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Criteria for Happiness in Nicomachean Ethics I 7 and X 6–8

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

Howard J. Curzer
Texas Tech University


In I 7 Aristotle lays down criteria for what is to count as human happiness. Happiness for man is self-sufficient (autarkes), complete without qualification (teleion haplos), peculiar to humans (idion), excellent (kat' aretēn), and best and most complete (aristēn kai teleiotatēn). Many interpreters agree that in X 6–8 Aristotle uses these along with other criteria to disqualify the life of amusement and rank one happy life above another.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 1990

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1 Teleios could mean ‘final’ or ‘perfect’ as well as ‘complete’.

2 This view is accepted not only by interpreters who read I 7 and X 6–8 as consistent, but also by those who read them as inconsistent. And it is accepted by both intellectualists and inclusivists. Cooper, J., ‘Contemplation and Happiness: a Reconsideration’, Synthèse 72 (1987), 187216, p. 205CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Heinaman, R., ‘Eudaimonia and Self-sufficiency in the Nicomachean Ethics’, Phronesis 33 (1988), 3153, pp. 32, 47CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Irwin, T. (Indianapolis, 1985), p. 379Google Scholar; Kenny, A., ‘Aristotle on Happiness’, Articles on Aristotle: Ethics A Politics, ed. Barnes, J., Schofield, M. and Sorabji, R. (London, 1977), 2532, p. 30Google Scholar; Kenny, A., The Aristotelian Ethics (Oxford, 1978), p. 205CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Keyt, D., ‘Intellectualism in Aristotle’, Essays in Ancient Greek Philosophy, ed. Anton, J. P. and Preus, A. (Albany, 1983), 364–87, p. 376Google Scholar; Klein, S., ‘An Analysis and Defense of Aristotle's Method in Nicomachean Ethics i and x’, Ancient Philosophy 8 (1988), 6372, p. 65CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Monan, J. D., Moral Knowledge and its Methodology in Aristotle (Oxford, 1968), p. 110Google Scholar; Sullivan, R., Morality and the Good Life (Memphis, 1977), p. 172Google Scholar; White, N., ‘Goodness and Human Aims in Aristotle's Ethics’, Studies in Aristotle, ed. O'Meara, D. J. (Washington, 1981), 225–46, pp. 239–42Google Scholar; Whiting, J., ‘Human Nature and Intellectualism in Aristotle’, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 68 (1986), 7095, p. 89CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Keyt and Cooper try, in different ways, to rescue the inclusivist interpretation. Keyt claims that Aristotle uses ‘life’ (bios) to mean ‘aspect of a life’. An aspect of a life might have a simple ultimate aim, but the total life ultimately aims at a composite good consisting of the ultimate aims of the aspects. In I 7 Aristotle's claim is that the ultimate aim of the total happy life is inclusive while in X 6–8 it is that happiness is contemplation. Thus, there is no contradiction between I 7 and X 6–8 because, although happiness is the ultimate aim of the happiest aspect of the total happy life, it is not the ultimate aim of the total happy life (Keyt, pp. 372–4). There are three problems with this. First, many passages in book I equate happiness with the ultimate aim of the total happy life. Second, even if happiness and the ultimate aim of the total happy life are different, the I 7 criteria seem to be characteristics of happiness rather than of the ultimate aim of the total happy life. Third, Cooper has argued that Aristotle always uses the term ‘bios’ to mean ‘total life’ rather than ‘aspect of a life’ (Cooper (1987), p. 207 n. 14). In a follow-up article Keyt defends his use of bios by citing three passages from the Politics (Keyt, D., ‘The Meaning of BIOS in Aristotle's Ethics and Politics’, Ancient Philosophy 9 (1989), 1521, p. 16)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Cooper has already addressed 1256a40–b6. In 1324a10–17 and 1308b20 Aristotle mentions the life of an alien (xenikos bios) and the private life (idiōtikos bios) of a person. Keyt asserts that an alien also leads some other type of life and that a person can have a public life as well as a private life. However, ‘private life’ and ‘alien life’ are not types of life, but rather are general terms meaning ‘some apolitical life’. The philosophical life is a species of alien life rather than an alternative type of life (1324a25–9). Just as Aristotle did not lead both a good life and a philosophical life, but instead led a single life which was both good and philosophical, so Aristotle did not lead both an alien life and a philosophical life, but instead led a single life which was both alien and philosophical. Thus the three passages Keyt cites do not show that Aristotle uses bios to mean ‘aspect of a life’ rather than ‘total life’.

