September 3, 2012

Aristotle's Struggle to Define Good

In the opening sentence of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics he references the saying, "Good is That at which all things aim" (Aristotle. Page 3). Remembering Burke's Equipment for Living, one can easily view this proverb as the strategy being expanded upon in this work. Noticing the capitalization of the letter "g" in the proverbs usage of the word good, it is obvious the "good" which Aristotle is searching for is a Supreme Good. The Supreme Good is not a materialistically attainable goal, according to Aristotle. While he makes the point that ordinary people may view good in a material sense, it is good in itself for which he frames his work around, as is understood in the following statement, "There exists another Good, that is good in itself, and stands to all those goods as the cause of their being good." The final statement here is vital, "and stands to all those goods as the cause of their being good", as Aristotle is reaffirming his position that within all attainable goods there must be-or should be-an intrinsic good that is good purely and in itself, regardless of its implications.

The idea Aristotle is working toward is clear. However, finding and identifying this Supreme Good proves to be a difficult task. In terms of finding a clear definition of "good" or what makes something intrinsically good, Aristotle does not find the perfect solution/definition. I believe his work is instead focused on proving that there is no such thing  as a Supreme Good (at least not definable by man). He does this by refuting several theories/practices of what "good" is, my favorite being his refutation of Plato, Universal Good and the Theory of Ideas. Whereas in the rest of the essay he is refuting general notions of Good that an average scholar may point out, here he makes a clear cut rebuttal of Plato's notion. In Plato's Idea of Good, Good is viewed as one within the various categories of Substance, Quality, and of Relation. However, Aristotle makes the point that "Relative" good is not one within "Absolute" or "Substance" good but in fact comes after "Substance". I think the point here being made is what makes something intrinsically good must come before what makes it relatively good.  A relative good can make practically any action or desire "good" but a Supreme Good must be good in and of itself. Whereas Plato allows things to be good because of their actions(at least this essay gives this impression), Aristotle stresses there must be an identifiable good within these other goods if there is a true Supreme Good, the way there is a unifying color in white paint, snow, and milk. Ultimately he does not find one, but settles with the fact that humans only need applicable goods to their own individual services.

Joel Bergholtz


Shawn Binder said...

I really enjoyed your post. Although, I am a little confused by your point that to be a supreme Good, something must be good in and of itself. What would a good example of a good that is good in and of itself? After reading this, I came to the conclusion that Aristotle doesn't really have any idea what makes a Supreme Good, which makes me wonder if his entire work's point was moot.

Ben Barnard said...

I don't think that his use of the capitalized 'Good' is a way of him referencing the Supreme Good. There was a single instance of him using the two terms interchangeably, "... it is clear that this one ultimate End must be the Good, and indeed the Supreme Good." But I feel even in this he is separating the two ideas. In this specific quote he states that understanding and knowledge of this 'Supreme Good' is needed in order to fulfill the moral objectives in any pursuit of sciences and arts. In this way he is using Supreme Good as a broadly encompassed concept, not to say it is a single idea of being a good person or doing good work in a field. These ideas of good are narrowly defined in each of their respective fields. And because of this, his definition of Good becomes as simply as possible in order to be maintained by as many aspects of the definition as possible. The definition of it stays simply at the "Supreme Good." The good that isn't definable by words but more the idea of good that is apparent in each study.

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