue (L) or                    Fortune and Virtue (PC). The Latin version reads ‘eo quod tale secundum esse tale opportet et habere’. From the Latin Susemihl constructed a text which is accepted by the OCT:                    Fortune and Virtue. Susemihl’s version presumably means that something which is of a certain kind ought to have a                    Fortune and Virtue of a certain kind. Ποιóτης is the variable for which τοιοσδí is the substitution instance, and the contrast is between ποιóτης as a genus, and two species of this genus:                    Fortune and Virtue. The point appears to be that there is a natural ποιóτης, a                    Fortune and Virtue which you have as necessary for the kind of thing you are—and a                    Fortune and Virtue strictly so called, which is something you acquire. Essentially we are being presented with a definition of natural ποιóτης.

(7) In terms of the distinction drawn in the previous footnote, the good and bad eyesight would be the different                    Fortune and Virtue related to the eye-colour as the εíναι.

(8) 1247a13                    Fortune and Virtue Or perhaps the word is meant more generally, to cover success in the realms of both skill and wisdom.

(9) Walzer’s emendation (OCT) into the dative is ingenious but not necessary; the sense is not substantially affected either way.

(10) See Kenny, Aristotle’s Theory of the Will, 125, 148.

(11) The MSS at 1247a15–16 read                    Fortune and Virtue (PC) or                    Fortune and Virtue (L). Susemihl emended to                    Fortune and Virtue. The same purpose, at less cost in emendation, is achieved by Jackson’s reading                    Fortune and Virtue. The sense is: how people succeed, we still wonder, but that they do is clear. The OCT accepts an ill-inspired emendation of Allan’s.

(12) There is no need to delete ὅτι in line 20 with the OCT. It picks up ὅτι                    Fortune and Virtue from line 15 as emended by Jackson; the correspondence can be taken as a further argument in favour of the emendation.

(13) Unlike the OCT, I accept the brilliant emendation of Jackson,                    Fortune and Virtue, corresponding to Bf ‘alius autem iacit ex’.

(14) Here I am agreeing with Woods, Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics, 40, against the punctuation of the OCT and other commentators.

(15) I follow Jackson in inserting                    Fortune and Virtue before                    Fortune and Virtue corresponding to Bf ‘Videbitur…esse’. Just possibly one could defend the MSS reading with                    Fortune and Virtue alone, understanding δοκεî as carried over from the first part of the sentence before the parenthesis. The matter does not affect the sense.

(16) The OCT here makes an excellent job of a difficult textual situation, with its reading                    Fortune and Virtue. This follows Mb (and Bf) in reading                    Fortune and Virtue; Langerbeck’s conjecture in reading ᾑ; PCL in reading both verbs instead of the single one read by Bekker—you need them both to match the example of misfortune in the case of the short-sighted; and finally Mb (and Bf) in reading                    Fortune and Virtue.

(17) Unlike the OCT, I read                    Fortune and Virtue at 1247b1 with Jackson, after ‘fortunati’ in Bf. There is no need to emend öσων into öσοις with Jackson and Woods. The text can be construed: ‘those of whose goods good luck is cause’, taking öσων as the possessive with                    Fortune and Virtue.

(18) At 1247b7 I read                    Fortune and Virtue, rather than                    Fortune and Virtue with PC against L (Bf ‘sine ratione’). OCT’s                    Fortune and Virtue is unsupported, but does of course represent the sense.

(19) This interpretation is facilitated if we emend εíδ̕ in line 4 to , and place a mark of interrogation after                    Fortune and Virtue

(20) At 1247b10 the MSS read                    Fortune and Virtue. The correction from                    Fortune and Virtue seems justified by BF (‘propter idem’). But the further emendation                    Fortune and Virtue (Jackson, OCT) seems unnecessary;                    Fortune and Virtue can surely be infinitive after                    Fortune and Virtue, understood, which fits Bf ‘dirigere’.

(21) At 1247b12 I read                    Fortune and Virtue with Jackson (Bf ‘ab infinitis’), against all MSS.

(22) At 1247b13 all MSS read                    Fortune and Virtue (BF ‘erit quidem quod bonum’). Jackson, followed by OCT, emends to                    Fortune and Virtue, Dirlmeier to                    Fortune and Virtue. Neither is necessary.

(23) At 1247b17 the MSS read                    Fortune and Virtue. Jackson, followed by the OCT, emends to                    Fortune and Virtue. I suggest                    Fortune and Virtue (picking up the dative of                    Fortune and Virtue). This achieves the same sense, but with a text which is closer to the ‘hos oportet’ of Bf.

