Aristotle and the Highest Good

In book one of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he claims every action is aimed at some good yet these aims vary between individual and context. For example, the end of the medical art is health, of shipbuilding the vessel, of strategy the victory and so on. Furthermore, as seen above, the concept of good can vary; the good in health is sustenance, in the vessel travel, and in victory honor. Yet, Aristotle is not looking for an in-exhaustive list of what the good could be, instead he is looking for the highest good out of all these goods.

Raphael, “The School of Athens” (1511)

This highest good must also fit into three criteria: it is desirable for itself, it is not desirable for the sake of some other good, and all other goods are desirable for its sake. Furthermore, Aristotle later includes that the highest good must be acted upon because if one does not act to achieve any aim then they will never achieve it. In other words, the highest good is a solitary nucleus, which all other goods are acted upon for; for Aristotle this highest good is happiness or eudaimonia (which translates to living well). He argues this by going through the list of what many may consider the highest good of actions; for example pursuing wealth, honor, or wisdom. Yet, these do not fit the criteria he is trying to fill. Instead, he examines all these aims and realizes happiness is the highest good because it is what living well consists in and the latter aims are sought because they promote living well, not because they are what living well consists in.

Van Gogh, “Flower Beds in Holland” (1883)

Now Aristotle turns his view to how one achieves happiness, which he claims to be the function of man.Thus, Aristotle finds it crucial that he separates man from all else. He does so by claiming humans share biological and physiological processes with animals or plants, such as motion and perception, but humans differ in their ability to think rationally. Therefore, Aristotle deduces what sets humans apart from other living entities, giving us the potential to live a better life, is our ability to be rational and apply reason in action and context. Therefore, using reason in ones life is what happiness consists in. Yet, anything done well requires virtue or excellence; living well consists in activities caused by rational guidance in accordance with virtue or excellence . That being said, it follows that the highest good, which is happiness, is pursued throughout life in which one utilizes rational guidance in accordance with virtue or excellence. Happiness can only be achieved through action and such a feat is not merely gifted to humans but learnt throughout life; the highest good is a growing process.

What Aristotle claims to be the highest good is questionable, but his conception and deduction of the highest good is not only plausible but also realistic. To be more specific, his belief that only action can allow one to achieve this goal and it is a goal achieved through a growing process speaks to the nature of the human condition. For example, if one wants to get a good grade on a test the two major components to achieving such a goal are action and learning. Action in that one actually completes and writes the test and learning in that one does the necessary readings and processes to complete the test with a certain degree of excellence.

Furthermore, this belief in action and progress in the attainment of the highest good is a true recognition of human nature. Of course we have been gifted with the power of reason above all other animals but such a power is not polished without constant repetitive use; the utilization of reason in ones life is a progress only achieved through action. For example, Marcus Tullius Cicero believed that justice was a natural component of the human being, void of any action or progression; justice was Cicero’s conception of the highest good. Yet, such a claim disregards the nature of a human being. For example, how can a baby be born with justice when it has neither the understanding of such a concept or the ability to act upon it? A human baby is no different than an animal in that’s its primary functions are survival until they have grown and learned from the environment around them. Thus, Aristotle, and an educated reader, would disagree with such a claim because of Cicero’s disregard for the role of action and progression within human understanding and nature.

Yet, as one can see, my praise of Aristotle’s reasoning is with his deduction and conception of the highest good but not with what he believes the highest good is. This is because happiness is not the solitary nucleus Aristotle claims it is. Let us reiterate Aristotle’s criteria for the highest good which are: it is desirable for itself, it is not desirable for the sake of some other good, and all other goods are desirable for its sake. Furthermore, lets keep in mind the highest good is crucial to living well. With that being said, we can then see that if happiness is suppose to be desirable for itself and not some other good then why is it that happiness is crucial to living well? This shows that the pursuit of happiness is actually a component of living well; living well is the nucleus. Aristotle tries to claim happiness and living well are actually one in the same thing but this is illogical.

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Living well is an actual state of being, combining both physical and emotional aspects of the human being together while happiness is merely an idea pursued by the individual human being. Thus, one can claim happiness is a component of the human being, falling under the emotional aspect of a human, yet it is not the driving force of living well. Instead, Aristotle’s whole argument that happiness through rational action exercised with virtue and excellence merely seems more like a strong position for the difference between man and animal but not an argument for the highest good based on his criteria. With that being said, happiness as discussed above is nothing more than a luxury of separation from the state of nature; our ability to reason has separated us from our more primitive roots and thus allowed us to live comfortably. Yet, living well is not plausible without examining the roots that make no distinction between animals and humans; survival.

