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ARISTOTLE'S
DEFINITION OF THE
HUMAN GOOD



BY

J. L. ^STOCKS

Fellow and Tutor of St. John's College



OXFORD
B. H. BLACKWELL, BROAD STREET

MCMXIX



NOTE

This short account of the central thesis of Aristotle's
Ethics is intended as a provisional statement, to serve
as a basis for discussion in lectures on that book.

J.L.S.
April, 1919.



1



ARISTOTLE'S 1

THE HUMAN GOOD.



OF ,




Lecture L

i... THE END.

EVERY branch of conduct and every form of skilled
activity seems to have a good omts own which it tries to
secure or achieve. By applying' his notion of this good to
the particular problem set him, any individual occupied in
such conduct or activity is enabled to form a reasonable
purpose, and to act not at random Ifut with an end in view.
The general in the field is aiming at victory, the gunsmith
is trying to complete a gun, the cobbler to complete a boot,
the horseman is learning to master a horse, the rifleman to
use a rifle. Each has an aim, by his success in achieving
which he is judged by others and by himself to be good or
bad at the particular activity to which that aim properly
belongs. And in so aiming each may be said to judge
something good. In the various instances above given,
victory, the completed gun, the completed boot, mastery
of a horse, mastery of a rifle, are judged to be good; and
unless they were in some sense judged good, a reasonable
person would not pursue them. The pursuit of something
judged to be good may then be said to be a universal i
feature of all rational, and therefore of all distinctively
human,- occupation.

These various ' goods ' are not out of relation to one
another. There is subordination among them. Thus the
wgrk of the gunsmith is controlled by that of the general,
and the work of the g'eneral by that of the statesman.
Horses are ridden in various ways and for various pur-
ises. The military use is controlled again by the art of
ir, as present in the general. The activities of the
bbler are controlled by the use of boots and shoes for
ncing, walking, running in all its varieties. Each activity
i thus under external control, and the control is exercised ,
another activity. Each good on examination refers
to a good beyond itself on which it is dependent. None '
that has yet been mentioned is final.



But surely the process cannot continue to infinity : there
must be some ultimate activity directed to a final good.'
There must be a good which is self-sufficing, from which
all subordinate or departmental goods draw their goodness.
In all matters of war the order proceeds in the end from
the general, and it is the general whom the execution of
the order must satisfy : victory or defeat of the enemy is
the prime consideration to which all other considerations
are subordinate. We want now to find for the whole
range of human life a central authority like that of the
general, and a supreme governing consideration like the
defeat of the enemy. As the lesser considerations are
called goods, so the final consideration may be called the
good (or more accurately the human good; for there are
things more precious than man in the universe). To dis-
cover the nature of this good is the object of this enquiry.

2. HO\ITUCJ: SOCIOLOGY.

To the enquiry which has for object the discovery of
this end or good with a view to its realization, A. gives
the name iloXiriKtj, the Social Art or Science, because man
is essentially social by nature and can only realize himself
(i.e., satisfy his instincts and desires) in a society fully
organized as a political unit. (He also gives another reason.
What is good, he says, realized for an individual, must
be better realized for a community. But this reason is not
easily reconciled with the foregoing). The introduction
of this term at the beginning of the Ethics shows that the
two works of A. which bear respectively the name Politics
and Ethics were both regarded by him as possessing a
common aim, that of describing the end to which all human
activities are directed, that of analysing the human good
and of discussing the means of its realization. The Ethics
sets out the form of the good life as it may be realized by
the best men in a good state, while the Politics exhibits the ;
constitutive principles of the good state itself. It would
seem on the whole as though A. regarded the good of the
individual as the ultimate consideration, and the state "
organization as a means to the realization of that good :
but probably the question never put itself to him in that
form, and besides it may be a bad question The name
UO^TIKVJ also suggests that the sovereign authority in this
sphere will be that of the HO^LTLKOS or Statesman. (T
inference however may be false).



Lecture II* . . .



