Happiness According to Aristotle

Bryan Reece

Citation with persistent identifier: Reece, Bryan C. “Happiness According to Aristotle.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:ReeceB.Happiness_According_to_Aristotle.2019


Aristotle thinks that questions about how we should live as individuals and as communities must be answered with reference to a more fundamental question: What is the happy life for a human being? This question about happiness thus holds the key for the entire Aristotelian system of moral and political philosophy. Unfortunately, while the centrality of Aristotle’s theory of happiness is uncontroversial, there is no agreement about the content of his theory. Particularly controversial are his remarks on the relationship between, and especially the relative importance of, theoretical and practical activity in the ideal human life. I here give an outline sketch of a new interpretation of Aristotle’s remarks on this relationship and its ramifications for human happiness.


How should we live? Aristotle proposes to address this fundamental philosophical question by giving interrelated answers to two further questions: What kinds of activities are the best expressions of distinctively human identity? What is the proper balance of theoretical and practical activity in the ideal human life?

Aristotle’s answers have generated abiding interest, but also lingering puzzlement. He thinks that humans are distinctively rational, having the ability to reason theoretically and practically. The best activities for them to perform, and therefore the activities that constitute their happiness (which Aristotle thinks is itself an activity), are virtuous (excellent) rational activities (Nicomachean Ethics 1.7, 1098a16–17): manifestations of reliable practical dispositions like courage, justice, generosity, and self-control, which are exercises of practical wisdom, as well as of reliable theoretical dispositions such as insightfulness, understanding, and theoretical wisdom. The manifestation of theoretical wisdom (sophia) turns out to be especially important for Aristotle. He says that this activity, theoretical contemplation (theôria), is what human happiness is (NE 10.8, 1178b32). This is surprising, for if human happiness simply consists in theoretical contemplation, we might well wonder what role Aristotle envisions for the practical activities to which he devotes far more space in his ethical and political works than he does to contemplation.

Interpreters have struggled with the problem of reconciling Aristotle’s assignment of preeminent status in his theory of happiness to theoretical contemplation and the natural thought, encouraged by the flow of his discussions of virtuous behavior, that practical activities are permissible and valuable features of happy human lives.[1] I call this ‘the Standard Problem of Happiness.’ But there is an even more difficult version of this interpretive problem, which I call ‘the Hard Problem of Happiness.’ That problem is to explain how Aristotle could have thought that happiness is theoretical contemplation while also affirming that a reliable pattern of virtuous practical activity is non-optional and not coherently regrettable for happy humans. I here offer a very brief outline of my way of addressing this problem.[2]

A major obstacle to solving the Hard Problem is an assumption about the relationship between theoretical wisdom, which is manifested in theoretical contemplation, and practical wisdom, which is manifested in virtuous practical activities. The standard view is that Aristotle thinks that human beings can have and reliably manifest theoretical wisdom without having and reliably manifesting practical wisdom. That view is based on a passage apparently claiming that two pre-Socratic philosophers, Anaxagoras and Thales, had theoretical but not practical wisdom (NE 6.7, 1141b2–16). The evidential value of this passage fades away on closer inspection. It is a report of others’ opinions that Aristotle does not fully endorse, but the appeal of which he explains. Thus, the purported textual evidence for the standard view does not support it. In fact, Aristotle gives strong reasons for thinking that having and reliably manifesting practical wisdom is necessary for having and reliably manifesting theoretical wisdom: only the continual, reliable exercise of practical wisdom, in activities that express such virtues as self-control and justice, makes it behaviorally feasible for embodied, socially situated, choice-making beings like us to develop and exercise theoretical wisdom. This means that a life of theoretical contemplation, in Aristotle’s strict sense, cannot be successfully lived without the level of virtuous public engagement that practical wisdom dictates in each circumstance. This interpretation solves a major problem for the standard view: it is on that view, wrongly, an open question whether any particular instance of theoretical contemplation is performed in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons. One who is a contemplator in Aristotle’s strict sense also has practical wisdom, and practical wisdom guarantees that one reliably chooses to act in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons.

This interpretation requires, as any solution to the Hard Problem does, that theoretical contemplation and virtuous practical activities are included in one and the same happy life. But Aristotle appears to claim at NE 10. 7, 1178a2 – 10. 8, 1178a14 that there are two kinds of happy life: one in accordance with theoretical contemplation, the other with virtuous practical activity. This claim is notoriously problematic. Properly interpreted, though, Aristotle does not here distinguish between two kinds of happiness, but rather between two ways of being proper to human beings that apply within one and the same happy life.[3] Theoretical contemplation is proper to humans in one way, virtuous practical activity in another.

But many interpreters see a problem for the idea that theoretical contemplation is proper to human beings: Aristotle also says that divine beings contemplate (Metaph. 12.7, 1072b13–30, NE 10.8, 1178b7–32).[4] It would initially appear, then, that Aristotle is committed both to affirming and to denying that theoretical contemplation is proper to humans. However, careful scrutiny of his descriptions of the nature of divine and human contemplation reveals them to be type-distinct activities. On his view, human contemplation, but not divine contemplation, is a manifestation of theoretical wisdom, a virtue that includes two further virtues: a particular sort of nous, the developed capacity to grasp first principles intuitively as first principles, and epistêmê, the developed capacity for scientific demonstration from first principles (NE 6.7, 1141a18–20, 6.3, 1139b31–32). So, Aristotle’s claim that divine beings contemplate does not conflict with his view that theoretical contemplation, understood as the manifestation of theoretical wisdom, is proper to human beings.

