The Consistency of the Life of Contemplation with the Rest of the “Nicomachean Ethics” and its Usefulness in Morality

by Jonathan Sim

This paper was written for my philosophy module on Aristotle. It concerns my favourite activity – contemplation. I hope that you will find this paper enriching.

Aristotle argues that the life of contemplation is more excellent than the life of political excellence. Yet, in doing so, he appears to be inconsistent with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics. In this paper, I argue that this apparent inconsistency arises because of interpretative issues related to the meaning of happiness (eudaimonia). Aristotle maintains an ambiguity over the term “happiness” so as to preserve two notions of the word: (1) happiness as living well, and (2) happiness as acting well. The apparent inconsistency comes about when these two notions of happiness are collapsed into one.

In Section I, I will summarise Aristotle’s argument in favour of the contemplative life over the political life. In Section II, I will then elaborate on the dual notions of happiness which Aristotle uses, and, in Section III, demonstrate how the use of only a single notion will result in inconsistencies. Using the dual notions of happiness, I shall then clarify what Aristotle meant in his discussion of contemplation, by highlighting a distinction between the contemplative life and contemplative activity, in Section IV. Last but not least, in Section V, I shall then anticipate an objection against the consistency of contemplation with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics, on the grounds that contemplation has nothing to do with morality, and respond to it by showing that contemplation is useful to morality, thereby maintaining its consistency. This will be done by showing how contemplation enriches the life of the contemplative person in a way useful to morality, and that it can lead the individual to right action.

I. The Excellence of the Life of Contemplation

It is necessary to first understand the reasons why Aristotle argues that the life of contemplation is more excellent than the life of political excellence.
Aristotle defines happiness as consisting in (1) “action conformable to virtue, and if there are a number of virtues, action conformable to the best and most perfect of them.” [1] As the end of all human actions, happiness is (2) the “perfect self-sufficient good” [2], that is (3) “always desirable for itself and never for anything beyond itself.” [3]

Contemplation fits this definition perfectly as it is (1) “the highest operation, since the intellect is the best element in us and the objects of the intellect are the best of the things that can be known.” [4] It is also (2) self-sufficient as the contemplative man can contemplate by himself [5], since contemplation requires no external goods for its practice. On the other hand, external goods are needed for the life of political excellence for such a man will need them for the exercise of morally virtuous activity. Contemplation is also (3) desired for its own sake since “nothing is produced by it apart from the act of contemplation”, while practical activities (which pertain primarily to the life of political excellence) are pursued instrumentally for something apart from the action itself [6]. Furthermore, contemplation is the perfect activity as it is also the most continuous activity for “we can contemplate truth more continuously than we can carry on any other activity.” [7]

It is for these reasons that Aristotle considers the life of contemplation the happiest life, while the life of political excellence is “happy only in a secondary degree.” [8]

II. The Dual Notions of Happiness (Eudaimonia)

Throughout the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle switches between two notions of happiness as (1) living well and (2) acting well. Though they may be the “popular sense of happiness” [9] as understood by the “common people and the educated” [10], these two notions of happiness are nonetheless closely related to each other since “happiness as living well is characterised by acting well.” [11]

Happiness, according to Aristotle, is “the activity of the soul according to reason” [12], which is to say that happiness consists in acting well. Yet, it is interesting that Aristotle arrives at this conclusion even though he sets out at the beginning to investigate happiness as the best life to live (living well). Aristotle did not forget about happiness as living well. In fact, his investigation of happiness from living well to acting well was meant to show that happiness (in the form of living well) consists in virtuous activities [13]. And so, a well-performed activity according to reason (virtuous activity) is not just an ingredient for happiness (as living well), but also happiness itself (as acting well).

III. The Inconsistencies that Result from using a Single Notion of Happiness

Unfortunately, Aristotle fails to explicitly spell out these two notions of happiness [14]. As such, confusion arises especially with regards to his discussion on the life of contemplation, as most people would read it understanding happiness as either living well only or acting well only. In this section, I will show how using only one of the two notions will result in consistencies with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics, when used to interpret a portion of the discussion on contemplation:

Contemplation seems to have self-sufficiency, leisureliness, freedom from labour (as far as humanly possible), and all other activities usually assigned to the happy man. Therefore, man’s perfect happiness will consist in this activity of the intellect, is a long span of life be added (as nothing belonging to happiness should be incomplete). Such a life is higher than the human level; and it is not lived by man according to the human mode but according to something divine in him. [15]

If one were to interpret this passage using the notion of happiness as living well only, the inconsistency arises as it seems that since the life of contemplation is so self-sufficient, there is no need for practical wisdom and the moral virtues, external goods, and even friendship. Such a life is so self-sufficient that a well-lived life of happiness can simply be attained by engaging only in contemplation. This seems to be inconsistent with so many portions of the Nicomachean Ethics, namely the areas that deal with practical wisdom, the moral virtues, external goods, and even friendship. This interpretation, therefore, leaves many protesting that this life of contemplation is a life that “humans cannot live” [16].

Or if one were to interpret this passage using the notion of happiness as acting well only, the inconsistency arises as such a reading seems to suggest that contemplation is the best and most perfect activity of the soul, such that all other activities (especially morally virtuous activities) need not be pursued. If happiness consists of only acting well, then one can be happy simply by engaging in only contemplation. Were this really the case, the earlier books of the Nicomachean Ethics can be forgotten since one does not need to cultivate moral virtues within him.

IV. Clarifications on the Contemplative Life and Contemplative Activity

The problems of inconsistency do not arise if one was aware of the dual notions of happiness employed by Aristotle. In fact, he makes a distinction between the contemplative life and contemplative activity:

For action, many things are required and the more so the greater and nobler the deeds are; but for the activity of the contemplative man, nothing of the kind is needed. In fact, it can be said that external goods are obstacles to contemplation. But the contemplative person, insofar as he is man and lives with others chooses to perform virtuous acts. Hence he will need external goods to live a human life. [17]

In describing contemplation as having “self-sufficiency, leisureliness, freedom from labour, and all other activities usually assigned to the happy man” [18], Aristotle meant to describe contemplative activity as the best activity that any human person can pursue. As mentioned in Section II, virtuous activity is not just an ingredient for happiness (as living well), but also happiness itself (as acting well). Likewise, contemplative activity is not just an ingredient for happiness (as living well), but it is also happiness itself (as acting well). Though the activity of contemplation is central to the contemplative life, the contemplative life does not consist in contemplative activity alone. While contemplation is the best activity, it cannot be the only activity of a human life. Aristotle recognised that it is not possible to live a life which consists solely in contemplation. Anaxagoras and Thales are cited as examples of people who sought to do nothing but engage in contemplation, but they are criticised for their lack of practical wisdom because they did not “seek human goods” [19].

Therefore, the person who wishes to embrace the contemplative life must not only seek to act well by engaging in the highest activity of contemplation, he must not forget the other aspect of happiness, which is the notion of living well. As it was mentioned earlier, happiness (as living well) consists in virtuous activities (contemplation being the best amongst them) and external goods. Since happiness (living well) is an end “altogether perfect in every respect” [20], insofar as the contemplative person is a human being and lives with others [21]; he cannot neglect his biological needs nor neglect his nature as a social animal [22]. As such, he must not be lacking in virtue nor must he be lacking in the external goods necessary for his survival and for the exercise of virtue. The contemplative person will also need friends as “what is desirable for the happy man, he must have, or else he will be in want” [23]. Since happiness is an end perfect in every respect, the contemplative person must not be left in want, or he will not be fully happy.

It has thus been demonstrated that a correct reading of the discussion on contemplation will reveal that there is no inconsistency with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics.

V. Objection and Response

However, one way in which the discussion of contemplation seems to be inconsistent with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics is that contemplation does not seem relevant to morality at all. Many contemporary virtue ethicists “embrace Aristotle’s theory of moral virtue and practical wisdom”, but they do “not judge the theory of contemplation well.” [24] Because of this, contemplation is left out of their moral theories.

Contemplation is an “activity in accordance with theoretical wisdom (sophia)” [25], which involves science (episteme) which is the theoretical knowledge of unchanging demonstrable principles [26]; and rational intuition (nous) which is the knowledge of undemonstrable first principles [27]. Practical wisdom (phronesis), on the other hand, deals with “human goods which we deliberate”, as it considers universals and knows particulars (since action is concerned with particulars) [28]. Matters of morality are particular matters which are dealt with by practical wisdom. As such, it appears that contemplation has nothing to do with matters of morality, and is thus inconsistent with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics.

Nevertheless, Rorty argues that since wisdom is able to contemplate “the unchanging form of what does change” [29], wisdom should be able to contemplate on “humanity and its proper ends” [30] since it is “a pattern of temporal life” which “can be comprehended in one timeless whole” [31], so as to come to a deeper knowledge of “our general ends” which “are the actualisation and exercise of the basic activities that define us.” [32]

Rorty speaks of the prudent man (phronimos) who “knows what to do and how to do it” as he has an “implicit knowledge of human ends” [33]. The prudent man possesses practical wisdom which is able to “grasp the general ends of actions” [34], and therefore “virtue and knowledge are fused” within him [35]. But he “does not necessarily know why his virtues are virtues” [36], since he lacks the theoretical wisdom to understand the purpose and meaning of his actions in the grand scheme of human life.

When Aristotle argued that theoretical wisdom is not applicable to practical matters [37], his intention was to resist its assimilation into practical wisdom, so as to clearly distinguish one from the other. Though theoretical wisdom does not deal with particulars, nor substitute for the development of virtue, it can nonetheless contemplate on “humanity and its proper ends” [38], thereby analysing the ends of human life so as to determine the activities and processes that constitute a well-lived life. Though contemplation does not help to create a “better decision procedure” for the prudent man, it would nonetheless “perfect his knowledge” [39].

Earlier, it was mentioned that the prudent man “knows what to do and how to do it” [40] but not the reasons for it, for he lacks the theoretical wisdom to understand “humanity and its proper ends” [41]. Because of this, he does not understand why he acts virtuously, nor is he aware of how he should order his life, nor be able to fully actualise his potential as a human person for he is unaware of these things. While such a person may indeed be happy (acting well) from the exercise of virtuous activity, he would not be able to achieve the fullness of happiness (in terms of living well), for Aristotle describes happiness (living well) as an end that is “altogether perfect in every respect” [42].

The greatest benefit that contemplation brings is that by contemplating on one’s actualities, the individual comes to realise his formal identity as a human person. This paves the way for the individual to realise his potential as a human person, and to recognise his actions in relation to the larger whole.

It was also mentioned earlier that Aristotle argued that theoretical wisdom is not applicable to practical matters [43] so as to resist its assimilation into practical wisdom. This however, does not mean that theoretical wisdom and practical wisdom cannot communicate with each other. The contemplation of “humanity and its proper ends” [44] provides clarity on the potentialities of a human person that wait to be actualise, and his actions with regards to a larger whole. Such insight into life is able to direct the contemplative man to action, for it allows him to order his life and actions towards that greater end. This way, every virtuous activity is not just a random act of goodness, but is ordered towards a grand scheme of things. Moreover, as contemplation has made clear his ends, the individual is therefore able to deliberate on the means to attain it.

It is here that one finds practical wisdom and theoretical wisdom working together. The principles that have been made clear to theoretical wisdom, through contemplation, are applied by practical wisdom to the daily necessities of life. It is also applied to the overall ordering of one’s life, as one would require practical wisdom in order to deliberate on the means to attain his ends in life, now made clear to him through contemplation.

