Posts Tagged ‘pleasure’


(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics




“One must examine what concerns it, not only on the basis of the conclusion and the premises on which the argument rests, but also on the basis of things said about it. For with the truth, all the given facts harmonize; but with what is false, the truth soon hits a wrong note.


Now, although the good things have been distributed in a threefold manner  ——both those goods said to be external, on the one hand, and those pertaining to the soul and to the body, on the other —— we say that those pertaining to the souls should be the most authoritative and especially good. And we posit as those “goods pertaining to the soul”, the soul’s actions and activities. As a result, the argument would be stated nobly, at least according to this opinion, which is ancient and agreed to by those who philosophize. It would be correct to say that certain actions and activities are the end, for in this way the end belongs among the goods related to soul, not among the external ones.


And that the happy person both lives well and acts well harmonize with the argument, for [happiness] was pretty much said to be a certain kind of living well and good action. It also appears that all the things being sought pertaining to happiness are included in what was said: in the opinion of some, happiness is virtue; of others, prudence; of others, a certain wisdom; in the opinion of still others, it is these or some of these things, together with pleasure or not without pleasure. And others include alongside these the prosperity related to external goods as well. Many of the ancients say some of these things, a few men of high repute say others of them: and it is reasonable that neither of this two group be wholly in error, but rather that they be correct in so respect, at least, or even in some respects.


The argument, then, is in harmony with those who say that [happiness] is virtue or a certain virtue, for an activity in accord with virtue belongs to virtue. But perhaps it makes no small difference whether one supposes the best thing to reside in possession or use, that is, in a characteristic or an activity. For it is possible that, although the characteristic is present, it accomplishes nothing good — for example, in the case of someone who is asleep or has been otherwise hindered. But this is not possible when it comes to the activity: of necessity a person will act, and he will act well.  For just as it is not the noblest and strongest who are crowned with the victory wreath in the Olympic games but rather the competitors (for it is certain of these who win), so also it is those who act correctly who attain the noble and the good things in life.


But their life is also pleasant in itself, for feeling pleasure is among the things related to the soul, and there is pleasure for each person in connection with whatever he is said to be a lover of — for example, a horse is pleasant to the horse lover, a play to the theater lover. In the same manner too the just things are pleasant to the lover of justice, and in general, things in accord with virtue are pleasant to the lover of virtue. Now, things pleasant to the many do battle with one another, because such things are not pleasant by nature; but to the lovers of what is noble, the things pleasant by nature are pleasant. Such are too are the actions in accord with virtue, with the result that they are pleasant both to such people and in themselves. Indeed, the life [of those who love what is noble] has no need of additional pleasure, like a sort of added charm, but possess pleasure in itself. For, in addition, to the point mentioned, he who takes no delight in noble actions is not good either; for no one would say that somebody who does not delight in acting justly is just or who does not delight in liberal actions is liberal, and morally in the other cases as well.  And if this is so, then the actions in accord with virtue would, in themselves, be pleasant. But certainly these actions are good as well as noble; and they will be each of these specially, if in fact the serious person judges nobly about them —and he judges as we said.


Happiness, therefore, is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing; and these are not separated, as the inscription at Delos has it:


Noblest is what is most just, but best is to be healthy;

And most pleasant by nature is for someone to attain what he passionately desires.


For all these are present in the best activities, and we assert that happiness is these activities – or the best among them.


Nonetheless, it manifestly requires external goods in addition, just as we said. For it is impossible or not easy for someone without equipment to do what is noble: many things are done through instruments, as it were —through friends, wealth and political power. Those who are bereft of these (for example, good birth, good children, or beauty) disfigure their blessedness, for a person who is altogether ugly in appearance or of poor birth, or solitary and childless cannot really be characterized as happy; and he is perhaps still less happy, if he should have altogether bad children or friends or, though he did have good ones, they are dead. Just as we said, then, [happiness] seems to require some such external prosperity in addition. This is why some make good fortune equivalent to happiness, and others, virtue. ”

(NE, 1098b9-1099b8; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)



