Aristotle on Opinions About the Ultimate Good

In section five of the first book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says there are three types of men with three ideas of what is the ultimate good:

Vulgar men
To them, pleasure (happiness, enjoyment) is the ultimate good
Political men
To them, honor is the ultimate good
Contemplative men
We’ll get to that later…

Of vulgar men: yeah, whatever. Surely none of you good people are vulgar hedonists of that sort. But some of you may have been tempted by the idea that honor is the ultimate good we’re after.

The problem with honor as the ultimate good is that it seems to be more dependent on the vicissitudes of reputation — on the opinion of other people — than on the deeds of the person aiming for the end. The best political men seem to want to be honored not arbitrarilty but deservedly, based on their virtues, which suggests to Aristotle that they actually value virtue more than honor when it comes right down to it.

But Aristotle says that virtue isn’t good enough either. Even someone in a coma can be perfectly virtuous. (I can’t help but wonder whether that counts as one of those edge cases he told us not to pay too much attention to.) In any case, though, eudaimonia can’t be equivalent to virtue because it’s easy to imagine an extremely virtuous person who is miserable and suffering, a la Job.

I found this section to be unsatisfying for two reasons. First, he identifies honor, the pursuit of political men, to be an inferior path to the good. And yet on earlier occasions he’s teased us with the idea that politics either is or is the path to the ultimate end. Second, he seems to be assuming what he is setting out to prove, that eudaimonia is the ultimate end, and rejecting these alternative ends mostly because they aren’t eudaimonia.

In the next section, Aristotle will return to the theory of a Platonic Good and address it in greater detail.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics