An Interpretation of Aristotle's Notion of Happiness in the "Nicomachean Ethics"

Dissertation, Vanderbilt University (1982)

In this dissertation I shall develop and defend an interpretation of Aristotle's notion of happiness. I argue that Aristotle presents a single account of happiness as an encompassing end. Most current interpretators of the Nicomachean Ethics think that Aristotle has at least two incompatible views of happiness. On one view, it is an end that includes or encompasses other ends so that happiness involves engaging in numerous activities. On the other view, it is a single activity, contemplation, that excludes other activities. By a close analysis of books I and X of the Nicomachean Ethics, I show that Aristotle leaves no room for one to use this exclusive end view in order to understand his notion of happiness. I argue that happiness can be only an encompassing end. Happiness on my view involves the exercise of both the intellectual and moral virtues, and not merely the exercise of philosophical wisdom in contemplation. Fundamental to this interpretation is an understanding of Aristotle's notion of activity. The basic features of activity provide guidelines for resolving some of the difficulties that seem inherent in Aristotle's account of happiness as an activity in accordance with virtue. Three basic features of activity are crucial in its role in the Nicomachean Ethics: an activity is an end, an activity is the actualization of a potentiality, and an activity may encompass other actions or activities. Aristotle's arguments that happiness, the final end of human action, is an activity can be sustained only by reference to his rich conception of activity. Moreover, it is his conception of activity that allows one positively to reject the exclusive end view of happiness that has repeatedly been attributed to Aristotle in the past. I conclude that though contemplation may be the best constituent activity of happiness, it cannot be the whole of happiness. Human happiness encompasses both the exercise of reason and active participation in the social and political world
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