Aristotle On Pleasure Essay, Research Paper
After nine books of contemplating different aspects of the human good, Aristotle uses this opportunity to claim contemplation as the highest form of pleasure. The final book in Nicomachean Ethics is concerned with pleasures: the understanding of each kind, and why some pleasures are better than other pleasures. The book is essentially divided into two main parts, being pleasure and happiness. I will use Terence Irwin’s translation and subdivisions as a guiding map for my own enquiry, and any quotation from will be taken from this text. Irwin divides the book into three sections: Pleasure, Happiness: Further discussion, and Ethics, Moral Education and Politics. With this order in place, I will go chronologically through each claim and argument, using both the text and commentaries on the text to provide an understanding and clarify any misconceptions of the arguments presented.
At 1172a20 Aristotle makes his case for the ethical importance of pleasure. He says that not only do “we educate children…by pleasure and pain, [but] enjoying and hating the right things seems to be most important for virtue of character”. It because of this importance that pleasure needs to be considered. Aristotle also cites the importance of pleasure because of the controversy that surrounds it with regards to the dispute about whether pleasure is the good or it is altogether base (1172a 28).
The question as to whether or not pleasure is altogether base lies in the argument that “since the many lean towards pleasure and are slaves to pleasures, we must lead them in the contrary direction, because that is the way to reach the intermediate condition” (1172a 30). Anyone who offers the claim that all pleasures are altogether base would have to be free from ever seeking any type of pleasure, in any degree to award any sort of truth to this claim. St. Thomas Aquinas responds similarly to this in saying:
It hardly seems correct for people to say what they do not believe—that pleasures are just evil to withdraw us from them, because in questions of human actions and passions we give less credence to words that to actions. For if a man does what he says is evil, he incites by his example more than he restrains by his word (Aquinas, 862).
Following the lead of both Aristotle and Aquinas, it becomes clearer that neither believe that it is pleasure is evil in itself. Since the groundwork is then laid out, and there can be no objection to Aristotle’s calling pleasure what it is, he proceeds with his arguments.
At 1172b10 Aristotle marks that that no sound argument can prove that pleasure is the good. He then uses Eudoxus’ arguments as his starting point. Eudoxus thought that pleasure is in the category of the good, and divided his thoughts into three parts. For each of the parts, I will quote in full, to ensure that the arguments are not misinterpreted. In the first, he saw that those animals:
Both rational and non-rational seek it. (b) In everything, what is choiceworthy is decent, and what is most choiceworthy is supreme. (c) Each thing finds its own good, just as it finds its own nourishment. (d) Hence, when all things are drawn to the same thing [i.e. pleasure], this indicates that it is best for all. (e) And what is good for all, what all aim at is the good (1172b 10-15).
In an initial response to this, Aristotle remarks that that Eudoxus’ arguments were considered good because of the arguments in themselves, but because of the character of the man. His second argument makes the same claim from the contrary. He said that:
(a) pain in itself is to be avoided for all. (b) Similarly, then, its contrary is choiceworthy for all. (c) What is most choiceworthy is what we choose not because of, or for the sake of, anything else. (d) And it is agreed that this is the character of pleasure, since we never ask anyone what his end is in being pleased, on the assumption that pleasure is choiceworthy in itself.
His final argument is simply that “when pleasure is added to any other good, e.g. to just or temperate action, it makes that good more choiceworthy; and good is increased by the addition of itself.”(1172b20-25).
Aristotle sees the third argument placing pleasure as one good among others, and being no more or less good than any other. And he is correct in saying that the addition of any good to any other good makes it more choiceworthy. He then cites the opinion of Plato who argued that “the pleasant life is more choiceworthy when combined with intelligence than it is without it; and if the mixed [good] is better, pleasure is not the good, since nothing can be added to the good to make is more choiceworthy”(1172b30). This seems true enough; that if one was to find the good, there would be no other qualities that could make it more good, because by definition it is the good of all goods.