(24) See Kenny, Aristotle’s Theory of the Will, chs. 2 and 6.

(25) This is preferable to the alternative punctuation and translation: ‘And these are prior, if the impulse which comes from the desire of the pleasant is by nature, and appetite by nature tends towards good of every kind.’ But there is no need to reinforce the preferred interpretation by emending                    Fortune and Virtue to                    Fortune and Virtue with Allan and the OCT at line 21.

(26)                    Fortune and Virtue

(27) For my own conjecture as to which is which, see below, p. 74.

(28) See above, p. 65.

(29) This passage goes on to make a reference to Socrates’ idea that all the virtues were forms of wisdom; this parallels the reference above in 1247b15 to his idea that all the sciences were pieces of good fortune.

(30) The MSS at 1247b30–1 read                    Fortune and Virtue; Bf‘in illis in quibus male ratiocinasse’. Fritzsche, followed by the OCT, introduced                    Fortune and Virtue after                    Fortune and Virtueκεíνοις to match Bf. In addition Woods inserted                    Fortune and Virtue before                    Fortune and Virtue (wrongly claiming the authority of Bf).This is attractive, for                    Fortune and Virtue in the Greek text could drop out by haplography from                    Fortune and Virtue, and similarly in a Latin ILLISSIIN the second ‘s’ and the following ‘i’ could drop out.

(31) I see no reason for following the OCT in emending the MSS reading                    Fortune and Virtue.

(32) At 1247b36 the MSS read                    Fortune and Virtue, and Bf reads ‘esse fortuna autem ipsius cause existens concupiscentia ipsa recta’. The OCT retains the MS reading but places                    Fortune and Virtue and δ’ in curly braces, and marks the whole sentence with an obelus. Dirlmeier, on the basis of Bf, inserts                    Fortune and Virtue after                    Fortune and Virtue This seems sound; one then has to correct the noun                    Fortune and Virtue to the verb                    Fortune and Virtue. But to make the passage render an acceptable sense, one has to take                    Fortune and Virtue here to have a broader application than to mere sensual desire; it must cover the initial appetition of good.

(33) In the MSS this sentence reads:                    Fortune and Virtue                    Fortune and Virtue Bf ‘at vero si hie bona fortuna et fortuna duplex et ibi eadem aut plures bona fortune’. The passage has puzzled commentators and has inspired elaborate emendations, as in the OCT. But the key to understanding it is to read it as a question. The only emendations necessary are                    Fortune and Virtue for the first ή (Fritzsche, after ‘si’ in Bf), and                    Fortune and Virtue for                    Fortune and Virtue (Susemihl, after ‘et ibi’ in Bf).

(34) Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics, 181. Accordingly my translation, in Appendix 4, is very tentative. It presupposes the following readings, other than those in the OCT: at line 6                    Fortune and Virtue for τò, after Jackson; at line 7                    Fortune and Virtue, after Bf ‘erit causa’; at line 8                    Fortune and Virtue for                    Fortune and Virtue, after Jackson; in line 15 insert                    Fortune and Virtue before                    Fortune and Virtue as a more economic way of achieving the goal of Jackson’s supplement                    Fortune and Virtue.

(35) At line 18, for δή read                    Fortune and Virtue.

(36) Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, 131.

(37) Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics, 182.

(38) The MSS at 1248a24 have:                    Fortune and Virtue. Many emendations have been proposed, all with a view to producing a sense equivalent to the Bf text ‘quod tale secundum esse tale potest facere’. The simplest way of achieving this is to read                    Fortune and Virtue.

(39) This is so on any reading; but there is considerable dispute about the correct form of the text. The MSS read,                    Fortune and Virtue. Bf reads ‘quemadmodum in toto deus et omne illud. movet enim’.                    Fortune and Virtue does not make sense without some kind of emendation. The OCT has                    Fortune and Virtue; but this appears to make ψυχή suddenly masculine (hence Spengel emended to                    Fortune and Virtue). Jackson’s emendation is better inspired:                    Fortune and Virtue. It is indeed probable that a κινεí has dropped out by haplography; but it was a mistake to eliminate the                    Fortune and Virtue. We get excellent sense with the reading                    Fortune and Virtue.

(40) The intelligence that uses virtue must be phronēsis or wisdom, which cannot be misused. In the first chapter of EE VIII Aristotle contrasts it with knowledge, which can be made use of by virtue or vice. See Kenny, The Aristotelian Ethics, 184–8.

(41) At line 33 read                    Fortune and Virtue accepting Allan’s emendation                    Fortune and Virtue, and striking out the second δ’ before                    Fortune and Virtue with Bf. The bracketing and punctuation of the OCT destroy the sense.