Book I, Chapter 7
Eudaimonia (happiness; "living well and doing well") is that for the sake of
which all other
things are done, and it is "final" (ultimate and complete) and "self-sufficient": it is pursued for its
own sake (final); it is something which, taken by itself, makes life desirable and not deficient in
But, what does that mean? What does eudaimonia involve? What kind of thing is
it? If we are
talking about human happiness (and we don't have access to any other kind, after all), says
Aristotle, perhaps we need to look at the "function" (ergon) of a human, i.e. at the
activities and capacities that make a human human (1097b).
A. There are several possible reasons for approaching the question of human happiness from
angle. It may at first seem odd, in that a "function" might seem to us to be something automatic,
or something that has little or no relationship to enjoyment (for example, unflavored soybeans
might serve the purpose of nourishing us, and do it well, but we might not enjoy eating them). Or
it might sound as if Aristotle is saying that humans have a "use", that we are merely tools.
But these modern connotations are not what Aristotle has in mind. The "functions" or
he has in mind are our activities as humans, the things we use to get what we want and need, and
the activities we do in order to live as humans. That is, imagine that you had to describe humans
to a creature from another planet. How would you indicate which things on earth were humans?
It's not looks alone that make one human; dummies and robots look like humans; and the space
alien might even think that chimpanzees and gorillas look confusingly like humans. Now, if the
space alien could understand language, we could tell it about the activities that we think are
characteristic of humans, and those that are unique to humans. These would be what Aristotle
means by the "function" of humans (maybe other animals have them, but we don't know.)
Thus one reason for looking at humans' "function" in the discussion of happiness would be
we left out anything that made us human, anything that we need to use or enjoy using in our
lives, we wouldn't be talking about happiness: we would be leaving out something and talking
about a life that lacks something important.
Another reason is that it is precisely through our specifically human functioning that choice
possible as we know it, and that the questions of happiness and good can even arise!
That is, we share certain functions (nutrition, respiration, growth) with all life forms; we
some functions with other animals (movement, appetites, sensation) - 1098a. But there are also
life activities that seem to Aristotle to be unique to humans, activities that make humans human,
or at least reflect what makes humans human. These activities are those of the "rational
in us, activities related to reasoning and choice. Thus Aristotle suggests that "the proper
special] function of a human, then, consists in an activity of the soul in conformity with a
rationalprinciple [i.e. a source of reasoning] or, at least, not without it" (1098a).
He notes too that when we speak of the function of something, we mean the way it works
functions correctly or best, or when it works excellently. For example, if the function of a car is
to convey people from place to place safely, and if your car stalls out all the time or can't convey
people because the doors keep falling off, you might say that your car does not perform its
function. The function of a car is what a car does when it does what it is supposed to do - not
what your car might happen to do. Or we might say that your function at your job is given by
your job description; if you perform up to standard then you are performing your function. Your
function at your job is not what you do if you neglect your work. The implication for what
Aristotle is saying is that when we speak of the proper function of a human as an activity of soul
in conformity with a source of reasoning, we mean not merely using reasoning any way we feel
like at the moment, but using and acting on reasoning well - whatever that involves.
Thus he notes: "If we take the proper function of a human to be a certain kind of life, and
kind of life is an activity of soul and consists in actions performed in conjunction with the
rational element,..., and if a function is well performed when it is performed in accordance with
the excellence appropriate to it; we reach the conclusion that the good of a human is an activity
of soul in conformity with excellence or virtue [of the rational element and of our ability to act
on our decisions] (1098a)."
Thus eudaimonia will be activity of soul in accordance with this sort of virtue or
is, to "live well and do well" involves deciding and acting in conformity with our source of
reasoning. (Keep in mind that reasoning is a process, not a source of all our values or
needs.) What Aristotle seems to have in mind when he says that happiness is an activity of soul
in conformity with the excellence of the rational principle is that it is through reasoning,
conscious choice, understanding and evaluating the consequences of our actions, and learning
how to put our choices into action effectively that we will be able to do as much as we can to
achieve our goals. It is also by living in that way that we will develop all the capacities and
abilities that we consider worthwhile in themselves. If our reasoning is poorly developed or if we
use it poorly, we will be like cars that stall or that won't go where they are steered: we won't be
able to tell how to achieve the results we desire, we may make disastrous choices that were
avoidable, things will almost never turn out as we think they will, and so on.
B. There are two further things that we must keep in mind in trying to understand this part of the Ethics: the conditional character of the proposal about eudaimonia involving a human ergon or function; and the question of whether or in what sense or under what circumstances there can be an ergon of the whole human.
