Nicomachean Ethics - Book X Summary & Analysis

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In the final major section of the work, Aristotle first takes up the subject of pleasure. He notes that pleasure must play an important role in the virtuous life because pleasure and pain are what steers a person toward the virtuous mean. He notes that some believe that pleasure is the ultimate good while others say it is the most base of things. Still others say that pleasure is good, and that people are naturally drawn toward it, so they should pretend it is not good and steer toward pain, which will result in approaching the mean. Aristotle dismisses this last idea.

He first addresses the idea that pleasure is the ultimate good. Here he refers to the ideas of Eudoxus, a philosopher who states that pleasure must be the ultimate good because animals as well as humans seek it, and something that is sought by all must be good for all, and therefore the highest good. Aristotle disagrees with this. He states that pleasure in itself is not complete because it can be added to. In other words, living a pleasant life is made better by also being prudent. If something can be made more good, then it cannot be the most good. This is also Plato's argument, Aristotle states.

Aristotle concludes that pleasure is a good, but it is not the ultimate good. He addresses one of the possible objections to this conclusion. To those who would object that some pleasures seem to be associated with vice, he replies that the people who find those things pleasant are like people with disease in the eye who see things as white when they are not white. In other words, those things are not truly pleasant. Pleasures seem to come from different sources, he explains, which can determine whether they are worthy pleasures or not. It is desirable to have money, for instance, but not if one has to steal it from a friend.

Aristotle turns to the question of the nature of pleasure. It seems to be something whole, not relying on anything else to make it complete, he notes. It is not a process, like building, where it changes or becomes more complete over time. Instead, pleasure seems to be linked to activity, Aristotle claims. We engage in activities that are pleasant, but the pleasure is not in the activity itself, but is something that complements it and arises from the activity. Thus, since there are many kinds of activities, there are many kinds of pleasures, each associated with the activity that produces it. As there are good and bad activities performed by people of good and bad character, so there are good and bad pleasures, or, rather, as Aristotle has suggested before, those pleasures enjoyed by corrupted people are not truly pleasures at all.

Following pleasure, Aristotle returns to the opening subject of the work, happiness. He reiterates what has been concluded about happiness. First, it is not a state, but an activity. Second, it is the kind of activity that is worthy in and of itself, not the kind that is worthy because it leads to something else. Finally, it is more than mere amusement. It is found in the proper activities, which are decided upon by virtuous people.

So happiness is found "in the activities in accord with virtue," (p. 163) and so it should be found in its greatest form in accord with the greatest virtue. This greatest virtue, Aristotle has already concluded earlier in the work, is the activity of study. Study aims toward understanding, and it is through understanding that virtue can be decided upon. The person who cultivates understanding has the potential to be the happiest person because understanding is the "function" of human beings.

The activity of study is superior to the activities associated with the other virtues in that it does not require anything external. Generosity, for example, requires money to be practiced. Bravery relies on external circumstance where one has opportunity to display it. Study is self-sufficient, however. One needs only to be human. This is not to say that one does not need external things to be happy, Aristotle is quick to add, for humans cannot live without their basic needs being fulfilled. Yet they do not need anything in abundance in order to practice virtuous activities and lead the happiest possible lives.

Aristotle has now reached a natural conclusion to his argument. He has outlined what can be known about happiness, the various virtues, friendship and pleasure, all of which he has built upon toward his primary conclusion that the virtuous life is built on study and understanding and will lead to the greatest happiness. Throughout the work, however, he has maintained a connection to the practical world, and he now states outright that this study of virtue and what leads to happiness is not enough. There must be a way to practice these things in real life.

Aristotle is realistic in thinking that argument alone will not convince most people to change their ways of living to become more virtuous. Adults have already developed many habits that are in contradiction to virtuous living, and undoing these habits is difficult. Therefore, as he suggests in Book I, a person should ideally be brought up with the "fine habits" needed to obtain a virtuous life. This upbringing should not only teach them to love the right things and hate the wrong things, but make them receptive to understanding reason as adults.

Upbringing is not enough, however, for a person must carry these habits into adulthood. It is laws that govern adults, and so Aristotle calls for laws that do not aim to compel certain actions but to support the fine habits that lead to virtue. Laws have a unique influence, Aristotle argues, because they are extensions of the community's will. This makes them more powerful than the edict of a single person such as a father or a ruler.

A community that upholds these kinds of laws is an ideal situation, Aristotle implies, and does not yet exist. It is therefore best for each person to undertake the proper upbringing and cultivation of his children and friends. For this, they would do well to learn about "legislative science." This kind of individual education is perhaps even preferable than education designed for the community, Aristotle explains, for it can be individually tailored toward a person's natural character.

This field of legislative science is still largely unexplored, however, and Aristotle ends the work with a proposal to study it with a discussion of what is known about, an examination of political systems to determine the best and worst features of each. From this foundation, he proposes, an understanding of how the best political system should be organized, including the kinds of laws that should be made to promote the best habits, and ultimately, the greatest happiness of its citizens.

This section contains 1,156 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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