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Death in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the views of death by ancient Greek philosophers including Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato. It suggests that Aristotle offered no cheerful optimism similar to Socrates in his “Apology” and did not provide any arguments about the immortality of the soul like Plato in “Phaedo.” What Aristotle attempted to do was to help us face immortality that can enhance our chances of living worthy lives.

Keywords: death, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Apology, immortality, Phaedo, worthy lives

1. Socrates

Anyone who undertakes to say anything at all about the views of Socrates has a problem. Socrates himself left no writings. Our main source for determining his views is, of course, his most famous pupil, Plato. But extracting the views of Socrates from the writings of Plato presents a considerable challenge.

Not very long after the death of Socrates, Plato wrote the Apology, an account of the trial at which Socrates was convicted of the charges against him and then sentenced to death. Plato also wrote many dialogs in which Socrates is the lead figure. The figure of Socrates in those dialogs, especially in the early ones, yields the most memorable portrait we have of any ancient philosopher. But Plato was not a philosophical journalist. He was a great writer and an original thinker, without superior in the whole history of Western philosophy. In consequence, we have no very good basis for deciding exactly how much we think we know about Socrates is really Socrates and how much is Platonic invention and elaboration.

This problem is further complicated by the fact that the figure of Socrates in Plato’s dialogs changes over time. The mischievously questioning figure of the early dialogs, who insists that he does not know the answers to his most important questions, morphs, in the middle and later dialogs of Plato, into a rather solemn instructor who seems to have answers to almost all his questions, and arguments to back up his answers to those questions, some of them quite complex and challenging (p. 187) arguments. Socrates the gadfly of the early dialogs thus becomes, in the middle and later dialogs, Socrates the tireless lecturer.

The simplest way of trying to deal with the morphing problem is to say that, while the portrait Plato draws of Socrates and the views he ascribes to him in the early dialogs are probably reasonably true to the historical person, the Socrates figure of Plato’s middle and late period is much more Plato than it is Socrates. There are, of course, various difficulties with this strategy, but I won’t go into them here.

Many readers have thought that Plato’s record of the trial of Socrates, the Apology, is the most accurate account we have of things that the historical Socrates actually said. They have reasoned that, since the Apology was circulated soon after the death of Socrates, many Athenians who had actually attended the trial were then still alive. Under these circumstances, the reasoning goes, Plato would not have taken great liberties in what he reported. That reasoning, though hardly unimpeachable, gives us some basis for taking the Apology as a reasonably faithful guide to the thinking of the historical Socrates. I shall therefore take the Apology as my guide to the views of Socrates on death.

1.1 Socratic Wisdom

One of the most famous passages in the Apology is the one in which Socrates recounts how the oracle at Delphi had said that no one is wiser than Socrates. Socrates himself claims to have been at first perplexed by this pronouncement, since, in his own view, he knows nothing worthwhile (literally, nothing “noble and good”; Apology, 21d). But he comes to see a way to reconcile the oracle’s attribution of wisdom to him with his own disavowal of significant knowledge. By a nice twist of irony he interprets the judgment of the oracle that no one is wiser than he as a recognition that he, perhaps alone among Athenians, has at least the wisdom of not thinking that he knows things he does not know.

It is the admission that he has at least this modest wisdom that motivates Socrates’s thoughts on death at the end of the Apology. In the first phase of the trial, Socrates had said this:

T1. To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew it is the greatest of evils. And surely it is the most blameworthy ignorance to believe that one knows what one does not know. It is perhaps on this point and in this respect, gentlemen, that I differ from the majority of men, and if I were to claim that I am wiser than anyone in anything, it would be in this, that, as I have no knowledge of things in the underworld, so I do not think I have. (Apology, 29ab)1

After Socrates is first convicted of, among other things, corrupting the youth, and then sentenced to death, he returns to the question of what we can know about death:

T2. What has happened to me may well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be an evil are certainly mistaken. I have convincing proof of this. (p. 188) For it is certainly impossible that my customary sign did not oppose me if I was not about to do what was right. (40bc)

Socrates had just explained that his divine sign had opposed him whenever he was about to do something wrong. His reasoning in T2 seems to be that, if those of his activities that had resulted in his death sentence had been a bad thing, his divine sign would have warned him of this fact. But, since it did not, the things that he did that resulted in his receiving the death sentence must not have been a bad thing. By implication, death itself would not be a bad thing. It might even be a good thing.

