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Aristotle "light":

These descriptions were contributed by Susan Allard. They will be useful--very useful--for you as you read Aristotle, because we often bring our own contemporary conceptions to his terms in a way that obscures what he says.. If you read these desscriptions over before reading, and go back to them as you read, you will have a much better chance of understanding what you are reading and in coming up with questions or challenges that actually pertain to what Aristotle is saying. J


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Happiness:

According to Aristotle, happiness is the only end or good that we desire for its own sake, and it is for the sake of happiness that we desire all other ends or goods. Happiness, however, is not merely a pleasurable feeling of contentment or satisfaction, but an activity of human beings, and one that is understood in terms of the function of human beings in particular (see Teleology). Only the rational principle is particular to human beings, and a human life, in order to be happy, must be lived in accordance with reason. Such a life is one in which reason and emotion are properly balanced and harmonized, and in which reason is the guiding principle. Since it is the function of all human beings to live a certain sort of life--and this life is an activity or action of the soul (think mind and spirit, here) implying a rational principle--then the function of good human beings is the excellent and noble performance of these activities or actions. Thus happiness, for Aristotle, is an activity of the human soul in accordance with excellence and virtue, and it is manifested over an entire lifetime (see Virtue). Happiness, as the ethical end, does not simply consist in moral virtue, however, but includes intellectual virtue as well, and complete happiness is a contemplative as well as a practical activity. Yet, Aristotle does not exclude all of the common-sense notions of happiness. Happiness is not a single thing, or a one-moment-in-time experience, but an activity of virtue (which is necessarily accompanied by pleasure), an activity that cannot be exercised properly in the absence of certain external and internal goods (friends, money, health, luck, etc.), and an activity that includes all of the various and incommensurable goods that allow individuals to both flourish and be self-sufficient (i.e. complete, not independent). And it is an activity that takes place within, benefits, and depends upon the community at large.


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Teleology:

The Greek word telos refers to the fulfillment, completion, or perfection of something, and these ideas are involved in the notion of teleology. On Aristotle’s view, all creatures, things, and activities have a final end, goal, or purpose, and each thing aims at some good. There are different goods, corresponding to the different creatures, arts, or sciences, and some ends are subordinate to other, more ultimate ends. For example, the immediate end of a particular medicine might be to reduce a fever, but the ultimate end or good at which the physician aims is health. Likewise, the manufacture of equipment for cavalry horses is the end of a certain craft, but this end is subordinate to the more comprehensive end of conducting warfare efficiently and effectively.

For human beings in general, Aristotle suggests that the ultimate end or good is happiness, and that happiness itself is living in accordance with reason and virtue. He arrives at this conclusion by differentiating the function of human beings from the function of all other living things. Because growth, nutrition, and sensation are also experienced by plants (growth and nutrition) and nonhuman animals (growth, nutrition, and sensation), these activities cannot be considered representative of human function in particular. Only human beings, however, have a rational principle, and so Aristotle concludes that the function of human beings is an activity of the soul in accordance with–or at the very least not lacking–this rational principle. Moreover, in Aristotle’s view, the good resides in the function itself (e.g. a physician and a good physician have a function that is the same in kind, with excellence being added to the latter).

Aristotle’s ethics are definitively teleological in nature. All things aim at some good, and the good can rightly be defined as that at which all things aim (NE 1094a 1-3). The only good or end at which human beings aim, in and of itself, is happiness, and humans aim at all subordinate goods (wealth, honor, power) for the sake of happiness. Happiness itself involves the ability to move towards the final end of developing oneself intellectually, emotionally, and physically, and of utilizing--with excellence--the capacities that are distinctly human. Individual happiness cannot be separated from the good of the community, since the community is the completion and end of human activity. Most actions, then, are not either "right" or "wrong" when taken in isolation, but are judged according to the specific situation at hand, the character of the agent who performs them, and the degree to which they accord with virtue and reason.


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Virtue:

Aristotle attempted to ground his ideas of virtue on those characteristics of human nature that seem to be both universal and constant. While it is certainly true that Aristotle held the Greeks in much higher esteem than he did the "barbarians," and that his claims concerning both women and slaves (i.e. natural slaves have no ability to reason; women have reason but it is lacking authority) are disturbing to the modern reader, he did attempt to put forth a common-sense explanation of virtue. In part, Aristotle examines the behavior and moral judgments of men who would be considered not only good and virtuous, but the most qualified to judge in matters of this kind, and he attempts to both supplement and justify the natural judgments of such persons.

Overall, Aristotle speaks of moral virtue as a mean, and he describes the virtuous person as one whose behavior is neither excessive nor deficient in regard to the emotions, desires, and appetites. Excellence is concerned with passions and actions, on his view, and the character of an agent is thought to be revealed by the voluntary choices that s/he makes. Human choice aims at the good, or at the perceived good, and the ability to make excellent choices requires accurate knowledge of a particular situation, good practical reasoning skills, and a well-developed and virtuous character.

Corresponding moral virtues and vices are concerned with the same objects and emotions, and they describe the disposition of a particular agent. Concerning fear, for example, the virtuous person is courageous, the person who exceeds in fear is a coward, and the person who is deficient in fear (or who feels no fear) has no real name, but is thought to be some sort of a madman. And acting virtuously in a given situation depends to a certain extent on the individual characteristics and training of the person in question. While courage is always a mean with regard to things that inspire confidence or fear, for example, running into a burning building to search for survivors might be considered courageous for a trained firefighter and rash for a physically weak or elderly person.

Moral virtue always involves practical judgment, and practical judgment itself is concerned with subjects upon which we deliberate (i.e. things that are in our power and about which can do something). And while deliberation may take into consideration the general guidelines and rules concerning appropriate behavior, the morality of an action is ultimately ascertained by examining whether or not the action was done to/for the right person, at the right time, and in the right way.

The moral virtues involve such things as courage, temperance, practical judgment, liberality, magnificence, pride, good temper, justice, and so on. Conversely, the intellectual virtues involve the activities and capacities of the soul (think mind) that are concerned with ends (rather than means), knowledge (rather than opinion), principles (rather than specifics), and the abstract (rather than the concrete).


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Character:

Goodness of character and virtuousness are developed, according to Aristotle, by practice, education, and habit. While he believes that human beings have an inherent capacity for virtuousness, he also claims that this capacity must be developed by performing virtuous acts. This is not the vicious circle that it might appear at first glance, however, because Aristotle clearly differentiates between acts which create the virtuous disposition and those which result from it. For example, a parent might instruct a child not to steal, and, at first, the child obeys more from a fear of punishment than from any inherent belief in the goodness of respecting the property of others, or from habit. Eventually, however, as the child’s education continues, s/he will have formed the habit of respecting the property of others, and s/he will come to choose, through his/her own character, to continue to respect the property of others.

It is a well-developed and virtuous character, then, which motivates ethical behavior, rather than blind adherence to universal rules, and it is also this character which helps human beings to survive difficult circumstances with grace, tolerance, and strength. While even the most virtuous person can be worn down by unrelenting difficulties, it is strength of character that sustains and supports a virtuous person beyond the limits that s/he might otherwise be able to tolerate.

Web Help:

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