Theodore Gericault, “Raft of the Medusa” (1819)

Thus, it can be argued the highest good is survival, which allows us to access all other luxuries in life. It is not a question of separating human from animal, but a question of living well. For example, who are we to say an animal that does what is necessary to survive does not find happiness in relaxing with its fellow species? Why does rationality need to be the defining factor in happiness? The bare necessities for survival are the highest good because they allow us to access all other goods such as happiness. Without the basic necessities for survival a living thing would become weak or die making it unable to achieve anything. For these reasons, survival fits all of Aristotle’s criteria: it is desirable for itself, it is not desirable for the sake of some other good, and all other goods are desirable for its sake. Happiness as well as many other components of life are by products of the necessities for survival.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Inspiring study. His system of ethics, based on virtue, is one that sort of faded from popularity (or even recognition) for a long time. Recently, it’s made something of a comeback.

  2. Enda Coy

    The more I read Aristotle and articles about his work, the more I see him as a mix of pioneering scientist and really old guy who knows a lot of maxims

  3. What about the highest good being the common good? and who decides? the flaw in Aristotle’s philosophy is twofold: it’s highly individualistic and doesn’t account for those who define the good in terms of self-gratification like pedophiles who, it seems from recent studies, are driven (beyond reason and free will) by faulty wiring in their brains, It’s unfair to jusdge past thinkers by what we know today, Aristotle moved radicalay from the idealism of Plato and that has had a great influence on thinkers that followed. His three criteria cloud his concept with a bit of idealism, thoug — I think. Thanks for the article.

  4. Munjeera

    Thanks for an article that takes us out of the mundane to ponder the esoteric in our lives. What a great topic and analysis. You have really done justice to the ideas and made your points in a refreshing way. WOW!!

  5. Gabriella

    Nicomachean Ethics is without a doubt one of the best works I have ever read. His ideas, written thousands of years ago, still play a part in my life.

  6. Aristotle makes absolutely no sense at all.

    • Samer Darwich

      Dear Hutton,
      Can you please justify your statement, and before doing so, can you explain what do you mean in a clear and exact way?

  7. Lovely article. Aristotle is like a saint speaking in a scholarly manner

  8. Half of the battle in reading Aristotle is understanding how he defines his terms really.

  9. There are so many good ideas here, great article.

  10. First class philosophy!

  11. ToneyTan

    Nicomachean Ehtics is a very good read both to inform myself on general philosophy, and to get a grasp on how to present philosophical arguments.

  12. Aristotle is pretty great. I mean, there’s just no getting around that.

  13. Interesting philosophy piece. Enjoyed reading it.

  14. Whiting

    I’m not the hugest fan of Aristotle’s philosophy.

  15. Aristotle is like a giant diner table feast: an unending feast at that.

  16. Really enjoyed this, and I happen to agree with the conclusion.

  17. Aristotle represents the 1%.

  18. S.A. Takacs

    Interesting article. I haven’t read Aristotle in a long time, but it’s good to know he’s relevant outside a college classroom.

  19. danielle577

    You did a wonderful job of explicating–as best as one can!–Aristotle’s philosophy pertaining to the highest good. The way in which you weave in and out of his terms, and then position your own views, is done in a seamless manner. What I did enjoy must was when you differentiate between humans and animals, and then inquire into whether the highest good could possibly be a mere means of survival. Nicely done.

  20. Interesting analysis and commentary! I think you bring up a lot of salient points and make a notable criticism on Aristotle’s idealistic form of philosophy. I do want to suggest one inconsistency in your attack, which I think is minimal but defends Aristotle’s view. Namely, you begin the article with the important point that “for Aristotle this highest good is happiness or eudaimonia (which translates to living well)”. The key, which you even point to here in your parentheses, is that Aristotle does not intend happiness as we mean it today, he specifically means living well or “human flourishing” is the greatest of all goods. So when you claim that he conflates these two concepts later on, and that this step is illogical, my immediate impression is that we, english speakers, are doing the conflating, not him. But to tag alongside you and bring my own criticism of his philosophy, I find that relativity is the modern discovery that destroys the foundation of his argument. Due to an understanding of Godel’s incompleteness theorem and Einsteins Relativity, I happen to believe that the concept of good and bad are essentially meaningless because of the ability to recontextualize any given framework. Truth is thus a concept that is merely useful, but also something ingrained in us as a survival mechanism which helps make understanding coherent lifestyles possible, which is quite useful for small independent finite beings in a massive expanding universe. Our concept of good v bad is like the evolution of a tail for dolphins, it is advantageous for thinking beings, not particularly necessary for the history of the universe. So, since good and bad are therefore wholly relative, I believe the idea of a ultimate good can be misleading and does not in any objective manner exist. Although, I do think if one is seeking an ultimate good for the totally subjective framework of humans on earth, then Eudaimonia, or living well, is a promising starting point for that philosophy. I generally follow Aristotles ethics in my own life, but knowing that I have the rational freedom to see the world void of value judgments like good and bad.

  21. Good And Evil are concepts of the mind, so yes, relative.

  22. This is a very important realization. The pursuit of happiness as the ultimate goal perpetuations the repression of struggle and difficulty. The reason we have so many diagnoses of depression is because we believe that an exclusively happy life is achievable. The current yoga philosophical movement implies this. The ideal “happy life” should be replaced with a resilient life, because overcoming internal battles is one of life’s most precious rewards. Aristotle was on to something with his criteria— I’m glad you took the time to refine it and make it applicable today. Thank you for the wonderful read.

  23. What sticks out to me in this article is how much more sustainable resilience is than happiness, and I think you were hinting at it in your conclusion with the idea of survival. Because survival is quite different from mere existence as it implies both struggle and triumph. To try and attain happiness as the ultimate pleasure is naive and psychologically limiting. If we agree then that resilience is the highest good, then both struggle and happiness are weighed and balanced. Thanks for this article— it’s important that we revisit these early philosophers to understand the trajectory of thought and how we can use the tools we’ve learned from them to develop new ideas on the good life.

  24. Aristotle is the root of Western philosophical ideals – positing human as an egoistical self that can reason and rationalise. Happiness is viewed as something individualistic and self fulfilling. In that sense, it has an instrumental purpose for humans to desire and acquire. This is distinctly different to happiness in Buddhist sense of contentment when you realise humans are in state of nothingness, no need to reason or rationalise and simply be.. Ever wonder why some people are happy without knowing why they are happy or that others are unhappy but seemingly have everything that make them happy?

  25. James P. Breslin

    Well written and inspires me to study Aristotle

  26. Anne marie Fridley-Owen

    The greastest good is love

  27. I agree, but I didn’t see your point until the end of your piece. The term “survive” is almost adequate and it certainly does convey the meaning but I wish there was a modifier that specified the type of survival. To survive yes, but survive with the concept of living as intended. In other words, not just making it, but surviving or living optimally. And any level less than optimal life – “good” would be to improve.

    What is my happiness is also everyone’s happiness, what is eudaimonia to or for me is eudaimonia for society. Therefore, I reiterate that good is acting in a manner and with an end that we preserve and improve our lives and our kind’s existence. We can certainly argue the methods and manner but the goal is certainly universally acceptable.

    Anne marie Fridley-Owen commented, “The greastest good is love” which a quote from the Bible, and I agree because I see “love” as the desire for “good” for the object of affection. This may be circular logic, but “good” – summum bonum is survival but a survival as living optimally, resonating with society, survival at it’s optimal level.

  28. Mark Riva

    Wonder-full article, but isn’t saying “survival is the highest good” like saying “the highest good of (human) life is life itself”?

  29. Aaron Kravetz

    The Highest Good for only one or for all?

  30. Joseph Cernik

    A good analysis of Aristotle’s work.

  31. Steve Thompson

    A thoughtful assessment overall. But not Aristotle’s final word on the highest activity of being human, which is “theoria” or contemplation. In the Ethics, Aristotle does say that “logos” is divine, and that the purpose of life is “living according to logos.” (Later adopted by the Stoics). But defining “logos” as only meaning “reason” is much too constrictive. We don’t know how much Aristotle was influenced by Pythagoras and Heraclitus. (Aristotle wrote 5 books on Pythagoras and his followers–none of which survive). But I would argue that Aristotle’s “logos” here means primarily the “purposefulness” or order that inheres in the natural world. Something like the “ma’at” of the Egyptians. More relevant to the argument at hand is Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book 12, where he discusses the relationship between “logos” and “nous.” There, “logos” can lead one up to the truth, but it is in “nous” that truth happens. More to say, but enough for now.

  32. Samer Darwich

    Dear Riccio,
    It seems to me that happiness, in the Aristotelian sense, may not be considered merely as a component of life [such as a feeling or the like] that can therefore be desirable for something else like “survival” for instance, but rather, it is a way of living – an entire human condition, taking into its account the facts of action and progression. If I should use the word “survival”, I’ll say that happiness is itself survival [not at the individual level but in the sense raised by the theory of evolution], but more importantly, it is not about surviving anyhow, rather, surviving rationally – as I would call it. Now, as a human species, can survival alone [any how] be counted as our aim? Let’s talk about heuristics and cognitive biases. Kahneman and Tversky stated that: “Heuristics are the ‘shortcuts’ that humans use to reduce task complexity in judgment and choice, and biases are the resulting gaps between normative behavior and the heuristically determined behavior.” So, some cognitive biases are adaptive and may lead to effective actions in a given context. Therefore, we are talking about mechanisms that probably helped us to survive. However, we, as humans, are not satisfied with those mechanisms, and for that you’ll see researchers searching out for such kind of mechanisms, trying to understand them and to find out where it is not plausible to use them, and how to avoid them when it is required… And all of this is simply a rational touch in perceiving, judging, deciding, and acting. In other words, it is not enough for us, as a human species, to survive, but we desire to survive rationally. And that is a state of being, a way of living, that is, as I assume, what is happiness.

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