In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines the Good as “that at which all things aim.” But, does the Good he is referring to give anything back? That is to say, do we gain anything from the Good?
Within a Christian context, God is the Good; Christ declared that “There is none good but one, that is, God.” Therefore, if we apply Aristotle’s definition to the Christian understanding, God is that at which all things aim. But Aristotle is not needed to understand this concept within Christianity itself, for it is written in Romans: “For of Him, through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory forever.” So when a Christian considers whether or not the Good gives, they must consider whether or not God gives.
It seems that God does, indeed, give; the apostle writes that God “gave His only begotten Son.” And not only does He give, but He only gives good things and is the only giver of Good things: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.” Even in creation, it can be seen that God made the world to be good.
One of the best and most beautiful examples of this goodness is in The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien. In the first chapter, entitled “The Music of the Ainur,” Tolkien writes about the creation of the Universe, during which Eru Iluvatar (the creator) gives his song to the Ainur to play and says they can play it in whatever way they wish so long as they follow the music he gives them. However, Melkor (one of the Ainur) begins playing a completely different piece of music. However, no matter how different his music is, Melkor is unable to perform a theme “that hath not its uttermost source in” Iluvatar. So, even in his rebellion against Iluvatar, Melkor is unable to separate the source of his creation from Iluvatar. When Melkor makes his first theme, Iluvatar rises and begins a new theme. In all of this, Iluvatar only makes themes that are beautiful and harmonious. In this example, Illuvatar resembles God, creating music that is good and beautiful and remains good and beautiful no matter how much Malkor (who resembles Satan) attempts to change it. This is a beautiful metaphor depicting how God only gives good things; he does not make or give anything that is not good.
Since God is good, and God gives, it seems to follow that the good must give too. However, one is led to wonder whether if this conclusion could be obtained without using God in the argument. Does the truth holds, apart from Christianity, that the Good by its very nature gives?
To determine this, we need to understand what the good—apart from God—is. When we say good apart from God, we do not actually mean that there is good apart from God, but that there exists some good thing that can be seen as good, even when someone does not see (or denies the existence of) God. Aristotle argues that this good is happiness which is found through the virtuous life: “happiness is activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be that of the best thing in us…the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man.”
Aristotle claims that this life of happiness and reason is self-sufficient, leisurely, and unwearied. Now, simply based on the definition of happiness, this would be true. However, we must wonder if it is possible for someone to live a completely happy life, and if this would truly be good. We must note that this completely happy life does not imply that someone is always happy. It is virtuous for a man to get upset when his child dies out because he loves his child. However, it could be argued that happiness is not an emotion, but an activity in which we participate. So when a man takes part in the virtue of mourning his child, his life is still happy, in this sense. According to Aristotle, in order to participate in this happiness we are to be self-sufficient, leisurely, and unwearied A question then seems to arise: do we obtain these three things—self-sufficiency, leisure, and a lack of weariness—though participating in good and being virtuous?
To begin with, “self-sufficiency and action do not involve excess” but instead mean taking care of our external needs. This means eating, drinking, sleeping—always in a moderate amount—and anything else our body needs in order to function properly. It also makes logical sense for someone to take care of their body. Anyone would agree that a man would better off physically if he were healthy than if he were ill. So it would certainly be agreed that this good thing, to take care of one’s self, will “give”, or lead to good things.
The next necessity for a life of happiness is leisure. Now, did Aristotle mean that a man who is happy and focused on reason was always taking part in leisure? Well in some sense, yes. Aristotle claims that thought and philosophy are leisurely and thus he lived a leisurely life. However, when we look at the life of Jesus, the most virtuous man to walk the Earth, we see that his life was not completely leisurely; he was carpenter who spent most of his life working. For work is something that you do because it is your duty, not because you enjoy doing it. Whereas, leisure is something you actually enjoy doing. These definitions do overlap. This means a man, Aristotle for example, can do work that is leisurely. However, there are certainly duties that men have which they do not enjoy. So, even if Aristotle meant a good life was one with constant leisure, we will view it as occasional leisure.
Pieper would agree with viewing a good life as one with occasional leisure. For example, Pieper talks about how a holiday is no longer special if it occurs every day. For this reason, leisure, which Pieper describes as pure festivity, “is given by the working day.” However, this does not mean a festival is merely a day without work. Rather, festivity should be a form leisure that is done for the sake of itself. Pieper explains this through the concept of play because, he writes, “is not play activity meaningful in itself, needing no utilitarian justification?” Now, this should be agreed upon as something that people would desire. Who does not dream and have fond memories of those days of youth when we were able to play for the sake of play itself? Aristotle would say that there is some work that is done for the sake of itself, such as thought and philosophy, and Aristotle would also agree that goods done for their own sake are the highest goods. So people desire the good of leisure because rest is desired for the sake of itself. People would love to spend more time resting, relaxing, and in a state of “playfulness.”
Now we are led to the last quality of happiness as Aristotle describes it: a lack of weariness. This concept is again something that people are naturally drawn to; no one wants to be weary all the time. This is also a biblical concept because Jesus often tells his disciples to rest after they do work. So this also satisfies both the Christian and secular desires toward the good.
However, this still does not encourage someone to do good things; even though these goods, as they have been described, clearly do have benefits, this does not necessarily mean that all goods have benefits. What does loving my neighbor do for me? Well, even though it would be impossible to go through all of the goods, Aquinas would argue that “natural things have a natural inclination not only towards their own proper good…but also to spread abroad their own good amongst others, so far as possible.”
So, in this way, we inherently go towards our proper good. For those who do not believe in God, they seek what is good for themselves, which is happiness. Thus, they still seek what is good, and the good gives. Therefore, those who seek the good benefit from doing so, whether they are actually led to God or not.
Aristotle. Ethics: The Nichomachean Ethics. Baltimore: Penguin, 1966.
Pieper, Josef. In Tune with the World; a Theory of Festivity. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965.
Thomas, and Daniel J. Sullivan. The Summa Theologica. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1955.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.