3. EvScupori*' PROSPERITY, WELL-BEING,
HAPPINESS.

What is this end the human good ? Everyone will be
able to give it a name, and will agree what name to give,
though there is no. real agreement as to its nature. That
the sovereign consideration is happiness or prosperity is
universally agreed; but, judging from men's actions, we
may classify men's notions of happiness according as they
seek to find it (i) in physical enjoyment, (2) in honour or
public distinction (which really means the search after a
reputation for ability or virtue), (3) in the life of the mind,
in knowledge of philosophy. The happiness of some seems
to be in acquiring wealth, A. adds, but this cannot be con-
sidered as a normal or natural tendency : it is either a
seeking for enjoyment or comfort through money, or it
is a disease (as in the miser). In criticising these notions
of happiness A. uses certain notions which bring his own
answer to the question rather nearer : the good must be
distinctively human ; it must be complete or whole or final ;
so far as possible, it must be self-sufficient, i.e., unaffected
by accidents outside the individual's control. Physical
pleasure is rejected as infra-human, an animal ideal; while
public honour is too unsubstantial. Political ambition is
particularly subject to undeserved disappointment : no one
can control the wind of popular favour. Lastly, the
mere possession ot virtue does not constitute happiness,
since it is compatible with sleep or inactivity and with
misfortune.

4. THE NATURE OF MAN. \%.

What is the use of Man ? What is his business in the
world ? In the answer to that question, if it can be found,
will be the best chance of an answer to the question,
what is the good for Man ? For the good of anything is
the satisfactory performance of its proper business. The
life of Man has three main layers or .strata : man has (i)
a vegetable activity, which is responsible merely for his
keeping alive, and is itself entirely outside the control of



8

will or intelligence. To it belong growth, digestion, the
repair of waste tissue, and other self-governing physical
processes. Man has (2) an animal activity, which gives
him appetites to satisfy, senses to help to their satisfaction,
and physical pleasures attendant upon their satisfaction.
In their origin these appetites are independent of his will,
but they can be deliberately exploited, and in that form
they are one of the most powerful influences in life. They
may be called half-rational. Man has (3) a third activity,
peculiarly and distinctively human. Man alone of living
things can think and will and give an intelligible account
of his proceedings. The distinctively human activity is re-
garded by A. as belonging to a single principle, TO \6yov
ex<>v, usually translated ' reason.' From it proceed all the
things that man can do and other creatures cannot do.
Art, action, knowledge, the planning of cities, the making
of laws all are manifestations of human ' reason.'

A. does not deny the necessity to man of the first
and second of these activities; but he claims that it is
plain that the peculiar and distinctive business of man
in the world cannot lie in the prosecution of either;
obviously it must lie rather in the use and development of
the principle which is peculiar to man, i.e., of the reason.
And if this is man's business, his good and his happiness
will lie in the proper performance of it.

To man constituted as he is, however, set down with a
variety of appetites and instincts amid tbe excitements of
a changing* world, a reasonable activity which has no refer-
ence to his animal nature is either altogether impossible or
not to be attained except after a long struggle. The life
of pure reason is the Divine life, as far above that of man
as the purely vegetative life is below him. In some degree,
as A. tries to show later, man can attain to it and should
strive to attain as far as he is able. But before he can
come near the possibility of such a consummation he must
first set in order his own human nature and face the
problems of human conduct. The first application of
reason for man is to the task of enforcing its rule over the
appetites and instincts which belong to his animal nature,
so that out of random instincts and appetites may be created
a will informed by knowledge and systematically pursuing
that which is good. There is thus a middle region, inter-
mediate between the Divine and the vegetable, in which
the problems of human conduct fall, and which is therefore
the field of human goodness. Man emerges out of the



animal; and the distinctively human excellence will be
shown in establishing a proper relation between the animal
and the super-animal nature. Such a relation is goodness
or virtue and the activities of a nature in which this rela-
tion has been established will be happiness or prosperity.



