Cool Thing #14: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the Life of Study

The main articles of discussion here at The Kiosk usually involve movies, video games, music, culture, etc.  Well there is more to us, a more intellectual, if not brooding side.  A side that contemplates virtue and the meaning of our actions…don’t believe me?  Just read this.

First, to set the mood:

Second, to put a face to the name:

This is what smart looks like.

And we’re off,

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the Life of Study

Aristotle is a philosopher who has always appeared to be a voice of reason.  He starts the majority of his insights with the opinions of his co-intellectuals, and then gives his spin on whatever the topic is. Unfortunately with this being said, Aristotle’s belief on the ideal life of happiness appears to fall flat in comparison to his own previous theories.  As Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics primarily concerns itself with finding the proper virtues and happiness in one’s life, he discusses much about justice and bravery being demonstrated by an individual, and how this can lead one to happiness.  It is by the last book of the Ethics however that Aristotle appears to take a turn in his beliefs, and chooses a life of contemplation to be the ultimate in happiness.  Our goal through this analysis will be to discuss Aristotle’s key points in regards to this theory, and then to analyze possible arguments for and against this idea.

To begin, it would be beneficial to briefly discuss what Aristotle believes to be the nature of happiness, and the traits that are/ are not inherent to a life following this lead.  In chapter six of the tenth book of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle gives us a brief overview of happiness, stating some beneficial and intelligent arguments.  He first discusses how happiness as a feeling is an active process and one that “does not lack anything, but is self-sufficient” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1176a33 1176b6).  This idea in itself is quite interesting in that it (and other portions of Aristotle’s books) states that happiness is an all encompassing feeling.  One does not work to be happy and experience pleasure afterwards; instead ones work is their pleasure and happiness.  In order for ones work to qualify as true pleasure and happiness, Aristotle states that it must consist of something virtuous, “And any chance person…can enjoy the bodily pleasures no less than the best man…For happiness does not lie in such occupations, but, as we have said before, in virtuous activities” (Nicomachean Ethics 1177a5-10).  And it is this final statement that leads us to the question, what does Aristotle believe to be the most virtuous activity of them all?

When presented with the question of what could be considered the most virtuous activity man could strive to do, it would not be a stretch to say that many would think of a life more along the lines of something brave, or directly correlated to the well being of others (doctor, soldier, care giver, etc.).  Aristotle even discusses the idea of justice as being “alone of the [other] virtues” because “it is related to our neighbour; for it does what is advantageous to another…” (Nicomachean Ethics 1130a2).  And yet when Aristotle finally poses the question of the most virtuous lifestyle a person can lead in Book X of the Ethics, it turns out to be one of contemplating reason.  His primary explanations for this is based on the idea that contemplation concerns itself with reason and objects of reason (and Aristotle considers both to be the highest good) and because contemplation can be a never ending process (which he views happiness as ideally being as well) (Nicomachean Ethics 1177a20).

Following his initial arguments, Aristotle pushes his point further, making direct relations to other virtuous ways of life such as politics and military involvement.  He states that other virtuous men, such as the just or brave “[need] people towards whom and with whom he shall act justly…but the philosopher, even when by himself, can contemplate truth, and the better the wiser he is” (Nicomachean Ethics 1177a30).  In going by this idea, one of the advantages to being a philosopher (according to Aristotle) is that one needs nothing else of the outside world in order to contemplate the important issues of truth, justice, etc.  In keeping with this theme, Aristotle states that a life of study is also the most satisfying in that the work itself is being done and enjoyed for its own sake (Nicomachean Ethics 1177b2).  It is this last point that Aristotle uses to separate the life of study from that of a soldier or politician.  Aristotle states that although these practises are virtuous in nature, the actions themselves are not necessarily enjoyable or leisurely, where in comparison a life of study encompasses all these traits along with inherent pleasure (Nicomachean Ethics 1177b5).

