Aristotle and Light
Contemplation, Activity and Happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics
For while the whole life of the gods is blessed, and that of men too in so far as some likeness of such activity belongs to them, none of the other animals is happy, since they in no way share in contemplation. Happiness extends, then, just so far as contemplation does, and those to whom contemplation more fully belongs are more truly happy, not as a mere concomitant but in virtue of the contemplation; for this is in itself precious. Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation.
What is reason? Aristotle tries many times to answer this question; but perhaps most vivid and penetrating among his responses is the spiritual “answer” he offers in the conclusion of the Nicomachean Ethics. There we find Aristotle claiming that the exercise of human reason cultivates ‘something’ in the human animal which is the “best and most akin” to God (1179a11). God loves and honors those who love and honor reason: those who “care for the things that are dear to them” and act “both rightly and nobly” (1179a14). In this sense the philosopher is dearest to God (1179a17) and is the one who “will presumably also be the happiest,” moreso — potentially, anyway — than any other (1179a18).
Why may we presume the philosopher’s life to be happiest? Even assuming he were to possess the virtues attendant upon a cultivated exercise of reason, does this ensure him a happy life, even the happiest of lives? Aristotle repeatedly acknowledges the serious difficulties barring the way to human happiness, perhaps most importantly our need for external sustenance. (It seems clear to Aristotle that it would be difficult to contemplate anything but food if you are starving — thus leisure, freedom from activity, is an essential requirement for contemplation.) Yet in this respect, too, the life of the philosopher is superior, even to other men of virtue, since his virtues require neither money nor power in order to be recognized.
Indeed, the philosopher’s contemplation may even be hindered by the sorts of conditions and resources which allow other kinds of natures the opportunity to exercise their highest virtue — money for the liberal man, power for the brave man, a tempting hint for the temperate man, and so on (1178a28). Moreover, despite the human need to attend to the health of our bodies, “we must not think that the man who is to be happy will need many things or great things, merely because he cannot be supremely happy without external goods; for self-sufficiency and action do not involve excess, and we can do noble acts without ruling over earth and sea; for even with moderate advantages one can act virtuously (this is manifest enough; for private persons are thought to do worthy acts no less than despots–indeed, even more); and it is enough that we should have so much as that; for the life of the man who is active in accordance with virtue will be happy.” (1179a11)
We cannot escape the reality that reason cannot promise happiness; yet Aristotle’s position here is in fact much more paradoxical: perfect happiness is a form of contemplative activity (1178a28). Reason as such “is” happiness, an excellence separate from both the passions and the virtues: “The excellence of the reason is a thing apart: we must be content to say this much about it, for to describe it precisely is a task greater than our present purpose requires….” (1178a5) It is interesting to consider why this should be the “halting point” for a description of reason — reason as a “thing apart” from the practical body of desire. In what sense could a further elucidation push our thought out beyond the scope of Ethics?
One possible reading is that the reason Aristotle halts at this point is because there is a theological basis for his position that happiness is a form of contemplation. For he grounds his argument in favor of contemplation on the basis of a brilliant reductio ad absurdum demonstrating the impossibility of assigning human and even physical qualities to God:
“We assume the Gods to be above all other beings blessed and happy; but what sort of actions must we assign to them? Acts of justice? Will not the gods seem absurd if they make contracts and return deposits, and so on? Acts of a brave man, then, confronting dangers and running risks when it is noble to do so? Or liberal acts? To whom will they give? It will be strange if they are really to have money or anything of the kind. And what would their temperate acts be? Is not such praise tasteless, since they have no bad appetites? If we were to run through them all, the circumstances of action would be found trivial and unworthy of gods. Still, everyone supposes that they live and that therefore they are active; we cannot suppose them to sleep like Endymion. Now if you take away from a living being action, and still more production, what is left but contemplation? Therefore the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness.” (1178b20)
Although mysteriously “realized” in the human faculty of reason, God is nonetheless absolutely separate from the material forces of the world and its unending activity. Slightly earlier we find this same argument framed more concisely (also with a similar “otherworldly” detour): “If happiness is activity in highest accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be that of the best thing in us. Whether it be reason or something else that is this element which is thought to be our natural rule and guide and to take thought of things noble and divine, whether it be in itself also divine or only the most divine element in us, the activity of this in accordance with its proper virtue will be perfect happiness. That this activity is contemplative we have already said.” (1177a14)
Happiness is not about amusement (pleasure) but virtue (work); as Aristotle puts it, “serious things are better than laughable things and those connected with amusement…” (1177a2) Related to this idea is an important argument supporting the position that happiness is contemplation, demonstrated by the continuity of thought. The capacity for reflecting upon the truth is unbroken: “…we can contemplate truth more continuously than we can do anything.” (1177a22) Contemplation isn’t even a “doing,” but rather man’s connection to Being, to our Purpose. Like infinity, contemplation is an overflowing: reason is unlimited, unbounded, but nonetheless continuous. Furthermore, the reflection on truth brings pleasure of itself (1177a24), a unique kind of pleasure “for its own sake,” since nothing arises out of it other than further contemplation (1177a26). In this it is even superior to both military and political greatness since these “aim at an end,” are “unleisurely” and perhaps most importantly “are not desirable for their own sake.” (1177b14)
– Joseph Weissman