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Lost in Thought: The Value of Aristotle’s Contemplative Life

Upon settling down to take in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics it takes little more than a cursory glance to discover a noticeable point of contradiction between the earlier books, especially book two, and then later in book seven. At first, Aristotle seems to indicate that the life of virtue is the truest dominant goal to achieve a happy life. By the end, he reverses course and claims that the contemplative life (that of the philosopher) is the proper goal for that happy life. It leaves one wondering what then is the true dominant goal for a human to lead a happy life? Is this simply left to a mistake in the passing of this manuscript’s tradition? Could it be a possible mistake of those students of his who were interpreting what he said differently and came to opposing conclusions; where after this fact their notes eventually combined into this one work that holds such a glaring and important issue? Maybe there is some truth in both claims Aristotle makes, but it seems that the two are hard to rectify with one another and clearly one is more correct.

First, it would seem of some importance to understand Aristotle’s ideas of what makes a virtue. Secondly, it is just as vital to investigate Aristotle’s conception of human understanding. Thirdly, it will be of some note to view some universal commonalities between the two life goals that Aristotle lays out. After doing those things, it should be a goal to assess what merit the life of virtue does contain but also what it lacks. With some analysis of the contemplative life it will become clearer the deficiencies the life of virtue holds and how in so many ways the contemplative life can make up and surpass most of those issues. Once these conclusions are reached, the contemplative life will show to be the dominant goal for human beings to seek. Reviewing Aristotle, this appears to be the most evident case that he is making within his text.

Virtue for Aristotle is an activity of excellence in the rational soul. Aristotle claims that happiness is the best and highest good to which humans aim all their actions and activities towards achieving and is in alignment with virtue. For Aristotle, virtue is twofold, as it is, “. . . of thought and character.”[i] Concepts such as theoretical wisdom and comprehension are virtues of thought, whereas for character, it is ideas such as generosity or temperance. Virtue of moral character results only from habit, in which a virtue must be repeated consistently as an activity to reach that level of excellency. Aristotle does not think virtues naturally occur in human beings, but that humans are naturally receptive to them and need to be taught. To identify a virtue one must only look towards the mean of human attributes and avoid the excesses of either side. Courage for example is in the mean, as too much just leads an individual to brazen rashness or recklessness, yet too little and one is cowardly. All virtues then need to be assessed in these terms. Aristotle seems to hold this in common for both the life of virtue and the life of contemplation as the definition does not seem to alter.

As for human understanding Aristotle seems to incite this argument far more for the life of contemplation. Aristotle seems to think that humans have the ability, as well as, the desire to understand truths and drive for achieving that excellence that is virtue. Every individual human being holds this skill and that is seemingly what puts us above other creatures on earth. An argument for the contemplative life that shall be picked back up later in this discussion. While this does not share any commonalities between the two lifestyles, as it favors the contemplative life, there are some other concepts that do and may be important to understand so that an informed conclusion may be reached.

Several shared principles (including the conception of virtue) exist throughout the Nicomachean Ethics. These base concepts are important in understanding what constitutes a life of happiness and how it comes to be. It is first worth noting that for the Greeks, happiness is not an emotional state. Happiness for Aristotle is something to be worked for over a lifetime as one can have sad or painful moments yet still be leading a happy life. One will not know if they lead a happy life until they have died, according to Aristotle. One can only through the activity of a dominant goal (e.g. the life of virtue or contemplation) help ensure that happiness is more likely reached. No matter what, humans must have this function and or nature of carrying out activities throughout life that will total to a form of excellence if that human life was led well, as happiness for Greeks is “doing well.” Most importantly, one must have a level of self-sufficiency from the get-go if they are to have a chance at a good life. What is meant by this is that happiness can only be had if people have the necessary resources they need to live. Without that or even by just barely surviving, one will most likely never achieve any state of happiness. This principle of Aristotle’s is what is called “moral luck.” No matter what dominant goal an individual wants to pick, this self-sufficiency is paramount to have. Finally, there is also an element of completeness, as something incomplete does not and cannot ever represent happiness. After all, it takes a whole lifetime of choices some of which are easier and some harder in order to achieve a collection of the goods of life, such as friends, health, knowledge, and so on, as Aristotle claims. In other words, a complete life takes a lot of time, but is nonetheless vital if one really does want to have had happiness in the end. This about covers commonalities that form a baseline that are required to keep in mind when it comes to having the good life at all.

With those concepts laid out it is now time to properly assess the life of virtue and at the same time show its deficiencies, revealing why it cannot be the dominant goal for humans as it does not in the end present the good life of happiness. To Aristotle, the life of virtue is not knowing what virtue is, but to preform it; in other words, simply be good. People who live this kind of life achieve it through actions that make them good. The life of virtue requires others for this to work. While these people may seem happy and even think they are happy, in the end is the life of virtue going far enough?

