Press enter to see results or esc to cancel.

The Ethical Virtues, Contemplation, and Man’s Composite Nature in Aristotle

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, there is a tension between his seemingly contradictory claims about the nature of the good and ultimate human happiness. He claims in Book I that “Happiness. . .is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action,” and that “human good turns out to be activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.”[1] He spends much of the Ethics writing about the ethical virtues and particular actions that make the man virtuous, all reflecting the principle that “the end aimed at is not knowledge but action.”[2] But then, in Book X, he writes that “Happiness, therefore, must be a form of contemplation,” and herein lies the tension.[3] Twentieth-century philosopher Lawrence Nannery articulates this, the “problem of the two lives,” in this simple question: “on the understanding that Aristotle rejects the life devoted to pleasure, the question remains which of the two lives, the life of ethical virtue [bios politikos kai praktikos] or the life of philosophy [bios theoretikos], does Aristotle think constitutes ‘happiness’?”[4] In this paper, I will argue that the answer lies in Aristotle’s understanding of humanity’s composite nature (made up of mortal and divine parts), and that we should interpret the text as claiming that contemplation is indeed greater than the ethical virtues, though the ethical virtues are necessary for the good life as well. The relationship between these elements of the good life is fundamentally linked to Aristotle’s belief that the ethical virtues correspond to the mortal part of man and the act of contemplation corresponds to the divine.

Happiness ultimately lies in contemplation, as Aristotle explicitly states in Book X. Contemplation is both the function of man and the most divine attribute of man. He argues that “If reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life,” because men are to strive to access the most immortal, divine parts of themselves, as those parts are simultaneously the most truly human: “reason more than anything else is man.”[5] This is central to Aristotle’s understanding of man’s nature and end and, therefore, should be central to our interpretation of the relationship between ethical virtues and contemplation: contemplation is superior because it is the divine part of the man. However, because man is not entirely divine, and is in fact mortal, the good life also entails actions in accordance with the ethical virtues. The good, happy life for man is the contemplative one, but is not entirely contemplative, still requiring the pursuit of the ethical virtues in some way. Perfect contemplation (without any external, ethical actions) is simply unachievable for human persons; it is the human part of their composite nature that makes this so, and so happiness consists in both the ethical virtues and in contemplation.

When Aristotle argues in Book X of his Ethics that the contemplative activity of reason is superior to the ethically virtuous actions, he does not claim that the ethical virtues are unnecessary. In fact, the qualifications that accompany his claim of contemplation’s superiority suggest the opposite, because they imply his conception of man as composite and somehow lacking. “The self-sufficiency, leisureliness, unweariedness (so far as this is possible for man), and all the other attributes ascribed to the supremely happy man are evidently those connected with this activity [reason],” Aristotle writes, suggesting that this is not possible for man to its full extent.[6] He also writes immediately following this claim that

such a life would be too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him; and by so much as this is superior to our composite nature is its activity superior to that which is the exercise of the other kind of virtue.[7]

This is crucial to our understanding of what Aristotle is saying about contemplation and activity: man’s ability to contemplate is associated with his divine component (and mention of man’s “composite nature” affirms that there are in fact two components: mortal and divine). Also implicit here is that “the other kind of virtue” – ethical virtue – corresponds to the other part of man (the mortal component). Indeed, Aristotle writes “the moral virtues must belong to our composite nature; and the virtues of our composite nature are human; so, therefore, are the life and the happiness which correspond to these. The excellence of the reason is a thing apart.”[8] This passage indicates that moral virtue does in fact have a place in Aristotle’s conception of the man: elsewhere, he argues that “just and brave acts” and other virtuous acts are “typically human” and that “in a secondary degree the life in accordance with the other kind of virtue [ethical virtues] is happy; for the activities in accordance with this befit our human estate.”[9] He argues also that “being a man, one will also need external prosperity, for our nature is not self-sufficient for the purpose of contemplation.”[10] Thus, the happy life for the man entails both contemplation and virtuous activity, but contemplation is still the ultimate end because it is the ideal. It is only because man is imperfect (partially mortal) that he must incorporate the ethical virtues in addition to contemplation in order to live the happy, good life.

Nannery gives an illustration of the hypothetical purely contemplative man:

This man would never write books, have friends, or indeed do most anything unless it contributed to theoria. He would not obey the summons of the king to come and advise the sovereign, unless theoria required such activity. He would have no loyalty to institutions: if his academic position or his family loaded him down with responsibilities, he would flee, cut himself off from them, in order to contemplate.[11]

Now, people must necessarily handle interactions, situations, and forced decisions that preclude pure contemplation (“observing our respective duties with regard to contracts and services and all manner of actions”), like choosing to obey or not obey the sovereign and the other obstacles to contemplation that Nannery mentions.[12] It seems that Aristotle considers it a necessity that we must consider the ethical virtues, and in some ways an unfortunate necessity. Aristotle does not see this as a wholly unfortunate necessity; that is, he does identify the ethical virtues as goods, but it is also crucial to consider that, to Aristotle, they fall short of the divine, contemplative ideal.