Cooper tries to rescue the inclusivist interpretation by distinguishing between happiness and complete happiness. Happiness is the ultimate aim of the supremely happy life. Complete happiness is whatever best satisfies the I 7 criteria. Complete happiness turns out to be only one of the components of happiness. Thus, there is no contradiction between I 7 and X 6–8 because in I 7 Aristotle is saying that happiness is a conjunction of activities while in X 6–8 he is saying that complete happiness is contemplation (Cooper (1987), pp. 204–6). There are two problems with this. First, the supremely happy life is, by definition, the life ultimately aimed at the activity which best satisfies the I 7 criteria. But Cooper claims that the activity which best satisfies the I 7 criteria is not the ultimate aim of the supremely happy life. Second, if complete happiness is whatever best satisfies the I 7 criteria, then Aristotle must be talking about complete happiness rather than happiness in I 7.

4 All quotations from Aristotle are taken, with a few modifications, from Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Ross, W. D., revised by Urmson, J. O., The Complete Works of Aristotle Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Barnes, J. (Princeton, 1984)Google Scholar.

5 Ackrill, J. L., ‘Aristotle on Eudaimonia’, Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, ed. Roily, A. O. (Berkeley, 1980), 1533, pp. 21–3Google Scholar; Cooper, J., Reason and the Human Good in Aristotle (Cambridge, Mass., 1975), p. 121Google Scholar; Devereux, D., ‘Aristotle on the Essence of Happiness’, in Studies in Aristotle, ed. O'Meara, D. J. (Washington, 1981), 247–60, pp. 249–50Google Scholar; Hardie, W. F. R., ‘The Final Good in Aristotle's Ethics’, Aristotle, ed. Moravcsik, J. M. E. (New York, 1967), 297322, p. 300CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Irwin (1985), p. 407; Irwin, T., ‘Permanent Happiness: Aristotle and Solon’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 3 (1985), 89124, p. 93Google Scholar; Keyt, pp. 365–6; Moline, J., ‘Contemplation and the Human Good’, Nous 7 (1983), 3753, p. 37CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Nussbaum, M., The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge, 1986), p. 376Google Scholar; Whiting (1986), pp. 74, 93.

6 Clark, S. R. L., Aristotle's Man (Oxford, 1975), pp. 153–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Heinaman, pp. 42–3; Kenny (1978), pp. 204–5; Wedin, , ‘Aristotle on the Good for Man’, Mind 90 (1981), 243–62, pp. 257–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Heinaman remarks that it cannot ‘be said that Aristotle must be operating with a different concept of self-sufficiency in X 7, for in ch. 6, one page prior to X 7's discussion, Aristotle repeats the definition of I 7, 1097b14–15’ (Heinaman, p. 46). But although Aristotle does restate part of the I 7 criterion of self-sufficiency at 1176b5–6, (1) it seems suspiciously out of place, and (2) the criterion of self-sufficiency he actually uses in X 6–8 is different.

8 Thus, Aristotle later says contemplation ‘alone would seem to be loved for its own sake’ (1177bl–2) and moral actions ‘are not desirable for their own sake’ (1177b18). If he had been working with his I 7 threefold completeness classification he would have said that contemplation ‘alone would seem to be loved solely for its own sake…’ in order to distinguish contemplation from goods of intermediate completeness. And he would have said that moral actions ‘are not desirable solely for their own sake’ in order to distinguish moral actions from goods of lowest completeness.

9 Perhaps moral action is more complete than amusement.because amusement is a means to moral action, but not vice versa (1176b32—4).

10 Even though contemplation is not desired for the sake of pleasure, the pleasure mixed with contemplation makes it more desirable.

11 Aristotle does restate part of the I 7 criterion of completeness in X 6 (1176bl–5, 30–1), but as I have shown, the criterion of completeness heuses in X 6–8 is different.

