Book 01
Chapter 07
What are humans for?

Now let's get back to the good that we are seeking and ask again what it can be. It seems to be different in different actions and arts; it is different in medicine, in strategy, and in the other arts as well. So what is the good of each of these? Whatever it is that the each of them works towards. Medicine works towards health, strategy tries to win, and architecture is all about making a house. If you pick anything else besides these three, you will still find that work is done towards some thing (an end) and the actions taken are all for the purpose of getting to that end. Well, in the same way, if we take all the actions that we do in life together, we should assume there is some purpose behind them also; there is some place we are going to in life; we move towards either some one single good or there are many goods that are got at by the acts that we do.

Now the argument has again got to the same point we were at before, though by a different route. But still, let us try to set things down even more clearly before we move on.

There is more than one thing that can be done by what we do. We choose to work towards some of these for the sake of being able to get at something else (e.g. wealth). Not every point that we try to get to is the finish, that should be clear enough. But the most good thing we try to get at, will be a final end, we should think. It is final, because there is nothing beyond it that we are trying to get at. Now, we might call something finished because we do not see anything beyond which it is for, and yet we know it is going to be for something. For instance, perhaps we spend a long time building something for someone even though we do not know just what they will use it for or why they want it. We can still consider getting the thing done, in a sense, as a final end and the steps in the middle as intermediate points.

Can there be something more final than such a final end? Yes, something for which we know that there is nothing beyond it. This is not like the case where we are done with our work, we say it is finished and cannot see anything beyond and yet we know something else must exist. Whoever we did it for, again, will use it for something. But in the case of the most final end, we know it is not possible for anything to be better than this most final thing. If we imagine it as something that could be bought and sold, everyone would want to buy it but no one would be willing to sell it, because there is nothing as good as it.

Happiness (a good life) is this thing. We always want happiness for the sake of being happy and never for the sake of anything else. It is true that we try to get honor, feelings of pleasure, right reason, and every virtue for themselves (because even if we could not get anything else from them, we should still want each of them), but we also choose them for the sake of happiness, because through them we can be happy. But it does not go the other way around. No one seeks happiness in order to get honor or any of those other things we mentioned. People seek happiness in order to be happy and nothing beyond that.

The ultimate good is thought to be something that takes care of everything. Here, we do not mean that the ultimate good is something that takes care of everything for just one person. We mean something that takes care of things for parents and children and wife and friends and fellow citizens (man is born for citizenship). But we do have to put a limit on this because otherwise if we keep going on and on to friends of friends, etc. then we will never see the end of it. Well, we can figure that part out later. The ultimate good makes life worth living and lacking in nothing. We say again, this is the same as what happiness means. What's more, we think it is more desirable than anything else and in a class on its own, not be counted among other good things. If you were to count it among the other goods, then that would mean you could add to happiness some trifling good and then say happiness plus that would be better than just happiness. Well, that is not going to work. Why? Because that would mean happiness by itself is not the final end. Once you got happiness there would be some point beyond that you were trying get to and then also get some trifling thing as the ultimate, this would mean some thing that was not already taken care of by happiness, or you would go on to the next and the next trifling thing forever. No. Happiness is the final end, it takes care of everything, and after we get it we do not then seek something else.

But still, perhaps us saying that happiness is the ultimate good in life is like one of those things people say that sound nice and it would be nice if it were true, but the reality is something different. Let us keep at this and try to be still more convincing.

OK, let us try this: let us ask: Why do people even exist at all? What is life for? Everything is for something. Everything is what it is for a reason. There is a reason why this person is a flute-player. There is a reason why this person is a general. The good of the thing is in the why. How so? Say we have a general to lead the army to victory. The good of that general lies in leading the army to victory, does it not? Say we hire a flute-player so we can hear beautiful music. The good of that flute-player lies in making beautiful music.

Now what is the good of a human being? Do all humans exist for a reason? Well, we can say that each and every part of a human exists for a reason: what that part does. We can say that people have eyes in order to see and feet in order to walk. But does a whole person exist for any reason besides what they do with each of their parts? And if so, what could it possibly be?

If the answer is: "to live" then we say that plants do that also, but what we are looking for is something special for humans. So, let us rule out the life of a plant (i.e. taking in nutriments and growing). Now what do humans do that plants do not? We can see and hear things. True, but so can horses and oxen and every animal. So, perception is not something special to humans and not the thing we are looking for. OK, again, what do humans do that other animals cannot? They can use their minds to think things over and make choices; humans use reason.

Let us go back to the case of the flute-player. A flute-player plays the flute, but the good of the flute player is not in playing the flute. Why? Because it is possible to play badly. There is a difference between someone being a flute-player and a good flute-player. The reason why they are a flute-player is the same: people want to hear beautiful music. What they do is the same: play the flute. But what comes from that is different, and that is why we add the word "good" to the one that makes beautiful music.

The case is even more obvious with the general. Anyone who is a general can lead an army (otherwise we never would call them a general to begin with). But a good general leads the army well and leads it to victory, and that is why we say they are a good general. We did not make such-and-such a person general simply to lead the army. We did it so that they would lead them to victory. We did not hire this flute-player just to play the flute, we did it so that they would make beautiful music.

Well, now, it is the same with human beings. Human beings can reason about things and make choices. They can reason well and they can reason poorly. From reason comes choice. People can make good choices and bad choices. Next, from choices come actions. They can act right and they can act wrong. Finally, from actions come results. People can do good or do bad. Now, here a person reasoning well, choosing well, acting right, and doing good is like the good flute-player making beautiful music and the good general leading the army to victory. If those are the reasons why we have generals and flute-players, then let us set it down that the reason why humans exist is to think what good can be done and then to take action to do it, to make it happen.

Let us say that virtue means seeing what is the better thing and doing what has to be done to make it happen. This being so, the good of a person is in living a life of virtue. I mean, throughout their life they are ever active, seeking for what is good where ever they find themselves, and then doing what has to be done to get at that good. We call this acting in accordance with virtue. If humans are body and soul, then here the activity we are talking about happens in their soul, even if the action is carried out with their body. So using these terms, we say again that the good of humans is activity of soul in accordance with virtue.

We also said before that happiness was the ultimate good of humans. If we put the two together then we get: Happiness is activity of soul in accordance with virtue. But we also have to add to that "in a complete life" and not just temporarily. One fine day does not make for an entire spring. So also, if a person lives right and well for one day, it does not follow from that we now say they are blessed and happy.

Let us take this for our outline of the good. We must first begin with a rough sketch and later fill in the details. Actually, we will leave it to others to work out the details; anyone can be the one to do that. Also, remember that we said at the beginning that we were not going to go into fine details and it is not right to demand precision here, but only in places where it is appropriate. For example, a carpenter and a geometer both work with right angles and they do so in different ways. The carpenter works with a right angle to make use of it to build things. The geometer works with the right angle in his quest for truth. And here we must do the same. We must stick to our main task and not instead be caught up with answering minor questions. We must also not be asking the reasons why something is so in the cases where we are taking something as an established fact or a starting point.

Now, about those starting points. Some of them we get by noticing patterns in things generally, others we get from seeing that specific things are so, and others we get because it is how we, and everyone else, normally thinks. But whatever we do use for starting points, we should take pains to set them down clearly and know exactly what we mean when we use them. Why? Because that is going to have a big impact on anything that follows. It is like a sprinter getting off to a strong start or a builder building a house on a strong foundation. It is often said that the beginning of the work is more than half of it. Many of the questions we would ask, we can handle them well if we have strong starting points.


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