Socrates does not leave matters there, however. That is, he does not surmise that death is not a bad thing simply because his divine sign had not warned him that his actions might lead to death. Instead, he offers independent reasoning to justify that conclusion. Thus Socrates continues:

T3. Let us reflect in this way, too, that there is good hope that death is a blessing. For it is one of two things: either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything. Or it is, as we are told, a change and a relocating of the soul from here to another place. (40c)

1.2 Death as a Dreamless Sleep

So far, the disjoint possibilities Socrates offers may well seem to be exhaustive: either the dead are nothing or else death is a change of location for one’s soul. But we should be suspicious of the way Socrates fills out these two, supposedly exhaustive, possibilities. He begins with the possibility that death is “no perception of anything.” This he compares to having a dreamless sleep:

T4. If it is a complete lack of perception, like a dreamless sleep, then death would be a great advantage. For I think if one had to pick out that night during which a man slept soundly and did not dream, put it beside other nights and days of his life, and then see how many days and nights had been better and more pleasant than that night, not only a private person but a great king would find them easy to count compared with the other days and nights. (40cd)

As Socrates surely realizes, there is an important respect in which death as the final cessation of conscious experience is not at all like a mere night of dreamless sleep. Simply put, death is apparently not something one wakes up from. So the analogy is defective and should not give us any comfort.

Socrates might respond that, when we go to sleep, we cannot be completely certain whether we will wake up or not, which is no doubt true. Still, when he asks the jurors to compare nights of dreamless sleep with nights of sleep interrupted by dreams, perhaps some of them nightmares, he is asking them to compare finite periods of time, each of which is succeeded eventually by a wakeful state, with an everlasting period of no consciousness at all. A “night” of eternal sleep would be radically different from an ordinary night of dreamless sleep in at least one (p. 189) important respect: there would be no return to consciousness. That important difference is enough to render the analogy less than fully comforting.

Socrates does add:

T5….all eternity would then seem to be no more than a single night. (40d)

But this comment does not offer much comfort either. A patient in a coma for some extended period of time, perhaps, for many years, might say, “It seemed to be only a single night.” Still, the prospect of becoming comatose for an extended period of time might be itself frightening. However, more to the point, facing the prospect of an extended coma from which one eventually recovers would still be less frightening than going “to sleep” forever.

1.3 Death as a Change of Location

The other possibility Socrates considers, death as a relocation of the soul, is presumably less threatening than extinction. Socrates develops his ideas about this possibility as follows:

T6. If, on the other hand, death is a change from here to another place, and what we are told is true and all who have died are there, what greater blessing would there be, gentlemen of the jury? If anyone arriving in Hades will have escaped from those who call themselves judges here, and will find those true judges who are said to sit in judgment there, Minos and Radamanthus and Aeacus and Triptolemus and the other demi-gods who have been upright in their own life, would that be a poor kind of change? Again, what would one of you give to keep company with Orpheus and Musaeus, Hesiod and Homer? I am willing to die many times if that is true. (40e‒41a)

The possibility that death is the relocation of the soul to another place is thus filled out by appeal to Greek mythology. This is the way it would be “if what we are told is true.” But suppose “what we are told” is not true. Suppose the relocation is a trip to a fiery hell, or to a place of endless desolation. What then?

Socrates speculates that, in his new location, he might meet Ajax and other war heroes. Then he adds this comment:

T7. Most important, I could spend my time testing and examining people there, as I do here, as to who among them is wise, and who thinks he is, but is not. (41b)

But again, just the possibility that death is the soul’s relocation to another place is not guaranteed to bring with it the possibility, let alone the certainty, that that relocation might include an opportunity to do what one most likes to do in this life, which for Socrates is to examine other people philosophically.

1.4 Conclusion

The final words of Socrates at his trial, according to Plato’s Apology, are these:

T8. Now the hour to part has come, I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the god. (42a)

(p. 190) So what may we conclude from the Apology about Socrates’s views concerning death?

According to this work, Socrates thinks, first, that we do not know whether death is a good thing for the one who dies, or a bad thing. Second, it is the most blameworthy ignorance to think we know what we do not know. Since we do not know what, if anything, awaits us after death, it is therefore blamefully ignorant to think we know whether death is good or bad for the one who dies.

Third, there is some reason for Socrates to think that death might be a good thing for him, and perhaps, by extension, for others. The reason is that his divine sign never told him not to engage in the activities that led to his trial, conviction, and death sentence.

Fourth, Socrates argues that death is either oblivion for the one who dies or it is the soul’s relocation to another place. Socrates fills out the first alternative in such a way that, according to him, we should welcome death just as we welcome the rest of a night of dreamless sleep. I have argued that that the disanalogy between eternal oblivion and a night of dreamless sleep makes Socrates’s supposedly comforting analogy ring hollow. The particular way Socrates fills out the second alternative, relocation to another pace, does make it appealing to him. For, as he elaborates what it would mean to be relocated to another place, this relocation would be an opportunity to meet military heroes and continue to do philosophy. The trouble is that filling out the second alternative in that way renders the disjunction we began with inexhaustive. There are, unfortunately, many other ways in which death could be construed as the soul’s relocation to another place; some of them would not include the opportunity to meet one’s heroes or engage in endless philosophy. (I have not considered whether meeting with one’s heroes might eventually become boring, or whether endless philosophy might one day lose its attraction, even to Socrates.)

2. Plato

The dramatic setting for Plato’s dialog, Phaedo, is the jail where Socrates has been kept, pending his execution. We are told that no execution could be carried out while a ceremonial ship was making its yearly voyage. But now, at the time of the discussion in the Phaedo, the ship had returned and this was to be the day that Socrates would drink the hemlock. The words of Socrates in this discussion are thus presented as the last words of Socrates before his death. It is soon obvious, however, that the figure of Socrates in this middle dialog of Plato’s is very different from the figure of Socrates in the Apology. The simplest way to understand this transformation is to suppose that, whereas the ideas and reasoning of the Apology offer a fairly accurate presentation of the ideas and reasoning of the historical Socrates, the Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo is pretty much a mouthpiece for Plato himself.

(p. 191) In fact, it is much too simple to say that the Socrates of the Apology is the historical figure, whereas the Socrates of the Phaedo is a stand-in for Plato himself. To mention just what is most obvious, the Phaedo is not a treatise, but a dialog. Even if the ideas and arguments discussed in this work are Plato’s rather than those of the historical Socrates, the dialog form gives Plato the freedom to discuss them without committing himself to the viability of any of them.

This is not, however, the place to develop a more nuanced interpretation of the relationship between the figure of Socrates in the Phaedo and the views we may plausibly ascribe to Plato at the time he wrote this dialog. So, in this context, let’s just suppose that the Socrates of the Phaedo is indeed a stand-in for Plato himself.

2.1 The Phaedo

In the Phaedo Socrates presents no fewer than four distinct arguments for the immortality of the soul. We might be tempted to think that Plato’s aim in this dialog is to prove that we should accept the second possibility Socrates had presented in the Apology, in T3, namely, that death is the soul’s relocation to another place. But this is not really so. The arguments in the Phaedo lead to the conclusion that the soul is something akin to the Platonic Forms, which are, if not exactly abstract objects, still completely unchanging realities. Take this passage, in which Socrates is speaking, we are assuming, on Plato’s behalf:

T9. Consider then, Cebes, whether it follows from all that has been said that the soul is most like the divine, deathless, intelligible, uniform, indissoluble, always the same as itself, whereas the body is most like that which is human, mortal, multiform, unintelligible, soluble and never consistently the same. (Phaedo, 80ab)

Whatever exactly this suggestion comes to, it does not suggest that one’s soul in the afterlife would enjoy hanging out with military heroes or examining, philosophically, one’s fellow citizens to see if they know what courage is, or what justice is. So, it seems, Plato in the Phaedo is not filling out the second possibility enunciated in the Apology at all. Rather, he is arguing for the persistence, indeed the immortality, of a rather austere entity that is much more like an abstract object than it is like a human companion or philosophical conversation partner.

Should we, or anyone on death row, be comforted by the thought that death is the release from the body of our most intellectual self, something that is immortal by being uniform, indissoluble, always the same as itself and, in its nature, akin to the Form of the Good, the Just, and the Beautiful? What would (or what will?) it be like to survive death as a separated Platonic soul—something akin to the Platonic Forms? And is this prospect comforting or alarming?

Surprisingly, Plato has Socrates in the Phaedo say quite a bit about what the afterlife will be like. It is, however, a challenge to fit together this picture of the afterlife he paints with what Plato had Socrates tell us about the nature of the surviving soul.

(p. 192) To be sure, Socrates does not claim to have any real knowledge of what existence will be like in the afterlife. Instead, Plato has Socrates claim only to be repeating the tales he has heard from others. (This reminds us of what Socrates had said in the Apology, in T6.) Nevertheless, the Socrates of the Phaedo clearly takes those tales and fables very seriously. He introduces his account this way:

T10. Indeed, to speak about this from hearsay, but I do not mind telling you what I have heard, for it is perhaps most appropriate for one who is about to depart yonder to tell and examine tales about what we believe that journey to be like. (61d)

2.1.1 Suicide

Socrates’s interlocutor at this point in the dialog, Cebes, is puzzled about what he takes to be Socrates’s belief, that death is to be welcomed, even though suicide is wrong. How could that be? Here is part of what Socrates say in response:

T11. There is the explanation that is put in the language of the mysteries, that we human beings are in a kind of prison, and that one must not free oneself or run away. That seems to me an impressive doctrine and one not easy to understand fully. However, Cebes, this seems to be well expressed, that the gods are our guardians and that human beings are one of their possessions. (62b)

Cebes has difficulty reconciling the idea that we human beings belong to the gods, yet, as Socrates has also suggested, should welcome the escape of their souls from imprisonment in their bodies:

T12.As for what you were saying, that philosophers should be willing and ready to die, that seems strange, Socrates, if what we said just now is reasonable, namely, that a god is our protector and that we are his possessions. It is not logical that the wisest of men should not resent leaving this service in which they are governed by the best of masters, the gods, for a wise man cannot believe that he will look after himself better when he is free. (62de)

Immodestly Socrates says he would be worried if he were not confident of his own goodness:

T13. Be assured that, as it is, I expect to join the company of good human beings. This last I would not altogether insist on, but if I insist on anything at all in these matters, it is that I shall come to gods who are very good masters. That is why I am not so resentful, because I have good hope that some future awaits human beings after death, as we have been told for years, a much better future for the good than for the wicked. (63bc)

There follows a picture of the last judgment and the ways in which those who have lived good lives will be rewarded and those who have not will be punished. The details of this picture are not important for my purposes here. What I want to emphasize is the puzzle of how this picture of reward and punishment in the afterlife can be fitted together with the metaphysics of soul survival, where that is taken to mean the persistence of something akin to the Forms.

(p. 193) 2.2 Philosophy as Practice in Dying

Admittedly, Plato has Socrates put forward this picture of the last judgment as a sort of fable. But what could be the literal meaning of this fable? Our best hint comes from passages like this one:

T14. I want to make my argument before you, my judges, as to why I think that a man who has truly spent his life in philosophy is probably right to be of good cheer in the face of death and to be very hopeful that after death he will attain the greatest blessings yonder…I am afraid that other people do not realize that the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death. (64a)

Not many of us philosophers today will know what to make of the suggestion that their one aim is to “practice for dying and death.” The most I can make of this suggestion myself is to take Plato to mean that philosophy is aimed at coming to know the Forms, such as Justice, Beauty, Piety, and preeminently, the Form of the Good. Perhaps, then, the soul of the good philosopher will be able to contemplate the Forms eternally, and especially the Form of the Good. But what it would it be like to contemplate eternally the Form of the Good? Is there even anything it would be like to do that? Unfortunately, Plato does not give us any help in trying to answer those questions.

2.3 Conclusion

If, then, we take Plato’s Phaedo to be an expression of Plato’s own views about death and we take the Apology to present Socrates’s views about death, we can make this comparison. First, whereas Socrates thinks death might mean eternal oblivion for the human individual, Plato has a number of arguments for the immortality of the human soul. Socrates thinks that, if death is eternal oblivion, it may be like the blessing of a dreamless sleep; but Plato, having a number of arguments for the soul’s immortality, does not take seriously the possibility of death as eternal oblivion for the person who dies.

Second, whereas Socrates suggests that the afterlife may be almost an extension of the present life, only better. Plato allows that such stories of the afterlife are only mythological. However, Plato’s suggestions about the literal metaphysics of the soul’s afterlife leave us with very little understanding of what it would be like to actually be a separated soul. His optimism about his postmortem fate needs, I think, to stand on two legs. Concerning the first leg, his confidence in there being an afterlife at all rests, for its justification, on the cogency of his arguments for the immortality of the soul. (I have not even stated any of those arguments here, let alone tried to assess their cogency.) As for the second leg, his confidence that the prospect of eternal life is something to be welcomed needs an account of what it might be like to live as a separated soul. Saying that it will be actually doing what philosophy is practice for doing is not of much help.

