Two Kinds of Pleasure (and Pain) in Aristotle’s Ethics

Dorothea Frede

10.1 Preliminary Remarks: The Many Meanings of “Pleasure”

There is, probably, no song worldwide that is as famous as Schiller’s Ode to Joy – in the version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The reason why I start out with this remark is that Schiller, who had written the poem in 1786 (aged 26) for his friend and supporter Körner,1 later expressed deep dissatisfaction with it2:

Your liking of this poem may be due to the epoch of its origin. But that is the one factor that gives it the only value it has, and it has it only for us and not for the world, let alone for poetry.

With all due respect, one has to admit that from a philosophical point of view Schiller’s self-criticism is justified: If you take a closer look at the Ode’s text you will see that it misses what should be a prime concern for every philosopher. One expects, if not a definition, then at least a clear determination of “joy.” But the Ode merely lines up a succession of euphoric states and upsurges of different sorts and leaves it quite unclear what nature Schiller attributes to joy. His enumeration contains phenomena of quite different kinds: There are general overwhelming feelings of indistinct sympathy: “be embraced millions, this kiss to all the world”; there is friendship – friend to friend, united in brotherly love even unto death; there is love for a lovely woman. Joy is common to people good and evil, as well as to all creatures down to the lowly worm. And there is, of course, a loving father above us all in the starry heavens.

There is no point in picking on Schiller, let alone on Beethoven; but the philosophically minded Schiller had good reasons for his later critical attitude towards his early effusion. His sweeping praise of joy mirrors the fact that in everyday life we have a tendency to speak of joy/pleasure indistinctly in all sorts of connections, with respect to any kind of positive experience, feeling, or impression, and without reflecting on what nature we attribute to them.3 Thus, we do not ask ourselves whether or not we attribute a unitary nature to whatever pleasure we feel in one way or another. As one might say: Joy concerns all things rosy in all ranges of life.

What the Ode ignores was clearly seen by Plato, namely that there is no such thing as “pleasure” pure and simple, as the name suggests, but that pleasure is always “of,” “taken in,” “concerned with” something or other, and that this “something” – its intentional object – determines its nature and value. Thus, Plato at the beginning of the Philebus lets Socrates object to the hedonist’s undifferentiated treatment of pleasure (12c–d):

Think about it: we say that a debauched person gets pleasure, as well as that a sober-minded person takes pleasure in his very sobriety. Again, we say that a fool, though full of foolish opinions and hopes, gets pleasure, but likewise that a wise man takes pleasure in his wisdom.4

It is this need for differentiation that prompts Socrates to recommend the dialectical method of collecting every multitude into a generic unity and of dividing that again into its specific plurality. That method is supposed to put taxonomical order into quite heterogeneous fields. And in what follows, Plato does indeed provide a unitary generic definition of pleasure and pain, by enjoining that pain is a kind of disturbance or dissolution of the natural equilibrium, while pleasure is its restoration, provided that those processes are intensive enough to affect the soul (Phlb. 30a–34a). Whatever we may think of Plato’s treatment of pleasure and pain in the Philebus and of its results, he has drawn attention to an important point about the nature of pleasure and pain: that they are determined by their intentional objects and that these objects are of a wide variety, quality, and worth.5

10.2 The Definition(s) of Pleasure in EN VII and X

That a philosopher worth his salt must state in no uncertain terms whether a central concept has a unitary nature or not, is, of course, a fundamental conviction of Aristotle’s. After all, he frequently raises the question whether a term is “said in more than one way.” But in his treatment of pleasure (and of the mostly neglected pain) in his two essays on that topic in the Nicomachean Ethics (EN) he does not even address the question of unity and plurality and gives only brief indications as to their nature. To be sure, in his criticism of the Platonic conception of pleasure he enjoins (VII 12, 1153a13–16): “pleasure should rather be called ‘activity of the natural state’, and instead of ‘perceptible’ – ‘unimpeded’” (tês kata physin hexeôsenergeia anempodistos). He thereby focuses on actions that contain their ends in themselves. But that is all we learn about his position on the nature of pleasure at that point.6

In book X, Aristotle presents a somewhat different account of pleasure. Pleasure is a perfect activity, or rather the manifestation of the perfection of an activity, an activity that is natural to the person in the sense that she has a natural affinity with it. There is no pleasure connected with “alien” activities, or if there is, it will be short-lived. The particular twist that Aristotle adds to this depiction of pleasure is famous for its poetic flair (X 4, 1174b33): “Pleasure completes the activity … like an end that supervenes as the bloom of youth does on those in the flower of their age.” In order to be perfect, the objects of the activity must be in perfect condition as must be the person’s disposition, and the respective organ, e.g. the object seen, the seer’s disposition, and the condition of her eyes.