Lecture IIL

Thus in answering the question, * what is human good-
ness ? ' A. cannot confine himself to the highest of the three
strata which compose man's soul and to its perfection.
That highest activity is possessed by man alone of all
created thing's, and it may be that in it in the end man will
find his perfection : but the problem of life for man is
set by the supervention of this Divine principle upon the
animal nature. If man were passion without reason, or
if he were reason without passion, in either case equally
he would be incapable of 'action (conduct, Tr/oaft?) and
the problem would not arise : but, being both, his first
and most pressing business, a pre-condition of any per-
fection, is to bring the two principles into harmony with
one another.

It is thus suggested that there are two human excel-
lences for our investigation: (i) the concord of reason
and passion exhibited in good action; (2) the perfection
of the principle of reason itself. A. begins with the
problem of conduct, subdividing the excellence involved
into (a) the proper state of the passions (rjdiKrj aperrj,
excellence of character), (b) the proper state of the in-
tellig'ence (SiavorjrtKrj apery, excellence of intelligence or
judgment). A. begins with the virtue of character, and
devotes a single book (B. vi.) to the discussion of Judg-
ment, the virtue of intelligence. The two, however, are
not really separate, as we shall see; they are complemen-
tary, separable only in thought, and here separated for
convenience of exposition.

Let us now sum up A.'s view of the human good to
the point reached. Whatever it is it may be called happi-
f ness : it must be something complete, final,, and rendering
the individual as far as maybe superior to all vicissitudes
of fortune. It must be something in the mian himself, not
to be taken from him by human power. It must therefore









10

be a gift or activity of the individual. But a gifted man
possesses his gift when asleep or idling : he is at his best,
is really ' living well ' only when using the gift; happiness
then will be in the activity rather than in .merely being
gifted. What activity, then? Activity of whatever prin-
ciple is best in man, of that which makes man higher than
the animal. This principle is reason. If man can acquire
a gift or capacity for such activity, his activity will be not a
mere transient moment of perfection, but the putting forth
of a power with all the confidence of possession, a power
which increases instead of being exhausted with use, and
which speaking generally is independent of external in-
fluences. To have such a power is to be good at the
activity in question : such a power is goodness or excel-
lence. Man's good, then, and his happiness will lie in an
activity which proceeds from the excellence or perfection
of that which is highest in man. And that means excel-
lence of human reason considered as the natural mistress
of animal passion.



5. EXCELLENCE OF CHARACTER (j0i K q
AN ACQUIRED APTITUDE (If*?).

A. distinguishes, as already explained, excellence of
character from excellence of judgment and treats them
separately, though insisting on the fact that they are com-
plementary to one another, making up between them the
complete equipment for good action. We consider first,
excellence of character.

The gifts and graces with which men are or may be
adorned fall into two classes. Some every man, who is
not deformed or abnormal, possesses : they are his from
birth and he has but to use them. Sight and hearing and
the other senses are of this kind. There may be some sort
of development of these capacities during infancy : but
roughly speaking they may be said not to develop at all.
When a human being first sees, he sees (optically speaking)
as well as he will ever see, and probably a great deal better
than he will see at the end of his life. Anyway no effort on
his part is required. He has the gift of sense and cannot
help using it; and if the use brings with it in early years
development and in later years decay, both equally take
place automatically and without his conscious interference,
But there are other gifts and capacities to which man's



II

position is quite different. Skill of all kinds is won only
by effort and practice. Natural endowment does of course
play a part here also. Some men are better fitted, it
seems, at birth for the acquirement of one kind of skill,
some for another, and some seem naturally unfitted to
acquire any high degree of skill at all. But whatever
degree of natural capacity a man may possess for art or
science or business or athletics, he has to begin by being
a learner; he has to go 'through a period of apprenticeship
before he can make full use of his talents. Out. -of the
natural gift for music by learning and practising the
musician is developed. The development perhaps finishes
only with death. But at a certain point we can say that
maturity (relatively speaking) is attained and apprentice-
ship over. We can say of a man that he is a musician, or
a good musician, meaning that, while all men possess in
some de.gree an aptitude for music, this man has acquired
by his efforts and possesses a power which other men lack.
Such a power developed on thie basis of a natural gift A.
calls a efi?, which we may translate ' acquired aptitude.'
,The excellence we are trying to analyse, must clearly,
fence it is not a common property of all men like sight, be
jfe, capacity of this second kind. Goodness of character,
then, is an acquired aptitude.

The above account of eft? is based partly on the Meta-
physics (62 and 5). In the Ethics, after several times re-
ferring- to the excellences of man as efet?, A. at length
(II. v.) formally justifies the doctrine in the case of excel-
lence of character as follows. He has said that the springs
of action are of three kinds : (i) noble and base fright and
wrong), (2) profitable and unprofitable, (3) pleasant and
painful the former in each case being a positive, the latter
a negative stimulus. Of all three, he says, the good man
will be master, and the bad man of none ; but the third is
K all-important. With it our enquiry therefore is chiefly con-
cerned. Ultimately, he seems to suggest, the whole prob-
lem can be stated in terms of pleasure and pain, the prac-
tical problem of life being to learn to find pleasure in, the
right, or really pleasant, things. With that point he deals
more fully when he comes to treat of pleasure itself. The
immediate point is that it is in relation to pleasure and
pain that excellence of character will show itself. That
being so, there are three, and only three possible alterna-
tives. Goodness might be shown (i) in a certain kind of
emotion of pleasure, (2) in a certain kind of susceptibility



12

to pleasure, (3) in an acquired aptitude for a certain attitude
to actual or possible experiences of pleasure. The first two
are summarily dismissed. A man is not called g'ood or bad
either because he has a given emotion or because he is sus-
ceptible to a given emotion. The emotion and the sus-
ceptibility are not in themselves morally either g'ood or
bad. Badness and goodness of character are shown in
the reaction of the whole man to his emotions and suscepti-
bilities, these last being, relatively speaking, outside his
control, facts of which his moral consciousness must take
account. Excellence of character, then, will lie in an
aptitude for a certain kind of attitude to the pleasures and
emotions of life.



Lecture IV*

6. AN APTITUDE FOR DELIBERATE ACTION.

To achieve excellence is to achieve a capacity for a cer-
tain attitude to pleasure and pain. The next point is that
this attitude expresses itself in deliberate action. A. does
not argite this step, he simply takes it. It is generally
agreed he says (106 a 3) that virtue or excellence either is,
or necessarily involves, deliberate action. He would in-
clude under the term all action, however swift or hurried,
in which a man seeks what he desires after considering
how best his desire may be realized, conforming his pro-
cedure to the results of that consideration. It is action
which embodies the results of reflection, and is therefore
able to justify itself. The justification will always take the
form, of showing (i) what the end of the view was, (2) why
these means to it were adopted rather than any other.
This distinction of end and means is a universal feature
of all deliberate, i.e., of all truly voluntary or free action.
Man is, of course, dependent on circumstance for oppor-
tunity, and often what he does deliberately is quite other
than what in the abstract he would have liked to do.
Sometimes even, he is reduced to a choice between two
things which neither he nor anyone else could desire.
But even in such cases the act is voluntary, and exhibits
the distinction of desired end and chosen means.
Deliberate action then is action which embodies a con-



13

sidered plan, and which, therefore, contains within it the
distinction of end and means.

It must be remembered in this connexion that we who
come to Aristotle for instruction are like archers in search
of a mark, and that he has promised to give us one.
He says, it is true, several times that a (study of Ethics
will no more make a man good than a study of medicine
will make a man healthy]: but we are entitled to reverse
the comparison and demand that the study of Ethics shall
be shown to be as good for human conduct as thie study
of medicine has been for human health. Unless it were
true (i) that in everyone of our everyday considered acts
we had an end, and (2) that we had some difficulty in
relating to one another and systematizing the various ends
(health, money, comfort, pleasure, &c.) which we at
different times pursue unless this was true, the practical
necessity for ethical enquiry wouJd^ftotv. exist. But these
things being so we need the pnilosopiW to put us on
the straig'ht road, so that our cbnsittered actions may be
not only individually coherent, but also consistent and
consecutive with one another.

It should be noted that deliberate action requires the!
co-operation of thoug'ht and desire. It is thus the single
expression of both parts of human excellence, of excel-
lence of intelligence as well as of excellence of character.
It can, therefore, not be fully understood until the in-
tellectual excellences have been investigated.

7. SHOWING ITSELF AS PROPORTION OR A

CAPACITY FOR MIDDLE (OR MEAN)

QUANTITIES.

VIRTUE, it has been shown, is one of those acquired
states or capacities which are acquired by repeated
activity of the right kind. These states and capacities,
A. notes, have this feature in common that the enemy
always is the too-much and the too-little, the excess and
the defect; that what is wanted is always the right "or
adequate amount. J Thus health and strength are main-
tained by taking the right amount of food and exercise :
more or less of either will tend to destroy them!. It is so
with the excellences of character. By constantly feeling
fear and running away a naturally timorous man turns
himself into a cowaird; by constantly shutting his eyes



14

to danger and rushing into it a man of sanguine tem-
perament becomes foolhardy. Profligacy comes from
never denying oneself a prospective pleasure, while utter
refusal of all indulgences ends in the complete insensi-
bility to enjoyment which characterizes the puritan. A
continual too-much or too-little in the act thus produces
always a defect in the character : and the maintenance of
a proper standard enables character to develop naturally
and harmoniously.) If this standard is carefully and con-
tinuously maintained, its maintenance will in time become
a delight. The agent will in time cease to feel that to
refrain from the too-much or too-little is an act of self-
sacrifice in the interest of an ideal, but will rather enjoy
his own skill in measuring the quantities and putting
them together in due proportion. As soon as he begins
to feel this enjoyment in his skill, he may take that as an
indication that apprenticeship is over and the capacity
fully developed i.e. that he is not merely on the road
to goodness, but actually good.

In saying that virtue of character exhibits itself as
proportion or moderation A. is quite well aware that hie
is committing himself to the statement that its manifesta-
tions can be estimated in terms of quantity. Any
manifestation of this virtue will exhibit a right, or as A.
says a middle quantity. But first he tries to remove a
misapprehension which the use of the word middle might
cause. The middle point or the two equal halves are
found by first fixing the extreme points or limits, and to
halve a line or other magnitude whose limits are not fixed
is as impossible as to find the centre of a circle which
has not yet been drawn. His answer in effect is that in
this case the middle or rig'ht amount is fixed first and the
extremes fixed later by reference to it.



Lecture V*

The right amount is unique, the wrong amounts are
infinite in number since any amount greater by however
little belongs to the one extreme region, any amount less
by however little to the other extreme region. Thus,
while in strict mathematics the middle may be thought of
as a region but the extreme or limit must be a point or
line, in moral mathematics the middle is a point or line
and the extremes are (regions of indeterminate extent.



15

There is no reason to suppose that there is any maximum,
or minimum except so far as individual capacity sets one.
A. illustrates the distinction between the actual middle
or mean quantity and the personal middle by the instance
of the amount of meat required by an athlete as compared
with that required by an ordinary man, the point being
that the rigfht amount can only be settled in a particular
case by consideration of the precise nature and needs of /
that case. This shows that the personal mean is not con-
fined to matters of conduct; and it is possible that the
notion was borrowed by A. from the physicians.

The next question is of what does the virtue of
character secure a right amount? A.'s answer is quite
explicit. Of two things : (i) of emotion or feeling. At
any given moment a man may show too much or too
little of any given emotion. The emotions mentioned
are fear, appetite, anger, pity, and all other forms of
pleasure and pain; on every occasion the good man will
feel these emotions to a proper extent, in the right '
quantity. (2) Of action. This is not further explained
by A., but illustrations are easily supplied. You may run
too fast or too slow, you may be too soon or too late,
you may hit too hard or too soft, in an interview you may
be too direct or too circumlocutory, a speech may be too
short or too long. Thus everywhere success stands on a
razor's edge between the too much or too little, and may


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Online LibraryJ. L. (John Leofric) StocksAristotle's definition of the human good → online text (page 1 of 3)