In this paper, I examine a family of arguments employed by Aristotle in his efforts to specify in what happiness (eudaimonia) consists. I focus in particular on the distinct, and potentially incompatible, senses of self-sufficiency (autarkeia) at play in those arguments.
In NE 1.7, Aristotle introduces two formal criteria that any candidate for the chief good must satisfy. The first of these is completeness. According to Aristotle, an end may be complete either relatively or simpliciter: “Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more complete than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more complete than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call complete without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else” (NE 1.7, 1097a30-4; trans. Ross, rev. Urmson). The second criterion Aristotle introduces is that of self-sufficiency, for which his definition is as follows: “the self-sufficient we now define as that which when isolated makes life desirable and lacking in nothing” (NE 1.7, 1097b14-16). Both criteria figure importantly into Aristotle’s claims throughout NE 1 regarding the nature of happiness.
When Aristotle returns to the subject of the nature of happiness in NE 10, however, he makes the following claim in support of his identification of the highest form of happiness with contemplation: “And the self-sufficiency that is spoken of must belong most to the contemplative activity. For while a wise man, as well as a just man and the rest, needs the necessaries of life, when they are sufficiently equipped with things of that sort the just man needs people towards whom and with whom he shall act justly … but the wise man, even when by himself, can contemplate truth, and the better the wiser he is; he can perhaps do so better is he has fellow workers, but still he is the most self-sufficient” (NE 10.7,1177a27–34).
I maintain that Aristotle’s arguments concerning happiness in NE Books 1 and 10 conflate two distinct senses of “self-sufficiency”: that of an end itself, and that of an agent with respect to some end. Aristotle’s definition of “self-sufficiency” from NE 1.7, cited above, concerns the former. An end is self-sufficient in this sense if it “lacks nothing” and by itself makes life desirable. But Aristotle’s remarks on happiness in NE 10.7 appeal to an agent-centered notion of self-sufficiency. According to this sense of “self-sufficiency,” the less need a person has for anything beyond his own resources to attain a specified end, the more self-sufficient he is with respect to that particular end.
Unfortunately, there is no antecedent reason for supposing that these two kinds of self-sufficiency will coincide in such a way that agents will be (entirely, or even mostly) self-sufficient in the relevant sense with respect to ends that are themselves self-sufficient in their relevant sense. (More formally, if we designate the agent-centered notion of self-sufficiency as found in NE 10.7 by the term “self-sufficiencya”and the end-centered notion given in NE 1.7 by “self-sufficiencye,” then we might say that a high level of “self-sufficiencya” with respect to some end, x, does not entail that x itself will satisfy the standards of “self–sufficiencye.”) Indeed, in light of comments on human nature that Aristotle himself makes both elsewhere in NE and in Pol., I wish to suggest further that any plausible formulation of a self-sufficient end — i.e., one that makes a human life desirable — would not afford agents the level of self-sufficiency that is central to Aristotle’s argument in NE 10.7. This conclusion highlights what I contend is an irreconcilable tension between the conception of happiness in Books 1 and 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics.