The Life of Contemplation and Completeness Introduction
In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that the highest good is Eudaimonia, referring to the flourishing of a human individual, or happiness (Levin & Robinson). This, he claims, is achieved through the life of contemplation, which he justifies using several criteria, including that the best life has to be a life characteristic to humans on account of humans possessing the capacity to rationalise and think, unlike other beings. In this paper, I shall consider the charge against Aristotle that his proposed life of contemplation does not account for the completeness of the life of contemplation, before I revisit the Nichomachean Ethics to show that Aristotle has already addressed this.
Section 1: Aristotle’s Argument
In this section, I will be explaining Aristotle’s argument on the life of contemplation being the best life.
Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics claims that the highest good is that of happiness, or Eudaimonia. In order to be Eudaimon, one has to be virtuous. Virtues are states of good functioning, defined in relation to the abilities and activities characteristic of human beings (Aristotle, 29) (Book II, Ch. 6). When considering widespread beliefs regarding the best life, it is concluded that virtue is an essential part of a good life, however is too passive an attribute to be considered the best life (Book I, Ch. 5)(Aristotle, 7) Virtue is instead, concluded as a means in which people strive to achieve in order to be Eudaimon.
It is then noted the large role that pleasure plays – people are strongly inclined to act for the sake of pleasure. The issue with pleasure, however, is that not every pleasure is worthy of being chosen – it differs with each context (Aristotle, 187) (Book X, Chapter 3). However, it is essential to living the good life. If one finds pleasure in the right things, in virtue, one would be able to achieve Eudaimonia.
In order to find pleasure in the virtuous, one has to be able to live the life of contemplation as only through contemplation will one be able to identify that which is virtuous. Aristotle proceeds to justify the life of contemplation further, citing several criterion such as it being unique to humans, being complete. Therefore, the life of contemplation is the best life to achieve Eudaimonia.
Section 2: Incompleteness
In this section, I will be addressing the matter of incompleteness in the consideration for the life of contemplation as the best life.
In order to proceed with my argument, it is essential to address the definitions of the criteria of the best life that I will be using. According to Aristotle, firstly, the best life has to be characteristic to humans and only humans, since humans possess reason and the ability to rationalise (Book X, Ch. 8). It has to be a life unique only to human beings. Secondly, the best life has to be complete: nothing could be added to it to make it better (Aristotle, 195) (Book X, Ch. 7).
Aristotle claims that the best life ought to be a life characteristic to human beings. He goes to the extent of claiming that a best life that is not unique to human beings, such as pleasure, is akin to an animal’s ultimate aim: “The masses appear quite slavish by rationally choosing a life fit only for cattle” (Aristotle, 6) (Book 1 Chapter 5). Humans, however posses the ability to rationalise, and ought not to have the same aim as that of mere animals. Therefore, the best life ought to be the life of contemplation, since that is a life other beings are incapable of. However, in doing so, he seems to ignore the fact that humans too, have primal needs, similar to the needs experienced by animals when they pursue pleasure as their ultimate aim.
Such can be seen in Aristotle’s attempt at refuting pleasure as the best life. There, he considers the matter of pleasurable amusements. He claims that it would be bizarre to consider pleasurable amusements as an account of human motivation, calling work and exertion for the sake of amusement “manifestly foolish and extremely childish.” (Aristotle 194) (Book X, Ch. 6) Which leads to the conclusion that pleasure, amongst other reasons, cannot be used as the best life.
However it would be possible to conclude that such calls for pleasure are an essential part of human nature. Take, for example, driving for 5 hours to the nearest theme park for a holiday. This would call for work and exertion for the sake of amusement. There is no doubt that rest is required for the sake of many goods, such as mental health, and pleasurable amusements are merely means to achieve that state of health.
In Aristotle’s refutation of the life of pleasure, he arrives at the life of contemplation, which supposedly fulfils the criteria mentioned, unlike the life of pleasure. However it is now apparent that the life of contemplation excludes the matter of primal needs, a component of the human soul that ought to be included into consideration of the best life. For without the fulfilment or management of needs, a human being would not be able to contemplate in the first place. The life of contemplation, therefore, is incomplete.
Section 3: Virtues as States
Lastly, in this section, I will be considering a possible rejoinder.
However, there exists a possible issue with the argument that I have just laid out. Virtue is a state, according to Aristotle. This was concluded after considering the 3 parts of the soul that virtue could possibly be: Feelings, Capacities or States. Virtues are states of good functioning, defined in relation to the abilities and activities characteristic of human beings. (Book II, Ch. 6) States refer to “those things in respect of which we are well or badly disposed in relation to feelings.” (Book II, Ch. 5) (Aristotle, 28)
According to Aristotle in his taxonomy of the soul, feelings refer to “appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, love, hate, longing, emulation, pity, and in general things accompanied by pleasure or pain.” (Aristotle, 28)(Book II, Ch. 5) Intuitively, a primal need is one that refers to a need that an individual would require to survive, before beginning to function well, be it mental or physical. The description that Aristotle puts forth regarding feelings in the soul is in line with primal needs’. It can therefore be concluded that a human being’s primal needs coincide with those of the feelings of the soul.
Now, in order to claim that Aristotle ignores the issue of primal needs would now be problematic, by the definition of states. If a virtue is a state, it would mean that virtue is capable of controlling feelings, by definition of the state. Therefore, Aristotle would not have ignored human beings’ primal needs and his theory on the best life can be considered complete, since virtue would be able to lead one to Eudaimonia. Conclusion
With the life of pleasure having been subsumed under the wing of virtue, it would be possible to conclude that the life of contemplation, once having led one to virtue, would be considered the best life. It is perhaps, a misconception that the life of contemplation ought to take into consideration the life of pleasure at all. Instead, one ought to consider contemplation to achieve virtue, which would then address the matters of the soul. The life of contemplation is therefore in actual fact complete, and ought to be considered as the best life.
Aristotle, and W. D. Ross. The Nichomachean Ethics. Oxford University Press, 1959.
Levin, Joel R., and Daniel H. Robinson. “Educational Psychology Review.” Educational
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