. 3
( 12)


the same for an individual as for the polis, nevertheless the end of the polis appears
to be greater and more complete to attain and to preserve; for though this end is
dear also to a single individual, it appears to be more beautiful and more divine
to a race of human beings or to a polis. (1094a19“b10)

The ethical re¬‚ection, in the ¬rst place, recognizes the good in which the
multifarious activities of humans are gathered and, second, is committed
to explore that which is indicated as “the good.” It is also in virtue of this
recognition and this commitment that the ethical re¬‚ection is “architec-
tonic,” in the sense that it is involved in building human comportment, in
shaping and structuring the ways of humans living together. As a mode
of tekhn¯, indeed, as tekhn¯ in its most originary sense, proceeding in a
e e
certain rarefaction of natural prescriptions, ethical re¬‚ection envisions
and brings forth human shapes and shapes of human community. The
relation between this “science” or “faculty” that is architectonic, primor-
dially formative and creative, and the other arts or sciences is analogous to
that between the architect, that is, the master artist, the one who designs
and devises, and the other builders or workmen, those who execute the
ideation of the architect. Indeed, in con¬guring the human, whether
in terms of character, ¯thos, or in terms of the outward shape of a polis,
politics also rules over the domain of scienti¬c practices, determining
its very structures, priorities, and propriety. The single sciences, then,
do not enjoy some kind of autonomous status. They are ultimately not
ends in themselves, but are evaluated according to the exigencies of the
community, that is, subjected to a more overarching order of ¬nality.
In its “architectonic,” all-comprehensive character, ethics is politics.2
Of course, the decisive assumption of the unity of ethical and political
discourses cannot not problematize the distinction between private and

1 Praktikais in Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea, ed. Ingram Bywater (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1891).
Needless to say, much is at stake in the decision concerning this addition.
2 On the question of the architectonic vis-` -vis the relation between ethics and politics,
see Pierre Rodrigo, Aristote. Une philosophie pratique: praxis, politique et bonheur (Paris: Vrin,
2006), esp. chap. 1.
Ethik¯ n Nikomakhei¯ n Alpha to Eta
o o

public with which “we moderns” are so familiar, at least in its most facile
and automatic versions. Ethics, then, understood in its essential traits,
at once concerns and rests on the political space. For, on the one hand,
there is no such thing as an analysis of human comportment severed from
the domain of human community, the polis, whether this be understood
as a particular nation, group, political organism, or as the community of
humankind as such. As emphatically pointed out in the opening of the
Politics, the human being is essentially communal, that is to say, political “
and this means that the human individual is unthinkable aside from the
complex relational web of the community. It is through the political gath-
ering that the human as such emerges. On the margins of the political
spectrum, we can envision only brutes and human beings resembling
deities. Outside it, beasts and gods. On the other hand, all genuine mod-
i¬cations in the orientation and values of a community rest on the ways in
which an individual, each individual, is shaped and comes to shape him-
or herself. It is through exigencies and aspirations nascent in each, rather
than by decree, that a community is determined in its character. Politics,
then, both constitutes the horizon of ethics and begins with ethics. As
the writer of Magna moralia stresses in the very opening of his discussion:
“if one is to be effective [praktik¼v] in political matters, no doubt his or
her character [§qov] must be impeccable [spouda±ov]. This, then, shows
that the study [pragmate©a] of characters [perª t‡ ¢qh] is part [m”rov] of
politics and also its origin and principle [ˆrcž], and it seems to me alto-
gether that this study would justly be termed not ˜ethical™ but ˜political™”
Among other things, this means that there is no ethical discourse
transcending the political order or based on otherwise transcendent
premises. To say that a science is “architectonic” means to attribute to
it the knowledge of causes, of the why (Metaphysics 981a30“982a1), that
is to say, of the origin. Ethics or politics, in its architectonic character,
knows that the causes, the inception, are to be found there where we are,
in the midst of our involvements. The principles and values structuring
comportment emerge at the intersection of individual inclinations and
communal agreements, and the ethical account will always have had to
begin there, out of the dynamic play of interdependence between each
one and the whole. It is hardly necessary to point out the thoroughly
Platonic subtext of these opening considerations. The indissoluble inter-
twinement of ethics, politics, psychology, and pedagogy will remain a
crucial feature of Aristotle™s approach to the question concerning human
thriving, and beyond.
Human Initiative and Its Orientation to the Good 61

1.3. On Ethics
1.3.1. Imprecision of Ethics
Aristotle could hardly be more punctilious in his attempt at determin-
ing the most proper register of the ethical investigation and repeatedly
calls attention to the necessarily approximate character of discourse vis-
a-vis the over¬‚owing and ever-changing phenomenon of life. The issue
was brie¬‚y anticipated in the Prelude and must now be considered more
closely. Logos can at best grasp some aspects of the exuberant complex-
ity of our experience, but such a discourse is bound to remain incom-
plete, unable to circumscribe and exhaustively capture its subject matter.
It is as though, in its analytical unfolding, logos were too coarse, or too
schematic, too abstract, to do justice to the taking place of life in its literally
in¬nite nuances, where even repetitions and patterns of regularity indi-
cate neither the permanence of the self-identical nor the reducibility of
the manifold to the simple. As transpires from Aristotle™s observations,
here one ¬nds compounded the dif¬culties pertaining to becoming (in
the sense of phenomena by nature), those pertaining to human action,
and, ¬nally, those pertaining to a discourse that, in line with its exquisitely
“productive” (poietic, architectonic) character, is actively involved in the
very development of occurrences it undertakes to analyze. Indeed, poli-
tics is simultaneously concerned with elucidating and bringing forth the
good, with illuminating the good and bringing it into appearance, letting
it shine in its concreteness, in its “beauty and justice.” As a matter of fact,
Aristotle even goes beyond the intimation of discourse as essentially poi-
etic, and seems to suggest that discourses themselves are artifacts, that the
logoi themselves are the outcome of artful production, poi¯sis, and there-
fore not all alike in vividness. At the origin of logoi as such and sustaining
them, thus, would be poi¯sis or, at any rate, a certain conduct vis-` -vis the
asperity of the subject matter. This much seems to be implied by the
parallel between “hand made articles” and the investigative discourses

Our inquiry [m”qodov], then, has as its aim these ends, and it is a certain politi-
cal inquiry; and it would be adequately discussed if it is presented as clearly as
is proper to its subject matter [Ëpokeim”nhn Ìlhn]; for, as in hand made articles
[dhmiourgoum”noiv], precision [t¼ g‡r ˆkrib•v] should not be sought for alike in all
discussions [l»goiv]. Beautiful and just things, with which politics is concerned,
have so many differences and ¬‚uctuations [diafor‡n kaª pl†nhn] that they appear
[doke±n] to be only by custom [n»mw„] and not by nature [f…sei]. Good things, too,
have such ¬‚uctuations because harm has come from them to many individuals;
for some human beings even perished because of wealth, others because of
Ethik¯ n Nikomakhei¯ n Alpha to Eta
o o

bravery. So in discussing such matters and in using [premises] concerning them,
we should be content to indicate the truth roughly and in outline [pacul¤v kaª
t…pw„], and when we deal with things which occur for the most part and use
similar [premises] for them, [we should be content to draw] conclusions of a
similar nature. The listener, too, should accept each of these statements in the
same manner; for it is the mark of an educated human being to seek as much
precision in things of a given genus as their nature allows, for to accept persuasive
arguments from a mathematician appears to be [as inappropriate as] to demand
demonstrations from a rhetorician. (1094b12“28)

A few further remarks concerning this ¬rst statement are in order. First,
we note the caution marking the af¬rmation that ethico-political matters
may be a matter of convention, of nomos, and not by nature, phusei. Aristo-
tle does not say that they are according to nomos, but that they appear, are
thought to be so. This initial claim concerning the conventional dimension
of ethical considerations will, in a sense, ¬nd con¬rmation throughout
the treatise. In another sense, however, Aristotle will complicate it by fre-
quently intimating the irreducibility of ethical structures to the order of
mere arbitrariness. Indeed, in the course of the treatise, as we shall see,
Aristotle will progressively emphasize the “natural” stratum of human
comportment, the insuf¬ciency of custom and convention to account for
it. However, the reference to nature, phusis, in this case cannot amount
to a “naturalization” or transcendent grounding of ethics. As will emerge
especially in the course of Book Epsilon, on justice, Aristotle problema-
tizes the commonplace according to which ¬‚uctuation pertains to custom
alone, while that which is by nature would enjoy a certain stability. In a
remarkable move, he will surmise that, in fact, that which is by nature may
least of all be immobile, secured to an unchanging order. According to
this singular orientation, the invocation of nature in ethical matters, then,
will not at all establish and warrant the validity of principles (manifest in
their intelligible ¬xity) outside the realm of human determination. We
shall consider these matters in due time, but for the moment let us notice
the dialectical quali¬cations of the statement above: ethical matters, in
their differences and wanderings, in their nomadic character, “seem” or
are “commonly believed” to be a matter of nomos. Whether this is so or
not remains to be seen.
It is also crucial to underline that the acceptance of what is here pro-
posed, namely that only a quali¬ed accuracy is to be expected of the
discourse at hand, rests on the assumption that the interlocutors or lis-
teners have already received the proper education, paideia. This is the
condition for the acceptance of the premises as such, the condition before
Human Initiative and Its Orientation to the Good 63

the premises, prior to and outside the entire discourse.3 It is only those
who already have a certain degree of maturity who will be able to stop at
the principle without asking for further reasons “ which would be inap-
propriate. Education, then, means knowing when to stop in the inquiry
concerning the causes, when to recognize something as a principle, that
is, without any further causes, and accordingly acknowledge it as a premise
regardless of its demonstrability. In this sense, education signi¬es not so
much or not simply formal learning, but character formation, formation
of the human being as such. Thus understood, education is necessary in
order for the discourse to make a start at all.
Shortly afterward, Aristotle returns to these points, granting them
ample articulation. Speaking of the strategy of his logos, he says:

perhaps we should ¬rst make a sketch and later ¬ll in the details. When an outline
has been beautifully made, it would seem that anyone could go forward and
articulate the parts, for time is a good discoverer and cooperator [sunerg¼v] in
such matters. It is in this way that the arts advanced, for anyone can add what is
lacking. We should also recall what has been stated previously: precision should
not be sought alike in all cases, but in each case only as much as the subject
matter [Ëpokeim”nhn Ìlhn] allows and as much as is proper to the inquiry. Thus a
carpenter [t”ktwn] and a geometer [gewm”trhv] make inquiries concerning the
right angle in different ways; for the ¬rst does it as much as it is useful to his
work, while the second inquires what it is or what kind of thing it is, since his
aim is to contemplate the truth. We should proceed likewise in other situations
and not allow side lines [p†rerga] to dominate the main task [›rgwn]. Again, we
should not demand the cause in all things alike, but in some cases it is suf¬cient
to indicate the fact [t¼ ‚ti] beautifully, as is also the case with principles; and the
fact is ¬rst and is a principle. Now some principles are contemplated [qewro“ntai]
by induction, others by sensation, others by some kind of habituation [–qism ],
and others in some other way. So we should try to present each according to
its own nature and should make a serious effort to describe [diorisq¤si] them
beautifully, for they have a great in¬‚uence on what follows; for a principle is
thought to be more than half of the whole, and through it many of the things
sought become apparent also. (1098a22“b8)

The proposition here put forth entails, then, producing a schematic out-
line to begin with, which may provide orientation for subsequent oper-
ations of re¬nement.4 Again, a comparison with artistic procedures cor-
roborates this position (the arts “advanced” in this way, says Aristotle). Of

3 On the features distinguishing someone “educated,” see On the Parts of Animals (639a1“
15), Metaphysics (1005b3“5, 1006a5“9), and Politics (1282a1“12).
4 See also Topics 101a19“24.
Ethik¯ n Nikomakhei¯ n Alpha to Eta
o o

course, such a course of action does not always yield the desired outcome,
as will become progressively clear in the elaboration of the schematic
partitioning of the soul. Apparently unproblematic at ¬rst, as the psycho-
noetic analysis is deepened such a scheme will be revealed as increasingly
inconsistent. But we shall address this problem later. We should, for the
moment, take notice of Aristotle™s insistence on the correlation between
precision, on the one hand, and the demands of the matter at stake on
the pertinent inquiry, on the other. It is the “subject matter,” the “thing
itself,” the “fact” (to hoti) that regulates the discourse and manifests itself
through it. Aristotle seems, in sum, to be gesturing toward what could
be called an “¯thos of inquiry” “ a certain sensitivity, on part of the one
who speaks and inquires, to the particular, to the singular circumstance,
to the peculiar requirements of the theme under scrutiny. This will also
be disclosed as the mark of all deliberation that informs action. There
is no absolute and all-encompassing set of criteria regulating the inquir-
ing posture and discourse: these ¬nd in their own “underlying matter”
decisive guidance.
It is because of this that Aristotle almost redundantly emphasizes the
importance of “describing” the fact well, “beautifully.” Not only concern-
ing practical affairs, but more broadly with respect to ¬rst principles,
it is inane, indeed inappropriate, to ask for the cause beyond a certain
point: in the case of principles overall, because they are the uncaused
causes; in the case of a fact, because the that of a given situation is “¬rst
and a principle,” and as such involves no further “why.” It should be
apprehended in the experience of evidence, in being drawn to assent.
Consequently, logos cannot fully fathom principles, least of all those prin-
ciples that are practical matters. It can, at most, describe them, assume
them through de¬nition. As we shall surmise later, in the course of the
analysis of nous, ¬rst principles and ultimate particulars constitute the ex-
treme terms delimiting the ¬eld of thinking and encompassing the prop-
erly scienti¬c procedures. They are the noematic excess to and condi-
tion of the scienti¬c discourses strictly understood. This, of course, holds
even for the so-called theoretical sciences, for example, geometry: ¬rst
principles, just as particular states of affairs, cannot be circumscribed,
demonstratively owned, but only descriptively indicated. But the promi-
nence of the descriptive practice bespeaks the primacy of dialectical prac-
tices in grounding these sciences as well, and hence the primordiality
of the ethical dimension vis-` -vis the exercise of the sciences. On the
ground of premises thus accepted they may, then, proceed to prove and
Human Initiative and Its Orientation to the Good 65

As for ethics itself, Aristotle™s af¬rmation that “the fact is ¬rst and is a
principle” signals, again, that the ethical discourse recognizes and seeks to
thematize, to clarify, the dynamic ground on which it rests. Such a ground
would be dynamic, in fact shifting and mobile, because intuitively con-
stituted and demanding continuous readjustment. Ethics is, then, about
establishing principles, that is, by describing facts. It is in order to account
for principles “beautifully,” in a way that is less unjust with respect to their
multiplicity, unevenness, and locality, that ethics is not “precise.” The pri-
ority of ethics is determined by the postulation that through principles
many things are revealed, become luminous, sumphan¯s, and according
to such a disclosure a host of consequences becomes possible, certain
investigations or lines of re¬‚ections are seminally prescribed. Indeed, a
principle “is thought” or “appears” to be (notice, once more, the dialec-
tical quali¬cation of this statement) “more than half of the whole.” Even
before proceeding from principles, ethics takes up the task of assessing
and formulating principles, according to the distinction of Platonic ances-
try, which Aristotle himself recalls, between logoi “from principles” and
“leading to principles” (1095a31“b2). Ethics, then, is quite genuinely a
“science of principles,” with all the peculiarity implicit in such a phrase,
for a science of principles, let alone ¬rst philosophy, cannot be strictly
demonstrative. More speci¬cally, in ethics what is at stake is ¬nding prin-
ciples in the familiar, starting from the familiar in order to dig out what
is folded there. This issue will be taken up again shortly, in the course of
a few remarks on dialectic.
Aristotle insists on the question of precision even later on, in Book
Beta, which arguably signals a profound concern with these “method-
ological issues.” We wonder whether such preoccupations are at all to be
considered parerga, collateral considerations, or whether, in fact, they may
lie at the very heart of the task, the ergon, taken up when one broaches the
discourse of ethics. As though beginning anew, Aristotle recommends:

But ¬rst, let us agree on that matter, namely, that all statements concerning
matters of action should be made sketchily [t…pw„] and not with precision, for, as
we said at the beginning, our demands of statements should be in accordance with
the subject matter [kat‡ tŸn Ìlhn] of those statements; in matters concerning
action and expediency, and in those of health, there is no uniformity. And if such
is the statement according to the whole [kaq»lou l»gou], a statement concerning
particulars [perª t¤n kaq ¬ ™kasta] will be even less precise; for these do not fall
under any art [t”knhn] or precept [paraggel©an], but those who are to act must
always examine what pertains to the occasion [t‡ pr¼v t¼n kair¼n], as in medical
art and navigation [kubernhtik¦v]. Yet even though our present statement is of
such a nature, we should try to be of some help. (1104a1“11)
Ethik¯ n Nikomakhei¯ n Alpha to Eta
o o

Aristotle underlines once more the lack of uniformity distinguishing the
matter, the hul¯ of ethics, that is, life itself in its becoming. Even more
importantly, here he suggests a distinction between (1) the logoi of ethics,
that is, statements that, still remaining somehow general (katholou), frame
the ¬eld and questions of ethics, on the one hand, and (2) the logoi regard-
ing each particular situation, that is, statements bound to be least of all
precise, let alone predictable, because pertaining to circumstances that
are elusive in their singularity, on the other hand. The ¬rst inference that
we must draw is that there is no statement that would be as such simply
adequate to the mutable subject matter of timeliness and appropriate-
ness, that is, a statement able to adhere without any quali¬cation to the
situation in motion and to account adequately for the situatedness or
dwelling in the kairos. Second, we must conclude that there is no artful
technique, tekhn¯, which would provide a prescriptive ethical system in
the strict sense. For the directions for action are to be found, crucially
if not exclusively, in speci¬c circumstances and in the intuitive-practical
ability to evaluate them. The ethical dissertation, thus, would provide
the intellectual analyses and clari¬cations propaedeutic to a more skilled
encounter with what is the case, but could in no way replace practical
upbringing (the formation of character), let alone the intuitive assess-
ment of each singular circumstance “ of this body to be cured, of the
course to be taken in the midst of these currents, under this sky. A priori
and for thoroughly essential reasons, ethics cannot be prescriptive, pre-
cisely because it cannot embrace all possible circumstances and have in
sight the in¬nite fecundity of time.
The ethical treatises may at best offer “navigational instruments,” give
instruction, contribute to establish the needed posture to steer “beauti-
fully” through the often raging waters of life (one is reminded here of
the simile of the city and the ship in Plato™s Republic). For what is at stake
in living is, as Aristotle notes following Calypso™s recommendation, to
“keep the ship away from the surf and spray” (1109a2; Odyssey XII.219).
The virtues, aretai “ these acquired “postures,” these dispositions that
one “has” or “possesses” (ekhein) as one™s own habitus and habitat (hexis),
which are proper to one in the sense of one™s very shape and structure “
are formed through repeated practice and there is no discursive shortcut
to them. It is this altogether practical substratum that furnishes determi-
nant orientation in action and remains indispensable.
Let us bring these remarks to a conclusion by surmising that impre-
cision may not be seen as an imperfection. As will become increasingly
perspicuous in the course of the unfolding of the treatise, it is logos, when
Human Initiative and Its Orientation to the Good 67

alienated from the binds of concrete particulars, which represents a prob-
lem. Ethics is imprecise “concerning particulars” just as any other science
is. But, unlike the other sciences, ethics recognizes and thematizes this. It
understands that it is imprecise of necessity, because what is at stake, as in
navigation, is to act while considering the kairos, the distinctive demand
(propriety) of this moment and place. It is imprecise because it broad-
ens the spectrum of attention to include all that may concern anyone in
any circumstance, but no discourse could adequately circumscribe such
a range. Paradoxically, it is precisely because of its imprecision, because
it is grounded in world and experience as a whole, with no exclusions
and abstractions, that ethics can be ¬rst philosophy, in the sense of archi-
tectonic, fundamental, and most comprehensive. Again, imprecision is
not a limit: if anything, abstraction (dis-anchored logos) is. But we shall
return to this.

1.3.2. The Always Already of Life
Above we hinted at the importance of prior education in determining the
communicational effectiveness of the ethical discourse. The listener who
already received the proper education is in a position to be convinced
of the principles without much dif¬culty and, from here, to proceed to
infer the rest. But those who are not so disposed will hardly be permeable
to what the logos says, hardly be touched by it. This is the problem starkly
outlined at the very beginning of the Republic, where Plato diagnoses the
impotence of logos vis-` -vis those who cannot or refuse to listen (327c).
Logos is always and inevitably vulnerable to this possibility. Thus, a certain
availability to the experience of listening and, most decisively, a conducive
character structure, will determine whether or not the seed of logos will
¬nd favorable terrain and the soul bear its fruits. But logos alone will not
force any kind of understanding if the principles, which are a matter of
conviction and not demonstration, are not in place “ or if one is not pre-
pared to make them one™s own.5 The Nicomachean Ethics ends with a series
of re¬‚ections on this cluster of issues (Kappa 10). After pointing out the
insuf¬ciency of logos in the task of “making us good,” Aristotle proceeds to
a sustained articulation of what could be called a certain “passivity of the

5 After noting that “language can say nothing of the indivisibles” or the “simple” and that
“no one has been as aware as Aristotle of the limits of philosophical discourse,” Pierre
Hadot adds: “The limits of discourse are due also to its inability autonomously to transmit
to the listener the knowing and, even more so, conviction. On its own, discourse cannot
act on the auditor if there is no collaboration on the latter™s part” (Che cos™` la ¬loso¬a
antica? [Turin: Einaudi, 1998], 86“7). Here and below, the translation is my own.
Ethik¯ n Nikomakhei¯ n Alpha to Eta
o o

ethical,” showing how our dispositions and predisposition for the most
part elude our self-mastery and capacity for self-determination:

Some think that human beings become good by nature, others think that they
do so by habituation [›qei], still others by teaching [didac¦ƒ]. Now it is clear that
nature™s part is not in our own power to do anything about but is present in those
who are truly fortunate through some divine cause. Perhaps discourse [l»gov]
and teaching, too, cannot reach all human beings, but the soul of the listener, like
the earth which is to nourish the seed, should ¬rst be cultivated by habit to enjoy
or hate things beautifully; for he who lives according to passion would neither
listen to a discourse which dissuades him nor understand it, and if he is disposed
in this manner, how can he be persuaded to change? In general, passion seems
to yield not to argument but to force [b©a„]. So one™s character [t¼ §qov] must be
somehow predisposed toward virtue, liking what is beautiful and disliking what is
disgraceful. (1179b21“32)

As though in a proto-Spinozistic outlook, Aristotle™s concern with the pas-
sions is rooted in the recognition of their primordial power to prejudge
and predetermine. As we shall note again, however, this preoccupation
does not result in an articulate analysis of the phenomena of human
If Nicomachus ends on such a note, it should also be said that it
begins in a similar fashion and is throughout accompanied by this line of
re¬‚ection. Aristotle repeatedly reminds us that we cannot overstate the
importance of experience, empeiria, and of having received the pertinent
upbringing, paideia, prior to being exposed to the ethical discussion.
Those who lack the required experience remain inde¬nite, as it were.
They lack limits, a sharp de¬nition, their understanding is unfocused. A
listener such as this may at best retain a thoroughly formal knowledge of
the discourses and lectures heard, but will be unable to assimilate such
a knowledge in its practical signi¬cance and teleological thrust toward

Now a human being judges beautifully the things he knows, and it is of these that
he is a good judge; so a good judge in a subject is one who is educated in that
subject, and a good judge without quali¬cation is one who is educated in every
subject. In view of this, a young human being is not a proper student of politics;
for he is inexperienced [Špeirov] in actions concerned with human life, and
discussions [l»goi] proceed from [premises concerning those actions] and deal
with [those actions]. Moreover, being disposed to follow his passions [p†qesin],
he will listen in vain and without bene¬t, since the end of such discussions is
not knowledge [gn¤siv] but action. And it makes no difference whether he is
young in age or youthful in character [§qov], for his de¬ciency arises not from
lack of time but because he lives and pursues things according to passion. For
Human Initiative and Its Orientation to the Good 69

knowledge about such matters in such a human being, as in those who are incon-
tinent [ˆkrat”sin], becomes unpro¬table; but in those who form their desires
[t‡v ½r”xeiv poioum”noiv] and act according to reason [kat‡ l»gon], it becomes
very bene¬cial. (1094b29“1095a11)

Thus, having listened to logos already, that is, having undergone the logos
informing one™s own nature, all the way to one™s instincts and desires,
makes it possible to listen to the logos of ethics in its embodied and expe-
riential resonance. Youth means not having learned to align passion and
reason, pathos and logos. Without such an alignment or harmonization,
logos is empty, abstract. It neither touches nor otherwise affects action. As
Aristotle anticipates, this is the structure of the problem of incontinence,
which will be examined later. In a certain sense, then, the end to be
brought about, that is, the human being in its harmonious actualization,
must be presupposed in deed. The human being that the ethical inquiry
attempts to put into sharp focus must be present as the listener of the
inquiry to begin with. At a later stage, Aristotle will say that nothing less
than the ultimate end, the good, is brought into view by virtue, that is,
in a way, determined by character, prior to all analysis. Accordingly, only
those who are already virtuous would see it.
Aristotle again emphasizes the function of prior experience as he sug-
gests that we should always start from where we are, from where we have
always already started, and establish principles from there where we ¬nd
ourselves, from what is familiar. Having received an adequate kind of
upbringing, in this sense, would amount to a beginning all the more

Probably we should begin from things which are known [gnwr©mwn] to us. Accord-
ingly, he who is to listen effectively to lectures concerning beautiful and just things
and, in general, to subjects dealt with by politics, should be brought up beautifully
in ethical habits; for the beginning is the fact [ˆrcŸ g‡r t¼ ‚ti], and if this fact
should appear to be adequate, there will be no further need of the why of it. Such
a human being either has or can easily get principles. As for the one who lacks
both, let him listen to the words of Hesiod:
that man is best of all who himself apprehends [nožshƒ] all;
. . . he is also good who trusts a good advisor;
but he who neither can himself apprehend [no”hƒ] nor, listening to
takes what he hears into his heart, this man is useless. (1095b4“13)

The apt formulation or description of the fact, of the that, provides a
principle, stops the concatenation of causes that would otherwise go on
ad in¬nitum. Once again, we ¬nd here an intimation of the suf¬ciency
Ethik¯ n Nikomakhei¯ n Alpha to Eta
o o

of reason inherent in action, in praxis “ of the reason that is at work in a
certain mode of being alive, the reason according to which ethical habits,
that is, character, are formed. The one who has enjoyed a harmonious
beginning, who knows ¬rst hand the fact of a “beautiful” education, will
know how to recognize a fact as an adequate beginning, without asking
for the “why” of it beyond a certain point. In his chagrin at those who
neither have principles nor display the ability to acquire them through a
correct receptivity, Aristotle quotes Hesiod from Works and Days (293ff.).
If they lack even the capacity for listening to the wisdom at hand, let them
listen to the poet announcing their irrelevance qua human beings. A few
centuries later, Sextus (adversus Mathematicos 7.132) will have reported a
saying by Heraclitus analogously lamenting the inability to listen on part
of the many or, more precisely, their lack of comprehension even after
having heard: “Of this logos here, which always is,” Heraclitus would have
said, “human beings lack understanding [ˆx…netoi], both before hearing
[ˆko“sai] and when they ¬rst have heard [ˆko…santev] it.” They listened
to lectures, were variously exposed to logos, yet remained untouched and
unchanged. They are unable to experience the logos, whether in words
or in deeds: “for while all comes to be according to this logos [kat‡ t¼n
logon t»nde], they resemble those who lack experience when they expe-
rience such words [–p”wn] and deeds [›rgwn] as I lay out [dihge“mai],
dividing [diair”wn] each according to nature [kat‡ f…sin] and saying
[fr†zwn] how it holds itself.” However, in this experiential impoverish-
ment, one™s knowledge remains empty and formulaic, having no vibrant
relation to what and how one lives: “But what they do when awake escapes
[lanq†nei] them,” Heraclitus is said to have concluded, “just as they forget
[–pilanq†nontai] what they do when asleep” (22B1).
On Aristotle™s part, the warnings against the disconnection between
knowledge and action are innumerable. Here is a related moment in
Magna moralia focusing on the fact that knowledge, in and of itself, does
not change one™s condition. Of course, this line of thinking constitutes
the prelude of the critique of logos developed in a more sustained way
in the course of the analysis of incontinence, but also pervasive in the
treatises of the Metaphysics. The author of Magna moralia points out:

One may ask a question of this kind: Supposing that I know all this, shall I be
happy? For they fancy they will. But this is not so. None of these other man-
ners of knowledge imparts to the one who learns the use [cr¦sin] and activ-
ity [enactment, activation, actualization] [–n”rgeian]; but the habit [™xin] alone
[does]. No more in this case does knowing these matters impart the use (for,
Human Initiative and Its Orientation to the Good 71

as we say, happiness is activity), but the habit; and happiness does not consist
in knowing its implications, but comes from using them. However, it does not
pertain to the present study to impart the use and enactment of these things; for
indeed no other knowledge imparts the use but the habit. (1208a31“b2)

Three times, in this brief passage, it is stated that it is the habit, the pos-
session of a certain psychological and practical formation (hexis), which
confers the khr¯sis and energeia, the usage and activation, the power to take
up that which presents itself and put it to its proper use, letting it follow
its course of actualization.6 This enactment or, in fact, self-enactment,
alone can make one happy. On their own, neither the properly ethical
discourse nor any other science can give the power to actualize oneself, that
is to say, to enjoy the ful¬llment and fullness we call happiness. Indeed, as
we shall see even better in a moment, it is for quite systemic reasons that
prior ethical formation is necessary in order to be able to listen correctly
to the ethical discourse, to make that discourse substantial and concrete:
the ethical discourse, like any discourse, cannot capture the particulars; no
discourse can give the perception, sensible and intuitive, of particulars,
facts, and concomitant principles. Hence, when Aristotle says that the
aim of this discourse is “not knowledge but action,” and hence declares
that experiential supplementation is needed in order to touch the stratum
of lived experience, he is stating a necessity characterizing discourse as
such, not something secondary and dispensable. Indeed, we might call
prior experience or education, the fact that life has always already taken
place, always already shaped, molded one, the ineffable supplement of logos.
The logos that desires to embrace “facts” as they are, to open up to that
which it cannot reduce to itself, and, hence, not to remain formal, needs
the integration of life in its in(de)¬nite excess and priority. Or, to put it
otherwise, logos must be practically owned.
Among other things, as was already observed, this is also why Aristo-
tle™s Nicomachean Ethics and ethical expositions in general are essentially
and necessarily non-prescriptive. Circumstances, in their in¬nite spatio-
temporal mutability, cannot simply be discursively contained. Again, the
author of Magna moralia, by reference to the discussion of the “perfect”
syllogism and the constitution of the major (or unquali¬ed) and minor
(or particular) premise in Prior Analytics A 1“4, addresses the problem of

6 On happiness as use and actualization, khr¯sis and energeia, of excellent habit, see Magna
moralia 1184b31“5.
Ethik¯ n Nikomakhei¯ n Alpha to Eta
o o

the translation of knowledge into particularity, and the ultimate excess
of particularity vis-` -vis discourse:

In turn, this can be made manifest by reference to our analytical treatises. There
we said that the syllogism comes to be from two premises, the ¬rst being univer-
sal [kaq»lou], and the second subordinate to it and particular [–pª m”rouv]. For
example: “I know how to cure [how to create health in] all the human beings
suffering from fever”; “This one here suffers from fever”; “Therefore, I know how
to cure this one.” Now there are cases in which I know the universal knowledge
but not the particular. Here comes to be the possibility of error for the one who
has knowledge. [He says:] “I know how to cure all the sufferers from fever; but
whether this man suffers from fever, I don™t know.” Likewise, the same error may
occur in the case of the incontinent, who possesses knowledge. It may be that the
incontinent has the universal knowledge that such and such things are evil and
hurtful, and yet not know which things in particular are evil. Thus, he will make
mistakes although he has knowledge; for he has the universal one, but not the
particular. (1201b24“40)

The author of Magna moralia highlights the ultimate inexplicability
of the particular. Learning the principle is impossible if one cannot stop
the chain of questioning, if one cannot discern the fact, the “that,” in the
things themselves. The same inexhaustibility in logos can be attributed
to the passions, path¯ “ to that undergoing that, under auspicious con-
ditions, that is, in the case of the excellent human being, does not inter-
fere with nous carrying out its own work (ergon energein, 1208a20), but in
fact constitutes the very condition thereof:

“Yes,” someone may say, “but what is the bearing of the passions when they do
not hinder [nous]? And when do they hold themselves in such a way? For that I
do not know.” It is not easy to reply to a question such as this. Nor is it easy for
the physician, when, for instance, he prescribes a decoction of barley “in case,”
he says, “the patient is feverish.” “But how do I perceive [a«sq†nomai] that he is
feverish?” “When,” he says, “you see that he is pale.” “How will I discern [e«džsw]
this pallor?” Thereupon the physician has to understand. “If you do not yourself
have the perception [a­sqhsin] of this,” he will say, “there is no [teaching].” The
reason [l»gov] is common and equally underlies other cases. The same holds for
the knowledge [gnwr©zein] of the passions. One must oneself contribute toward
the perception. (1208a22“30)

Thus, whether considering upbringing and education, experience, or
the emotions underlying action as well as intellectual activity, the Aris-
totelian discourse underlines how the prior psycho-practical formation
determines the way in which one will be able to receive knowledge, to
listen and understand “ and whether such a learning will be effortlessly
acquired or, on the contrary, irremediably compromised. Again, in this
Human Initiative and Its Orientation to the Good 73

last passage we almost hear a nascent invitation to a kind of psychoanalysis,
or to a phenomenology of lived experience: to an analysis of the passions
and emotions, evidently based on intuitive and descriptive beginnings.

1.3.3. Dialectical Ground
The Aristotelian discourse, ethical and otherwise, is so thoroughly dialec-
tical in tenor as to warrant here only the most circumscribed remarks. In
the course of our reading we will ¬nd many occasions to underline the
ubiquity of dialectical quali¬cations. Dialectic presents itself as a kind of
excavation, as a digging into the familiar, into the current opinions and
communal stipulations “ or as the unfolding, the explication, of what is
enfolded, implicated, within the familiar. The movement from priority
according to us to priority according to being lies in this operation of
deepening, in not going anywhere else, remaining where one already
is, only discarding outer layers in order to come closer to the heart of
the matter. Starting from the prevalent views, from what “we” say, thus,
dialectic yields the principle by clarifying the fact, making manifest in an
articulate fashion the common perception of it.
In a statement again making a start from desire as the motivation and
moving force of inquiry, Aristotle acknowledges happiness as the highest
good to which human beings aspire and, therefore, as the end underlying
the investigation of ethics. It is on the “almost” unanimous agreement
among humans that this acknowledgment rests. The name concerning
which most people agree, however, is ¬lled with quite heterogeneous,
even incompatible meanings, determined by one™s degree of wisdom and
by the mutability of opinions, whether due to the intrinsic ¬ckleness of
the human psyche or to contingent factors such as suffering or poverty,
in whose power one lives:

To resume, since all knowledge and every intention desire some good, let us
discuss what is that which is aimed at by politics and what is the highest of all
goods achievable by action. Most people are almost agreed as to its name; for
both ordinary and cultivated people call it “happiness,” and both regard living
well and acting well as being the same as being happy. But there is disagreement as
to what happiness is, and the account of it given by ordinary people is not similar
to that given by the wise. For some regard it as something obvious or apparent,
such as pleasure or wealth or honor, while others regard it something else; and
often the same man changes his mind about it, for when suffering from diseases
he regards it as being health, when poor as being wealth, and when he becomes
conscious of his ignorance he marvels at those who discuss something great and
beyond his comprehension. Again, some held that beside these particular goods
there exists something by itself, and that it is this which causes these particulars
Ethik¯ n Nikomakhei¯ n Alpha to Eta
o o

to be good. To examine all these doctrines would perhaps be rather fruitless, but
it is suf¬cient to examine only those which are most prevalent or are thought to
be based on some reason. (1095a15“31)

Most of the times, then, people are caught within a kind of compensatory
logic, such that one may de¬ne happiness reactively, only as the coun-
terpart of a reversal of fortune. And yet, at times, when one is no longer
preoccupied with such matters, it may happen that one envisages hap-
piness in becoming more acquainted with things marvelous, inducing
wonder. This is the case of those who pursue study and discussion “ such
as the Platonists, for instance, considered shortly afterward, unlike oth-
ers holding worthless opinions. But the philosophers™ opinions are not
the only ones that must be taken into consideration. Aristotle could not
be more emphatic in recognizing the foundation established through
the practice of inclusive dialogue: the very fact of being widespread, or
of being “considered” somehow reasonable, in and of itself confers to
certain opinions their worth.
As the sustained exercise of communal stipulation, evidently, dialec-
tical involvement re¬‚ects the ways of life of those involved. Illuminated,
again, is the role of what is always already presupposed in order for dis-
course and discussion to begin, what is the case always, already, and in
a determining way. It is on the ground of life that decisions concerning
life, how to live, are made; it is on the ground of what appears, of what is
experienced that opinions are formed.
Let us continue from the point at which we digressed. It is not unreasonable that
what human beings regard the good or happiness to be seems to come from their
ways of living. Thus ordinary people or those who are most vulgar regard it as
being pleasure, and in view of this they like a life of sensual pleasure. . . . Men of
culture and action seek a life of honor; for the end of political life is almost this.
But this good appears rather super¬cial to be what is sought; for it is thought
[doke±] to depend on those who bestow rather than on those who receive honor,
whereas we presage [manteu»meqa] that the good is something which belongs to
the man who possesses it and cannot be taken away from him easily. (1095b15“28)

Elusive as this discursive ground may be, Aristotle is very careful not to
treat the result of dialectical negotiations as a mere arbitrary matter that,
in other circumstances and by reference to other socio-cultural coordi-
nates, could have been resolved in altogether different ways. Here he
juxtaposes the twofold source of the belief in principles. On the one
hand, one is convinced of a principle, and thereby acquires it, thanks
to what “seems” to be the case, what “is opined” (dokei ). On the other
hand, an element exceeding shared opinion, something like a pre- or
Human Initiative and Its Orientation to the Good 75

non-discursive certainty, seems without fail to guide one from within,
compelling assent out of its intuitive evidence. Remarkably enough, for
this element Aristotle utilizes the language of divination, manteuomai.
In the Topics dialectic is at ¬rst de¬ned as that mode of logos or discus-
sion, sullogismos, moving from opined premises, ex endox¯n (100b18). And
yet, dialogical exchange does not simply concern issues that remain sub-
ject to contestation or negotiation. Rather, dialectic also gives articulation
to those immediate intuitions through which one divines principles that
are not doubted; it brings into a spoken outline the unspoken certainty
that commands belief. Such a certainty, too, is subject to discussion and
receives its de¬nition in virtue of it. Indeed, this would be the proper work
of culture. Thus, the difference between principles or premises that are
“¬rst and true” and those that are merely opinable hypotheses is rather
evanescent. It lies in the fact that the former “carry belief [p©stin] through
themselves and not through others” (100b19“20), that is, need discur-
sive assessment not so much in order to obtain credibility but, instead, in
order to be drawn out, described.
It could be said, then, that dialectic is the speaking of thinking, or even
the exercise of thinking together. That by dialectic we should understand that
cluster of practices thanks to which intuition, what we divine in virtue of
our lived and shared experience, is formulated, brought into logos. And
that what emerges here is a certain irreducibility of thinking to know-
ing or demonstrating, of thinking to logic, ¬nally the irreducibility of
logos to itself. For logos, over¬‚owing apodictic exercise as well as the self-
articulation of reason, in dialectic presents itself primordially as dialogos,
as that gathering in(de)¬nitely prior with respect to any human endeavor
as such “ as the being together heeding which any endeavor may ¬nd its
beginning. Shortly after the considerations in the opening of the Topics,
Aristotle explains that the study, the pragmateia there proposed, can be
useful, among other things,

in relation to the ¬rst principles of each science; for it is impossible to say anything
about them from the principles proper to the science at issue, since the principles
are ¬rst in relation to everything, and it is necessary to deal with them through
the opined premises [di‡ d• t¤n perª ™kasta –nd»xwn] on each point. This per-
tains peculiarly, or most appropriately, to dialectic; for, being ¬t for investigation
[–xetastikŸ], it has the path [¾d¼n] to the principles of all inquiries [meq»dwn].

The ¬rst principles, those common to all the sciences and making the
sciences possible, are in this way revealed in their dialectical character.
Ethik¯ n Nikomakhei¯ n Alpha to Eta
o o

Such would be the essential role and continuing task of dialogue, of the
weaving that weaves human beings together. Again, it is not the case that
ethics alone, in its imprecision and practical focus, can only be dialecti-
cally grounded. Rather, the sciences themselves, each and all of them, are
ultimately based on dialectically de¬ned principles “ where, of course,
dialectically de¬ned means articulated through the practices of commu-
nication and commonality, and hence essentially belonging in the phe-
nomenality and phenomenology of human ¯thos. e
These ¬ndings converge with what was pointed out in the Prelude,
concerning the sensible and inductive conditions for the possibility of
the sciences (81a38“b9). It is Aristotle himself who, at the very end of
the Posterior Analytics, in one sweeping gesture intimates the unity of “nous
as principle of science” (a “principle of principle,” because through it
principles are acquired) and fact, pragma. The sciences would be related
to both nous and pragma in like manner (homoi¯s) (100b15“17).

1.3.4. Ethics as a Making
Ethics, then, does not admit of abstract generalizations, universal formu-
lations, or reductions to calculation. It rests on previous ethical formation.
It is essentially dialectical. Its imprecision “concerning particulars” is due
to its adherence to the moment in its absolute singularity, for “those who
are to act must always consider what pertains to the kairos as in medical art
or navigation” (1104a9“10). Resting on such prior practical conditions
is by no means distinctive of ethics, but ethics consciously highlights and
dwells on this circularity. Ethics is that discourse, that logos, which recog-
nizes itself in and as deed.
To speak of the dialectical, in fact altogether ethical terrain of ethics,
entails, no doubt, the intimation that one will never have started from
knowledge in the strict sense, for there is no knowledge that would encom-
pass the entire spectrum of experience, of the possible, of the singular.
Because of this, it was suggested above that ethics cannot be purely pre-
scriptive, for it cannot abstract and generalize matters pertaining to unre-
peatable circumstances, which are by de¬nition irreducible. Or it may be
that ethics does prescribe, yet not in the sense that it comprehends and
anticipates every possible occasion or spatio-temporal con¬guration, but
rather in the sense that it offers points of reference, “navigational tools,”
orienting suggestions. In this way, prescribing comes to coincide with
bringing forth guidelines (laws and regulations) that provide perimeter
and parameters for the human venture.
However, the beginning of ethics in the midst of the ethical would
also seem to entail that ethics cannot be seen, strictly speaking, as an
Human Initiative and Its Orientation to the Good 77

exercise of poi¯sis, as a tekhn¯, an art or artful production “ at least, not
e e
if we understand tekhn¯ according to the model laid out by Plato in the
Timaeus, that is to say, as producing by imitating an eidetic object. This is
precisely how the celestial demiurge is envisioned at work, bringing forth
the cosmos thanks to the contemplation and mimetic reproduction of an
idea, which would subsist in its integrity prior to and separate from the
becoming of the productive effort. It would appear, then, that ethics is
not poietic in this sense, for it has no prior idea of that which it sets out
to bring about, namely, the happy or good human being.
And yet, Aristotle quite consistently turns to the language of making, of
creativity, to characterize the ethico-political discourse and action. “For,”
he says, “we posited the end of politics to be the highest good, and poli-
tics takes the greatest care in making [poie±tai] the citizens of a certain
quality, that is, making [poi¦sai] them good and disposed to beautiful
actions” (1099b30“32). In turn, the politician or lawgiver is presented
as an arkhitekton, a master tekhnit¯s: “The true statesman, too, is thought
to have made the greatest effort in studying excellence, for his wish is
[bo…letai] to make [poie±n] the citizens good and obedient to the laws”
(1102a7“10). Whether skillfully or poorly done, the aim of the lawgiver is
such an intervention in the human surroundings, this way of taking things
up, reshaping and reorienting them: “For it is by letting citizens acquire
certain habits that legislators make [poioÚsin] them good, and this is
what every legislator wishes. But legislators who do not do [poioÚsin]
this well are making a mistake; and good government differs from bad
government in this respect” (1103b4“6). Of course, let this be said in
passing, what is aimed at by the lawmaker is anything but an acquiescent
citizen, easily controlled and passively subjected to the rules. This would
be, at best, a distorted interpretation of the political operation. In other
words, the “architectonic” and creative quality of the lawmaker does not
automatically translate into the manipulative sway of the ruler over the
ruled, let alone of the control of knowledge over action. For, as Aristotle,
echoing Plato, notes in the Politics (1282a20“4), ultimately the one who
can authoritatively assess something produced is not the maker, but the
user. If the fecundity of the lawmaker is understood as the ability to pro-
duce laws and other instruments for “navigation,” it is the “user,” in this
case the one who navigates, that is, lives, who “knows” what allows him or
her to do so well.
At any rate, what must be underlined here is that Aristotle™s repeated
af¬rmations of the productive function of the ethico-political investiga-
tion necessitate a re-thinking of poi¯sis, of tekhn¯ itself, aside from and
e e
beyond the model of production following eidetic contemplation. Ethics,
Ethik¯ n Nikomakhei¯ n Alpha to Eta
o o

