Aristotle: Virtue to the Max & Contemplation


In many senses, Aristotle brings to fully flowered fruition Greek philosophical thought, stemming from the mythological roots of pre-Socratics such as Homer and Hesiod, nurtured into a philosophic awareness by the questionings of Socrates, and more fully formed into the trunk of Philosophy with Plato (of whom it was famously stated that all of philosophy is a but a footnote).[1] While Plato gave us the dialogues of Socrates and imbued them with form – literally with his positing of the ultimate guiding Forms of the Good, the True and the Beautiful – it was Aristotle who more fully pruned them into the branches of philosophy and intellectual disciplines we recognize today: ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, rhetoric and biology to name but a few. As we consider this philosophical legacy, which has so profoundly shaped Western civilization, we are challenged to assess its value for the Christian.


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Aristotle based his ethics, or a claim to possess ‘goodness,’ on assessing how well one performs according to their essential nature, or characteristic function. However impersonal this definition may sound, Aristotle used it to build his case for the highest good of man.  Prior to Aristotle, Plato improved on the morally chaotic universe of Homer, in which the gods offer little in the way of moral inspiration, by arguing that it was “unthinkable that God’s goodness and excellence are anything less than perfect.”[2]  It is by catching sight of this goodness that we order our ways: “the sight of it is a prerequisite for intelligent conduct either of one’s own private affairs or of public business.”[3] But with Aristotle, the more transcendent ‘good’ is replaced with a sense of eudaemonia, or proper flourishing of a being in its functioning, a “final end,” a “happiness” which results from the exercises of the virtues.[4] Such a being might be as simple as a flute player or a hand, the eudaemonia of which ensures its proper and most effective functioning as a flute player or a hand, Aristotle argues.[5] The nature of man differs from all other beings in his capacity to exercise reason, so the ‘good’ for man is the manner in which he can operate most rationally, and thus function best according to what man was designed to do.  For the being ‘man,’ this constitutes his best happiness, his most full and correct operation.  But man’s highest good, his greatest pleasure, lies just beyond this eudaemoniac happiness.

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Man’s greatest happiness lies beyond the activity of moral virtues, and in the realm of intellectual virtues, where the contemplative life can be found.  Moral virtues come about “as a result of habit”[6] and exercise of the will, and consist of such behaviors as courage and moderation, which are ideal means between behavioral extremes. For instance, a lack of courage would be cowardice, and excess would be rashness. By contrast, intellectual virtue, “which owe(s) both its birth and its growth to teaching,”[7]  governs the acquisition of knowledge.  The intellectual virtues include scientific knowledge (knowledge of that which is eternal and necessary), art (knowledge of making things, not just of how things behave), practical wisdom (such as deliberating and calculating well), intuitive knowledge (of first principles behind scientific knowledge) and finally philosophic wisdom (“scientific knowledge combined with intuition, of the things that are highest by nature”[8] ).  It is this final intellectual virtue, the contemplative philosophic wisdom, which Aristotle will claim to be the chief virtue, and to produce a life of “perfect happiness.”[9]


But is simply a life of the greatest amount of happiness that which we should seek? This definition would seem to  quickly devolve into blatant hedonism, or at least a sort of Epicureanism. Aristotle is not so superficial, it turns out, and Christians do well to follow him for at least a good part of his journey.  Aristotle does seek to distance himself, and ‘happiness’ in general, from such shallow waters of pleasure. Aristotle’s discussion of  happiness does follow closely his prior discussion of pleasure, which will give us a clue to his meaning.  Aristotle defined pleasure as that which completes an activity, “not as the corresponding permanent state does … but as an end which supervenes, as the bloom of youth does on those in the flower of their age;”[10]  in short, pleasure is the result of doing other things right.  Similarly, happiness is not merely a life of amusement and pursuing pastimes, but instead is a “virtuous life (which) requires exertion.”[11] The exertion is made in performing “virtuous actions … noble and good deeds”[12]  The life of morally virtuous  actions, then, do result in happiness, as activities of the sort that are “desirable in themselves, not among those desirable for the sake of something else.”[13]  While we can behave to achieve our own ends, such as playing the lottery in order to obtain wealth,the morally virtuous action, such as exhibiting courage or love in an appropriate situation, results in our being most fully humane, or even human, thus such acts are ‘desirable in themselves’ rather that ‘for the sake of something else.’

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But now we need to consider those actions that result in the highest good – and Aristotle finds that in the intellectual rather than the moral virtues.  The happiest life, then, is not just “activity in accordance with virtue,” but activity in accordance with “the highest virtue … that of the best thing in us.”[14]  This is described most fully in the following passage:

                “And we think happiness ought to have pleasure mingled with it, but the activity of philosophic wisdom is admittedly the pleasantest of all virtuous activities; at all events the pursuit of it is thought to offer the pleasures    marvelous for their purity and their enduringness, and it is expected that those who know will pass their time     more pleasantly than those who inquire.”[15]

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                Philosophic wisdom – recall it is the combination of scientific knowledge, of that which is necessary and eternal, with intuitive knowledge, or the first principles that lie behind science – this is primary activity of the life of contemplation, the life that brings the highest happiness and sweetest pleasures.  While the life of moral virtue is not an inanimate life, as it does require ‘exertion,’ that of philosophic wisdom appears to be just that – quite inanimate!  But to Aristotle’s credit, he had clarified early on that “clearly all ends are not final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final.”[16] Just as ends pursued as not ends in themselves (riches or amusements rather than virtuous living) are of lesser intrinsic worth (though still possessing some worth) than the pursuit of virtue itself (or ‘happiness’), so are moral virtues lesser in some way to the intellectual virtues.  But it is the intellectual activity, the virtue of philosophic wisdom, that serves as that ‘chief good.’


But what did this life of contemplation look like to Aristotle?  The irony that Aristotle privileges this intellectual virtue while the bulk of the Nichomachean Ethics is devoted to the moral virtues has been noted, and is the basis for significant scholarly disputes.[17] But Aristotle builds his case on the consideration that the gods themselves do not engage in the type of moral behaviors that necessitate other participants (they do not have to go to sign contracts or lend money), so it is their activity of pure, rational contemplation that rational man can emulate that brings him the most happiness. But for Aristotle, who held, at most, for gods or a ‘God’ which served as Prime Mover (“a living deity representing the highest good, wholly actualized, totally absorbed in self-contemplation, non-spatial, separated from the spheres it moves, and not at all like the traditional anthropomorphic Greek gods”[18]) … in a largely physical cosmos, contemplation at best could consist of trying to think God’s thoughts along with Him.  But can we somehow redeem Aristotle’s yearning for the ultimate truth, and Christianize this life of contemplation and philosophical wisdom?


                The first step, of course, is the substitution of a personal and loving God in the place of Aristotle’s gods, or Prime Mover type of ‘God.’ But once that is done, much of what Aristotle developed can be used, salvaged or ‘redeemed.’  Even the famous opening of the Westminster Catechism, in which it is stated that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God,and to enjoy him forever.”[19] can find some parallels, however weak, in Aristotle.  Aristotle pays lip service to the gods of his day, stating how man’s ability for reason captures that which is divine in us:

If reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine, in comparison with human life.[20]

Hence contemplation, “the activity of reason,”[21] is an activity that man can emulate and share with the gods (God).  The life that we, as Christians, can share with God is not so much one of absolute, twenty first century scientific knowledge; instead,  it is a different type of knowledge, one that begins with faith and is sealed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us.  ‘Thinking God’s thoughts’ is not technically, or theologically possible, as God has declared “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”[22]  But it is the act of worship that more closely resembles Aristotle’s timeless contemplation.  When Aristotle notes how contemplation “is the most continuous (activity), since we can contemplate truth more continuously than we can do anything,”[23] one is reminded of Brother Lawrence making a continual habit of prayer while performing duties at his monastery.[24]

This act of worship actually completes Aristotle’s ultimate happiness, the activity-less act of contemplation and knowledge.  The passage describing the gods ostensible valuing of the imdividual enjoying the contemplative life is rich with implication:

Now he who exercises his reason and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state of mind and most dear to the       gods. For if the gods have any care for human affairs, as they are thought to have, it would be reasonable both       that they should delight in that which was best and most akin to them (i.e. reason) and that they should reward those who love and honor this the most, as caring for the things that are dear to them and acting both rightly and     justly… He, therefore,is the dearest of the gods. And he will presumably be also the happiest.[25]

The two way relation between man and God has nearly begun here for Aristotle: the life of reason makes a man ‘most dear to the gods,’ as he suspects the gods ‘delight in that which was best and most akin to them (i.e. reason).’  Homer’s legacy is there (‘if the gods have any care for human affairs, as they are thought to have’), affirming the interest of humanity for some sort of two way traffic with the almighty (-ies).  But left with Homer, Aristotle and even Plato, the bridge between man and God is still under construction, with arguably just one working lane: the evidence of a divine impinging on our reality, perchance a love of some sort, but only the wish of contemplation for at least the mind of man to return the visit.

Before going ‘Personal God’ on Aristotle and the Greeks, it is helpful to consider the various intellectual virtues and how they might offer the scent of a greater reality.  Recall that while the moral virtues consisted of acts of the will reinforced by habit, intellectual virtues were occupied with acquire knowledge through teaching.  While Aristotle gave some intellectual virtues which were primarily ‘calculative’ – such as judgment and understanding – the list given previously was of contemplative virtues of the intellect.  Of these, science (knowledge of necessary and eternal truth) and intuitive wisdom (knowledge of first principles undergirding science) culminated in the highest virtue, philosophic wisdom or contemplation. But even in the lesser intellectual virtues we can see what C.S. Lewis would refer to as “news from a far off country:”[26] art or the knowledge of making things, and practical wisdom. The art of making things (and not just understanding how they are to behave, but to originate such behavior) begs the question of the ultimate originator or Creator. Tolkien captured the way in which man acts as a subcreator, imago dei, inspired by the ultimate Creator, in these lines:

                Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
                through whom is splintered from a single White
                to many hues, and endlessly combined
                in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
                Though all the crannies of the world we filled
                with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
                Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
                and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
                (used or misused). The right has not decayed.
                We make still by the law in which we’re made.[27]

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Practical wisdom is the virtue closest to the calculative intellectual virtues, or even the moral virtues, but even here it evidences a wisdom that resides above the actions of the moral virtues, since it is not contained in them. With Aristotle, it is hardly indistinguishable from the ability to deliberate or to procure other goods; in a redeemed sense, it is a wisdom born of God, as the Psalmist declared “Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me.” [28]

But it is with the contemplative intellectual virtues where we can see most clearly the fulfillment in the living God of Abraham and Christ.  Scientific knowledge, whose domain is the eternal and necessary, is fulfilled by knowledge of “I am that I am”[29] and “Before Abraham was, I am.”[30]  When scientific knowledge is summarized by a Creator Being such as Yahweh, then intuitive knowledge, first principles or logic, bend their knee to the same ‘I am.’  Philosophic wisdom then, as the union of intuition and science, is once again summarized by the existence of that eternal, necessary and originative ‘I am..’ Paul reinforces this when he states of Christ “All things ere created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.”[31]

But what type of fruit is born from the redeemed contemplative life?  Even for Aristotle, the exercise of man’s most divine faculty, that of reason, would bear  ‘pleasures marvelous for their purity and their enduringness,’  While learning some new explanatory theory of the universe or a new mathematical theorem which some might claim to have some beauty, this sort of knowledge ultimately, and existentially, rings a bit hollow. “What care I how fair she (the universe) be, if she be not fair to me?” one might think. Personal knowledge, something or someone who can speak and be felt in one’s ‘dark night of the soul’ and moments of deep, honest human need, is of another class entirely from an abstract cosmic contemplation.  A useful parallel can be made to C.S. Lewis’s own conversion, as he moved from a belief in (and commitment to) an abstract, philosophical Idealism to a personal God.  ‘Idea,’ ‘Spirit’ – these were Lewis’s notion of a cosmic ‘I am’ – but they left an unfilled (and unfulfilled) void in Lewis. “I thought the business of us finite and half unreal souls was to multiply the consciousness of Spirit … to will and think as Spirit does … to remember our true nature, to reascend or return into that Spirit which … we still were.”[32]  But in his attempt to bring himself “into harmony with universal Spirit,” instead Lewis found himself helpless, a “zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a hareem of fondled hatreds.”[33] This abstract Idea, Spirit or ‘God,’ of whom Lewis noted “doubtless, by definition, God was Reason itself,”[34] ultimately did not speak to Lewis’s heart, nor can it do so to ours.  The yearning for a companion to our soul, as unethical as it may be, is let unfulfilled by the philosophic science of Aristotle’s intellectual virtue.

The ‘pleasures marvelous for their purity and their enduringness’ instead require something more meaningful for our human souls.  Recall how it was in order to be most fully humane and human that the moral virtues offered to those who would listen, and Aristotle was largely correct – the proper functioning of the human animal is certainly to be preferred to its wandering off into amusements and excesses. And recall how the intellectual virtues offered a fellowship of sorts with the gods, by joining them in their defining and divine functioning, that of the exercise of reason. But what a cold fellowship it becomes! Instead, we can learn by following Lewis’s journey just one step further. After declaring God to be defined as ‘Reason itself,’ in a moment of human vulnerability and honesty, he wondered “but would He also be reasonable, in that other, more comfortable sense?” Continuing, Lewis reasoned “Not the slightest assurance on that score was offered me. Total surrender, the absolute leap in the dark, were demanded.” But it was not a random and selfish Homeric God that Lewis found, nor an abstract and uninterested one neither – “compelle intrare, compel them to come in” Lewis continues, words that “have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but properly understood, the plumb the depth of Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”[35]

Aristotle was, in his own way, on the right path.   Aristotle noticed how brutish and superficial life typically was for those pursuing amusement and pleasure as goals, instead of simply behaving with the nobility and dignity befitting the human creature. Simply living the virtuous life, attendant with the moral virtues and hitting their happy mean, brought man to the peak of the function with which he was endowed.  But this morally virtuous life, while the best and most fulfilling manner of human living, falls short of the ultimate happiness, a communion of sorts with the divine.  Aristotle could only comprehend whatever it was that is divine (ostensibly Homeric gods) by sharing in their activity of reason and intellectual contemplation.  Aristotle did not abandon the morally virtuous activity of life, but he realized there was a sphere above the world of human relations, and which man could access this sphere by virtue of what human nature and the divine shared, the use of reason; and this offered the greatest happiness.  Lewis admitted of the same point when he stated  “God may be more than moral goodness: He is not less.”[36]  And the exact point has been made by others, including nineteenth century Christian Existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, who claimed the ethical life, while worthy, is yet superseded by the aesthetic life, which addressed deeper human longings and desires.[37]

The Christian life, one of devotion to this personal ‘I am,’ then brings both fulfillment to our humanity (in following the morally virtuous life, as commanded by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit), as well as communion with that which our divine nature desires, the Creator Himself. In the place of peaceful contemplation of the laws of the universe, which would ostensibly please the gods who likely care for us, we have fellowship with the Lawgiver.  Our God does not suffer from the aloofness and impersonality in the way that Lewis described of the ‘cosmos as god’ approach of Pantheism, in which such a ‘god’ “does nothing,demands nothing. He is there if you wish, like a book on a shelf.”[38] Instead, the God known to us through Christ is “God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord … the hunter, king, husband.”[39]

Aristotle formulated the same issues as are found in most religions today, the nature of the ethical life and a path to  communion with the ‘eternal,’ however ambiguously and in shadow defined. He did it in a thorough and systematic way that none of his philosophical forbears, notably Homer, Socrates and Plato, had done, leaving a legacy for Western thought and civilization to follow for hundreds if not thousands of years. But, as with all efforts at natural philosophy, Aristotle’s approach could not quite fully embody the entire truth about man, and about God.  Aristotle’s description of the human intellect, though not entirely the human heart, is nearly unrivaled. But it is by redeeming Aristotle, placing his keen observations in the context of revealed knowledge of the holy, set apart God, that Christians can allow both their moral and intellectual activities to completely flourish. As John Mark Reynolds stated, “Athens has been sacked by secular barbarians who chain rationalism to materialistic science… (but) knowledge of ancient Athens is vital for Christians… Human reason, unscarred by an irrational desire to rid itself of Christianity, will flourish.”[40]

[1]                Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, 1979), 39. The actual quote is “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

[2]    Plato, Republic, trans. R. Waterfield, Oxford World Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), II.381c.

[3]    Plato, Republic, VII.517c.

[4]    Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. D. Ross, Oxford World Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), I.7.

[5]    Ibid., I.7.

[6]    Ibid., II.1103a.17.

[7]    Ibid., II.1103a.15.

[8]    Ibid., VI.1141b.3-4.

[9]    Ibid., X.8.1178b.8.

[10]  Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, X.4.1174b.32-35

[11]  Ibid., X.1177a.1-2.

[12]  Ibid., X.1176b.7-8.

[13]  Ibid., X.6.1176b.1-4

[14]  Ibid., X.7.1177a.12-14

[15]  Ibid., X.7.1177a.23-28.

[16]  Ibid., I.7.1097a.27-28.

[17]  Ibid., xxix.

[18]  David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007),  60.

[19] Accessed Feb. 20, 2016.

[20]  Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics,  X.7.1177b.30-32.

[21]  Ibid., X.7.1177b.18.

[22]  Isaiah 55:9.

[23]  Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, X.7.1177a.21-23.

[24]  Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence ofGod (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1982).

[25]  Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, X.8.1179a.23-32.

[26]  C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, ed. W. Hooper (New York: Collier, 1980), 7.

[27]  J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopeia, 1931.

[28]  Psalms 119:133. New International Version.

[29]  Exodus 3:14. Any translation.

[30]  John 8:58. King James Version for 10, Alex.

[31]  Colossians 1:16-17. New King James Version.

[32]  C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Glasgow: Collins, 1986), 180.

[33]  Ibid., 181.

[34]  Ibid., 182.

[35]  Ibid., 183.

[36]  C.S. Lewis, Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillan NY, 1986), 65.    i.e. Chapter 4 “Human Wickedness,” section 7.

[37]  Kierkegaard for Beginners, edited Donald P. Palmer (New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1996), Chapters on “The Aesthetic Sphere” and”The Ethical Sphere.” This text notes how these can be found in the non-comic book text Either/Or (1843). The text for HBU’s “Mere Christian Theology” course, Classic Christianity by Thomas C. Oden (New York: Harper Collins, 1992) shows Oden to be fond of Kierkegaard, with not infrequent references to him, though a drop in the 15,000 citation bucket of his text .

[38]  C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1978),  93. Lewis’s discussion of philosophical Idealism in particular can be found in Surprised by Joy, Chapters 13 – 15.

[39]  Ibid., 94.

[40]  John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 20-21.

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