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Virtue and External Goods in Aristotle

Jay Elliott

In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes two central claims about the substantive content ofeudaimonia or “happiness”: (1) that happiness is “activity of the soul in accord with virtue”[1]; and (2) that happiness “needs external goods,” such as friends, wealth, and political power.[2] Taken independently, each of these claims is intuitively plausible, and each is supported by compelling arguments from Aristotle. Recent writers have often seen Aristotle’s commitment to both of these claims as a major advantage of his conception of happiness, by contrast with that of the Stoics, who endorse some version of (1) but notoriously reject (2).[3] By affirming both (1) and (2), Aristotle appears to succeed in combining an admirable emphasis on the role of virtue in happiness with a realistic recognition that human happiness is vulnerable to luck.

            Despite the appeal of Aristotle’s position, I am going to suggest that this recent consensus in favor of Aristotle is badly mistaken, or at least quite premature. For it seems to me that neither Aristotle nor his intellectual heirs have yet succeeded in showing how these two claims about happiness can be coherently held together.[4] In what follows, I motivate this suspicion through an examination of the most sophisticated attempt yet to combine these two claims into a coherent whole, namely that proposed by Daniel Russell in his recent book Happiness for Humans and related writings.[5] Russell’s approach is grounded in a fundamental understanding of the difficulties confronting any attempt to combine these claims, and a thorough survey of the failures of previous attempts. Nonetheless, Russell too fails to hold them together, and we should therefore begin to doubt that they can be made to cohere. If this suspicion turns out to be correct, then I suggest that we should take Stoicism far more seriously than recent philosophers usually have. If we cannot accept Stoicism, then our only option will be a position that departs from Aristotle’s much more radically.

[1] Nicomachean Ethics [hereafter NE] I.7 (1098a16-17); Irwin 1999: 9. In this passage, Aristotle is officially giving an account of “the human good”, but it is clear from the context that he takes this to be equivalent to happiness. In what follows, I discuss virtuous activity in connection with ethical virtues only. There are complex issues about Aristotle’s view of the respective role of ethical and intellectual virtues in happiness, which I do not address here.

[2] NE I.8 (1099a31-2); Irwin 1999: 11

[3] See Hursthouse 1999: 75 n.11; Foot 2001: 96-7; Nussbaum 2001: 318-372; Swanton 2003: 60 n.7

[4] For overviews of the problem and the various solutions that have been proposed, see Annas 1993: 364-425, White 2002, and Russell 2012: 107-134.

[5] See Russell 2008, 2010, and 2012

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