Notes on Nicomachean Ethics I.7

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 anything (self-sufficient).

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 specific activities and capacities that make a human human (1097b).

A. There are several possible reasons for approaching the question of human happiness from this 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 "workings" 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 that if 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 is 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 share 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 element" in us, activities related to reasoning and choice. Thus Aristotle suggests that "the proper [i.e. 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 when it 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 if this 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 excellence. That 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 wants 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 we may" ( 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), the 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 these assumptions..."], 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 things are 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 necessarily a completely accurate one. It's just a starting framework, to be filled in or modified through further research.

2. The second caution may be related to the first: Does the human as a whole havean ergon, a 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 do not 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 has the 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 societies. 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 that have erga, but only within a certain context or set of circumstances. But his question of the ergonof a human did not mention any context or circumstances; it referred simply to the human 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. 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.