Aristotle on Philosophical Contemplation as the Most Prized Activity

In the eighth section of the tenth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle expands on his theory that a life of pleasant, vigorous philosophical contemplation is one of superior eudaimonia and therefore the best sort of life to have.

He pauses to praise the other virtues: justice, courage, practical wisdom, and the like. They are also important, and the virtuous person engaged in virtuous acts has a variety of eudaimonia as well. But philosophy is something above this. By all means, practice those virtues when opportunities arise, but you don’t need the right opportunity in order to practice philosophical contemplation: you just need a little breathing room.

Aristotle puts forth the following additional argument for why a life of philosophical contemplation must be the most perfect eudaimonia: Imagine the gods, blessed and happy above anything possible to mortals. Do we expect them to be bothered by virtues like justice, courage, liberality, or temperance? These things would be trivial and ridiculous among the gods. There is nothing they need accomplish, nothing they need set right. But the gods are active, not just inert and frozen like statues — what sort of activity is worthy of their interest? Contemplation is the only activity that remains that is worthy of the gods, and it follows that it is the thing in people that the gods most appreciate.

The fact that eudaimonia is not available to non-human animals is a clue also that it is closely tied to reason. Eudaimonia “extends… just so far as contemplation does” and in fact is some form of contemplation.

Our other priorities — the things we must do to make ends meet or to live a virtuous life — should be seen in this context, and we shouldn’t take any of them to excess. It’s good enough to have the necessities; you don’t need the luxuries. It’s good enough to be noble; you don’t have to be Lord High Noble.

Get yourself settled in life so that you can take care of yourself, behave honorably, and then devote yourself to philosophy. This is the highest calling a person can have, and the most eudaimon life a person can live.

And that just about covers it. One more chapter to go.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics


Some brief notes from here-and-there:


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