Whether the shift in the specification of pleasure in EN X from “natural and unimpeded” to “perfect activity,” represents a substantial change is still a controversial question, but it is a question that can be left aside here. The treatment of pleasure in EN VII and X shows, in any case, that pleasure is not supposed to be a separate, independent phenomenon, but always tied to some activity or other; it is a mode of being active. There should, therefore, be as many kinds of pleasure as there are kinds of activities that are natural and capable of perfection. The pleasures are as different as are the activities. It does not, in fact, make sense to ask oneself whether the pleasure of reading a good book is the same as the pleasure of an exciting philosophical discussion or that of hiking or playing music under perfect conditions, although we may ask ourselves which one we take more pleasure in.

It is easy to see that the conditions of “unimpededness” and “perfection” are not without problems. How about pleasures taken by bad people and in bad activities? After all, Aristotle does not assume that only good or perfect people enjoy their activities. On the contrary, in his general discussion of virtue and vice in EN II he indicates that both virtuous and vicious persons take pleasure in their actions, because they suit their character and agree with their general principles. But Aristotle does not address the question of the wicked person’s pleasure in either book VII or X, apart from noting in book VII that they are excessive.7 He occasionally mentions harmful and shameful pleasures, but he leaves open whether he regards them as pleasures, properly so called, or whether they are only seeming pleasures – or not the pleasures that the person takes them to be. Aristotle’s comments on the pleasures of sick persons are also unclear in that respect.8 His extraordinary claim in book IX that very bad persons take no pleasure in their lives at all, but will eventually put an end to themselves, is in itself problematic; it says nothing about the pleasures of medium-bad or somewhat bad people. In book X, Aristotle does not comment on the nature of pleasure of less than perfect activities, but only refers to the fact that people tend to get tired of their activities or get distracted by activities to which they have a stronger affinity.

10.3 The Neglect of Pain

There is also the question of what nature Aristotle assigns to pain or unpleasant experiences of all sorts. Does he, in book VII, regard pain as impeded and/or unnatural activities? And does he, in book X, hold that incomplete and imperfect activities are painful or unpleasant? The few examples in the text do not shed any light on this question; for instead of referring to perfect actions in a moral sense, Aristotle only cites actions such as seeing or contemplating, actions that are allegedly perfect at every moment and require no time. He ignores the fact that good moral actions may involve a lot of time, quite some trouble, and even fail to achieve their end. Aristotle’s apologists have to invest quite some ingenuity to explain the possibility of enjoying what prima facie seem to be process-like activities such as playing a piece of music, solving a philosophical problem, helping a friend out with money, or fighting for the fatherland.9

That Aristotle disregards these questions and pays hardly any attention to pain in his two “excursions” on pleasure in the EN may be due most of all to two factors: (i) he is concerned only with the best kinds of activities; (ii) his aim is to discard the Platonist conceptions of pleasure and pain that treat pain as a disturbance and pleasure as a restoration of the natural equilibrium. Plato indeed defines pleasure as a kind of change (kinêsis) and generation (genesis).10 That this Platonist conception is Aristotle’s target is more obvious in book VII than it is in book X. In book VII, he devotes quite some time to a systematic refutation of a catalogue of positions concerning pleasure that treat it as a “perceptible process of restoration of a natural state” (12, 1152b33–35). To this conception Aristotle opposes his own conception that pleasure is, rather, a natural and unimpeded activity. In book X, Aristotle starts out with a critique of Eudoxus’ pro-hedonistic position, offers a shorter discussion of the Platonist position, and devotes more time to explaining his own position. But in both versions, the critique of the Platonist conception of pleasure as a restoration is central, and it seems that it was a position that was not just indicated in Republic IX and defended in the Philebus, but that enjoyed quite some popularity in the Academy. To counter that position, in book VII Aristotle proposes even the “shocking thesis” that the pleasure taken in certain activities is the highest good (13, 1153b7–14).11 And although in book X the opposition against the Platonist position is less prominent, Aristotle spends quite some time and effort on its refutation.

That overall concern explains why Aristotle pays little attention to imperfect, bad, or noxious kinds of pleasure. Thus, in book VII he mentions only at the very end that bad pleasures are the activities of a bad nature, either from birth on or due to habit (15, 1154a31), but he does not explain why those activities are, nevertheless, pleasant. He does not discuss pain at all, but very briefly states that pleasure is sought as an antidote or analgesic against it. What nature he attributes to pain remains an open question. If it is the opposite of pleasure, pain must indeed be some kind of disturbance, which permits only an impeded or no activity at all. But that admission would get Aristotle into Platonic waters; for the assumption that pain is a disturbance or destruction would suggest that pleasure as its opposite is a kind of restoration or filling of a lack. It must remain a moot point whether it was considerations of that kind that made Aristotle avoid a discussion of pain. He may just not have wanted to bother with it, on the assumption that it is, somehow, the opposite of pleasure, and left the “somehow” to itself. But it should be clear that “impeded,” “unnatural,” or “imperfect activities” do not cover the entire spectrum of painful experiences.

The one-sidedness of Aristotle’s treatment of pleasure in the two sections dedicated to that topic in the EN and the neglect of pain is not its main drawback. Its greatest shortcoming lies, rather, in the fact that Aristotle does not fulfil the natural expectation of his readers that he is going to explain the relevance of pleasure and pain for his ethics tout court. After all, Aristotle started out his investigation of the virtues of character in book II with the assertion that pleasure and pain have a central role to play in ethics. He treats it, there, as a crucial aspect of the acquisition of virtue that people become habituated to be pleased or be pained in the right way (II 3, 1104b4–9):

We must take as a sign of states of character the pleasure or pain that supervenes (epiginomenê) on acts; for the person who abstains from bodily pleasures and delights in this fact, is moderate, while the person who is annoyed at it is self-indulgent, and the person who stands his ground against things that are terrible and delights in this or at least is not pained is brave, while the person who is pained is a coward. For moral virtue is concerned with pleasures and pains.12

Given these general pronouncements, one expects Aristotle to be concerned with precise determinations of those kinds of pleasures and pains. But this expectation is disappointed. There is no systematic treatment of that question in the specifications of the virtues of character through books III 6–V. In addition, it must confuse readers that Aristotle repeatedly treats pleasure as unconditionally bad and as the source of all evil. Thus, in EN I 5 the life of pleasure as a whole is called slavish, a life fit for animals.13 And in the subsequent books there is an abundance of deprecating remarks of a similar kind. There are only a few indications that these negative judgments are limited to the excess of purely physical pleasures, i.e. that of eating, drinking, and sex. Because Aristotle does not emphasize that fact, readers may form the impression that overall he regards pleasure as a negative or at least as a highly ambivalent element in human life.

10.4 Two Types of Pleasures and Pains: Actions and Affections

But more important than these polemical remarks about (certain) kinds of pleasure is the fact that Aristotle fails to make explicit that his depiction of the virtues of character presupposes two different kinds of pleasure and pain. This is the distinction that concerns us here. Pleasure and pain, on the one hand, concern the actions, praxeis, and on the other hand they concern the affections, pathê. If Aristotle sees a difference between them right from the start, he does not point it out, but speaks as if they somehow go together (II 3, 1104b13–16): “Again, if the virtues are concerned with actions and affections, and every action and affection is accompanied by pleasure and pain, for this reason also virtue will be concerned with pleasures and pains.”14 But both kinds, the pleasures and pains, related to actions as well as those related to the affections, supposedly are the objects of the appropriate kind of moral education.

But, as reflection shows, pleasant or painful actions and affections cannot be phenomena of the same sort. This point is nowhere explicitly addressed in the text in the EN; Aristotle rather speaks as if the “normative parameters” that specify “the oughts” that are to be observed not only apply to actions: what ought (dei) to be done, to whom, in what way, when, and so on, but equally to affections. That is why he rejects the contention of certain philosophers that virtue is a state of impassivity (apatheia) and tranquillity (êremia) (II 3, 1104b24–27):

because they speak absolutely, and do not say “as one ought” (hôs dei) and “as one ought not” and “when one ought or ought not” and all the other things that may be added. We assume then, that this kind of virtue tends to do what is best with regards to pleasures and pains, and vice does the opposite.

Apathy is clearly not a good state of character.

Although Aristotle most of the time treats “active” and “affective” pleasures and pains as on a par, it is noteworthy that the affections play a prominent role in the search for a definition of the virtues of character: their genus is determined exclusively in terms of the affections (II 5). In that search, Aristotle refers to three states in the soul as the candidates for that determination: affections (pathê), capacities (dynameis), dispositions (hexeis). He argues that people are not praised or blamed on account of their affections or of their affectability, i.e. their capacity to experience them, but rather because of their dispositions towards the affections, and therefore concludes that virtues are dispositions to be affected in the right way (II 5, 1105b25–28):

by states of character we mean the things in virtue of which we stand well or badly with reference to the affections, e.g. with respect to anger we stand badly if we feel it violently or too weakly, and well if we feel it in an intermediary way; and similarly with reference to the other affections.

Given the prominence of the affections in that chapter, one would expect that Aristotle is going to treat them as constitutive of the virtues of character to an equal degree as the corresponding actions, and it feeds into that expectation that in the subsequent discussion the actions and the affections are often mentioned in one breath: A person of good character should both act and be affected in the appropriate way. Both actions and affections are, therefore, accompanied by the respective pleasures and pains.

So what is the nature of those kinds of pleasures and pains? The definition of pleasure in book VII as “unimpeded activation of a natural disposition” can, with some adjustments, be used as an explanation of the pleasure taken in good moral actions. The good person is pleased to act the way she ought to, towards the person she ought to, when she ought to, and so on. There is no account of the pleasures of the wicked person in either book VII or X.15

The case of the affections is problematic. Although affections are also actualizations of capacities of the soul, they are reactive impressions of a positive or negative kind to impacts from outside that give rise to the desire to avoid what appears bad or to pursue what appears good. It would clearly be quite unsuitable to conceive of pleasant affections as either unimpeded or perfect activities, just as it is unsuitable to conceive of painful affections as impeded, unnatural, or imperfect activities.

