restricted access Happy Lives and the Highest Good: an Essay on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (review)
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Reviewed by
Gabriel Richardson Lear. Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pp. ix + 238. Cloth, $35.00.

Suppose that you and I are friends. I need a ride to the airport; you offer to take me. You might do this for any of a number of reasons: because you want to place me in your debt, because you want to impress bystanders, etc. But you might also do it for none of these reasons. You might do it, instead, because, understanding what resources are and what resources are for, you see taking me to the airport as an appropriate use of your resources (your time and your car), given our relationship and the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

That's the Readers' Digest version of one story one might tell, on Aristotle's behalf, by way of connecting up friendship, virtuous action, practical and theoretical wisdom, action for its own sake, and action for the sake of the fine in the Nicomachean Ethics. I myself think it is a good story. It is also a story, I think, that Gabriel Richardson Lear tells, at least some of the time, in Happy Lives and the Highest Good, though she tells it with respect to courage, temperance, and magnanimity, not liberality and friendship.

Most of the time, however, Lear tells another story. According to it, your taking me to the airport makes clear your commitment to make use of your resources to promote my good. Since we are friends, however, my good is bound up with yours, so in promoting my good you also promote your own good. But according to Aristotle the good for each of us is a life in which rationality is realized in thought and action. Hence your taking me to the airport counts as fine because it shows your commitment to that sort of life. But, again according to Aristotle, the centerpiece, and source of value, of that sort of life is contemplative activity, so you act for the sake of contemplation, whether you know this or not. And, in view of its expression of practical reason and truthfulness, your liberal activity is structurally similar to and so approximates to contemplative activity, and this allows us to say that you did what you did for the sake of contemplation.

This is, so far as I know, an entirely new approach to the problems raised by Aristotle's identification of happiness with contemplation in NE X. Lear's story, and the arguments in its support, deserve and will repay serious attention. I limit myself here to four concerns about some of the details.

First, our first story locates what is fine about virtuous action in the fit exhibited among the agent, her action, and her situation. Lear's story locates what is fine about virtuous action in its promotion of a certain kind of life. The first story thus sees what is fine about [End Page 118] virtuous action as something intrinsic to it, while Lear's story sees it as something external to it that it promotes. The first story seems to me to be looking in the right place.

Second, the first story has it that virtuous activity is an expression of understanding, Lear's story that it is an expression of a commitment to understanding. Again, the first story seems to me to be looking in the right place.

Third, Lear thinks that the liberal person can be said to act for the sake of contemplation when contemplation is the source of value for what she does, even when it is not the conscious aspiration of her action. That may be true, but I do not see that it is enough. What needs explanation is rather that she can be said to choose liberal activity for the sake of contemplation, and it is unclear how this could be unconscious.

Finally, Lear's appeal to approximation may prove too much. The crafts, according to Aristotle, involve practical reason and truthfulness. But Aristotle doesn't believe that craft activity exists for the sake of contemplation, at least not as such.