1. Note that when Aristotle introduces the notion of ergon, he says that "perhaps
(tacha...an) arrive at an account of what constitutes eudaimonia "if"
(ei) we might grasp the
ergon of the human (1097b). Note that he does not say that we definitely will be able
to come up
with an adequate account of human happiness this way. Moreover, he does not even say that we
have grasped the ergon of the human: Further on, at 1098a, he says, "If(1) (ei) then the ergon of a
human is an activity of soul in conformity with a rational principle or at least not without it; and
if we say that the function of an individual is the same in kind as the function of an individual in
the same class(2) who is excellent at what he/she does
(spoudaios) (for instance, the ergon of a
harpist is the same as the ergon of a good harpist, and so in general with all classes),
spoudaios individual's superiority in arete (excellence - here, in the one
specific activity) being
added on top of the ergon (playing the harp would be the ergon of a
harpist; playing it well
would be the ergon of a spoudaios harpist); if this is so [Ostwald: "On
and if we put the ergon of a human as a certain kind of living, and [we put] that kind
of living as
an activity of soul and actions [performed] with reason[ing], and that [the ergon? the
life?] of a
spoudaios man(3) is doing these things well and
nobly (beautifully; kalôs), and each ergon is
performed well when performed in accordance with its own proper arete; if indeed
thus, then the good of the human is an activity of soul in accordance with arete, and
if there are
many aretai (plural of arete), then in accordance with the best and most
complete (or most final
or ultimate)." That is, Aristotle has presented at least 7 conditions that must be fulfilled if his
proposal about the relationship among arete, eudaimonia, and a possible
human ergon is to be
true. He does not confirm that any of the conditions are in fact in place in our lives.
Then at 1098a-b Aristotle reminds us again that this is only an outline, and not even
completely accurate one. It's just a starting framework, to be filled in or modified through further
2. The second caution may be related to the first: Does the human as a whole havean
special function or operation? Could we even ascertain this? (Aristotle never says that one does
have such an ergon.)
Here's what I mean: Aristotle mentions the ergon of the eye, the hand, and the
foot. Each of these
things has an ergon as part of a living organism: the eye sees as part of a living
organism; it does
not see if it is removed from the body in which it grew, and it does not (as far as we know) see
when the organism is dead. When we say that someone's eyes "do not work correctly" or "do not
perform their ergon well" we refer to a situation in which the eyes of a living person
enable the person to see, or where they cause the person to see in what we consider to be an
abnormal or distorted manner (nearsightedness, double vision, tunnel vision, etc.).
Aristotle also mentions carpenters and shoemakers: these are artisans who have functions (as
artisans; A. is not saying that their job constitutes their entire human existence and therefore he is
not saying that their job ergon constitutes their whole human ergon) as
members of a
community. There is an ergon of carpenters in a community that needs carpentry and
resources for it. For example, there is no tradition of a craft of carpentry among the Eskimos who
live north of significant tree populations, nor is there any such craft among people who live in
deserts that have few or no trees. There wouldn't be any ergon of carpentry in those
Similarly, people who live where shoes are not needed or where resources to make shoes are
lacking will not have a craft or an ergon of shoemaking.
Thus both of Aristotle's kinds of examples - body parts or organs, and crafts - refer to things
have erga, but only within a certain context or set of circumstances. But his question
ergonof a human did not mention any context or circumstances; it referred simply to
in general. In fact, part of the question of how to live is concerned precisely with what
circumstances and contexts we find to be best--but best for what? Is anything unconditionally
best? Do we have an unconditional ergon? But an ergon is a working,
and a working involves
either a direction or a result or both. That would not be unconditional: going in one direction
means not going in another direction, so a direction is a condition.
Aristotle does not neglect this, but he will take his time working up to approaching it.
1. 2. 3.
1.Your text does not include this first 'if'. But it is there in the Greek, and your translator (Ostwald) does acknowledge it, sort of, later on in the paragraph when he summarizes with 'On these assumptions..." He goes on to include under "assumptions" some of the things he had previously presented as more than mere assumptions. Aristotle is more consistent here.
2.'Class' translates 'gene' which means 'kind' or 'class'; he does not specifically refer to social classes, though those would be included. 'Classes' in this sense would also include 'student,' 'musician,' 'harpist' (a sub-class of 'musician'), 'driver,' 'basketball player,' and so on: any group of people who perform a particular activity. Of course a single person can belong to many such "classes."
3.For reasons I cannot guess, Aristotle has suddenly used 'aner' (man, male adult) here, when all along he has been using 'anthropos' (human) and will return to 'anthropos' in the next clause.