At 1173a he explains that there is no sound argument that proves that pleasure is not a good. This leads into the Aristotle’s reply for the first two arguments that Eudoxus gave. When there are opinions that object to the idea that what everything aims at is not good, there must be credence given to that argument. If things were called good by all then it would seem that they are good. He then says that if both intelligent beings and beings without understanding follow this claim, how can there be anything in it? He also presumes that even in the inferior animals that there is something that seeks its own proper good that is superior to them.
The argument against Eudoxus about pain also seems to be incorrect (1173b8). It is argued that if pain is an evil, it does not follow that pleasure is a good. The general point of the objection is correct, but what is said in the case that is mentioned is false. If pleasure and pain are evils, both would need to be avoided, and if both were neutral they would either have to be avoided completely or equally. Since pain is avoided as evil and pleasure is pursued as good, this must then be an opposition between them. Before Aristotle continues on how to define the status of pleasure, at 1173a18, he says that if pleasure is not a quality it does not follow that it is not a good. Neither are virtuous activities or happiness qualities.
The good is defined as definite, and pleasure is indefinite. It is indefinite because it allows for degrees of more or less. If it is the state of being pleased that is called definite, then it must also hold true for conditions like justice and the other virtues, Aristotle explains before. Certain characters can be seen as more and less and virtues can be explained similarly. If the judgement of pleasure rests on the variety of the pleasures that there are, then the reason of the admittance of degrees is ignored. Some pleasures are pure while others are mixed with pain. Aristotle mentions next that health allows for a variance of degrees even though it itself is definite. So he asks, why should pleasure not be the same? (1173a25)
Pleasure is not definite then because of the varying degrees. It is then stated that it is also not a process because the good is complete and are processes and becomings are, by definition, incomplete. But pleasure cannot fit even into the category of a process. 1773a 30, Aristotle says that pleasures are not quick or slow, “for quickness and slowness seems to be proper to every process-if not in itself, then in relation to something else. But neither of these is true with pleasure”. While it is as possible to become pleased quickly as to any other emotion, it is “not possible to be pleased quickly” (1173b1). Though the Greek and English are obviously different, as an English translation, following the proper rules of grammar, one cannot, be an adverb.
Aristotle then explains how the relation of pleasure to pain cannot be used for a process. Continue from his previous thought, Aristotle continues to question the status of pleasure. He questions next how pleasure can be a becoming. For, he says, “not just any random thing, it seems, comes to be from any other; but what something comes to be from is what it is dissolved into. Hence whatever pleasure is the becoming of, pain should be the perishing of it” (1173b5). It is said that pain is the emptying and that pleasure is the refilling. Because emptying and filling are things that happen to the body, it will be the body that has the pleasure. Aristotle comments that this relation of pleasure and the body seems to come from the bodily relation to food. He then says that this is not true of other pleasures. His claim that pleasures in mathematics and in perceptions as well as with memories and expectations arise without any sort of previous pain. His question is of what they would be comings to be of. At 1173b20 he says that “since no emptiness of anything has come to be, there is nothing whose refilling might come to be.”
What I question at this point is what Aristotle would say to someone who has sight, then loses it and then regains it again. Because this, like aural sense or even memories are pleasures when they are there, even if they are not thought of such at the time. When they cease to be, there is pain, especially when accompanied by the knowledge or awareness that they were once present. If these senses are to return, as is what happens in the case of temporary blindness, deafness, or memory loss, there is an immense feeling of pleasure that comes with it. In the case of a temporary sense loss, there is an emptiness of something that had come to be. It is just like the emptying and refilling of the body after a prolonged period, like a fast. This does not necessarily change the outcome of the argument for pleasure, but it does deserve noting.