The final argument we will look at from Aristotle is how he feels the life of study is the closest life one can lead to the divine.  He starts this analysis by first discussing what sort of lives the gods may in fact lead.  Admittedly Aristotle’s argument is quite an interesting one in that he states:

If we were to run through them all, the circumstances of action would be found trivial and unworthy of the gods.  Still every one supposes that they live and therefore that they are active…Now if you take away from a living being action…what is left but contemplation?  Therefore the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness (Nicomachean Ethics 1178b15-20);

To summarize the above idea, the activities of the gods are the most virtuous and divine, and since any physical actions they could possibly undertake seem to cheapen their stature, they must do nothing but think.  Therefore when a man dedicates his life to thinking, he is living as close a life as possible to the divine.  While interesting and well worded, Aristotle’s argument seems to lose much steam once it gets to this point, relying seemingly on assumptions.

The main argument against Aristotle’s view on the life of study being superior to all others is that it is coming from a biased source.  Yes Aristotle was/is one of the most intelligent persons to have ever lived, but it seems too convenient that he finds the life he leads to be the closest to the divine.  On top of this, to live a life of study would be to live a life of inaction.  Aristotle states that:

So if among virtuous actions political and military actions are distinguished by nobility and greatness, and these are unleisurely and aim at an end and are not desirable for their own sake, but the activity of reason, which is contemplative, seems both to be superior in serious worth and to aim at no end beyond itself…all other attributes ascribed to the supremely happy man are evidently those connected with this activity (Nicomachean Ethics 1177b15-20);

There are a number of things rather troubling about this statement, especially in the context of the truly happy life being a just one as well.  First, Aristotle seems to think that because an action (such as political and military) may be unleisurely it is therefore inferior to one of a more leisurely nature.  Now this is not to say that Aristotle is saying something like sun tanning is superior, but it is hard to grasp how he feels a life of contemplation is in any way superior to a life of virtuous action.  In addition, his contention that contemplation is superior in “serious” worth to political and military actions seems to suggest that bravery in battle or in the face of adversity is not as important or beneficial as that of virtuous thought.   A philosopher can sit and contemplate reason and justice for hours on end without any external goods yes, but what is he accomplishing?  He would then have to apply his studies to a form of action to truly accomplish something virtuous in nature.  The soldier, or the politician, or the doctor may not always find leisure in what they do, but they are directly affecting (ideally for the better) the lives of many around them.

Adding to the above point, Aristotle goes into a discussion of what is more essential to virtue; the will to act or the action itself (what he calls the deed).  While he acknowledges the fact that both are essential, amazingly he states that, “for deeds many things are needed, and more, the greater and nobler the deeds are.  But the man who is contemplating the truth needs no such thing…indeed they are, one may say, even hindrances, at all events to his contemplation”(Nicomachean Ethics 1178b1-5).  Barring a misunderstanding on my end, it appears that Aristotle is stating that since virtuous acts themselves (we’ll use an extreme like saving a life) require “things” other than the mind, they are inferior to thinking of virtuous things (like how to save a life).  Does this not sound like simple laziness on Aristotle’s part?  As clichéd as this may sound, if everyone lived the life of study, nothing would get done!

In concluding this, one point needs to be made quite clear.  Aristotle is correct in saying that a life of study is important, yes, it is just as important and impactful as a life of action.  The key it would appear – and this is something Aristotle would likely agree with – is to live a life that combines the best of these two virtues, the will and the deed as it were.  For the individual who studies, and then demonstrates his discoveries through action, undoubtedly encompasses the most just of virtues.

Works Cited

Aristotle, and Richard McKeon. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Modern Library, 2001. 1093-112. Print.



About Tim Horn

I have recently acquired a degree in Film Studies at the University of Manitoba and am now enrolled in the Creative Communications program at Red River College. Film, Literature, Music, Comic Books, and Video Games. These are the things that feed my brain and keep me sane.
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