In his Ethics, Aristotle nowhere proposes a definition of the affections. That omission was noted already by the commentators in later antiquity.16 But Aristotle seems to see nothing amiss there; for after the establishment of the genus of moral virtue in terms of the affections he refers indistinctly to both actions and affections, in the specification of the intermediaries that are characteristic of the virtuous person. Not only does he treat the active and passive pleasures and pains on a par, but he also assigns the “moral parameters” to both of them: what one ought to, as one ought to, when one ought to.

Aristotle is not only silent about a definition of the affections, but he is also equally silent about the nature of the respective “pathetic” pleasures and pains. That he is aware of the distinction comes to the fore only sporadically. Thus, in connection with moderation and courage he mentions the need for a special training of the affections (II 2, 1104a32–b4):

by abstaining from pleasures we become moderate, and when we have become so we are most able to abstain from them; and similarly too in the case of courage; for by being habituated to despise things that are fearful and to stand our ground against them we become brave, and it is when we have become so that we shall be most able to stand our ground against them.

In the determinations of the virtues of character, Aristotle does not make much of the difference between active and affective pleasures and pains, but at times he at least indicates that there is a discrepancy between them (II 2, 1104b6–9):

We must take as a sign of states of character the pleasure or pain that supervenes upon actions; for the person who abstains from bodily pleasures and delights in this very fact is temperate, while the man who is annoyed at it is self-indulgent, and the person who stands his ground against things that are terrible and delights in this or at least is not pained is brave, while the person who is pained is a coward.

The modest person takes pleasure in acting in the right way, even if it means refraining from the affective pleasure, while the immoderate person’s action is painful, because of the loss of that kind of pleasure. The courageous person’s action is pleasant, the coward’s is unpleasant; but both have to cope with fear, a painful affection.

That pleasures or pains of acting in a certain way are of a different nature from the affective pleasures or pains that give rise to them, is more indicated than made explicit in the text, because Aristotle wants to show that overall they must be in harmony (II 5, 1106b16–28):

For moral virtue is concerned with affections and actions, and in these there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. For instance, both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity, and in general pleasure and pain, may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not right; but to feel them at the time we ought, to the objects we ought, towards the people we ought, for the reason we ought, in the way we ought, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue. Likewise with regard to actions also there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. Now virtue is concerned with affections and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is a form of success. […] Therefore virtue is a kind of mean, as we have seen; it aims at what is intermediate.

This passage indicates that actions and affections work in tandem. Both allow for a right mean, excess, and defect, and both are accompanied by the corresponding pleasures or pains. That there can be a combination of pleasure and pain comes to the fore when the affections and actions diverge, i.e. where one is of a negative, the other of a positive kind. In the case of moderation, e.g. the affection is pleasant but the action is so only if the agent likes to abstain from that pleasure (II 2, 1104b6–8): “The person who abstains from bodily pleasures and delights in this very fact is moderate, while the person who is annoyed at it is self-indulgent.” The discrepancy between affection and action is most obvious in the case of courage (1104b8–10): “He, who stands his ground against things that are terrible and delights in this or at least is not pained, is brave, while the person who is pained is a coward.” In the case of courage, Aristotle is careful not to exalt the pleasure of acting courageously to an undue degree. As he points out, with courageous actions it is not easy even to recognize that there is any pleasure at all, because in combat fear and pain prevail. He compares the predicament of soldiers with that of boxers: because of the amount of blows that they have to put up with, their sport seems to be so painful that it is hard even to see any pleasure in it; what pleasure there is can be due only to the hope for victory (III 9, 1117a35–b6).

Modern critics find it objectionable that Aristotle speaks of pleasure in the case of combat in war at all, on the ground that killing and wounding should not be regarded as pleasant activities in the first place. Aristotle does indeed emphasize that only bloodthirsty people would aim for war and killing as an end as such (EN X 7, 1177b10–12).17 If he, nevertheless, attributes a kind of pleasure to the action of the courageous person, he must have in mind the readiness to incur what is unpleasant and to risk his life for the good of the community. Some commentators also find Aristotle’s approval of retaliation in anger objectionable. But such censorship ignores that Aristotle’s catalogue of virtues of character and his specifications of the respective actions reflect the values of his own time. The ancient Greeks did not see any virtue in turning the other cheek at an insult, but rather in retaliating in kind. The wide gap between certain Aristotelian and Christian virtues is, however, a topic that cannot be pursued here.

10.5 The “Fading” of the Affections

Many commentators overlook the fact that pleasure and pain are associated with both actions and affections. This oversight seems to be due to three reasons. First, Aristotle does not make much of an effort to put the difference into full relief. Second, the pathê are not purely passive reactions to external impacts, but contain an active element that connects them with actions: Every pleasant and painful pathos contains a kind of desire, a desire to seek (diôkein/zêtein) or to avoid (pheugein) (II 3, 1104b21–24 et pass.). And this “passive-aggressive” nature of the pathê may appear to blur the borders between the affections and the actions, except in cases where the respective action is not carried out. That possibility is most prominent in the discussion of akrasia, where the rational desire (wish) for something good is suppressed by a non-rational desire. Third, from book III on the affections lose their importance. This fact was pointed out 40 years ago by Kosman.18 As he observes, the fact that the main emphasis in the analysis of the virtues is put on deliberation and decision has the consequence that the affections fall by the wayside: “It is not that Aristotle simply leaves the question of feelings out, but their importance fades in the context of a particular theory of deliberation and choice and their place in moral context.”19

But there is more to it than that. In the EN’s further discussion of the particular virtues of character, only three affections are explicitly mentioned: Appetite (epithymia), the pair of fear (phobos) and confidence (tharsos), and anger (thymos/orgê). In the description of the rest of the virtues, affections are only hinted at, as in the case of ambition (philotimia). That all virtues of character presuppose affections comes to the fore only in a general statement such as that everyone is a “lover of such-and-such” – a philotoioutos, sometimes in a negative sense when the predilection concerns something bad (I 8, 1099a9; III 11, 1118b22; IV 4, 1125b14). Although Aristotle sweepingly refers to the lover of justice (philodikaios) and to the lover of virtue, quite generally (I 8, 1099a11: philaretos), it remains an open question whether he attributes affections to all kinds of character virtues.

There are, however, general considerations that support the view that every virtue of character is based on some affection or other. If this were not so, the general determination of virtue of character in EN I 13 would not hold, namely that it is based on the obedience of the soul’s non-rational part to the commands of the rational part. There is no reason for assuming that virtues of character are limited to moderation, courage, and even-temperedness. Aristotle must therefore have attributed non-rational affections to all virtues of character and assumed that they all turn into virtuous affections through habituation under the direction of reason. And he must have assumed so even in those cases where he does not mention the respective affections, as in the case of liberality, magnificence, high-spiritedness, and ambition, as well as in that of friendliness, truthfulness, and ready wit. If that presupposition is less than transparent, that is not only due to the fact that the affections are neglected in the discussion of the virtues of character in books III–V, but also due to the fact that in the later books of the EN affections are referred to as the condition of persons who live under their influence only. This tendency may have increased once the affections had been identified as the cause of the various kinds of akrasia.

The “fading” of the affections also incites commentators to misinterpretations of Aristotle’s treatment of pleasure – misinterpretations of the kind I myself was guilty of years ago.20 The search for an account of the more complex treatment of pleasure in the EN’s first two books led me to a distinction between an “adjectival” and an “adverbial” aspect of pleasure and pain, i.e. between object of pleasure and pain on the one hand and the mode of the action, on the other. That distinction was to preserve the unitary nature of pleasure in Aristotle. But it is actually a useless effort, because it ignores that he clearly intends to make a distinction between the “active” and the “pathetic” kinds in the EN’s early books. Interpreters are led into such temptations if they start out with Aristotle’s treatment of pleasure in EN VII and X – where pleasure is treated exclusively as a mode of action – and then read that account back into the discussion of pleasure and pain at the beginning of the EN. Although it is a mistake that is avoided by commentators who confine their interpretation of Aristotle’s conception of pleasure to books VII and X,21 these interpretations come at the price of ignoring the pleasures and pains of the affections altogether.

10.6 Pathetic Pleasures in the EE

One of the most significant differences between the undisputed books of the Eudemian Ethics (EE) and the EN lies in the fact in the EE pleasure and pain are assigned only to the soul’s non-rational part, not to the controlling rational part. That is why the affections stand in the limelight in the EE’s discussion of the virtues of character (EE II 2, 1220b7–10):

We must say then, what it is in the soul in respect of which character-traits are qualified in a certain way. They are so in respect of capacities (dynameis) for affections (pathê), with respect to which people are termed affective (pathêtikoi).22

The affections are closely tied to pleasure and pain (1220b12–20):

By affections I mean things like spirit, fear, shame, appetite, and in general things that are usually accompanied, in their own right, by perceptible (aisthêtikê) pleasure or pain. It is not in virtue of these that a quality (poiotês) exists – the soul is just affected… Dispositions (hexeis) are the causes of these affections being either in accordance or contrary to reason.

In view of this emphasis on the importance of the affections for the virtues of character, readers will expect enlightenment on the nature of the pathê as well as on the special kinds of “perceptible pleasure and pain” that are connected with the affections. But this expectation is fulfilled only to a very limited degree.23 There is no explanation in the EE of the nature of the pathê or of the “perceptibility” of the respective pleasures and pains.24 And although the “pathetic” aspect of the virtues is supposed to be important, it is not treated in a systematic way, so that the explanations are quite hard to follow. In the EE, Aristotle does not emphasize, as he does, time and again, in the EN, that virtues of character are equally concerned with actions (praxeis) and affections (pathê).25 Not only that, there is no argument, as there is in the EN, that the virtuous life is at the same time pleasant (I 8, 1099a7–31):

For pleasure is a condition of the soul (tôn psychikôn), and to everyone that which he is said to be a lover of (philotoioutos) is pleasant, e.g. not only is a horse pleasant to the horse-lover, and a spectacle of sight to the sight-lover, but also in the same way just acts are pleasant to the lover of justice, and in general virtuous acts to the lover of virtue (philaretos).