Aristotle then moves to discuss the good and bad pleasures (1173b21). Because there are some people who use the disgraceful pleasures in order to demonstrate that it is not a good, it is important to show why these claims are not valid. His first reason is to show that these pleasures are not pleasant except to those who claim them to be. If someone is a bad person and calls a disgraceful pleasure pleasant, then there is nothing to say that this is a pleasure to anyone not in that bad condition. Aristotle uses appetites and tastes of sick people to healthy people to show that in different conditions, different people desire different satiation. His second reason follows that the pleasures are choiceworthy, except when they come from disgraceful sources. His example is the obvious one of wealth. The desire for money is fine, but not when it is required to do ill of another in order to get it. His final account is that pleasures could be different in different species. Pleasures that are “from fine sources are different from those from shameful sources; and we cannot have the just person’s pleasure without being just” (1173b30).
Aristotle concludes the third chapter by discussing the argument for pleasure differing in species. He uses the friend and the flatterer as his example, stating at 1174a that “the friend seems to aim at what is good, but the flatterer is reproached, whereas the friend is praised, on the assumption that in their dealings they have different aims”. His next thought is that no one would choose to live with a child’s thought for his whole life while taking as much pleasure in what pleases children.
There are things that people are eager to posses despite their not bringing pleasure in itself. No matter what pleasures would subsequently follow from having something like knowledge of the virtues, having the knowledge without the pleasures would not deter anyone from wanting it. With this said, it seems obvious that “pleasure is not the good, that not every pleasure is choiceworthy in themselves, differing in species or in their sources [from those that are not] (1174a10).
Chapter 4 begins with the clarification that pleasure is not a process, and that pleasure is an activity. Next Aristotle explains that pleasure, like seeing, seems to be complete at any time. If pleasure is like this, then it is a whole. Because its form cannot be completed by “coming to be for a longer time” (1174a15). Again, pleasure is not a process.
Aristotle then gets into the explanation of the process and completions. His points consist of the idea every process aims at some end. The process consists of dissimilar sub-processes, and each “process is incomplete during the processes that are in its parts”(1174a20). So because of all of the processes within a process there is a differing in form at any given time as well as in the whole time. So, this means that pleasure is different from a process.
At 1174b 14, Aristotle attempts to explain the nature of pleasure, and its properties. Pleasure is the thing that completes an activity. Every sense works in relation to the object that it is sensing. It works the best when the sense is at its finest point and the object is the finest object. Its best possible activity then is when both the sense and the object are in their perfect states and are in relation to each other. From 1174b 20-24, Aristotle continues on this, “the pleasantest activity is the most complete; and the most complete is the activity of the subject in good condition in relation to the most excellent object of the faculty”(1174b21-23). When the best sense and the best object have their pleasure present, because everything has its pleasure, they are complete, and it is because of the pleasure.
After establishing the perfect pleasure, Aristotle then compares the sense with the object in their excellence to health and a doctor. Health and a doctor are both causes of being healthy but in different ways. Pleasure, he continues, exist and function with the senses; this is a given because we are aware that there are things that we acknowledge with our senses that are called pleasant. His next criterion is also obvious in that pleasure is best when the senses are their best. Something like the smell of a flower would not be a perfect relation if the person with the nose had a cold and subsequently an impaired sense of smell. He concludes that “pleasure completes the activity—not however, as the state does, by being present [in the activity], but as a sort of consequent end, like the bloom on youths” (1174b32). Aquinas wrote that at this point
He clarifies a previous statement about the manner in which pleasure perfects activity. For it was stated that pleasure perfects activity not efficiently but formally. Now, formal perfection is twofold. One is an intrinsic constituting a thing’s essence, but the other is added to a thing already constituted in its species. He says first that pleasure perfects activity not as a habit that is inherent, i.e., not as a form intrinsic to the essence of the thing, but as a kind of end or supervenient perfection, like the bloom of health comes to young people not as being of the essence of youth but as following from a favorable condition of the causes of youth. Likewise pleasure follows from a favorable condition of the causes of the activity. (Aquinas, p86-7)
After making clear his earlier points, Aristotle then goes on to discuss the properties of pleasure. First he looks at the duration of pleasure and acknowledges that it can not go on continuously because “nothing human is capable of continuous activity, and hence, no continuous pleasure arises either, since pleasure is a consequence of activity”(1175a5). Because humans would grow tired of whatever activity was bringing them pleasure, eventually they would have to stop. Were someone to keep dancing, if this were the activity that brought that person pleasure, there would come a point when physical exhaustion would take over, and that would stop the activity from being pleasurable. Although it is the initial pleasure that is derived from any activity that continues the quest for it.
The next discussion begins with the idea that pleasures differ in kind. He then reiterates that the species of pleasures seem to be different. Since he has established that and established that pleasure completes an activity, it would then seem the next step to say that:
Activities that differ in species are also completed by things that differ in species. Activities of thought differ in species from activities of the faculties of perception, and so do these from each other; so also, then, do the pleasures that complete them (1175a25-30).
When an activity that has a proper pleasure that is present it will improve their proper function. If, for example, the proper pleasure of (according to some religions) sexual intercourse is procreation, then the pleasure received from the act is the proper pleasure. The activity has a formal pleasure in that it is going to create life, and the people involved are seeking that end. Because there is physical pleasure that is involved as, although completely unnecessary for procreation, the act becomes best by this.
Alien pleasure, conversely, does the opposite. If a “proper pleasure makes an activity more exact, longer and better, while an alien pleasure damages it, clearly the two pleasures differ widely”(1175b15). Using the same example, as with the proper pleasures case for sexual intercourse for procreation, using birth control of any sort, or homosexual sex would be an alien pleasure since it stops the proper function of the activity. The formal pleasure is gone because there is no desire for a child, but the alien, physical pleasure remains and becomes the focus of the activity. Alien pleasure is not the same as proper pain, though the effects are similar in destroying an activity.
So then the question is asked as to which pleasures are good? Because of the degrees of decency and badness, there are activities that are choiceworthy and there are activities that should be avoided. From 1175b 25-30, Aristotle explains how this also applies to pleasure, since the activity has a specific proper pleasure. This is explained in that “the pleasure proper to an excellent activity is decent, and the one proper to a base activity is vicious; for similarly, appetites for fine things are praiseworthy and appetites for shameful things are blameworthy.” The pleasure is more proper that the desire for an activity because desire is so close that there is often conflict over whether or not the two are separate concepts. So pleasures differ as activities do, and as Aristotle points out next, “each kind of animal seems to have its own proper function; for the proper pleasure will be the one that corresponds to its activity”(1176a1-5).
As with animals, different kinds of humans also differ. Things that bring pleasure to some cause pain to others. So the proper pleasure for humans should be measured against the excellent person. If what the excellent person calls disgraceful is what another calls pleasant, it is because humans differ in goodness. Because it is a corrupt person calling an objectionable thing pleasant, however, it should be noticed that it is shameful and is only pleasant to the corrupt person.
At this point in the text, Aristotle moves from pleasure to happiness. After commenting that he has discussed virtue, friendship and pleasure, he goes on to happiness that is the next important thing to understand, since it is what humans aim at as an end. He recapitulates from earlier comments that happiness is not a state, but rather an activity, and that some activities are necessary and that it should be counted as an activity that is choiceworthy in itself. This, claims Aristotle is the character of actions expressing virtue; “for doing fine and excellent things is choiceworthy for itself”(1176b5-8).