This is hugely significant for morality, because it gives meaning and order to each and every single moral act. As such, one does not do acts of goodness and avoid acts of evil simply because morality requires it, but one can perform moral actions in a way that is part of a larger “plan”, and which will guide the individual to fully actualise his potentialities as a human person (in addition to the exercise of virtuous activities) in such a way that he may come to live the good life, and not neglect any aspect of his life out of ignorance. Furthermore, because the end of humanity is the same for all people, a person may, as a politician, teacher, or parent, guide others in a way that will enable them to fully actualise their potentialities as human persons, so as to live a rich and meaningful life, rather than merely doing good and avoiding evil without knowing the reasons why.

And so, contemplation is useful to morality for it not only enriches the life of the contemplative person, but it provides him with clearer principles on his end as a human person, which practical wisdom uses for the deliberation of the means for action. Contemplation, therefore, is not inconsistent with the rest of Aristotle’s account of morality in the Nicomachean Ethics, since it provides an enriched account of morality, endowing it with purpose and meaning in the grand scheme of life and of the end of humanity.

VI. Concluding Remarks

Throughout this paper, it has been demonstrated that contemplation does not conflict with the Nicomachean Ethics in any way. The life of contemplation is hailed as the most choiceworthy, excellent life, because it involves the activity of contemplation – the best and highest activity of the human soul – and every other virtuous activity and external goods which a person requires as a human being living with others. It is more excellent than the political life because the contemplative life can incorporate elements of the political life, such as the practice of virtuous activity and external goods, in a far richer way since contemplation helps to provide clarity on humanity and its proper ends, thereby enabling one to attain happiness (both living well and acting well) in a manner that fully actualises one’s potentiality that is in line with his proper end.

Endnotes

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a17-20
[2] Ibid., 1097b20-21
[3] Ibid., 1097a32-35
[4] Ibid., 1177a19-21. The soul can be divided into two parts – the rational part and the irrational part. The rational part is superior to the irrational part is the excellence of the irrational part is to be subordinate to the rational part, i.e. obeying reason. Within the rational part, the two intellectual virtues are theoretical wisdom (sophia) and practical wisdom (phronesis). Theoretical wisdom deals with necessary things that are unchanging, while practical wisdom deals with contingent things. Aristotle concludes that theoretical wisdom is superior and the best. Therefore, the activity of theoretical wisdom, contemplation, is the highest operation of the human person and the best activity of the soul.
[5] Ibid., 1177a27-b1
[6] Ibid., 1177b1-4
[7] Ibid., 1177a21-22
[8] Ibid., 1178a8
[9] Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, p.173
[10] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1095a19-20
[11] Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, p.173
[12] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a16-17
[13] Cf. Ibid., 1099a30-31
[14] Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, p.173
[15] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1177b22-28
[16] Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, p.197
[17] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1178b1-7. Emphasis mine
[18] Ibid., 1177b22-24
[19] Ibid., 1141b3-7
[20] Ibid., 1101a19-20
[21] Cf. Ibid., 1178b5-6
[22] Aristotle, Politics, 1253a9
[23] Ibid., 1170b17-19
[24] Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, p.219
[25] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1177a25-26
[26] Cf. Ibid., 1139b18-36
[27] Cf. Ibid., 1140b31-1141a8
[28] Ibid., 1141b14-15
[29] Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p.344
[30] Ibid., p.346
[31] Ibid., p.345
[32] Ibid., p.346
[33] Ibid., p.349
[34] Ibid., p.349
[35] Ibid., p.347
[36] Ibid., p.350
[37] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1140a31-b4
[38] Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p.346
[39] Ibid., p.350
[40] Ibid., p.349
[41] Ibid., p.346
[42] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1101a19-20
[43] Ibid., 1140a31-b4
[44] Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p.346

Bibliography

Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Mind, New Series 87 (Jul. 1978): pp.343-368

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, in Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, trans. C. J. Litzinger, O.P. (Indiana: Dumb Ox Books, 1993)

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