That the pleasures are tied to the actions is made explicit in what follows; for Aristotle treats the pleasure taken into the action as a kind of litmus test of the possession of virtue (1099a17–21):

An agent who does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good, since no-one would call a person just who does not enjoy acting justly, nor anyone liberal who does not enjoy liberal actions; and similarly in the other cases. If this is so, noble actions must be in themselves (kath’ hautas) pleasant.

This injunction at the same time provides the final argument against the alleged separation of the best, the noblest, and the most pleasant in the inscription of Delos (1099a24–31): “Happiness is therefore the best, the noblest, and the most pleasant state, for all three apply to the best activities (tais aristais energeiais).”

The condition that the virtuous person will enjoy her actions is maintained throughout the discussion of the virtues of character in EN book II where Aristotle insists, time and again, that the pleasures and pains contained in the actions are a sign of the person’s character (esp. II 3). This remains a basic condition despite the fact that the genus of the virtues of character is determined exclusively on the basis of the affections in EN II 5; for in what follows, Aristotle hastens to affirm that the need to aim for the right intermediate applies equally to the affections and to the actions, and that equipollence is reasserted after the official definition of virtue of character “as a disposition lying in a mean” (II 6, 1106b36–1107a8). The fact that subsequently the actions get the upper hand and the affections “fade” in the further determination of the virtues of character does not contradict the diagnosis that initially both are treated even-handedly.

That there is no such even-handedness in the EE and that actions are not connected with either pleasure or pain need further corroboration. For, at first Aristotle gives the impression that actions are the focus of his determination of virtues of character. According to EE II 1, 1220a22–37:

Virtue is such a condition (diathesis) that comes to be from the best processes (kinesis) around the soul and that issues the best actions (erga) and affections (pathê); they come to be from the same conditions that also destroy them, and their use is concerned with the things that both increase and destroy them, but also leads to the best condition (diathesis).

If this seems like a promising beginning, in what follows virtues and vices are determined exclusively in terms of the affections. A few references have to suffice to show this: At II 2, 1220b7–10 the virtues are determined only with respect to the person’s “affectability” and that line is further pursued in chapters 4 and 5, after the presentation of the catalogue of virtues and vices in chapter 3.

The explanation of this extraordinary decision on Aristotle’s side must be kept short.26 It is due to the assignment of the virtues of character to the soul’s non-rational part and to the strict separation of the rational and the non-rational part, despite the fact that the latter is supposedly obedient to reason’s decrees. The non-rational part is not just the locus of the affections, but also the exclusive locus of desire (orexis) (4, 1221b30–34): “The virtues of the non-rational, that possesses desire (for not every part of the soul has desire), therefore the character must be vicious or virtuous by pursuing of avoiding certain pleasures and pains.” As only a closer look at the text could show, by pleasure and pain Aristotle has in mind here only those of the body; for in the EE’s detailed discussion of the virtues of character in book III there is no reference to pleasures such as that due to love of virtue and there is also no mention of pleasure or pain taken in actions.

The reason for that abstemiousness as far as the soul’s rational part is concerned can only be indicated here. Although actions are referred to a few times at the beginning of EE II, Aristotle attends to them only in chapter 7 ff., where he makes “a different start.” The different start consists in the long-drawn-out dialectical investigation of the voluntary or involuntary nature of actions, of deliberation and decision, an investigation that is made hard to penetrate by the inclusion of akrasia and enkrateia. In this discussion, no attention is given to the question of the pleasantness or painfulness of the actions as such. In the detailed discussion of the virtues and vices of character in EE III there is, again, no emphasis on the fact that the actions are either pleasant of painful.

A certain change of mind might be indicated by Aristotle’s declaration at III 7, 1234a23–30, that the affective intermediate states concerning envy, indignation, shame, friendliness, dignity, truthfulness, and ready wit are not virtues proper, nor their opposites vices, because they are not based on decision (proairesis); they are pathê and to be associated with the natural virtues. But it is difficult to evaluate the elimination of these “pathetic affections” from the catalogue of virtues and vices proper: It may be due to an afterthought; it is, at any rate, not clear why Aristotle does not grant the possibility of fixed dispositions towards the respective actions to them. In the EN, he has clearly changed his mind with respect to the so-called social virtues of friendliness, truthfulness, and ready wit (IV 6–8).27 That change of mind may be due to his recognition that it is not the affections as such that are the subjects of choice and decision, but rather how to act on account of them, an insight Aristotle mentions at EN II 5, 1106a3.

That actions contain their own pleasures is acknowledged only quite late in the day in the EE, in the discussion of friendship. This consideration comes to the fore not so much in the comments on pleasure-friendship and on the fact that good persons are also pleasant to each other, but rather in the final elucidation of the need for friends in the good life (VII 12). Living together (syzên) is pleasant, anyway, but it is so most of all if friends share activities such as that of attending to music together or of doing philosophy together (1245a23). Being with a friend as another self provides the opportunity not only for seeing oneself in the other, but also for joining together in “more divine pleasures,” such as in contemplating and feasting together (1245a18–b9: syntheôrein kai syneuôcheisthai). That discussion leads to the conclusion that sharing one’s life with friends is pleasant in general, within limits and in some conditions rather than others (1245b20–1246a9).

10.7 Concluding Remarks

Given these observations concerning the EE’s overall focus on “pathetic” pleasures and the neglect of active pleasures, the question is how the excursus on the nature of pleasure was supposed to fit in that work. Although it has come down to us only as part of EN VII, most scholars regard it as a remnant of the EE. This is not the occasion to review the reasons for that consensus. But if the excursus was an integral part of the EE, Aristotle seems not to have anticipated that treatment of pleasure before; for he does not make any preparations for it in the EE’s undisputed books where he ignores the pleasures of action, that turn out to be the only kinds considered in the excursus. Furthermore, a problem lies in the fact that in EE II Aristotle associates pleasure as well as the virtues of character with “processes” in the soul, with kinêseis. He states that virtue is due to a kind of motion (kinêsis), and repeatedly affirms that a praxis is a kinêsis.28 In the EN, by contrast, he avoids any such associations with the Platonist conception of pleasure.29

If Aristotle was not extremely careless, what explains his seeming insouciance about how the excursus on pleasure was to fit into the text? Given our lack of knowledge about the shape of the lost books in the EE, any explanation must remain conjectural. But it stands to reason that the excursus on pleasure was a text that Aristotle had written for a different purpose and inserted in the EE only provisionally. For the battery of arguments against pleasure as a process of restoration seems to have originated from a controversy on the nature of pleasure within the Academy. Aristotle may have taken notes on that altercation and made use of them in order to defend his own “activist” interpretation of pleasure. This assumption does not solve all problems; for if Aristotle’s critique of the Platonist account of pleasure and his defence of pleasure as an activity were of an early origin, why did he not argue for pleasures of action early on, i.e. in the EE’s account of the virtues of character?

The two discussions of pleasure in the EN represent, of course, problems of their own. There is the question of why Aristotle left the earlier version in the text. And there is the observation that the discussion in book X reflects even less than that in book VII Aristotle’s insight that there are two different kinds of pleasure and pain, active and passive ones. Suffice it to observe that both versions reflect the controversy in the Academy; they are designed as a critique of the Platonist position of pleasure as a kind of restoration, a position that seems to have been taken up by other members of the school. This explains why in book X Aristotle includes a discussion of the pro-hedonist position of Eudoxus, an associate of the Academy for some time.30

If the excursions on pleasure had an origin of their own, Aristotle must have eventually noticed that neither of the two are satisfactory treatments of the concept of pleasure (and pain) for the purposes of his ethics, because that purpose requires an account of active as well as of affective kinds. He may have intended a further revision than the one we find in book X, but did not finish it. At any rate, it is hard to believe that he had simply forgotten his insight that is of fundamental importance in the early books of the EN: That a properly brought-up person needs both to act as she should and to be affected as she should. But this is, admittedly, only an argument based on considerations of plausibility. It does not allow us to reconstruct the fate of Aristotle’s manuscripts in the years before and after his death when they remained in the hands of the members of his school.


1. Christian Gottfried Körner was a free mason, lawyer, and amateur composer; after Schiller’s early death he acted as the editor of his collected works.

2. Letter to Körner, 21 October 1800. (Briefwechsel zwischen Schiller und Körner, ed. K. Gödecke, Leipzig1874.)

3. German does not have a separate term designating joy as a more elated state of mind than pleasure.

4. Translation Frede, 1993.

5. Here, I leave aside the question of “brute” pleasures and pains, i.e. of simple positive or negative stimulations in the body that we can often identify only locally (e.g. a toothache).

6. At this point, book VII will be treated as an integral part of the EN.

7. VII 14, 1154a14–18.

8. Restorative pleasures are called pleasures “only accidentally” – or only for that person at that time, or they are no pleasures at all and only seem so, or they are due to “our remaining nature” (tês hypoloipou physeos) (VII 12, 1152b29–1153a3). Later, it is explained that this is due to that part that has remained healthy (hypomenontos hygious) (15, 1154b17–20).

9. On the problems of perfect and allegedly “timeless” activities, see Frede, 2020, pp. 938–950.

10. See the summary at Phlb. 53c–55c.

11. Rapp, 2009, pp. 218–220.

12. See EE II 1, 1220a34–37; 4, 1221b27–1222a5.

13. This view about the life of physical pleasure is also found in the EE’s comparison of the three forms of life (bioi) at I 4, 1215a33–1216a2.

14. Aristotle does not say that actions and affections are pleasures and pains, but only that they are accompanied by them (“hepesthai,” 1104b14; 1105b23 et pass.). He seems to have in mind not a temporal sequel, but a close relationship of “going with,” “being contained in.”

15. With respect to pleasures taken in bad actions, Aristotle is somewhat evasive: they are either not choiceworthy or only for that person and only at that point of time (12, 1152b29–31). Although he indicates at one point that they are not unimpeded activities (13, 1153b9–12), he does not say that they are not pleasures, including the physical pleasures that are sought for as antidotes of pain or remedies for all sorts of deficiencies (ch. 14).

16. Aspasius In EN 44.19–45.16. Because he refers to the explanations provided by his predecessors Andronicus and Boethus, the omission by “the ancients” must be Aristotle, Theophrastus, and “Eudemus.” Aspasius regards Eudemus as the author of the EE; on the “Eudemian question” see Frede, 2019. The complaint about this omission of the pathê by the ancients suggests that the Rhetoric was no longer studied in the 1st century bc; for no mention is ever made of the Rhetoric’s determination of the pathê in book I 10–11 and of the extensive discussion of their particular kinds in book II 2–11.

17. In the Politics, Aristotle is highly critical of warfare for the sake of the spoils and domination over others (VII 14, 1333a5–1334a10).

18. Kosman, 1980.

19. Kosman, 1980, p. 115.

20. This is a retractatio of my contentions in my articles of 2002 and 2009, as well as that in my 1996 article, that the conception of pleasure proposed in EN VII and X represents a later and more mature stage.

21. Representatives are, for instance, Gosling/Taylor, 1984; Wolfsdorf, 2013; Heinaman, 2011; Warren, 2014; Harte, 2014.

22. Translation, with modifications, Woods, 1982.

23. For problems with the composition of the chapter and its integration in the text, see Woods, 1982, pp. 107–111.

24. The difficulties contained in the text have to be passed over here.

25. II 3, 1104b13–16; 6, 1106b16–28; 1106b36–1107a9; 8, 1108b15–19 EN et pass.

26. See Woods’ acknowledgement 1982, p. 124: “The E.N. lays much greater stress on the fact that virtues and vices have to do with means in actions as well as affections.” That is clearly an understatement.

27. Only “shame” is mentioned at EN IV 11 – and it is denied that it is the subject of a virtue.

28. II 1, 1218a36–37; 2, 1220a29–31; 3, 1220b26–27; 6, 1222b18–29.EE

29. Wherekinêsis” is used in the EN, it refers only to the agents’ physical movements, especially in carrying out their decisions (see VI 2, 1139a31–36: “reason does not move anything”).

30. The version in EN VII starts with a line-up of what Aristotle regards as mistaken points of view and largely confines itself to their critique. His own conception of pleasure is mentioned only incidentally in that discussion. This version seems to have been an original part of the EE, while EN X 1–5 represents a later version of that discussion (on Aspasius as a witness, see Frede, 2019, pp. 89–91).


1. Broadie, S., Ethics with Aristotle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

2. Dow, J., Passions & Persuasion in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015

3. Frede, D. (ed.), Plato. Philebus, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993.

4. ———, ‘Pleasure and Pain in Aristotle’s Ethics’, in Kraut R. (ed.), The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, pp. 255–275.

5. ———, ‘Nicomachean Ethics VII.11-12: Pleasure’, in Natali, C. (ed.), Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book VII. Symposium Aristotelicum. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 183–208.

6. ———, ‘On the So-Called Common Books of the Eudemian and the Nicomachean Ethics’, Phronesis 64, 2019, pp. 84, 116.

7. ———, Aristoteles. Nikomachische Ethik. Übersetzt, eingeleitet und kommentiert. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2020.

8. Gosling, G. C. B. and Taylor, C. C. W., The Greeks on Pleasure. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

9. Harte, V., ‘The Nicomachean Ethics on Pleasure’, in Polansky, R. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. 288–318.

10. Heinaman, R., ‘Pleasure as an Activity’, in Pakaluk, M. and Pearson, G. (eds.), Moral Psychology and Human Action in Aristotle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 7–45.

11. Kosman, A., ‘Being Properly Affected: Virtues and Feelings in Aristotle’s Ethics’, in Rorty, A. O. (ed.) Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980, pp. 103–116.

12. Rapp, C., ‘Nicomachean Ethics VII.13-14: Pleasure and eudaimonia’, in Natali, C. (ed.), Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book VII. Symposium Aristotelicum. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 209–236.

13. Warren, J., The Pleasures of Reason in Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenistic Hedonists, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

14. Whiting, J., ‘Standing Up for an Affective Account of Emotion’, Philosophical Explorations 9, 2006, pp. 261–276.

15. Wolfsdorf, D., Pleasure in Ancient Greek Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

16. Woods, M., Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics. Books I, II, and VIII. Translated with a Commentary. Oxford, 1982.

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