1) Doesn’t modern philosophy have truly much to learn from the procedural points Ar. makes in this, apparently less interesting —“philosophically” speaking—- subsection? Isn’t the modern philosophical outlook, procedural ethics a la Kant in particular, fundamentally biased towards the formal considerations of ethics rather than towards Ar.´s emphasis “on the basis of what is said about it”? Surely what Ar. means is far from Habermas´s Communicative Ethics, isn’t it? Generally speaking, isn’t our philosophical and scientific bias prone to being unable to consider seriously this second element? And particularly, isn’t Political Science, affected most profoundly and dangerously? But then again, WHO is Ar. thinking about when he adds this element? In other words, WHO, more concretely are those who ”say things about it”? Surely he has told us already that the starting point has to involve, to a certain degree, the spoudaios (the serious citizen)? But WHO are the spoudaios, we do not tire of asking: is it primarily the student of the Lyceum? But wouldn’t that be odd? Won’t it most likely be the serious citizen who lives up to the demands of the noble (kalos) and the dutiful respect for the law (nomos)? Isn’t the speaker rather Pericles, or the impressive Diodotus, or Laches, or Nicias, or Ischomachus  (even Thrasymachus already befriended) rather than the student of practical philosophy? But why continue to push this point further? For isn’t it true that we find ourselves involved in a vicious circle nowadays: serious speakers not being taken seriously by the young, and the young not taking serious speakers seriously because academy rarely invites them towards such a respectful prudent recognition? Bluntly, is it any wonder that Lincoln is seen as a racist? But leaving this point aside, what exactly does Ar. mean by telling us that “the truth harmonizes with the given facts, but hits a wrong note with the false”? What truth is he speaking of here, if he does not add ANY details; further, sees NO need to add further details? For surely, that the truth harmonizes seems  to imply some linkage to what is beautifully so, doesn’t it? But how can a relativistic academy in particular even begin to consider this “simple” statement? Isn´t the truth of modern academic theory the one which dictates what in fact harmonizes, or not, with the practical sphere (see quotes by Strauss, Section IV below)? Isn’t Ar., then, ONCE again providing ANY kind of philosophical/theoretical endeavor, with its most original and inescapable limitations? However, isn’t modern academia’s self-understanding quite different? Isn’t the modern university THE leader in the implementation of political perspectives, so that the political leaders in many cases cannot but be seen suspiciously by those who attend these learning settings? But be that as it may; really, don’t we just have to listen to Ar. to SEE which truth he is speaking of, namely, that there are 3 types of hierarchically ordered goods? Isn’t part of this truth, the one that harmonizes with “  the way things are said”,  that among those goods “those pertaining to the soul should be the most authoritative and especially good”? But, then, wouldn’t one have to INVESTIGATE what soul is as Ar. does in the De Anima? But surely he does not even ask us to refer to THAT work here, does he? Besides, what does it mean for Ar. that just simply the WAY we speak of the soul is SUFFICIENT as providing the bedrock of an investigation into the ethical? And by way of contrast, what if we have come to see ourselves as truly soulless, as truly nothing more than complex biological beings? Can a materialistic society, that perceives itself as matter in constant motion, not but see with radical irony such “high-flown” Aristotelian affirmations? Aren’t  WE Aristotelians swimming upstream in this regard? For truly one rarely, if ever, finds the word “soul” being used in philosophical discussions as Ar. uses it, doesn’t one? Isn’t this part of the shock of reading Straussian interpretations for the first time with their constant reference to the soul WITHOUT going into a epistemological/ontological debate of its core importance? And even more dramatically: doesn’t Ar. in one and the same sentence let us see his prudent initial conciliatory note by affirming that this argument is not simply any kind of argument but rather a NOBLE type of argument? Aren’t we faced once again with the intimate relation between ethics, rhetoric and pragmatics? And most dramatically still, does not Ar. HERE seem to equate the ancient WITH those who philosophize? I mean, how further from radical skepticism can one go here? But who exactly are those who have so philosophized? For didn’t just 2 subsection ago Ar. tells us how misguided the presuppositions of Plato were in core themes (against Broadie and Rowe’s  as well as Ostwald’s interpretations that EASILY provide an answer that includes Plato (!)? But then, is he speaking of Anaxagoras? Surely not, for Xenophon speaks of Anaxagoras´s fate, doesn’t he? So WHO then exactly? Hermeneutically letting go almost imprudently of ourselves: isn’t Ar. quietly hinting here to Cicero’s claim that it was Socrates who brought philosophy “back down to the earth”? And finally, don’t we better understand here Strauss´s stunning reference to Plato as being TOO LOUD, in contrast to the masterful rhetorical skills developed by Xenophon? And, thus, isn’t it obvious why Xenophon is not read in academic circles; circles not attuned to the very words of Ar.´s claim at the beginning of this MUCH “less important” subsection?

2)  Besides what is the connection of THIS procedural reference to the very possibility of happiness in humans? If what we have said above is true, then wouldn’t the lack of such procedural understanding imply to a high degree that academy is not perhaps the greatest site for human happiness itself? But wouldn’t this go against the way academics speak of themselves? But leaving this thorny point aside,  how do we KNOW that the person who is happy HARMONIZES with the argument, if we do not know WHO the happy person is, WHAT she does and HOW she lives? And why does Ar., once again, not simply AFFIRM a point but rather pregnantly adds  that happiness is not SUCH and SUCH, but rather, PRETTY MUCH said to be so and so? And what to make about the ensuing list of differing opinions as regards the core element of happiness itself? Is it virtue, or prudence or, wisdom, or an eclectic mix? And why is Ar. again so tentative with regards to the still not developed question of wisdom, qualifying it as he does by saying that it is a “CERTAIN wisdom”? So are there different kinds of wisdom? But then,  which one accords and harmonizes with  the truth? Which one hierarchically orders the whole, so to speak? And those that do not, can we reasonably call them wisdom?  But, how are we to know? How are we to lead our lives without knowing? And fundamentally, how do those that believe it is virtue, get along with those who believe it is wisdom? And those who turn to wisdom, how exactly do they relate to the prudent (primarily remembering Plato’s Third wave of the Republic)? And if the political art as we were told (but later omitted) is the ruling art, then doesn’t it make all the difference if prudence is the ORDERING political virtue par excellence? Moreover, what exactly is the relationship of pleasure to each of these? What is the pleasure of the virtuous, of the prudent, of the wise? And crucially, why clarify the argument by adding “or not without pleasure”? Why exactly is the question of pleasure SO utterly  problematic in relation to the inquiry into the ethical virtues? Briefly, how are altruism and hedonism to get along? CAN they get along? And finally, doesn’t Ar. again seek to provide SOME common ground for the ancient, those who philosophize and those bestowed with high repute? But if those who hold fast to ancient tradition and those who have come to be considered as highly reputable see THEMSELVES as being partially correct, won’t a CRTICAL inquiry into the basis of their most fundamental longings via a rational reconsideration of their primordial framework (to use Taylor’s vocabulary) become ever more difficult? Or, again, is Ar. simply healing a relationship that has gone array between the philosophers of old, and the old who lead the political space in which philosophy alone can be carried out? Doesn´t one have to constantly keep Plato’s Laws in mind here?


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(For the nature of the sections see the “General Introduction”, here.)

Abbreviations: Ar. = Aristotle, AQ= Aquinas, NE = Nicomachean Ethics, EE= Eudemian Ethics




Let us speak from the point where we digressed. For on the basis of the lives they lead, the many and the crudest seem to suppose, not unreasonably, that the good and happiness are pleasure. And thus they cherish the life of enjoyment. For the specially prominent ways of life are three: the one just mentioned, the political, and, third, the contemplative.

Now, in choosing a life of fatted cattle, the many appear altogether slavish; but they attain a hearing, because many people in positions of authority experience passions like those of Sardanapalus. The refined and active, on the other hand, choose honour, for this is pretty much the end of the political life. But it appears to be more superficial than what is being sought, for honour seems to reside more with those who bestow it than with him who receives it; and we divine that the good is something of one´s own and a thing not easily taken away. Further, people seem to pursue honour so that they may be convinced that they themselves are good; at any rate, they seek to be honoured by the prudent, among those to whom they are known, and for their virtue. It is clear, then, that in the case of these people at least, virtue is superior.

And perhaps someone might in fact suppose that virtue is to a greater degree the end of political life. Yet it appears to be rather incomplete. For it seems to be possible to posses virtue even while asleep or while being inactive throughout life and, in addition to these, while suffering badly and undergoing the greatest misfortunes. But no one would deem happy somebody living in this way, unless he were defending a thesis. But enough about these things: they have been spoken adequately also in the circulated writings.

Third is the contemplative life, about which we will make an investigation in what will follow.

The money-making life is characterized by a certain constraint, and it is clear that wealth is not the good being sought, for it is a useful thing and for the sake of something else. Thus someone might suppose that the previously mentioned things are ends to a greater degree than money is, for at least they are cherished for their own sakes. But they do not appear to be ends either, and many arguments have been widely distributed in opposition to them. So let these things be dismissed.” (NE, 1095a15-1096a10; Aristotle´s Nicomachean Ethics, Bartlett, Robert, and Collins, Susan; University of Chicago, Chicago, 2011)


1) What are we to make of the sudden first appearance of pleasure (ἡδονήν) in the argument? What does becoming ethical have to do with pleasure? Don’t we find this, in a sense, counterintuitive? For surely, those of us brought up under monotheism see pleasure in a very particular transcendental kind of way, don’t we? Or is it that Ar. is, in some respects, more akin to OUR modern utilitarianism and ITS conception of pleasure, than to any transcendental view of things (J.S. Mill; see section IV below)? But, wouldn’t that be odd, since 2500 years separate OUR hedonistic utilitarianism from Ar.’s prudential presentation? And, will it turn out that the primary architectonic good is connected to pleasure in some way? Isn’t this the reason why, having barely touched upon the question of pleasure for MANY books (specially those dealing with the moral virtues) throughout the NE, we are again suddenly confronted by it in BOOK X and its stunning conclusions? And as concerns the question of pleasure, why is Ar. SO very careful in its initial presentation? Why does he FIRST mention the many and the CRUDEST in this regard? Why not mention the refined or the WISE first? Don’t THEY hit the target better as regards the pleasurable? Is it because PLEASURE might hold the key to many of the reflections in the NE (not to mention the whole of classical political thought)? Isn’t this why, though careful, Ar. ALSO says that the many and the crudest think thus, BUT pregnantly adds: and not unreasonably”? But if this is the general movement, then aren’t we moving in a direction in which another kind of life, that of a lovingly AND chosen self-sacrifice, will become unavailable? Specially so because Ar. reduces the variability of reasonably available lives to THREE lives: the life of pleasure, the political and the contemplative? Where exactly does a monk, a nun, or a hermit fit in? Or might it be that Ar. doubts whether true self-sacrifice makes sense for a human being once one dwells more into underlying considerations? And furthermore, where exactly does a CEO fit; under the later mentioned money-making life? Besides, before proceeding, haven´t we been told before that as regard the noble and the just, AND happiness, the variability is disconcerting? So, we need ask, don’t these lives TOO, vary according to the political regime in which they are lived? Won’t the pleasures of a democracy vary from those of an aristocracy, as Tocqueville CLEARLY shows in his Democracy in America? For it is evident that the pleasures of an aristocratic regime may actually be despised in a democracy; and the political life of the democratic seen in pejorative terms under an aristocracy? And, much more importantly, shouldn’t we be taken aback —– listening intently as we have regarding the architectonic end of the political art—— by SUDDENLY being brought up against a life which we HAVE not heard of before? And if it is true that the audience LISTENING to Ar. is varied, how are THEY to react to its appearance? Is it SO obvious that the “contemplative life” is one of THE lives to consider; then why exactly was Socrates condemned to death? And much more poignantly, why is it that WE moderns are not so taken aback by this third life? “The contemplative life, sure that is obviously familiar”, we say to ourselves, don’t we? Is it because we CONFUSE it with our very own ideas of what theory is, so that theory has become universally understood and unproblematically accepted? That is to say, what if for us theory signified an altogether different kind of life, one in which scientific reason, power and technology had created a dangerous theoretical fortress unbeknownst to Ar.? For isn’t it true that we easily speak of THEORY in modern times, a theory whose primary purpose it the guidance of our practical lives in the political arena? Actually, isn’t this THE CORE of the modern project? To exaggerate, don’t we think of theory more like a kind of “social engineering”? Isn’t this why OUR states are BUREAUCRATIC? For what would a theory be like that were not sought primarily to be IMPLEMENTED? Can we moderns conceive of this? What if Ar. had a VERY different conception of the relationship between theory and practice (cf. Kant’s Theory and Practice)? And what to make of the EXTREMELY pregnant silence that ensues regarding this life in the NE; for as Bartlett’s footnote attests to, ONLY until BOOK X will it come back, really, “to bite us”? What are we to make of this SILENCE if Ar. is asking us to be good listeners? What exactly are we supposed to listen to, so that in BOOK X we are not so shocked by the revelation of a surprising conclusion? And what to make of the fact that the very word for contemplation in Greek, namely theoria, is closely linked to being able “to see” (ὁρᾶν)? If there turns out to be something like the EYE OF THE SOUL; WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? And isn’t it obvious that Ar. considers this to be crucially relevant given that in the very next subsection (I, 6) , he goes on to get clearer on what some previous “theorists”, evidently Plato, have inadequately “theorized” about? How could THEIR eye of the soul, turn out to see not so well? Or did it? And, finally, doesn’t Ar. AGAIN “trick us”, and proceeds to tell us just a few lines below that, actually, there is a 4th kind of life, that of money-making? So which is it: 3 lives, or 4 (or 5?), or perhaps 1 and only 1? And if only 1, whence the reduction?