Third, although Socrates seems to take the mythological stories about the afterlife quite literally, Plato seems to distance himself somewhat from any (p. 194) commitment to their literal truth, What is lacking in Plato’s approach to these stories, however, is a serious attempt to, first, identify the literal truth behind the traditional metaphors, and, second, to fit this literal truth together with his metaphysical story about soul survival as the eternal existence of something akin to the Forms. Without those additional elements, Plato has not made clear why the Socrates of the Phaedo should be more optimistic about his postmortem prospects than Socrates is in the Apology.

3. Aristotle

Whereas Plato offers specific, and sometimes very detailed, arguments for the immortality of the soul, nothing comparable is to be found in Aristotle. This should not be surprising. Plato is a soul-body dualist. For him a human being is the temporary union of two distinct substances. By contrast, Aristotle thinks of the human soul, not as a distinct substance, but rather as the functional form of a living human body. When a human body ceases to perform any life functions, such as metabolism, perception, or movement, its functional form, its soul, no longer exists. The corpse, he thinks, is not a human being, except in an extended sense of the term.

3.1 Soul Separation

What we do find in Aristotle, however, is the idea that at least part of the soul, namely, the intellect, is separable from the body and is immortal. Here in Book I of Aristotle’s De anima, is reasoning to that effect:

T15. The intellect seems to be born in us as a kind of substance and not to be destroyed. For it would be destroyed, if at all, by the feebleness of old age, while as things are what happens is similar to what happens in the case of the sense organs. For if an old man acquired an eye of a certain kind, he would see even as well as a young man. Hence old age is not due to the soul’s being affected in a certain way, but to this happening to that which the soul is in, as in the case of drunkenness and disease. (408b18–24)2

Aristotle does not spell out what it would be for the intellect to survive a person’s death, let alone never be destroyed. But the passage is nevertheless tantalizing.

Here is another suggestive passage from the end of De anima I:

T16. That, therefore, the soul or certain parts of it, if it is divisible, cannot be separated from the body is quite clear; for in some cases the actuality is [the actuality]of the parts themselves. Not that anything prevents at any rate some parts from being separable, because of their being actualities of no body. (413a3–7)

The reasoning behind these pregnant sentences seems to go along the following lines. To think of something is, in a way, to take on the form of the thing one is (p. 195) thinking of (413a13ff). But the intellect can think of all sorts of things, including all sorts of materials. If the intellect were the actuality of, that is, the form of, say, the brain, then the brain itself would be able to take on the form of any material that one can think of. But that would be impossible. Organic matter, such as the stuff that makes up the brain, cannot take on the form of gold or lead. But one can use one’s intellect to think of both gold and lead. Therefore the intellect is something distinct from, and therefore separable from, the body.

The great medieval Aristotelian, St. Thomas Aquinas, took Aristotle’s idea that the human intellect is not the form of anything bodily as the basis for his argument that the human soul survives death as a “subsisting thing,” although not as a full substance in its own right.3 According to Aquinas, the soul of an individual human person is immortal. After one’s death, the separated soul awaits reunion with its body (more exactly, union with a spiritualized version of its very own body) in the resurrection. Needless to say, this reasoning of St. Thomas goes well beyond anything to be found in Aristotle. In fact, as I shall try to show, it contradicts Aristotle.

In Book 3 of the De anima Aristotle distinguishes between two kinds of intellect: the passive (or potential) intellect, and the agent (or active) intellect. In chapter 5 of that book he says that the agent intellect, but not the passive intellect, is “immortal and eternal” (430a22). What exactly it might mean for the agent intellect, alone and without the passive intellect, to be immortal and eternal has been the subject of speculation over the centuries. It seems that the agent intellect, without the aid of the passive intellect, might contemplate something eternally; but it could not have episodic thoughts. That is, without the passive intellect it could not think first this, and then that. Thus it would not be anything like a human mind, with its stream of consciousness. And thus it seems that no individual human mind could survive as an agent intellect.

3.2 Immortality as an Impossibility

Lest there be any doubt about whether Aristotle considered that he, or we, might enjoy, or suffer, eternal life, it is well to consider this passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

T17. For there is no such thing as choosing impossible things, and, if one said he chose such things, he would be thought to be silly; but there is wishing even for impossible things, e.g. immortality.4 (1111b20–23)

In T17 Aristotle makes clear that, in his view, immortal life for a human being is simply an impossibility, no matter how much we may wish for it. In other passages Aristotle rules out there being an afterlife of any sort, even, by transmigration, a second life. Consider this passage from his discussion of courage in the Nicomachean Ethics:

T18. Now death is the most fearful of all things; for it is the end, and nothing is thought to be any longer either good or bad for the dead.5 (1115a26–28)

(p. 196) Admittedly, there is in the last book of the Nicomachean Ethics this rather strange admonition:

T19. But we must not follow those who advise us, being human beings, to think [only] of human things, and, being mortal, [only] of mortal things, but we must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does its power and worth surpass everything. (1177b31–78a2)

It may be at least initially puzzling what it could mean to, “so far as we can, make ourselves immortal.” But there is no evidence, either in this chapter or elsewhere in Aristotle’s corpus, that Aristotle thinks we can actually succeed in “making ourselves immortal.” His idea is rather that, so far as we can, we should lead a contemplative life that emulates the contemplative life of immortal beings, that is, of the gods.

3.3 Suicide Again

It may also be puzzling how Aristotle could think that, whereas suicide is wrong, being courageous is virtuous, even if being courageous means making it likely, or even certain, that one will die as a result of one’s virtuous action. Part of the puzzle is rather easily resolved. Aristotle does not, like Plato, suggest that our souls are imprisoned in our bodies by an act of the gods, so that it would be impious to arrogate to ourselves the right to release ourselves from this divinely instituted imprisonment. Much more simply, Aristotle thinks that committing suicide would be an act of cowardice:

T20. But to die to escape from poverty or love or anything painful is not the mark of a brave man, but rather of a coward; for it is softness to fly from what is troublesome, and such a man endures death not because it is noble but to fly from evil. (1116a12–15)

That judgment about suicide and cowardice, however, raises a fundamental question for Aristotelian ethics.

3.4 Eudaimonia

According to Aristotle, the unqualified good for a human person is eudaimonia.6 Notoriously, it is difficult to translate “eudaimonia.” The standard English translation is “happiness.” But “happiness” in modern usage seems too shallow for what Aristotle has in mind. “Flourishing” has been suggested as an alternative. But it is not obvious that “flourishing” is specific enough to do the job. I am going to try to finesse this problem by translating “eudaimonia” as happiness*, and “eudaimôn” as happy*. I understand happiness* to be, certainly not a state of mere amusement, or even contentment, or satisfaction, but rather an ideal state of human well-being. What exactly that state of well-being might consist in, or what Aristotle thought it would consist in, I shall not try to determine here. I shall point out simply that (p. 197) Aristotle says we all desire happiness*, and desire it for itself, not just as the means for getting something else.7

Aristotle is both a psychological eudaimonist and an ethical eudaimonist. That is, he supposes not only that the desire to be happy* is what motivates our actions, but also that success at actually being happy* is what makes a person ethically virtuous.

Let us focus for a moment on psychological eudaimonism and the thought that performing a virtuous act may lead to one’s own death and one may even realize that performing this act will have such a consequence. How can Aristotle think that the desire to be happy* may motivate a right-thinking person, no matter how courageous, to perform an action that that person realizes will probably lead to her or his own death? If one believed in an afterlife, his answer might be that that a sufficiently courageous person might choose death in the expectation of a reward in the hereafter. But, as T18 makes clear, Aristotle thinks that death is, for each of us, eternal oblivion. So a right-thinking person, according to Aristotle, will not be motivated to choose death in the expectation of reward in the afterlife.

Alternatively, Aristotle might think that performing an action that one thinks might well lead to one’s death would be irrational and so not anything a right-thinking person would do. But, to the contrary, he clearly thinks that such an action might be supremely virtuous, and, therefore, it might be something completely rational, indeed, ideally rational. But how could it be?

In fact, there is a double puzzle here: (i) how could I rationally suppose that doing something that will bring about my death will contribute positively to my own happiness*? And (ii) how could I be right about this? That is, how could it be the case that there are circumstances in which doing something that will bring about my death will actually contribute positively to my own happiness*, and not just contribute to my reputation or renown?

