Aristotle Asks if Eudaimonia Is the Ultimate Good

In section four of the first book of The Nicomachean Ethics, it seems to me that Aristotle backtracks a bit.

In an earlier section, he seemed to have advanced “politics” as his candidate for the ultimate end of our activity, but in this section he seems to be treating it more as though it were the ultimate means to the ultimate end, and now he wants to further examine what this ultimate end is. Okay, then; I’ll just go along with it.

“Happiness,” he says, is frequently brought up as a likely candidate for the ultimate end.

And here I have to go tangential. I hope I don’t have to do a whole lot of delving into the nitty-gritty of translation and such, but it’s pretty clear that “happiness” is a piss-poor translation of “εὐδαιμονία” (eudaimonia).

Ross uses “happiness” throughout his translation, but it seems so hopelessly misleading that I think I’m just going to use the original Greek term (there doesn’t seem to be a good English equivalent, though “flourishing” and “thriving” are sometimes advanced as alternatives; “fulfillment” also strikes me as worth considering). So, starting over:

Eudaimonia,” he says, is frequently brought up as a likely candidate for the ultimate end we’re striving for, and the end to which politics is a means.

But what is this eudaimonia? Would we know it if we saw it? We’ll get to that later.

Some folks (he’s thinking here of the Platonists) believe that there is some thing or quality called “The Good” that particular “good” things partake in — the way all red things share “redness” — and that it is this “The Good” itself (not eudaimonia, which merely is one of the examples of Good things) that is the ultimate end we’re looking for.

Aristotle mentions this theory but doesn’t yet address it head-on. Instead, he reminds his listeners that he is trying to come up with a descriptive account of the ultimate ends of man, starting with specifics we know: the habits and inclinations and motivations of well-brought-up folks like ourselves; not a prescriptive account that starts from some high-level abstraction like “The Good” and derives particulars from it.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics