Mon 26 Nov 2012
Aristotle argues in Book X of his Nicomachean Ethics that happiness, the ultimate human good, is contemplation. In support of his position, he continues his reflection on what we mean by happiness, which he began in Book I. There he had suggested that, whatever we mean by happiness, it is something we want completely and forever. If we think about it, the idea of partial happiness or happiness cut off is not as good as full happiness continuing; and the idea of happiness continuing for a while and then being interrupted or ending is not as good as happiness continuing without interruption forever. This leads him to the idea of happiness as something we cannot lose and of the happy person as self-sufficient. Since the ethical life, exemplified most perfectly, perhaps, in friendship of virtue, requires other people, thus rendering one less self-sufficient and subject to loss, it is to this degree imperfect and as such cannot be what we mean by happiness of the ultimate human good.
Now clearly Aristotle thinks that friendship (that is, perfect friendship or friendship of virtue as he presents it in Book VIII) is loved for its own sake; so to that extent it is as choice-worthy as contemplation. And Aristotle does say that moral virtue is more permanent than knowledge of the truth. “For in none of man’s actions is there so much certainty as in his virtuous activities (which are more enduring than even scientific knowledge” (NE 1.11.1100b114-15). That being so, one can speak of the permanence of friendship as an indelible perfection of the soul. And if the soul is immortal, then so is the friendship.
But beyond this, I would like to argue that the goodness of actions such as friendship, which intrinsically involved in time, should not be judged by the degree to which they are not subject to time. Thus it would be odd to remove time from our judgment of the beauty of a piece of music. Although, the harmonies as they appear on paper and can be conceived are part of the aesthetic beauty of the piece, it is far more beautiful when actually played by excellent musicians: that is, music is meant to be heard (a temporal activity) to be fully appreciated. Likewise, friendship is most perfect, as Aristotle admits, when the friends are actually together. True enough, the commitments, loyalties, and memories of shared moments that an individual has apart from his or her friend, are real parts of the excellence of the friendship. But the full perfection—the happiness—of friendship only exists in the presence of the friend.
The idea that friendship is less perfect than contemplation because it renders one less self-sufficient might suggest that we should distance ourselves from friendship. But to do this is to choose to reject something self-evidently good, to turn away from something we know to be intrinsically choice-worthy. Such a choice would be self-defeating since selves are only distinguished in the context of other selves.
Not only can friendship be said to be as good as contemplation; there is a way in which it could be said to be better. As persons are more perfect than principles, and persons are only fully known as individuals, one might argue that friendship permits the highest kind of knowledge to be contemplated. And for the Christian tradition, the contemplation of God is an act of friendship, a participation in the friendship of the Holy Trinity. To contemplate an impersonal principle, a first abstract truth, would be to fail to contemplate the highest being.
Of course, Christian contemplation of God is not the worship of an abstract principle, nor indeed do I think this is Aristotle’s idea of contemplation. Although he does not have a doctrine of creation, Aristotle’s God is understood by him to be more perfect than we. Thus, contemplation must not be destructive of human personhood: otherwise, we are not perfected, and our philosophical quest for happiness is in vain.