Priority of First : Aristotle’s εὐδαιμονία

“EVERY art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them.”


— Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics [Book I, i, 1094a]


If according to Aristotle, happiness, one’s well-being (εὐδαιμονία), is the most excellent thing for man to pursue, then the question of when and how happiness is obtained faces all who seek it. Since, pursuit of the chief good is the goal of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, one must determine whether happiness is the activity of pursuing happiness or whether happiness is only possible when all living experience is complete. Aristotle argues it is good to pursue happiness and happiness yields the chief good (αγαθος). By comparing the philosopher’s treatment of the pursuit of happiness as an end within itself with the argument of a complete end, one sees the first priority of man in the divine, working good in man.

What is good? According to Aristotle, the chief good is excellent for one to pursue. If then the pursuit of happiness yields the chief good, then this must be the priority of ones actions. However, it is evident that choices of action permeate one’s life and which action to undertake is the dilemma. Placing priority in one pursuit rather than many, is preferred as numerous occupations distract from the end goal. It is this chief good that is complete in itself and should determine which action to pursue. According to Aristotle, many categories of action lead to the chief good yet an individual can only pursue the one occupation that he is best suited for in order to end in complete goodness and happiness.# It is this goal of happiness that then shapes the journey of occupation leading to the end goal of happiness.

The priority of one who is happy is then to embrace what is the chief good since all good is first. Mathematicians indicate that the number one (1) is good.# All that is pursued in occupation is then focused on the one good as priority that affect all that is undertaken in that discipline. The many activities of man then either lead to an end in itself or become an end themselves. Aristotle argues that what is priority in the discipline is then what is considered first by the person in activity. The goal then is to educate one as to what is the chief good in order to then shape the first priority that is undertaken.

Aristotle’s emphasis on function leads one to then determine what is man’s function. If there are many occupations (or arts), carpentry, medicine, military, education, there is then the possibility that the good of a function must then be determined. The art itself may not be good or evil, yet the priority of the activity may be good or evil. It is then the responsibility of the person in the act of work to decide why the activity is undertaken. Aristotle argues the responsibility of discovery in the good of an art rests in man to determine its function.

Aristotle’s view of happiness is that true happiness is final and complete. This view of happiness, this specific nature, is the distinctive and characteristic function of a human being found in reason. If the function of a human being is to live in accordance with reason then the function of a self actualized, truly happy human being, is to reason with virtuous excellence. If then the first priority of a human being is to reason, then the happiness that results from both excellent reasoning and living in accordance with excellent reasoning is the chief end. Happiness results from a rational life focused on the pursuit of virtue or excellence.

Aristotle concedes that happiness is god-given, the best gift. This gift includes the ability to learn what is happiness through reason and virtue.# What is rational and what is virtuous are the product of the soul. The two opposing elements of the soul, what is rational and what is irrational, are connected and inseparable. It then seems that when discussing the action of pursuit of happiness, with happiness being complete in itself, the two parts of the soul must be in harmony with each part to produce a balance of εὐδαιμονία. One must conclude that happiness as reasonably defined by pursuit and completeness, is a gift only obtained by a god-given gift. What must then be determined from a Christian perspective is whether this gift is from one God or gods made of man which in essence is a human manufactured happiness that is then a temporary result and not a complete end in itself.#

Friendship is good. Friendship then is a noble pursuit and is worthy of happiness as the truest form of justice is a virtuous quality. Aristotle argues that although virtue equals happiness, the greater risk to which friendship is exposed the stronger the friendship. If this be the case, risk of friendship makes friendship much more valuable and virtuous. It is over time that friendship develops purity. This is why the good of friendship, or happiness, is not complete until the end after all experiences or activities of friendship occur. Happy friendship includes the harmony of both the good and the bad. Only after experiencing all parts of friendship can one see fully the strength friendship is and how noble happiness can be. It is thus imperative for the priority of friendship to be established to the greater good. Otherwise, the tensions that arise in relationship threatens the harmony and the friendship becomes one of convenience, or utility. The unfortunate result becomes the absence of happiness in the good of friendship.

Friendship among men is often attracted to what is pleasant and avoids what is unpleasant. It is the training of these experiences in virtue, what is pleasant and what is painful, that leads one to happiness. In order to experience what is happy one must experience all things pleasant and painful and reason about them among others. Aristotle’s definition of happiness benefits community as the isolated man does not have an avenue in which to reason and explore excellence. Thus, friendship is imperative to happiness. Aristotle argues that happiness is only realized in completeness. In order for one to experience complete happiness, one must fulfill a complete life. Aristotelian Friendship takes time to culminate. When good men live in virtue, pleasure and pain work together in harmony. In order to be friends then individuals must be mutually recognizable to each other as desiring goodwill and wishing well to each other.

Friendship takes time and the true, trusting, long lasting friendship is hard and rare. The good times and the bad in comparison to one another yield the overall opinion of happiness. The time required to develop a friendship is what strengthens the friendship that trials experienced over time gives strength to friendship and this is good. Friendships between good men are contrasted against those of bad men. Whereas good men are friends by virtue, seeking the best for the other, Aristotle argues that bad men do not enjoy the other because the motivation for friendship is a matter of utility. When the friendship ceases to yield benefits for the ban men, the friendship ends.# This idea taken in light of God’s gift to men of happiness must then lead to the understanding that only God is good. So, if men are good only as God supplies the good, only God can cause true friendship and this is a beautiful thing.

Aristotle states that when one party is removed to a great distance, as God is, the possibility of friendship ceases.# Yet he continues to argue that sacrificial love yields true friendship. If there is a separation between what is divine and man then Aristotle has answered the problem of reconciliation or friendship between the divine and man.  If unequals can be friends only through the sacrifice of one who is not equal with another, a bridge completes the divide that separates the two. God being good does not allow his friends to go astray. It is a characteristic of good men neither to do wrong or themselves let their friends do the same. According to Aristotle, this description of the true friend being sacrificial points inadvertently to the divine.

As man wrestles with the pursuit of happiness, that which is in conflict within him is pleasure and pain, sacrifice and selfishness, superior and inferior. Aristotle argues that the inferior creature has a natural good that is stronger than himself and this good causes the focus on what is good. The good that is superior is that good which is self-sufficient with no outside influence. Yet the nature of man being self-centered can conflict with the need as an inferior creature to aim at what is good. If then happiness is complete in itself lacking nothing, then man who is inferior must depend on the greater self-sufficient good to be happy.

Aristotle then argues that the first priority of man is to realize through reason, as only man is able to do, that something divine is present in him. The life of true happiness, the chief good, is too high for the inferior man. As such, the superior must then not only be apart from man, but must be present in man in order for man to live and know goodness. The divine presence in man allows reason as reason is divine.

The best in man is the divine within him. The God given ability to reason and contemplate are what constitutes the happy life. Although man is separated from God, man’s creator has created within him a desire to seek the chief good and God alone is good. This transpires as man follows reason and contemplates the divine good in him placed there by the divine. So, that which is pleasant is that which is divine and that which is divine is, according to reason, the best and most pleasant. The result then is happiness.

The first priority for man is then not to simply pursue activity in order to discover or manufacture happiness. Rather the priority for man to be in happiness is to first realize that happiness comes through reasoning on the state of mind which is happiness. If a virtuous reasoning is adequately undertaken by the divine good within man, then the chief good will reveal itself as man follows what is already divinely present within him. The truth of this divine presence will ultimately lead to true happiness as defined by God rather than man. It is both the pursuit of happiness, as followed through the divinely present reason in man, and the ultimate chief good in pure goodness that results in happiness. If either of the two parts of this equation cease to function, then happiness is not realized. It is only within the harmonious divine working in man and man’s working desire for all that is good through contemplation of the divine activity that εὐδαιμονία is completely realized.


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