Aristotle on Happiness
Aristotle scholars spend a lot of time arguing over whether and in what way a life of action, what is called a ‘practical life’ (from the Greek praxis), which includes a life focused on ethical and political concerns, can possibly achieve happiness, or whether only contemplation — the theoretical life of the philosopher or thinker or scientist — can achieve complete happiness for human beings. Commenters suppose from several chapters in Nicomachean Ethics X.7 that the case is obviously on the side of contemplation. Then they fight over how to limit that claim or re-interpret it.
But today, I’ve been prepping those passages to teach and I just don’t think they add up to the obviously strong argument for contemplation against deliberation that pretty much everyone who reads Aristotle seems to think they do. One argument in particular — that it’s what the gods do — seems just not the case. What the heck then is Aristotle doing? Here’s what Aristotle writes:
But that complete happiness is a certain contemplative activity would appear also from this: we have supposed that the gods especially are blessed and happy–but what sort of actions ought we to assign to them? Just acts? Or will they appear laughable as they make contracts, return deposits, and do anything else of that sort? But what about courageous acts? Do the gods endure frightening things and run risks, because doing so is noble? Or liberal acts? But to whom will they give? And it is strange if they too will have legal currency or something of that sort. And what would their moderate acts be? Or is the praise, “they do not have base desires,” a crude one? All that pertains to actions would appear, to those who go through it, petty and unworthy of gods. (1178b8-17, Bartlett and Collins translation)
Puh-lease, Aristotle. It seems just as likely from all this that the gods don’t do any of these things because the gods don’t really live virtuous lives. Do the gods do just acts? No, Zeus steals women and cheats on Hera on the regular. The whole of Hesiod’s Theogony seems to be about the frightening risk-taking acts of gods. But no, not because it’s noble. They want power, or they’re just bored. Liberal acts? Well, basically, that seems to be all of Homer and most of Hesiod where Zeus gives things to gods, and that part where Zeus and Prometheus divide stuff up and give it out. “And what would be their moderate acts?” Got me there, Aristotle: we don’t know, because no god has yet to be moderate.
When I posted a rough sketch of these thoughts on Facebook, Marina McCoy suggested that Aristotle needed a Platonic kind of god to reference. I tend to agree with that view. But this passage stopped me short. It is almost laugh-out-loud funny when you read it in the context of the world of the Greek gods, so much so that I’m not even sure he could have said this about the gods with a straight face. I picture the average Greek saying, well, that’s interesting, but that’s not the gods. How can the gods be evidence for contemplation when the gods the people actually know really do act, and when they do act, they don’t do so virtuously in a life according to reason? That is, they don’t seem to exceed the rational life, they are closer to beasts living without a measure of reason altogether.
My friend Carl Dyke raised the question of whether we can assume that the Greeks of Aristotle’s time (4th C. BCE) thought of the gods in the same way as those of Homer and Hesiod’s time (9th – 8th C BCE), but I think we have evidence that the Athenians were pretty pissed that Socrates didn’t speak of the gods the way they did. They certainly thought Anaxagoras was a problem for being an atheist, and Plato writes at least two dialogues that expressly take on the question of whether the Greek gods are virtuous.
The idea that god must be thought thinking itself is Aristotle’s account of what a prime mover must be like, but it doesn’t really work to invent the god that will then be evidence for your argument that contemplation is the highest form of activity in a world where people don’t tend to see the god they way you do. I invented the god that is now evidence that the activity that god does is the best. Well, la-ti-da, Aristotle, ain’t that special? But no really, I really don’t know why we think that even Aristotle thought he was making a convincing argument here. It makes me wonder whether he’s actually poking fun at the gods who act in such vicious and non-exemplary ways, or he’s poking fun at referencing the gods for thinking about how human beings should act (much like Plato seems to be doing in Euthyphro). These actions are not petty and unworthy of the Greek gods, they’re constitutive of them!
Then Aristotle concludes that chapter with this remark:
But the person who is active in accord with the intellect, who cares for this and is in the best condition regarding it, also seems to be dearest to the gods. (1179a23)
Hahaha. No really. Not Helen or Achilles or Odysseus, nah. The philosopher. Duh.
He is dearest to the gods, therefore, and it is likely that this same person is also happiest. (1179a30)
This isn’t an argument, it’s propaganda!
There might still be other arguments in Nicomachean Ethics X about contemplation being the highest end, but I think we have to stop thinking that this reference to what the gods do buttresses that argument.