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The Peculiar Function of Human Beings

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Richard Kraut*
University of Illinois at Chicago Circle


The passage I will discuss in this paper, one of the best known in the Aristotelian corpus, occurs in Book I chapter 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics, and concerns the ergon, i.e. the function, of human beings. Aristotle argues that we have a function, that our happiness consists in fulfilling it, and that this function must be idion, i.e. it must be peculiar to us. On this basis, he asserts that our function cannot consist in being alive, nourishment, growth, or perception, for these activities are common to other species. Aristotle then arrives at his familiar conclusion that our function consists in the excellent use of reason.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1979

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1 There is not a word on this problem in these commentaries: Gauthier, R. and Jolif, J. L'Ethique à Nicomaque (Louvain, 1970);Google Scholar Burnet, J. The Ethics of Aristotle (London, 1900);Google Scholar Stewart, J. Notes on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle (Oxford, 1892);Google Scholar Grant, A. The Ethics of Aristotle (London, 1874).Google Scholar

2 Op. cit., Tome II, p. 57.

3 Hardie, W. F. R. Aristotle's Ethical Theory (Oxford, 1968), pp. 2526.Google Scholar As the context shows, he means that Aristotle ought to consider both practical and theoretical reason to be peculiarly human.

4 See Gauthier and Jolif, op. cit., Tome II, p. 54; Burnet, op. cit., p. 34; Stewart, vol. I, pp. 97-98; Grant, op cit., p. 447.

5 Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford, 1951), p. 50; see too p. 287. Joachim's interpretation is accepted by Frederick Siegler. See “Reason, Happiness, and Goodness”, in Walsh, J. and Shapiro, H. (eds.), Aristotle's “Ethics”: Issues and Interpretations (Belmont, Cal., 1967), p. 31.Google Scholar

6 This is the question raised in I 2 (1094a18-26) and I 4 (1095a14-17). Joachim points out (ibid., p. 50) that Book I is searching for the highest good that is prakton (“achievable by action”, as W. D. Ross translates the phrase at 1095a16); he also notes that according to 1098a3-4 our function consists in praktikē (Ross: “an active life”) of our rational part. And he takes these statements to mean that contemplation is not in the running in Book I: it is disqualified because it is not prakton or praktikē. But as Stewart points out (op. cit., vol. I, p. 99), Aristotle insists in the Politics that contemplation is more prakton than ethical activity (1325b16-21). Furthermore, in I 5 of the Ethics Aristotle clearly indicates that those who lead and praise a contemplative life are giving an answer to the question Book I is raising. This shows that Book I counts contemplation as a good that is prakton. This reading of prakton and praktike is accepted by Burnet, op cit., p. 35; Gauthier and Jolif, op. cit., vol. I, p. 56; and Hardie, op. cit., p. 25.

7 To support my case further: Aristotle seems to be alluding to contemplation when he states the conclusion of the function argument. He says (1098a16-18) that happiness is “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are many virtues, in accordance with the best and teleiotatēn (most final or complete)”. Many take “the best and teleiotatēn” virtue to be theoretical wisdom, the virtue by which we contemplate. If this reading is correct, then Joachim cannot be right in his claim that 17 does not have contemplation in mind when it looks for and finds the peculiarly human. For a defense of this common interpretation of “best and teleiotatēn”, see Cooper, J. Reason and Human Good in Aristotle (Cambridge, Mass., 1975), pp. 99100,Google Scholar esp. n. 10 on p. 100. Cooper's way of taking the passage was earlier adopted by Gauthier and Jolif (op. cit., vol. I, pp. 51 and 59) and Hardie (op. cit., pp. 23 and 25). Valuable criticism of this standard view can be found in J. L. Ackrill, “Aristotle on Eudaimonia”, Proceedings of the British Academy (1974), pp. 15-18. I consider the issue at length, and support the standard interpretation, in “Aristotle on the Ideal Life”.

8 To spell out these two senses more fully:

a. Broad sense: sometimes when human beings value a certain good, this reflects the fact that their nature is different from that of plants and animals. Such goods are human goods, and in this sense of “human”, health and strength are not human goods; the ethical and intellectual virtues are. (This is the sense of “human” in I 13 and, I think, throughout Book I.)

b. Narrow sense: sometimes when human beings value a certain good, this reflects the fact that they have a certain emotional composition and a need for interaction with other human beings. Such goods are human goods, and in this sense of “human”, health, strength and theoretical wisdom are not human goods; the ethical virtues are. (This is the sense of “human” in X 8. Note too Aristotle's remark at 1141 b3-8 that Anaxagoras and Thales did not seek human goods.)

In the broad sense, contemplation could be called the most human good. For it, more than any other activity, reflects our difference from lower forms of life. This fits neatly with Aristotle's claim that theoretical reason is what a human being is most of all (1178a2-7). Contemplation is at once the most human activity, and in a different sense, not a human activity at all.

9 See De Anima 414b18-19, 429a6; NE 1145a25-27, 1178b10-23; Politics 1253a15-18.

10 See Hist. An. 588a18-588b3; De Gen. An. 753a11; Met. 980b20-27; NE 1141a26-28, 1149b31-32.

11 In the four passages that follow I use W. D. Ross's translations.

12 See the remarks of Balme, D. M. in his commentary on Aristotle's De Partibus Animalium I and De Generatione Animalium I (Oxford, 1972), p. 160.Google Scholar

13 Cf. Ackrill, op. cit. at n. 7 above: “Practical reason, so far from being in any way less distinctive of man than theoretical, is really more so; for man shares with Aristotle's god the activity of theōria” (p. 16).

14 See 1102b2-3. W. D. Ross translates: “… the excellence of this seems to be common to all species and not specifically human.” But nothing in the Greek corresponds to the words I have emphasized.

15 This suggests that contemplation is the greatest single ingredient of human happiness — a conclusion Aristotle gladly accepts in Book X. Is he also committed, at least in certain chapters, to the much stronger view that our function and happiness consist entirely in contemplation? I take up this question in “Aristotle on the Ideal life”.

16 These assumptions are nowhere so explicit as in Politics 18: “Plants exist for the sake of animals and the other animals for the good of man … ” (1256b16-17). “lf therefore nature makes nothing without purpose or in vain, it follows that nature has made all the animals for the sake of men” (1256b20-22, Rachkam's translation).

17 I am grateful to J. L. Ackrill and Myles Brand for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.