W.K.C. Guthrie, a twentieth-century philosopher specializing in Ancient Greek philosophy notes that there are two “strongly represented” ideas in the Ancient Greek religious mind: “that there was a great gulf between mortal and immortal, between man and god, and that for man to attempt to bridge it was hybris and could only end in disaster,” and “that there was a kinship between human and divine, and that it was the duty of man to live a life which would emphasize this kinship and make it as close as possible.”[13] Aristotle, Guthrie writes, seems to be aligned more with the second type of Greek religious thought, identifying the pursuit of “immortality or divinity” as “the development of man’s highest spiritual and intellectual potentialities.”[14] This interpretation of Aristotle seems consistent with the text (he even Aristotle even identifies the “greatest goods” as “that of being gods”), which would also lead us to believe that anything that separates man from the divine – including the necessity of the ethical virtues – is, in some way, detrimental to man.[15] This is why I argue that Aristotle seems to think of the ethical virtues as a somewhat unfortunate necessity.

Even though they fall short of the divine ideal, Aristotle does not deny the goods to which the ethical virtues can contribute; again, they are not a wholly unfortunate necessity. There is a passage in Aristotle’s Metaphysics that further illustrates the relationship between the ethical virtues and contemplation and the way in which the ethical virtues contribute to the good life. In the beginning of Book I of Metaphysics, Aristotle writes about experience and theory, which seem to correlate directly to his discussion of ethical virtues and contemplation in Ethics: virtuous acts are experiences and contemplation is entirely theoretical. Aristotle is consistent here, claiming the superiority of theory and necessity of experience in the good life. There are several reasons for this: those who know theory know universals while those who have experience know individuals, those who know theory know the causes behind things while those who have experience only know the things themselves (particulars “do not tell us the ‘why’ of anything – e.g. why fire is hot; they only say that it is hot”).[16]

However, the fact that experience allows for the knowledge of individuals is important for the human person: the doctor may know, theoretically, all of the properties of a disease, but he must know the individual signs of the disease in order to treat it. Presumably, this is not necessary in the realm of the divine, since the gods are wholly contemplative and would not have “crafts” to master (gain experience in) as Aristotle says that men do. How does this reflect the relationship between contemplation and virtuous activity? Just as one must have experiential knowledge for theory to be “activated” (that is, to actually serve any purpose), for contemplation to mean anything in a person’s life, it must lead to ethical virtue. The objects of reason are presumably the virtues (Aristotle does, of course, seem to be exercising reason throughout the first nine books of Nicomachean Ethics), indicating that he thinks that these are goods to contemplate. It seems to naturally follow from the understanding of the virtues as Aristotle’s objects of reason that they should live virtuously as a result of their contemplating the virtues. So, it seems that as experience is necessary to actualize theory, acts in accordance with ethical virtues are necessary to actualize contemplation. Again, this is a product of humanity’s composite nature, as this would not be necessary for truly divine beings – presumably the gods did not have such duties and could exist in purely contemplative states.

So, the “problem of the two lives” in Aristotle is one that may be resolved by understanding the nature of humanity as composite and mortal. The mortal component necessitates ethical virtues as part of the good life, though the ideal aim would simply be contemplation. In reality, in accordance with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and even Metaphysics, it is a synergy between the two that compose the good life.


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.7 1097b21-22, 1098a15-17.  Unless otherwise mentioned, all subsequent references to Aristotle are to the translations in Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (The Modern Library: New York, 2001).
[2] Ibid. I.7 1095a4-5.
[3] Ibid. X.8 1178b31.
[4] Lawrence Nannery, “The Problem of the Two Lives in Aristotle’s Ethics: The Human Good and the Best Life for a Man,” International Philosophical Quarterly 21, no. 3 (1981): 278, doi: 10.5840/ipq198121324.
[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X.7 1177b25-1178a8.
[6] Ibid. X.7 1177b20-24.
[7] Ibid. X.7 1177b26-30.
[8] Ibid. X.8 1178a24-28.
[9] Ibid. X.8 1178a8-10.
[10] Ibid. X.8 1178b32-35
[11] Nannery, “The Problem of the Two Lives,” 279
[12] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X.8 1778a11-12.
[13] W.K.C. Guthrie, The Greeks and Their Gods (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 114.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics VIII.7 1159a6-13.
[16] Aristotle, Metaphysics, I.I 981b13.


Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Edited by Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 2001.
Guthrie, W.K.C. The Greeks and Their Gods. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.
Nannery, Lawrence. “The Problem of the Two Lives in Aristotle’s Ethics: The Human Good and the Best Life for a Man.” International Philosophical Quarterly 21, no. 3 (1981): 276-92. doi:10.5840/ipq198121324.