Aristotle’s Views on the “Good” and Its Relation to “Virtue”
It is not without good reasons to suppose that Aristotle is one of the most influential thinkers of all times. For by developing a system of thought that is able to grasp, with much clarity and depth, many philosophic problems, Aristotle has, as a consequence, contributed to the advancement of knowledge like no other thinker of his epoch. Aristotle’s philosophical treatment on as many areas and subjects, while must not be taken as entirely correct, surely manifests his brilliance. The learned Julian Marias even cites, “wherever (Aristotle) placed his hand, he has left the imprint of his unique genius” (59).
In view of the foregoing, the roadmap and central argument of this essay is to examine the philosophical concept of the “good” under the purview of Aristotle’s metaphysics. Among other things, Aristotle has dedicated a fair amount of treatment to discuss the nature and characteristics of what constitutes goodness. Along the same plane, this paper also attempts at relating such concept with Aristotle’s reasoned understanding of “virtue”. Both concepts, it needs to be noted, figure in the philosopher’s work entitled Nicomachean Ethics, a work that eloquently articulates Aristotle’s extensive grasp of what constitutes ethics and right conduct. In the end, the paper hopes to see how Aristotle understands the correlation of the “good” and “virtue” in the Nicomachean Ethics.
The Nature and Aspects of the “Good”
If one were to read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, one surely – and immediately –encounters the palpable direction on to which Aristotle’s straightforward definition of goodness drifts. This is because, the first sentence of the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics already, in a manner of speaking, reveals how Aristotle uniquely conceives goodness. Aristotle writes: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim” (Nicomachean Ethics [Book 1] 1).
Herein, it would be necessary to firstly point that Aristotle did not define the nature of goodness in terms of ethical and moral qualities. In modern paradigm, goodness is a quality or state of existence that is too often contrasted with badness or evilness of certain acts of circumstances. For example, a person is considered good if he or she is living according to the norms and principles of right living and conduct. But one must try to remember that Aristotle’s conception of goodness did not have a moral tone to it. He did not define the quality or qualities which can describe or qualify goodness. Instead, Aristotle contends that goodness is that which all things “aim at”. In modern language, the good is equivalent to the goal or purpose of things. Goodness is something that is gleaned by discovering the “end” or “telos” of a certain thing.
Secondly, it must always be remembered that Aristotle’s philosophy is incurably teleological. This means that it was his concern to prove that everything that exists in this world has a corresponding “end” or purpose to attain and fulfill. People do things, for instance, moved by a controlling motive to achieve and end. In other words, one can always seek the reasons why people do what they do. In view of this, Aristotle conceives goodness along the same line of thought; he tried to frame his definition of goodness according to the general direction of teleology. If one were to read further the Nicomachean Ethics, one would encounter that Aristotle did try to elucidate that the good “is for whose sake everything else is done” (Nicomachean Ethics  7). Again, this implies a kind of teleology; a kind of preponderance towards direction or goal. To concretely cite, Aristotle says: “What then is the good of each?…in medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house…and in every action and pursuit the end; for it is for the sake of this that all men do whatever else they do. Therefore, if there is an end for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and if there are more than one, these will be the goods achievable by action” (Nicomachean Ethics  7).
Accordingly, Aristotle believes that goodness can either be pursued for the sake of something else or for its’ own sake. This means that there are different types of goods, as there are different types of “ends” or “purposes” that accompany all human activities. For instance, when one considers playing basketball as an end, one can either do it for the sake of earning money (as in the case of professional players) or for the sheer love of the game (as for those who find the activity enjoyable, not on account of being actually paid). Aristotle tries to delineate this distinction in saying, “But certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them” (Nicomachean Ethics  1). In yet another instance, Aristotle continues, “clearly then, goods must be spoken of in two ways…some are good in themselves, the others by reference (to others)” (Nicomachean Ethics  6).
But what stands out to be critical in this distinction lies in how Aristotle appears to under-appreciate the value of accompanying ends – those pursued in activities that are done not for its own sake – on account of the supreme value of doing things for its own sake. Plainly, this means that any activity which is done for its own sake is more noble and profound than that which is done for the sake deriving a good or goods other than its own. Aristotle himself argues for this categorically: “Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always” (Nicomachean Ethics  7).
The Highest Good as the End of a Virtuous Life
In a manner of speaking, this is where Aristotle’s concept of “virtue” takes form. In Book Two of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle contends that virtue is a “state of character” which is equivalent to “excellence”. Explaining further, Aristotle maintains the virtue is that which “brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well” (Nicomachean Ethics [Book 2] 6). This means that virtue a human character that engenders excellence; and it is like engaging in an activity which is geared towards perfection and wellness. Conversely, if one does an activity that defeats the attainment of the good, then it cannot be called a virtuous activity. Aristotle gives an example: “the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well” (Nicomachean Ethics  6). If, by right of logic, one therefore looks directly at the sun, without any protection, one is said not to engage in a virtuous activity because such an activity may damage the eyes, and therefore defeat good of being able to see well.
In view of the foregoing, virtue is related to the good insofar as the former acts as the means by which one can attain the latter. Put simply, one can attain the good of a thing by engaging in a virtuous activity. In many ways, one cannot attain the good of a thing without engaging in an activity that aims at attaining it; for the good of a thing is attained only by virtue.
Now, Aristotle furthers this framework so as to contend that there is one ultimate good that must be pursued not for the sake of anything else, but for its own alone. He maintains further that this ultimate good is the chief aim on to which all actions are directed and drawn towards. Aristotle calls this “happiness” or, more technically, eudaimonia. He believes that, since eudaimonia is the highest form of goodness that can be achieved, it belongs to the “best, noblest and most pleasant thing in this world” (Nicomachean Ethics  8).
Relating it to virtue, Aristotle states that one can attain the ultimate good – i.e., happiness – only by engaging in activities that achieves the fulfillment of the soul. Aristotle says, “happiness is the virtuous activity of the soul” (Nicomachean Ethics  9). This means that the good of the soul is equivalent the use of human rational faculties. Simply put, happiness lies in the pursuance of activities according to the advancement of human rationality. Any activity, therefore, which is according to the dictates of reason, constitutes happiness. For this reason, Aristotle further defines virtue as the “state of character concerned with choice” informed, as it were, by the “rational principle” (Nicomachean Ethics  6). Ultimately, Aristotle thinks that happiness is the same as being wise – i.e. when a person “bears all the chances life becomingly and always makes the best of circumstances” (Nicomachean Ethics  10).
By way of conclusion, this paper ends with a thought which affirms that indeed, Aristotle’s understanding of what constitutes the good is essentially related to his concept of virtue. In the discussions which were developed, it was seen that Aristotle conceives of the good as the goal to which all activities pushes towards. In many ways, this coincides with the modern understanding of end or purpose. On the other hand, Aristotle defines virtue as a character that engenders excellence, and therefore promotes the attainment of the good. In the ultimate analysis, Aristotle believes that the two concepts are essentially related in that it is only through a virtuous activity – an activity marked by excellence – that one can attain the goodness of a thing.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans., Ross, W. 11 October 2008 <http://classics.mit.edu//Aristotle/nicomachaen.html>
Marias, Julian. History of Philosophy. New York: Dover Inc., 1967.