Next, Aristotle remarks on the nature of amusement, clarifying that amusement and happiness are not the same thing. Simply because people who hold supreme power spend time on activities of amusement, they merely appear to have happiness. At 1176b20, Aristotle is dedicated to the acknowledgement that people who hold the power do not have virtue and understanding. Because of their power, they are unaware of pure pleasure and resort to bodily pleasures instead. Aristotle reminds us again that things that are choiceworthy to decent people are different from things that are choiceworthy to base people. Happiness is not amusement, for, as Aristotle says at 1186b30, “it would be absurd if the end were amusement, and our lifelong efforts and sufferings aimed at amusing ourselves”. Indeed it would seem like a cruel cosmic joke were that the case. Besides that, the expression of virtue is a lifelong enterprise in itself. Beyond the necessity of the search for happiness, amusement takes the form of bodily pleasures and “anyone at all, even a slave, no less the best person, might enjoy bodily pleasures; but no one would allow that a slave share in happiness, if one does not [also allow that a slave shares in the sort of] life [needed for happiness]”(1177a8-10).
If then, bodily pleasures bring amusement, what is it that brings happiness? Aristotle suggests at 1177a7, that the virtue of the best thing, actively expressed is happiness. And since Aristotle claims at 1177a15-20 that “the best is understanding…Hence complete happiness will be its activity expressing its proper virtue; and we have said that this activity is the activity of study.”
The activity of theoretical study is the best because it is supreme and the objects of understanding are the supreme objects of knowledge. Moreover, it is continuous because continuous study is more easily done than any sort of continuous action since all actions must come to a stop at some point. Not only is it continuous, but also the pleasantest, the most self-sufficient, aims at no end beyond itself and involves leisure. But it is the self-sufficiency that Aristotle focuses on as the most important. His claim is that all virtuous people need the good things for life, and even when these things are supplied, the just person needs other people to be just to. The wise person in comparison does not need any other person, because he is able to study without anyone (1177a30). Ronna Burger, in her essay “Aristotle’s ‘Exclusive’ Account of Happiness: Contemplative Wisdom as a Guise of the Political Philosopher” comments on his claim of self-sufficiency:
The self-sufficiency that was supposed to belong to happiness as a final good is the criterion, above all, that makes the thesis of the tenth book so unconvincing: if the self-sufficient is that which on its own makes life choiceworthy and lacking nothing, how could contemplation by itself possibly fulfill that demand? But no such claim is in fact made in the tenth book. What is said to belong “most of all” to theoretical activity is “so-called self-sufficiency”(X.7 1177a26-28), and this no longer means the capacity of an activity by itself to make life complete, but only the capacity for that activity to be carried on independently of necessary conditions (Ronna Burger, p89)
It’s superiority lies in that “a human being’s complete happiness will be this activity, if it receives a complete span of life, since nothing incomplete is proper to happiness”(1175b25). This possible achievement of happiness would maintain a divine element to it. Living this sort of life is more a god-like life and allows humans to get closer to the gods. Aristotle remarks that one should not follow the proverb to “think mortal because you are mortal”, but to attempt at every chance to go further since it alone surpasses everything (11787a1).
In theorizing about the actions of the gods, Aristotle comments on the doubt that the gods are not inclined to be bothered with just, brave, or generous actions, since these are actions that make sense in a human world. Without base appetites or vulgar desires, there is no need for temperance, and the earthly virtues would seem trivial to the gods. Because the gods are presumed alive and there is no required action or production, the only thing left for the gods to do is study. And since it is the activities that are most like the gods’ that should be emulated, it appears obvious that studying is the human activity that is most like the gods. The natural conclusion to draw from this then is that “happiness will be some kind of study” (1178b30).
Aristotle does not however forget that humans are not gods, and because they are not, there are still earthly and external needs that require fulfillment. Study alone cannot allow a human to survive, for he needs nourishment for his body and other external goods. What is important to realize however, is that “self-sufficiency and action do not depend on excess… for even from moderate resources we can do the actions expressing virtue”(1179a1-5).
Why then would humans spend this time and energy on study and moderation? The reasons that Aristotle gives in his conclusion to the section on happiness are twofold. The first is that he claims that the gods, if they pay attention to the humans, will love those who are most akin to them, and will benefit them most. Since it is the wise person who is most akin to the gods, they will love him best. Within that, it is also assumed that the wise person too will be happiest (1179a25-30).
