Saturday, February 18, 2006

Aristotle on happiness and externals goods

Several times I've made reference to Aristotle and represented him as holding a more moderate and reasonable position on externals. I have been asked to put some chapter and verse to these allusions.

It is a reasonable request, I concede, but one I can satisfy only in the most cursory and unsatisfactory fashion. Aristotelian eudaemonics is just too rich and complex a subject. Even if we limit ourselves to the remarks found in these six works---the Protrepticus, Nicomacheans, Eudemians, Magna Moralia , Politics and Rhetoric--- we shall be struggling to compass a series of positions that defy reduction to anything that could be honestly styled “the Aristotelian view.” In the face of that reality, I’m going to cheat and pick one small piece of text, Politics VII.1, and pretend that text gives us “the Aristotelian view” of happiness and externals.

We begin with some key parts of the text in their Jowett's translation :

[ Enough has already been said in previous discussions about the Best Life. We need only recap our conclusions. ] Certainly no one will dispute the propriety of partitioning goods into three classes, viz, external goods, goods of the body, and goods or virtues of the soul, or deny that the happy man must have all three.

Men argue about the relative importance of this or that good. Some think that a very moderate amount of virtue is enough, but set no limit to their desires for wealth, property, power, reputation, and the like. To them we must reply…that men do not acquire or keep virtues with the help of externals, but external goods with the help of virtue…External goods, like any other tool, have a limit…and where there is too much of them, they either do harm or at any rate cease to be of any use….

Let us assume then that the best life is primarily a life of virtue, but where virtue is also equipped with enough of the external goods for the performance of good actions.

Even in this very brief excerpt you begin to get a sense of the complexity of the Aristotelian view. But there are also several points that are clear enough in these few lines. Externals goods like (moderate) wealth and good circumstances, and goods of the body like health and fitness, are absolutely necessary for happiness and a good life. Without them, the excellences of the soul will have no occasion either to arise or to display themselves. Externals may not be good in themselves, may only be “tools” and depend upon our having wisdom to use them well, but without these tools, we cannot be virtuous ( no more than the builder can build, if we has no tools or materials or the health to do work ).

This is the position I wish to contrast with the Stoic dogma that virtue alone is good and necessary for happiness, and that wealth and health and the rest are not things we need. Aristotle's texts are not rich in exhortations to pursue wealth and health--he assumes men are already well motivated in that direction-- but it is clear that he understands that we must pursue them ( in the right way, to right degree, at the right time, with the right people, etc ). The Stoa never gives us this concession.

[to be continued]

36 Comments:

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6:18 PM  
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2:14 AM  

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