Upon deeper inspection it seems that those of the life of virtue are not aiming for the truest function given to human species and that is deep thought or the life of contemplation. These people of the life of virtue never seem to go deep enough, as they lack in using the element of critical and deeper thought that in nature man is gifted with and elevates us above other animals. As a result, their life is not one that a person may call the good life or happiness but maybe it is one of contentment? In book eight Aristotle claims them to be, “Happiest, but in a secondary way, is the life in accord with the other virtue. . .”[ii] If this is taken as truth then the life of virtue seems to lack those virtues found in contemplation and thusly it would seem to be incomplete, which was discussed above as being a crucial element to the good life. There are other problems as well that the life of contemplation makes up for.

While the life of virtue requires others seemingly to work, the life of contemplation does not. Aristotle himself says while it is nice to have others to preform the action of contemplating, a person does not require others as they can do it by themselves and the more thinking one does and the more wise, the better a performance of that action will be seen. After all, it was shown above that the basic conception of virtue was that activity is the main driver of excellence and of something becoming habit. If one can contemplate by themselves, the more virtuous they can become because they will be repeating the action constantly as they are free to do so. This makes this person the most self-sufficient of any lifestyle, another base requirement for happiness. Aristotle triumphantly notes that, “. . . self-sufficiency. . . will belong most of all to the contemplative activity.”[iii] It is also within this vein of thought that the life of contemplation leaves a person much freer. One aspect of this is that through contemplating often and forming that habit they will find excellence in it and are increasingly able to mentally explore their world and understand it better, finding in the long run more enjoyment as they reach the completeness of their life and look back with a sense of fulfillment without necessarily needing others to accomplish this.

More than that, the life of contemplation is of a divine nature. This belongs to Aristotle’s conception of human understanding that was brought up before. This function is specially given to humans as animals seem incapable of preforming this activity of contemplation. While Aristotle does make it clear that not every human being preforms this function, all have the ability to do so. Those who do not contemplate are, in Aristotle’s eyes, only seeking other simple pleasures and are ultimately no better than animals, for like animals they are driven only by basic desires such as food.  By taking this action of contemplation humans think beyond moral things and on to divine and immortal concepts. Humans share with god/gods this activity, as other lesser activities are unworthy of a deity’s time. Thus, a way to get closer to god reveals itself within the life of contemplation, making itself more beneficial to the individual.

The last thing worth note with the contemplative life and how it is superior to the life of virtue is that again the latter lacks any of the virtues of thought, which as before was established as twofold ( being thought and character) but the life of contemplation more than makes up for that deficiency. The person of the contemplative life can hold onto all virtues. To stress this point Aristotle posits, “Practical wisdom too is coupled together with virtue of character, and it with practical wisdom. . . are in accord with the virtues of character and the correctness of these virtues is in accord with practical wisdom.”[iv] Meaning that the person of the life of contemplation is capable of both folds of virtue that of intellectual and that of moral character. This also means that through action of teaching, a person of this lifestyle can provide for others the chance to commit to habit the life of contemplation leading more to a good life of happiness, whereas teaching the life of virtue does not as it only works to make people good and that is it.

It would seem evident then that the contemplative life is then in truth the dominant goal a human should reach if they desire to lead a life of happiness. Aristotle’s conceptions of virtue and human understanding, as could be seen, were imperative to interact with in order to understand the text and address the question being asked. Those commonalties that do exist between the two proved to be necessary universals that Aristotle put forth to even reach any life of happiness. And while some of these commonalities can give some level credence to a life of virtue, ultimately it was shown to be too deficient to be the dominant goal for human beings. It was then upon inspecting and evaluating the life of contemplation that it can be seen on display that this is best life for a human to choose if they can. With that, one leaves the reader lost in thought on the matter as it seems most appropriate that they be left that way, for the life of contemplation is the one that leads humans to achieve higher and lead a happy life.[v]

 

Notes

[i] Cohen, S. M., Curd, P., &Reeve, C. Readings in ancient Greek philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle (5th ed.). (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2016), 1103a15.

[ii] Ibid, 1178a10.

[iii] Ibid, 1177a25-30.

[iv] Ibid, 1178a15-20.

[v] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012) was also used and considered as a secondary translation reference to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics throughout this essay.

Addison Jasik

Addison Jasik currently holds a bachelor's degree in history from Saginaw Valley State University with plans of eventually earning his PhD. Addison's interests include intellectual history, philosophy, and political theory

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