Happy Lives and the Highest Good

Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics"

Gabriel Richardson Lear
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 256
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    Happy Lives and the Highest Good
    Book Description:

    Gabriel Richardson Lear presents a bold new approach to one of the enduring debates about Aristotle'sNicomachean Ethics: the controversy about whether it coherently argues that the best life for humans is one devoted to a single activity, namely philosophical contemplation. Many scholars oppose this reading because the bulk of theEthicsis devoted to various moral virtues--courage and generosity, for example--that are not in any obvious way either manifestations of philosophical contemplation or subordinated to it. They argue that Aristotle was inconsistent, and that we should not try to read the entireEthicsas an attempt to flesh out the notion that the best life aims at the "monistic good" of contemplation.

    In defending the unity and coherence of theEthics, Lear argues that, in Aristotle's view, we may act for the sake of an end not just by instrumentally bringing it about but also by approximating it. She then argues that, for Aristotle, the excellent rational activity of moral virtue is an approximation of theoretical contemplation.

    Thus, the happiest person chooses moral virtue as an approximation of contemplation in practical life. Richardson Lear bolsters this interpretation by examining three moral virtues--courage, temperance, and greatness of soul--and the way they are fine. Elegantly written and rigorously argued, this is a major contribution to our understanding of a central issue in Aristotle's moral philosophy.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2608-7
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. CHAPTER ONE Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    Aristotle invites us to conceive of the human good as a special kind of end (telos). In the very first line of theNicomachean Ethics(NE) he says, “Every craft and every inquiry, and likewise every action and every choice, seem to aim at some good; for which reason people have rightly (kalôs) concluded thatthegood is that at which all things aim” (1094a1–3, my emphasis).¹ He calls this ultimate goal of the successful lifeeudaimonia, or happiness (1097a28–34). Just as an archer aims at a target, so, Aristotle thinks, the happy person aims at the human...

  5. CHAPTER TWO The Finality Criterion
    (pp. 8-46)

    I begin by raising a problem about Aristotle’s practical teleology. InNEI.7 Aristotle lays out some criteria that any account of the human good must meet. Perhaps the most important is that it be the most final or endlike (teleiotaton) of all the human goods.¹ The human good, in virtue of being most final, is choiceworthy for its own sake alone and never for the sake of any other good (1097a28–34).Eudaimonia, or happiness, meets this criterion, which means that whatever happiness turns out to be—whether it be the activity of moral virtue or contemplation—it will...

  6. CHAPTER THREE The Self-Sufficiency of Happiness
    (pp. 47-71)

    Before i go on, I must confront a lingering doubt. So far I have focused on the finality, or endiness, of happiness. This can make Aristotle’s conception ofeudaimoniaseem quite remote from our ordinary use of the wordhappiness.Eudaimoniais an end—probably a monistic good—that makes a life achieving it admirable and godlike. But Aristotle’s happiness is not really so alien as that. For in addition to being the most final end of action, Aristotle claims that the human good,eudaimonia, is self-sufficient (autarkes; 1097b20), where this means that happiness is sufficient of itself to make...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Acting for the Sake of an Object of Love
    (pp. 72-92)

    So the task is to show that a single kind of good could be the ultimate end of a life worth choosing, and in particular that middle-level ends, such as morally virtuous action, could be worth pursuing for the sake of this highest good while also being worth choosing for their own sakes. It is usually assumed that, according to Aristotle, a good can be choiceworthy for the sake of another end only by being, broadly speaking, an instrument to that further end. Aristotle encourages this assumption when he describes teleological subordination in the first chapter of theNicomachean Ethics...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Theoretical and Practical Reason
    (pp. 93-122)

    Is it true that the morally virtuous approximate contemplative excellence? If so, then, as I argued in the last chapter, morally virtuous activity would be choiceworthy for the sake of contemplation as for an object of love. Aristotle’s happy person could make all his choices with an eye to contemplation without rendering irrelevant the intrinsic value of courage, justice, temperance, and the other moral virtues.¹ In this chapter, I will try to show that, in Aristotle’s account of the intellectual virtues inNEVI, there is a structural similarity between practical wisdom and theoretical wisdom that would give us partial...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Moral Virtue and To Kalon
    (pp. 123-146)

    InNEI.7 Aristotle argued that the human good at which the happy person aims is virtuous activity of reason. And he opaquely hinted that “if there are many virtues, [the human good] is the activity of the soul in accordance with the best and most final virtue” (1098a16–18). By the time we finishNEVI, we understand that activity in accordance with theoretical rational virtue is superior to the excellent practical reasoning that guides the moral virtues Aristotle describes inNEII–V. Theoretical wisdom sets a standard of excellence that virtuous practical reason approximates in aiming to...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Courage, Temperance, and Greatness of Soul
    (pp. 147-174)

    In the last chapter I argued for a general account of the fine in action. Virtuous actions are fine when they are ordered, made proportionate, and bounded by the human good. This teleological arrangement must be visible and must gratify the agent’s sense of self-esteem. Now the human good, according to Aristotle, is the most excellent use of reason. And as we have seen, though practical wisdom is an excellence of reason, theoretical wisdom is more perfect. Thus, there is a sense in which all virtuous actions, insofar as they are fine, ought to show that the agent is oriented...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT Two Happy Lives and Their Most Final Ends
    (pp. 175-208)

    Courage and temperance—the virtues of war and the virtues of peace—and greatness of soul are fine and choiceworthy for their own sakes because they reveal the agent’s commitment to the supreme value of some use of leisure that displays his rational and political nature. When a person protects a wounded comrade or eats at a dinner party or accepts honors with dignity in a moderate way, he shows that in his view the rational use of leisure makes life worth living. As we know, Aristotle thinks that the best use of leisure is in philosophical contemplation.Theôria, after...

  12. APPENDIX Acting for Love in the Symposium
    (pp. 209-220)
  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 221-228)
  14. Index Locorum
    (pp. 229-236)
  15. General Index
    (pp. 237-238)