therefore, may be acknowledged as indeed productive, but in such a
way as to cast a quite different light on production. Far from resting on
the clarity of the eidetic, artful production is revealed as starting from a
twofold dif¬culty. In its doubly dif¬cult beginning, the productive under-
taking (1) sets out to bring forth what is not yet fully de¬ned and, thus,
(2) has to clarify to itself, while already on the way, what is to be brought
forth, that is, the paradigm itself of the bringing forth. In this sense, pro-
duction (ethics itself qua productive) presents itself less as methodos than
as hodos “ as that manner of intervention that, venturing to bring forth
that which, by de¬nition, is not yet the case, but only a vision thus far
inde¬nite and underdetermined, draws its path for the ¬rst time. To put
it in strictly Aristotelian language, we might say that the bringing forth
that ethics names is architecture without geometry.7
Again, this dif¬culty is, properly speaking, not a limit. It marks the
over¬‚owing resources of a science that does not contemplate its object(s)
from a distance or from a position of separation, but rather contemplates
its own belonging in and with its other(s). Ethics is grafted upon, chan-
neled into the becoming out of which it ¬nds its own beginning. And
it is at this most basic, most elementary level that ethics is productive,
reveals, brings forth: for all intervention in becoming, all channeling
into or grafting upon becoming (and what would be excluded from so
doing?) is in one sense or another poietic, because it alters becoming,
impresses a certain course upon being that becomes. It inscribes itself
into being changing it, making it what it is. To the extent that a purely

7 Far from reducing politics or action to tekhn¯, through politics Aristotle shows tekhn¯ as a
e e
poiein that is no mere presupposition and copying of an eidetic original; the making here
at stake is a making without and prior to a paradigm “ at the limit, the making of the
paradigm itself. Understood in terms of detachment from the practical, as contemplation
of the eidetic in order to shape the practical, tekhn¯ seems to be at odds with the thrust of
Aristotle™s thinking. But tekhn¯ thus understood may already be a myth in Plato himself.
In Resp. II we witness the building of the city in the absence of any accessible paradigm; the
making is undertaken precisely because of the essential impossibility of contemplation
and is, therefore, a groping in the dark. The interlocutors produce an eid¯lon in order
to make up for the eidos they cannot contemplate. The entire dialogue revolves around
such an unsettled making and, even in its concluding Book, reiterates the complexity
involved in bringing forth, revealing the measure of making to be not so much an eidetic
pattern but the community of “users” (601c). After all, even the “contemplative” maker
at work in the Timaeus is evoked through a “likely,” “imaginal” logos or muthos. In this
light, the Arendtian diagnosis of the Platonic subordination of politics or action to tekhn¯ e
(to a tekhn¯ understood, with Heidegger, in its knowing, contemplative, and potentially
manipulative detachment) appears profoundly problematic. See Hannah Arendt, The
Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958). Consider also John Sallis,
“The Politics of the chora,” in Platonic Legacies (Albany: SUNY Press, 2004), 27“45.
On Happiness 79

theoretical stance is impossible, ethics (indeed, thought or discourse tout
court) is poietic, unfolds being, is implicated in being™s unfolding, does
not simply observe. As a primordial, almost imperceptible framing, ethics
makes certain shapes of comportment, of community, even of thinking,
possible, encouraged, others invisible, unlikely. Ethics or politics, then,
emerges as a poietic-performative discourse: it is involved in bringing
about and bringing forth the world it tries to encounter and understand.
It is implicated in the movement it strives to investigate. It is moved by an
understanding of the good, desiring and striving toward the good, even
as it tries to inquire about the good.

2. on happiness
If the dialectical character of premises is evident throughout the ethics, it
becomes most notable in the introduction of the main theme, happiness.
Here, proceeding from what is more known to us to what is less known,
Aristotle progressively casts light on happiness as the highest good, and,
hence, as the highest moment of human ¬nality and projection. Pro-
ceeding from what is closer and more known to us means starting by
acknowledging the ground of shared conversation, the habit of exchange
in virtue of which opinions on the subject are layered. As we saw already
(1095a15“31), it is thanks to the virtually unanimous agreement that
happiness is established as the highest good to begin with. From here,
Aristotle initiates a deepening process whereby the dialectical ground is
assessed, the most prominent views examined. The discussion unravels
from within the practice of dialectic, that is, as thoroughly immersed in
the order of becoming, of the phenomenal, of the experiential. It is here
that the shifting of opinions, the instability of agreements, the overall
plasticity of the “ground” are heeded.
After a few considerations on sensation, induction, and habituation
as ways of perceiving principles, and on principles as “facts” on whose
description any inquiry hinges, Aristotle turns to the discussions sur-
rounding happiness. The worth of this most basic dialectical layer is
assessed as follows:

We should consider this [principle] not only from the conclusion and from
[premises] leading to its de¬nition [l»gov], but also from what human beings say
[–k t¤n legom”nwn] about it; for all things that belong to it are in harmony with a
true [de¬nition of it], but truth is soon bound to be in disharmony with respect to
a false [de¬nition of it]. Now goods have been divided into three [kinds]: those
which have been called “external,” those regarding [perª] the soul, and those
Ethik¯ n Nikomakhei¯ n Alpha to Eta
o o

regarding the body; and we say that those regarding the soul are the most impor-
tant [kuriÛtata] and are goods in the highest degree. We posit actions [pr†xeiv]
and [psychological] activities [–nerge©av] regarding the soul. So our account must
have been stated beautifully, at least according to this doctrine [d»xan], which
is an old one and agreed upon by all philosophers. It is also correctly said that
the end is certain actions or activities; for it is in such a manner that the goods
regarding the soul come to be [g©netai], and not from the external goods. The
statement that the happy human being lives well [e” z¦n] and acts well [e” pr†t-
tein], too, is in harmony with the de¬nition of happiness; for we have almost said
that happiness is living well [eÉzw¹a] or acting well [eÉprax©a]. (1098b9“22)

To be noticed in this passage is the convergence, almost the coincidence
of action, praxis, and activity (or actuality, activation), energeia. This is fur-
ther reinforced by the concluding description of happiness, later said to
be the excellent “activation or activity of the soul” in its fullness (1102a5“
6), as “acting well,” eu prattein or eupraxia. But the co-signi¬cance of
praxis and energeia was already clearly announced when the “task” of the
human being was said to be an “activity or action of the soul with reason”
(1098a14). The implication seems to be that the work of actualization,
however psychological, is as such a practical matter, a matter of action.
Certainly, the “activity of the soul” according to excellence and not with-
out logos, or, in other words, the pursuit of the goods “regarding the
soul,” will not have been a disembodied matter, detached from worldly
involvement. Among other things, this should alert us to the dif¬culties
presented by the term psukh¯, which we translate as “soul” but should
by no means automatically understand as opposed to, let alone separate
from, body.
In addition and according to these remarks, let us simply underline
again the practical-active ground for the emergence of the highest good.
In order rhetorically to provide a con¬rmation for the position outlined,
concerning the highest dignity of the goods pertaining to the soul, Aris-
totle resorts to the “ancient doctrine,” the doxa palaia maintained not by
the wise, but by all those who pursue wisdom, the philosophers. As for
the view that happiness is “living well,” its con¬rmation is based, without
further examination, on its dialectical plausibility. What “we almost said”
earlier, simply based on what “both ordinary and educated people” say
(1095a18“21), is now de¬nitely validated by noting that it “harmonizes”
with the de¬nition of happiness, which, in turn, rests on premises cru-
cially dialectical. The strange and inevitable circularity of discourse could
hardly be exhibited more lucidly.
On Happiness 81

2.1. Happiness: The Beyond-Human Perfection of Human Beings
Let us, ¬rst of all, attempt to hear the Greek word eudaimonia, which we
are all too readily inclined to translate as “happiness,” in its energy and
resonance. The word eudaimonia evokes the benevolent and bene¬cial
sway of the daim¯n, and, hence, the sense of harmonious connection with
or attunement to the daimonic. Indicated here is the cluster of conditions
supporting a being in its becoming, protecting and promoting it along
the trajectory of its unfolding.
As a pre¬x, eu- carries an adverbial value, expressing that something
is taking place well, harmoniously. In its nominalized form, eu signi¬es
that which is excellent, eminently good. Aristotle, for instance, uses it in
this way at 1097b27, where to eu is associated with goodness, tagathon.8
He also speaks of to eu as ¬nal cause, “that for the sake of which,” in On
Sensation and Sensibles (437a1), just as Plato does in the Timaeus, when
describing how the celestial maker devised the good, to eu, in “all that was
becoming.” To eu is here designated as “divine” cause, in contrast to the
“necessary” ones (68e).
On the other hand, daim¯n constitutes a ¬gure of the divine. How-
ever, aside from a particular god or goddess, it may more broadly con-
vey the range of phenomena making the deity manifest, the signs of
divinity at work, or even the strange, extraordinary quality of altogether
ordinary human circumstances. In the Symposium, as is well known, the
daim¯n is described as a mediating ¬gure: neither human nor properly
divine, it holds together the spheres of the human and the divine by
securing the exchanges between them. This is the bridging image of
the messenger, of the one who dwells in between and weaves together
that which only appears to be mutually extraneous. Daim¯n, thus, names
the subtle work of communication, the manifold propagation of energy,
signs, and impulses across heterogeneous domains. In this sense, the
daimonic both transcends and uniquely concerns human matters. It is
irreducible but not at all extraneous to them. In fact, it concerns human
affairs precisely to the extent that these are not self-enclosed but distinc-
tively marked by an openness to that which exceeds them, or even sur-
rounds and contains them. It could be said, consequently, that the daim¯n,o
whether a divine ¬gure, incomplete deity, or manifestation of divine work,