2) Moving along, why does Ar. HERE use such a censorious tone, such an “un-Aristotelian” tone, rarely used by him elsewhere? And why is this extremely censorious tone (the many = fatted cattle) so rarely picked up by modern commentators? Can one not see that Ar. is clearly defiant of radical democracy? Is it that commentaries on Ar. are much less defiantly so? Could they appeal to a “washed out” Aristotelianism? But then, are we democratic moderns more like fatted cattle all around, if ours are, in a sense, democracies of the “many”? Nietzsche seems to think something like this in his notion of the last man, doesn’t he (See “Prologue” Thus Spoke Zarathustra)? And doesn’t AQ. also completely agree with Ar., though he changes the animal to PIGS (!; section 60)? And, don’t WE say exactly the same when we observe certain bestial humans and say: “now, that is a pig”? Or should we just omit these Aristotelian words to make him more “relevant”? But then DOESN’T Ar. want us to listen to them? Could Ar. have come up with a better image to let us now how WE humans can fall to the most bestial of levels, specially with regards to pleasure? But, if so close the bestial, why does Ar. STILL say that they TOO attain a hearing? Why should they? And moreover, isn’t the reason extremely strange, even WEIRD? Aristotle says: one ought to hear the fatted cattle, because many of the powerful experience such feelings? Isn’t these like hearing the drunk because some drunks drink the most expensive liquor around and show it off? What might Ar. be driving at? Could it be that he SEES the political DANGERS of not confronting the relation between pleasure and power; that is, of showing how Sardanapalus and the like get it SO wrong and thus are truly dishonorable? Wouldn’t the refined, specially, despise being remembered thus? And don’t we then have to take much more seriously Xenophon’s On Tyranny in this regard; a conversation by a poet with a kind of Sardanapalus? And, being more inquisitive, is the pleasure of Sardanapalus found in the banquets, in the feasts, in the parades, OR RATHER IS IT NOT FOUND in the power that political power bestows upon its holder? For aren’t we speaking of the architectonic art, the political art as we have agreed in the course of the argument? Furthermore, why does Ar. go on to add that as regards the refined (and he sees the need to add, AND ACTIVE) that they choose honour? What would the refined, but inactive, look like? Is Ar. encouraging the refined to BECOME ennobled for they are the ones that truly have the means to do so? But, one would ask, isn’t Sardanapalus as part of the POLITICAL process, part of the struggle for honor, himself? So how is it that SOME who hold positions of power choose honor and others CHOOSE banquets and other less mentionable activities? Isn’t this WHY the many have a hearing, for wouldn’t it be utterly confusing to see some of the “refined” —or at least some of those who could have become refined—- becoming LIKE Sardanapalus? For surely Sardanapalus, one has a feeling, was perhaps once among the refined? And why does Ar. mention ONLY Sardanapalus in the NE, but in the EE he mentions many many more (EE, I, 5; and even goes into much greater detail, less prudently it seems, as to the content of the contemplative life (!): “They say that Anaxagoras …”, even mentioning the elder Socrates´ views on virtue)? Isn’t it because by mentioning ONLY ONE, we have a clear sense for what it is to be remembered for the wrong reasons? For surely now we all know, even 2500 years after, WHO Sardanapallus was? Who could wish to bestow such fame upon him/herself? Wouldn’t this be desiring a kind of inverted sickly end for eternity? But if so, then why would the many be confused about it?


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