In Book 1 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle puts forth 3 different types of life that man associates with happiness – a servile life of pleasure (which majority of people confuse with happiness), a refined life of politics (where man aims for honour and higher divinity associated with wise men), and thirdly, the way of intellectual speculation – what we know as contemplation.
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In Book 10, Aristotle mentions that a life of contemplation is the best one and validates it by associating contemplative life with that of happiness and virtue. I believe that Aristotle’s arguments regarding life of contemplation are rationally sound and support it. While Aristotle argues that man cannot be happy without being virtuous, it is equally proper to say that true virtue cannot be attained without a certain degree of contemplation. This further highlights the point that in today’s turbulent times, a particular amount of contemplation in life is necessary to achieve virtue and happiness in life.
Life of contemplation – as per Aristotle’s argument
Aristotle takes the basic question on what type of life do human beings ought to lead and theorizes that a life of contemplation is the best answer. He bases his argument on the premise that the happiest life is one of high moral standards and that such a life is most prone to a good degree of contemplation. We also see that as per Aristotle, such a life is bestowed to human beings and not to any other form of existence as humans are endowed with logical reasoning, virtue and a heart that differentiates man and beasts. Also, since man is a hybrid of animal and God, he possesses the above mentioned rational part, as well as beastly part of uncontrolled actions and desires. Thus, Aristotle propagates seeking the ‘golden mean’ where man strikes a balance between rashness (an excess of virtue) and cowardice (a deficit of virtue).
As opposed to other forms of activity (such as politics and warfare), where our thinking is directed towards doing things we’d rather not do, contemplation is the activity that directs our thoughts to things we ought do at our leisure. Aristotle goes on to say that “if happiness consists in activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be activity in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be the virtue of the best part of us” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (trans. H. Rackham, Ed.), Book 1, Sec 7, 1177a). Thus, perfect happiness can be achieved only through a highest degree of virtue and this highest part of virtue must be intellect or nous, which can be honed in the form of speculative thinking or contemplation.
Thus, given a choice between ethical virtue (reasoning) and intellectual virtue (contemplation), Aristotle chooses the latter and justifies it by putting forward the theory that it exercises the highest part of man, and that on-going contemplation is the most self-sufficient and pleasantly virtuous activity, thus constituting the most complete form of happiness. Aristotle thereby provides his definition as such: “Happiness is a bringing of the soul to the act according to the habit of the best and most perfect virtue, that is, the virtue of the speculative intellect, borne out by easy surroundings and enduring to the length of days.” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (trans. Joseph Rickaby, S. J.), Book 1, Sec 7, 15, 16) The more one engages in contemplation, the more complete one’s happiness will be and the more one will be dearer to the gods.
One of the problems pointed out by those who oppose Aristotle’s view is that this kind of life is very difficult to lead in a world plagued with so much trouble and suffering. Understanding this problem, Aristotle concedes, “But such a life would be too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him.” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (trans. William David Ross), Book 10, Sec 7). Thus, in situations where it is not possible to exercise contemplation, man can forego this for a secondary (and less divine) form of moral values.
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One of the biggest questions is whether Aristotle’s theory is applicable in today’s perspective where there is so much suffering around us. Detractors of his theory further hold the view that in order to achieve the state of supreme happiness, the suffering around man should be greatly reduced. Since it is impossible to achieve this, attaining the highest form of happiness through contemplation cannot be possible in contemporary times. So, while those against his view argue that contemplation emanating from prefect happiness and highest virtue is a mirage in current world full of terror, suffering and gloom, Aristotle dispels this theory by arguing that while admittedly it is difficult to achieve supreme happiness through contemplation and highest virtue, we can still succeed by striking an effective balance between a contemplative life and a life of virtuous action.
So, I believe, to justify Aristotle’s support of considering a life of contemplation as the best one, as a life of contemplation denotes highest form of happiness and divine virtue, one that a blessed man is endowed with. Also, a contemplative life enables us to achieve the highest degree of virtue necessary to lead a perfectly happy life.
Aristotle’s argument further finds support in the fact that since a life of contemplation is placed on the highest plane by Aristotle, it means man is most blessed by gods if he strives to lead a contemplative life, and thus achieve perfect happiness and virtue, both of which are divine attributes. Unlike other activities, contemplation involves rational thinking and exercising mans’ highest faculties, which is an end in itself. This aligns with the final judgment proposed by Aristotle in Book 10 of Nicomachean Ethics, as to what constitutes a supremely happy life.
Since Aristotle argues that happiness is the first principle from which our inquiry will advance, it supports the base argument that happiness can be achieved through virtue, which in turn, could be achieved through contemplation. This then becomes a stepping stone to leading a virtuous and happy life. While, this may not be the exact intent of Aristotle’s contemplative life, it is the best we can achieve in today’s turbulent times, where achieving contemplation – and in turn perfect happiness – is a mirage.