8 In Aristotle this nominalization is frequent. See, for instance, Metaphysics 984b11, 988a14,
1021b15, and 1092b26.
Ethik¯ n Nikomakhei¯ n Alpha to Eta
o o

illuminates the human as that to which an openness to the radically other
is proper.
In the Republic, the theme of transmission, translation, and interpreta-
tion linked to the daimonic receives yet another variation. In the conclud-
ing vision of the souls™ journey from life to death and back again to life,
we are shown how the souls are led to choose a life, bios, to which they
will be bound “by necessity.” Making such a fateful choice means at once
selecting a daim¯n (617d“e). In this sense, daim¯n names the tutelary ¬g-
o o
ure accompanying the soul across the threshold between death and life
as well as through the various thresholds and stages of life. It conveys the
soul onto the shore of life and, from here onward, it has both the func-
tion of guiding and safekeeping. It is both guardian and fate, protective
and binding. Daim¯n is the life itself that one has chosen and will thereby,
from birth on, whether consciously or not, begin to unfold. In this con-
nection, we are reminded of Heraclitus™ saying ¯thos anthrop¯i daim¯n,
e o o
establishing the identity, for a human being, of character and daim¯n o
(22B119). For it is indeed ¯thos, character, which determines the manner
of a human being™s dwelling and thereby secures one to a certain course
of life. Because of this, in the Topics Aristotle can say that being happy,
eudaim¯n, is the condition of one “whose da©mwn is effective or excellent
[spouda±ov]” (112a37). Eudaimonia, in this intimation, means being well
guided, accompanied through life in an excellent way. In other words,
it names the excellent carrying-out of the task of being, that is, of living.
According to the connotation of spoudaios, suggesting a certain intensity
and saturation, eudaimonia denotes prosperity, abundance. In relation
to the task of living, therefore, it designates ¬‚ourishing, brimming with
health and well-being, thriving.
But there is yet another trait of the daimonic that needs to be drawn out,
because it carries the utmost relevance in the Aristotelian discussion of
eudaimonia. In the etymological play that is Plato™s Cratylus, by reference
to Hesiod, Socrates recalls the ¬rst human beings to be born, those of the
“golden race.” They were covered over by fate, moira, and now, daimones
under the earth, they are “guardians of human beings” (Works 122ff.).
Socrates suggests that those primeval human beings were not said to be
golden because made of gold, but because “good and beautiful,” that
is, also, “prudent,” fr»nimoi. Hence, he concludes, Hesiod called them
daimones because they were da¯mones, knowing and experienced, and so
“I assert that every man who is good, whether living or dead, is daimonic
[daim»nion e²nai], and is correctly called a daim¯n” (397e“398c). Aside
from the plausibility of the etymology, what is crucial in this text is the
On Happiness 83

indication of a perfection that is altogether human, however designated
as “golden.” To be sure, such a perfection may exceed the condition of
most humans as we know them in the current era, that “of iron.” Socrates™
comparison between the divine human beings of the origins and those
of our time, in fact, reminds us of another Heraclitean statement: “a man
is called an infant before a da©mwn, like a child before a human being”
And yet, Socrates also underlines that a human being, even among
those living at present, may actualize the traits of a daim¯n, that is to say,
exercise his or her capacity for excellence, manifesting prudence and
goodness in living beautifully. The implication in the Platonic passage is
that humans harmoniously supported and supplemented by the daimonic
would, in a way, be returned to their originary plenitude and perfection,
that of the golden kind. In this sense, the mythical time “of gold” is least
of all a matter of chronological past, but a possibility that may always be
enacted, however “covered over.” We could say, consequently, that divin-
ity, the divinity consisting of the goodness and beauty of the ¬rst human
race, is properly human. More precisely, we can say that, thus understood,
divinity is properly human potential. As is variously announced in Nico-
machean Ethics Alpha and tersely declared in Magna moralia, eudaimonia is
“an end that is complete or perfect [t”lov t”leion]; and the complete or
perfect end is the good and the end of all that is good [tˆgaq»n –sti kaª
t”lov t¤n ˆgaq¤n]” (1184a14).
Again, it is toward the utmost perfection and completion (1184b8),
toward the sense of full actualization that the human being strives. The
thrust beyond itself is proper to the human. Of course, in light of the
open structure of the thrust beyond, which is the structure of desire itself,
“proper” can in no way simply be a matter of propriety, let alone owner-
ship or property.

2.2. Belonging of Human Life to Happiness
As we saw above, then, happiness means living well, or “doing [acting]
well and living well [t¼ e” pr†ttein kaª e” z¦n]” (Magna moralia 1184b10).
Whatever the mode of being at stake may be, happiness entails that the
being is or lives in such a way as to give itself over fully to what or who it is,
or is to be. Such a way of living is the working of an attunement to what
exceeds one, in order more genuinely to be oneself; the relinquishing
of one™s self-enclosure in order, paradoxically, to ¬nd one™s complete-
ness and completion. In this sense, living involves setting the necessary
Ethik¯ n Nikomakhei¯ n Alpha to Eta
o o

(though not suf¬cient) conditions for something divine, that is, essen-
tially human, to occur, to light up in one™s life. It could be said, thus, that
such a way of living does not amount to a merely human-made achieve-
ment. Or it may be understood in altogether human terms, provided
that “human” here designates something more, or less, something other
than self-determination. The divine would essentially name the human
precisely qua wondrous, not subject to either mastery or control, whether
individual or communal.
Aristotle raises the question concerning the character, origin, and
attainability of human happiness on a number of occasions. In consider-
ing the overall condition of openness to what comes and is not in one™s
control, he discerns factors that can be designated as “natural” or “divine”
and others pertaining to teaching, upbringing, and the manifold of sur-
rounding in¬‚uences. In Eudemian Ethics he states:

First we must consider in what the good life consists and how it is achieved “
whether all those who are designated “happy” [eÉda©monev] become so by nature
[f…sei], as with tallness and shortness and differing in complexion, or through
learning [maqžsewv], such that there would be a certain science of happiness,
or through some training [ˆskžsewv] (for there are many features belonging
to human beings, which are neither according to nature nor to study, but to
habituation [–qisqe±sin] “ bad ones for those badly habituated and useful ones
for those usefully habituated [crhst‡ d• to±v crhst¤v]). Or does it come in none
of these ways, but either through an inspiration breathed upon the possessed
enthusiast by a certain daimonion [–pipno©a„ daimon©ou tin¼v ãsper –nqousi†zontev],
as in the case of human beings caught by a nymph [numf»lhptoi] or a god
[qe»lhptoi], or else through fortune [t…chn] (for many say that happiness is
good fortune [eÉtuc©an])? (1214a15“26)

Aristotle surmises that a felicitous con¬guration of soul, and hence order
of living, may be attained by nature, by the rapture inspired by the
daimonic or divine, by systematic (scienti¬c) study, or by training and
habituation. All these manners of self-realization point to factors exceed-
ing one™s own autarchic self-positing. Even scienti¬c inquiry, which aims
at a rational mastery of the question of happiness and whose intrinsic
logic exhibits a certain autonomy vis-` -vis imponderable, extrinsic ¬‚uc-
tuations, is ultimately not “self-made,” resting as it does on cultural ini-
tiation and experientially obtained principles. It is eudaimonia that, qua
¬nal and most complete end, is “autarchic,” self-suf¬cient, not the human
being (1097b8). On the contrary, the human being is inscribed within,
belongs to, the all-comprehensive ¬nality that eudaimonia names. The
human being is constitutively traversed, as it were, by that which remains
On Happiness 85

inassimilable, irreducibly alien. This is quite literally the case, as can be
appreciated already in the basic statement, in Nicomachean Ethics, that the
human being cannot be conceived aside from relational considerations:
“By ˜self-suf¬cient™ we do not speak of an individual who leads just a soli-
tary life, but of [one™s] parents and children and a wife and, in general,
of friends and fellow-citizens as well, since a human being is by nature
political [f…sei politik¼n]” (1097b9“12). As we shall see later, the condi-
tion of interdependence does not simply de¬ne the single human being
with respect to the rest of the human community, but also humankind as
such with respect to the community that may be called “beyond-human”
(natural, divine), or “human” in the unique sense just suggested.
However, while consistently underlining the condition of receptivity in
ethical formation and hence the passivity inscribed in the realization of
happiness, Aristotle just as frequently emphasizes what is in one™s power,
the moment of responsibility distinguishing the conscious contribution
to the ful¬llment of the task of living. In the Eudemian Ethics he continues
the line of thinking just inaugurated by noting:

For if living beautifully depends on that which is by fortune or by nature, it would
be beyond hope for many [human beings], for then its attainment is not through
care [–pimele©av] and does not rest upon human beings themselves and is not a
matter of their demeanor [pragmate©av]; but if it consists in oneself and one™s
own actions [pr†xeiv] being of a certain sort, the good would be more common
[koin»teron] and more divine [qei»teron], more common because it would be
possible for more [human beings] to partake [metasce±n] in it, and more divine
because happiness would then be in store for those who make themselves and
their actions of a certain sort. (1215a12“19)

To be noticed here is the convergence of the common, koinon, and the
divine, theion. The good achieved not by chance or instinctively, but rather
through mindful effort, is potentially most widely shared, hence common:
it is a possibility available to human beings, de¬ning the human as such.
It is also eminently divine, for it marks the coming of happiness to those
who have aptly prepared themselves, laying the ground and clearing
the space for such an arrival. Eudaimonia names precisely the advent
or availability, the taking place of a perfection at once divine and prop-
erly human, thanks to the predisposition to a certain hospitality, to an
openness to what may come. The divine, then, designates neither a pre-
dictable, causally determinable outcome nor the purely random occur-
rence of felicitous episodes, displaying no discernible relation to causes,
let alone conditions. The divine presents itself, if and when it does, in
Ethik¯ n Nikomakhei¯ n Alpha to Eta
o o

contexts that have been appropriately disposed, which make eudaimonia
likely, although not granted.
It is because of this that happiness, however much designating an
exquisitely human potential, remains ¬‚eeting and elusive, a wondrous
condition that we perceive in its strangeness and extraordinary quality.
Aristotle, again in Eudemian Ethics, says:

Owing to this, a different [human being] names “happy” a different [human
being] . . . and Anaxagoras of Clazomenae when asked “who is the happiest one?”
said: “None of those you are accustomed to consider, but he would appear to you a
strange [Štopov] one.” But Anaxagoras answered in that way because he saw that
the one who asked assumed it is impossible to receive such a name without being
great and beautiful and rich, while he himself perhaps held that the one who
humanly speaking is blessed is one who lives without pain and in purity following
the just, or shares in a certain divine contemplation [qewr©av koinwno“nta qe©av].

In the anecdote reported, Anaxagoras calls into question the conven-
tional view of happiness as resting on external goods, on gifts, natu-
ral or otherwise, that are culturally invested with intrinsic value. We
should notice here Aristotle™s emphasis on “naming,” on the attribution
of the proper appellation: again, the whole problematic of happiness is
broached in terms of dialectic and the dialogical, poly-logical practices
pertaining to it. And yet, while in a sense determined by customary and
dominant discourses, the phenomenon of happiness also presents a dis-
ruptive quality with respect to custom. On the one hand, it is virtually
impossible to determine the meaning of “living well,” “fully,” or “excel-
lently” aside from cultural practices and systems of valuation. On the
other hand, however, one who is happy, in the sense of being most com-
pletely who or what one is and dwelling in the fullness of living, cannot
but be perceived as singularly strange, placeless (atopos). Such a human
being would hardly ¬nd a place within the order and measure of human
community as we know it.
Traversed by the divine, partaking in the consciousness or vision
(the¯ria) of gods (theia), such a human being cannot not interrupt the
axiological con¬guration prevalent within the communal framework,
the privilege therein accorded to the extrinsic goods. Both an exem-
plary point of reference and a transgressive, destabilizing presence with
respect to communal agreements, such a man (at these junctures Aris-
totle™s language tends to switch from anthr¯pos to an¯r) would be situ-
o e
ated at the margins, at the limit of this community, as its outer con¬ne,
pointing to divinity. As will often be remarked in the Politics, this highly
On Happiness 87

accomplished human being, god-like and heroic, would and would not
belong in the polis: he would be its lawgiver and king, and under his rule
the polis would grow in excellence (1284b26ff., 1286a23ff., 1332b17ff.).
Otherwise, he would be intolerable for his outstanding traits, ostracized
at best (1284a20ff.). Aristotle™s thought fruitfully dwells on this tension
and derives much of its vitality from it. In the passage just quoted, this is
clear from the fact that the almost divine human being, however absorbed
in contemplation, indeed, precisely in order to be thus absorbed, must
be healthy, enjoy freedom from psychophysical pains. Even a being such
as this needs the satisfaction of certain basic material conditions in order
to join the deities.
However, the “placelessness,” the eccentric character of this simultane-
ous belonging and transcending, of this presence that at once brings the
polis into its best outline and ruptures it, can hardly be overemphasized.
A statement from the Politics must be quoted for its peremptoriness in
this regard:

if there is someone (or few, yet unable to make up a complete polis) so exceedingly
distinguished in virtue that the virtue and political capacity of all the others cannot
be compared to his (or their) virtue and political capacity, then this one (or those
few) should not be regarded as a part [m”rov] of the polis; for being unequal to the
others in virtue and political capacity yet regarded as equal (or equals), he (or
they) would be treated unjustly. Such a human being [ˆnqrÛpoiv] would be like a
god among them. From this it is also clear that laws must be posited only for those
who are equal in birth and capacity, for no law exists for such a human being “
he is himself the law. It would, indeed, be ridiculous for anyone to try to posit laws
for such a man; for he would perhaps say what, in the fable of Antisthenes, the
lions said to the hares [“Where are your claws and teeth?”] when the hares were
making speeches and claiming equal status for all. (1284a3“18; emphasis added)

2.3. Ways of Living
Almost everyone, then, agrees on designating “happiness” as living well
and acting well. As to what these mean, however, there prevail a great
many variations of opinion and disagreements. Such differences seem to
come “from their ways of living [–k t¤n b©wn]” (1095b16). The word bios
designates precisely the manner and shape of one™s living, a de¬nite mode
of z¯n, of metabolic or physiological life. The con¬guration of one™s life is
revealing of an axiology in a twofold sense, for it is both determined by and
determinative of it, in a play of mutual implication and equiprimordiality.
On the basis of these considerations, Aristotle proceeds to discern three
ways of living that make manifest three outstanding human possibilities.
Ethik¯ n Nikomakhei¯ n Alpha to Eta
o o

The discussion of happiness is progressively deepened, becomes more
unfamiliar as the dialectical ground undergoes critical assessment. Such is
the thrust of the whole analysis, as is clear from a passage in part examined
above and here quoted more fully:

Thus ordinary people or those who are most vulgar regard it as being pleasure,
and in view of this they like a life of sensual pleasure [t¼n ˆpolaustik»n]. Now
there are three kinds of life which stand out most; the one just mentioned, the
political [¾ politik¼v], and thirdly the contemplative [¾ qewrhtik»v]. Ordinary
people appear to be quite slavish in choosing deliberately [proairo…menoi] a life
of beastly pleasures, but their view has support because many men of means share
the passions of Sardanapalus. Men of culture and action seek a life of honor; for
the end of political life is almost this. But this good appears rather super¬cial to
be what is sought. (1095b16“24)

It should be noticed that, at this juncture, Aristotle does not elaborate on
what the third mode of life would be and entail. This will be approached
at the end of the treatise, in Book Kappa. For the moment, we are left
with a little more than a hint. Indeed, we ¬nd a passing anticipatory
remark in a passage already considered above, where Aristotle observes
that some regard the supreme good as something “obvious or apparent,”
while others as “something other” (1095a23“4). Then, as though in order
to elaborate on the latter, he speaks of those human beings who, upon
taking note of their “ignorance,” are drawn to “those who discuss some-
thing great and beyond themselves [Ëp•r aÉtoÆv]” (1095a26“7). It is in
such a wondrous striving toward a comprehension leading them over and
above themselves, making them more comprehensive, that we recognize
the bios of seeing, contemplation, even theory. Once again, the nexus
of human and divine modes can be divined precisely in this eccentric
movement of the human in excess of itself, projected beyond itself. We
shall have numerous occasions to return to this, because such a “thrust
beyond” will emerge as central in the understanding of the intellectual
“excellences” nous and sophia as well as friendship in its manifold senses.
Of course, it will also be crucial in the development of the contemplative
life at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics.9
The hedonistic life keeps one bound to one™s drives and compul-
sions, well beyond the mere and necessary satisfaction of physiological

9 Regarding the “the paradoxical and enigmatic idea that Aristotle forms of the intellect
and of spirit,” Hadot notes: “the intellect is that which is most essential in man, and, at
the same time, it is something divine that comes to man, so that it is that which transcends
man that constitutes his authentic personality, as if the essence of man would consist of
his being above himself” (Che cos™` la ¬loso¬a ontica? 78; emphasis added).
On Happiness 89

necessities. Sensual appetites become the focus of one™s pursuits to the
point of overindulgence, as in the paradigmatic case of the Assyrian king.
The problematic character of this choice is not so much, or not so sim-
ply, its attention to sensuous needs, but rather the disproportion and
one-sidedness of this emphasis. It is precisely the lack of measure in the
satisfaction of these desires that ends up making this life, far from a mag-
ni¬cation of embodiment, a corruption of bodily well being, a destructive
and unhealthy conduct. On the other hand, the “political” life, the life
more consciously devoted to the care of one™s essentially political nature,


. 3
( 12)