On the account so far sketched, theoretical contemplation and virtuous practical activities are necessary parts of human happiness, and only happy human beings engage in these activities. So, theoretical contemplation and virtuous practical activities are necessary parts of human happiness and are also unique to it. In short, they are proper to human happiness. But they are not each proper to human happiness in the same way. Theoretical contemplation is necessary for and unique to happiness as what happiness is, whereas virtuous practical activities are necessary and unique parts of happiness in a different, and secondary, way. Aristotle often distinguishes between primary and secondary ways of being proper: one is the essence (ousia) and the other is a unique, necessary property (idion, pl. idia). Aristotle relies on the theory on which this distinction between two ways of being proper is based in articulating his view of happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics, for he seeks an essence-specifying definition of human happiness from which the unique, necessary parts of happiness can be deduced. Theoretical contemplation is the essence of human happiness, the activity that makes it what it is. That is why Aristotle says that happiness is theoretical contemplation. (This addresses the first half of the Hard Problem.) Virtuous activities are unique, necessary properties of human happiness. Even though they are not what happiness is, Aristotle thinks that they are non-optional and non-regrettable parts of happiness. (This addresses the second half of the Hard Problem). It would be incoherent to wish that happiness did not require engaging in virtuous practical activities, just as it would be incoherent to wish that one were another sort of being without the features that follow from the human essence (NE 9.4, 1166a20–22 and 8.7, 1159a5–12).

This solution to the Hard Problem shows Aristotle’s account of happiness to be a distinctive answer to the question of how we ought to balance theoretical and practical activity in our pursuit of the ideal human life.


Annas, Julia. 1993. The Morality of Happiness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Aufderheide, Joachim. 2015. “The Content of Happiness: A New Case for Theôria.” In The Highest Good in Aristotle and Kant, ed. Joachim Aufderheide and Ralf M. Bader, 36–59. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Charles, David. 2017. “Aristotle on Virtue and Happiness.” In The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Ethics, ed. Christopher Bobonich, 105–123. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cooper, John. 1975. Reason and Human Good in Aristotle. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Devereux, Daniel. 1981. “Aristotle on the Essence of Happiness.” In Studies in Aristotle, ed. Dominic J. O’Meara, 247–260. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Gauthier, René Antoine. 1958. La Morale d’ Aristote. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Gigon, Olof. 1975. “Phronêsis und Sophia in der Nicomachischen Ethik des Aristoteles.” In Kephalaion: Studies in Greek Philosophy and its Continuation offered to Professor C. J. de Vogel, ed. Jaap Mansfeld and L. M. de Rijk, 91–104. Assen: Van Gorcum.

Gottlieb, Paula. 1994. “Aristotle on Dividing the Soul and Uniting the Virtues.” Phronesis 39:275–290.

Irwin, Terence. 1980. “The Metaphysical and Psychological Basis of Aristotle’s Ethics.” In Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, 35–53. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kenny, Anthony. 1992. Aristotle on the Perfect Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keyt, David. 1983. “Intellectualism in Aristotle.” In Essays in Ancient Greek Philosophy, vol. 2, ed. John P. Anton and Anthony Preus, 364–387. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Kosman, Aryeh. 2000. “Metaphysics Λ 9: Divine Thought.” In Aristotle’s Metaphysics Lambda:    Symposium Aristotelicum, ed. Michael Frede and David Charles, 307–326. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kraut, Richard. 1989. Aristotle on the Human Good. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Laks, André. 2000. “Metaphysics Λ 7.” In Aristotle’s Metaphysics Lambda: Symposium Aristotelicum, ed. Michael Frede and David Charles, 207–243. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lear, Gabriel Richardson. 2004. Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Natali, Carlo. 1989. La Saggezza di Aristotele. Naples: Bibliopolis.

Nightingale, Andrea Wilson. 2004. Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy: Theoria in its Cultural Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Price, Anthony W. 2011. Virtue and Reason in Plato and Aristotle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reece, Bryan C. forthcoming. “Are There Really Two Kinds of Happiness in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics?” Classical Philology.

Scott, Dominic. 1999. “Primary and Secondary Eudaimonia.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 73:225–242.


* My research on this topic has been generously supported by The Center for Hellenic Studies. I am grateful to everyone involved with the CHS, especially to Gregory Nagy, Mark Schiefsky, Richard Martin, and the library staff: Erika Bainbridge, Sophie Boisseau, Lanah Koelle, Michael Strickland, and Temple Wright.

[1] Many have offered interpretations of Aristotle’s remarks on practical and intellectual virtue, or their relationship to each other or to happiness. I list only a few here: (Annas 1993), (Aufderheide 2015), (Charles 2017), (Cooper 1975), (Devereux 1981), (Gauthier 1958), (Gigon 1975), (Gottlieb 1994), (Irwin 1980), (Kenny 1992), (Keyt 1983), (Kraut 1989), (Lear 2004), (Natali 1989), (Nightingale 2004), (Price 2011), (Scott 1999).

[2] The paragraphs that follow summarize parts of this research project that I drafted or revised during my fellowship at The Center for Hellenic Studies. The project as a whole is under contract with Cambridge University Press as a monograph called Aristotle on Happiness, Virtue, and Wisdom.

[3] I give a detailed defense of this interpretation in (Reece forthcoming).

[4] There are many who discuss the nature of divine contemplation, including (Kosman 2000) and (Laks 2000), as well as the problem that it initially appears to pose for Aristotle’s account of human happiness, including (Charles 2017), (Keyt 1983), (Kraut 1989, 312–319), and (Lear 2004, 189–193).

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