In the final part of Book X, Aristotle moves from pleasure and happiness to ethics, moral education and into politics. His first acknowledgment is that the aim of studies should be to act on them, despite earlier claims that it is the theorizing rather than the acting that is better. His thought here is that knowing is not enough; virtue must be acted upon.
Virtue, he claims, is something that is possessed by the few. The many behave because they are driven to obey by fear rather than shame. These people avoid the base activities because they fear the penalties rather than embracing the proper pleasures. They are ignorant of the things that are fine. The problem then lies in the method of reformation of people living this vulgar life into those who desire the pure and the fine (1179b10-15).
Nature, habit and teaching are the three things that are most thought of as ways to educate on morality. A reliance on nature to produce moral beings is foolish because it is beyond the control of humans. Those who are thought to be blessed by divinity are fortunate. Those who are not blessed, however, must be taught as students and habits reinforced throughout life. Morality is difficult to teach if immoral adults bring up a child. At 1179b30, Aristotle explains that by the time the teaching has begun we “must already in some way have a character suitable for virtue, fond of what is fine and objecting to what is shameful”. This description of what is needed is made clear at this point. J. A. Stewart says that this is the “really potent influence in moral training that is exerted by the rules, written and unwritten, and the institutions of the State as a whole”(J A. Stewart, p 462). It is because of this that both adults and children need moral laws. There is no assurance on how a child will be brought up, so if the state could be responsible instead, there would be a greater chance for broader success. Through this method of state imposed morality laws, those who are decent will obey the laws because it is a part of their character. Those who disobey the laws would be penalized and corrected. Those who are incurable would simply be expelled from society, which would not matter since they are not decent and could not properly contribute.
Because law has reason on its side, it would be a far superior educator than a father who is an individual and far more easy to ignore. Since states do not take it upon themselves to legislate morality, it ends up being left to the father though. The problem is, is that no matter which party, the state or the individual, there is a necessity for legislative science to be used. It is possible for either system to work, because the individual can have a case created especially for him, but it would far more effective if universal laws governed him. Amelie Rorty comments on the reason for the insertion of the political ideas at the conclusion of a book of ethics in his essay “The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics”. His thought is that “the discussion of politics which follows the discussion of contemplation in Book X is meant to show that one of the aims of a statesman is the reconciliation of the contemplative and the practical lives”(Amelie Rorty, 378).
The primary problem with teaching universal morality as well as legislative science is who the teachers should be. There seems to be a need for a middle ground between theory and practical experience. Politicians are of no use because some, like “the sophists who advertise that they teach politics [do not] practice it” (1181a1). Those that do practice it do not necessarily use thought in their actions. The right approach seems to be somewhere between these two ideas. If it is contemplation that is the highest form of happiness, and action that comes from this contemplation can come to exist, then perhaps there is some validity to this final thought. Instead of trying quickly to answer it though, Aristotle closes off the Nicomachean Ethics, and opens the door for The Politics.
Pleasure and happiness and moral thought and action all have conjoining ideas that can tie them into one another. Aristotle was able to see that, and while he was aware that the art of politics or statesmanship could not be taught, but the concept is there. And while this was written over two millennia ago, there are concepts that could easily be brought to the present. The problem seems to be that there remains a fear of the philosopher that cannot be overcome. Plato may have had something with the Philosopher Kings.
Aquinas, St. Thomas. Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, volII. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1964.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1985.
Burger, Ronna. “Aristotle’s ‘Exclusive’ Account of Happiness: Contemplative Wisdom as a Guise of the Political Philosopher” in The Crossroads of Norm and Nature. Ed. May Sim. Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 1995.
Rorty, Amelie. “The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics” in Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics. Berkeley: Regents of the University of California, 1980.
Stewart, J. A. Notes on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle Vol. II. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892.