12 This interpretation of the ergon argument is drawn largely from Gomez-Lobo, A., ‘The Ergon Inference’, Phronesis 34 (1989), 170–84, pp. 172, 182CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Achtenberg, D., ‘The Role of the Ergon Argument in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics’, Ancient Philosophy 9 (1989), 3747, p. 40CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Whiting, J., ‘Aristotle's Function Argument: A Defense’, Ancient Philosophy 8 (1988), 3348, pp. 36–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Gomez-Lobo, p. 174. See also Ackrill, p. 27; Hardie, p. 301; Joachim, H. H., Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford, 1951), p. 48Google Scholar; McDowell, J., ‘The Role of Eudaimonia in Aristotle's Ethics’, Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, ed. Rorty, A. O. (Berkeley, 1980), 359–76, pp. 366–7Google Scholar; Wilkes, K., ‘The Good Man and the Good for Man in Aristotle's Ethics’, Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, ed. Rorty, A. O. (Berkeley, 1980), 341–57, p. 354Google Scholar.

15 Irwin, T., ‘The Metaphysical and Psychological Basis of Aristotle's Ethics’, Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, ed. Rorty, A. O. (Berkeley, 1980), 3553, p. 49Google Scholar. See also Keyt, pp. 366–7; Roche, T., ‘Ergon and Eudaimonia in Nicomachean Ethics I: Reconsidering the Intellectualist Interpretation’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 26 (1988), 175–94, pp. 180–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Kenny (1977), pp. 27, 30–1.

17 Kraut tries to rescue the intellectualist interpretation by modifying (F). He denies that the 17 peculiarity criterion implies that the happy life is a distinctively human life: ‘Aristotle is not saying that our function must consist in some activity that distinguishes us from all other living beings. Rather, it consists in what sets us off from all lower form of life, i.e. animals and plants… In Topics I 5 Aristotle distinguishes two ways in which a property can be peculiar to a group: absolutely (haplos), or relatively, i.e. with respect to something (pros tí)…We cannot simply assume that Aristotle has absolute peculiarity in mind. For he nowhere says that whenever idion is unaccompanied by either haplos or pros ti, the former must be supplied. We must let the context decide’ (Kraut, R., ‘The Peculiar Function of Human Beings’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 9 (1979), 467–78, pp. 474–5)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I must disagree. If Aristotle wanted the reader to take idion as relative to something, then he would have specified which something. Since he did not do so, we must take idion in an absolute sense.

18 An exception may be Anagnostopoulos, G., ‘Aristotle on Function and the Attributive Nature of the Good’, The Greeks and the Good Life, ed. Depew, D. (Indianapolis, 1980), 91137, pp. 109–11Google Scholar.

19 Cooper (1975), pp. 174–6; Sullivan, R., ‘Some Suggestions for Interpreting Eth. Nic. 10.7–8’, Southern Journal of Philosophy 15 (1977), 129–38, pp. 133–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar; White, p. 240.

20 Devereux, p. 259; Keyt, p. 379.

21 Ackrill, pp. 27–8. See also Keyt, pp. 366–7; Nussbaum, p. 376; Roche, pp. 178–84; Whiting (1986), p. 77 n. 20.

22 Devereux, p. 253. Cooper draws a different conclusion. He says, ‘Aristotle says quite plainly (1097a30–4) that the predicate “most complete” means chosen always for itself alone and never for the sake of anything else. The most complete virtue will therefore be the virtue that is chosen always for itself alone and never for the sake of anything else. And… Aristotle does precisely argue at some length (1177bl–4, 12–18) that the single virtue of philosophical wisdom is chosen for its own sake alone and not, like the practical virtues, chosen also for further goods it brings us’ (Cooper (1987), pp. 199–200). Now at 1177bl–4 and 1177b12–18 Aristotle argues that contemplation is chosen always for itself alone and never for the sake of anything else. But he does not say that the excellence of philosophical wisdom has this property. Indeed just after he defines ‘most complete good’ in I 7 and only a page before he uses the phrase ‘most complete excellence’ he says, ‘[H]onour, pleasure, reason (nous), and every excellence we choose indeed for themselves… but we choose them also for the sake of happiness’ (1097b2–4). Therefore, the phrase ‘most complete excellence’ cannot mean ‘the excellence chosen always for itself alone and never for the sake of anything else’ as Cooper suggests, for there is no such excellence.

23 Ackrill, pp. 27–8; Heinaman, p. 37.

24 Clark p. 156; Cooper, (1975), pp. 99–101; Devereux, pp. 251–3; Engberg-Pedersen, T., Aristotle's Theory of Moral Insight (Oxford, 1983), pp. 105–7Google Scholar; Hardie, p. 301; Kenny (1978), pp. 203–6.

25 Cooper (1975), p. 156; Moline, p. 40.

26 The parallel would have been perfect if Aristotle had used the term ‘best’, but ‘most desirable’ is pretty close.