3.5 Virtuous Acts and Virtuous Persons

Aristotle draws a very important distinction between being a virtuous person and performing a virtuous act, and so, for example, between being a brave person and performing a brave act. Aristotle thinks we become virtuous persons, if at all, by habituation through practice. To begin with, we need to have a good upbringing to become a virtuous person. We then learn to perform virtuous actions by having them modeled for us. To become a virtuous person we need to have performed virtuous acts until we do so from a firm and unchangeable character (or disposition; 1105a32–33).

Thus Aristotle’s notion of a brave soldier is not that of a soldier who performs a single brave act, no matter how brave that act was. Rather, on his view, a brave soldier is someone who performs brave acts from a firm and unchangeable character or disposition. To ask what motivates an already brave soldier to perform an act that leads to a noble death should not, therefore, be to ask simply what goes (p. 198) through the soldier’s mind at the moment he made the decision to perform the action Aristotle would honor him for. It is rather to ask what developed the soldier’s character in such a way that, when the appropriate moment arrived, he acted bravely from a firm and unchangeable character or disposition. And so we have a solution to the double puzzle.

We may find Aristotle’s preoccupation with battlefield courage disturbing. I do. But his distinction between the virtuous act and the virtuous person is, I think, profound. Moreover, it is helpful, not only in trying to understand what motivates people to perform acts of great courage or generosity, but also in thinking about our own choices and the implications those choices have for the sort people we will become, or have already become.

3.6 A Complete Life

The double puzzle above may remind us of a perplexity Aristotle discusses early on in the Nicomachean Ethics. Having concluded in chapter 7 of Book 1 that eudaimonia is “activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are several, with the best and most complete [virtue].” Aristotle adds “in a complete life.” Two chapters later he tries to make clear why he added “in a complete life”:

T21. For there is required [for eudaimonia], as we said, not only complete virtue but also a complete life, since many changes occur in life, and all manner of changes, and the most prosperous may fall into great misfortunes in old age, as is told of Priam in the Trojan cycle; and one who has experienced such chances and has ended wretchedly no one calls happy*. (1100a4–9)

Aristotle then asks whether adding the restriction, “in a complete life” means that no one is truly happy* until dead, when it would be too late to be happy? Aristotle spends the next chapter, chapter 10, trying to deal with this perplexity.

Priam is Aristotle’s favored example of someone with a life that seems to be happy* until near the end, but then ends wretchedly. According to legend, King Priam of Troy lost thirteen sons in the last year of his life and was himself butchered at the very end. Aristotle’s point is that we do not know whether someone who has been happy* throughout a very long life might not suffer a reversal of fortune and meet with a calamity that would undermine the claim of happiness* that had seemed so secure up until that point. From this we may conclude that the ascription of happiness* to a life is always defeasible, up until death.

Is the claim to happiness* defeasible even after death? That is, can the ascription of happiness* to someone be defeated by what happens even after that person’s death? In a way this thought seems to Aristotle to be absurd. After all, he has told us that happiness* is an activity of soul in accordance with virtue and he thinks there is no activity of soul after one’s death. Yet he thinks that what happens to one’s children and to one’s reputation after death may appropriately alter, even if only slightly, the assessment of one’s happiness*. I don’t think he means this may happen by backward causation! I think his idea is that being virtuous, or (p. 199) failing to be virtuous, has natural consequences, including natural consequences for one’s children and one’s reputation. Of course, those natural consequences may be thwarted or subverted by chance circumstances. Yet, ceteris paribus, one’s virtue, and therefore one’s happiness*, is naturally reflected in the well-being of one’s children and in the nobility of one’s reputation. Conversely, ceteris paribus, unhappiness in one’s children and a sullied reputation means that one’s life was not really as happy* as it had seemed to be.

3.7 Conclusion

Aristotle displays none of the cheerful optimism that radiates from Socrates’s last words in the Apology. Nor does he present any of the arguments for the soul’s immortality that we find in Plato’s Phaedo. Instead he tries to help us face up to our mortality in a way that will enhance our chances of living worthy lives. But he admits that, whether our lives actually turn out to be happy*, is not entirely up to us.


Aristotle. 1968. De Anima. Translated by D. W. Hamlyn. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Find this resource:

    Aristotle. 1999. The Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by David Ross. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

      Plato. 1997. Plato: Complete Works. John M. Cooper, editor. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.Find this resource:


        (1.) Translations from Plato are taken, with occasional modifications, from Plato, 1997. Citations are given as Setphanus pages and page sections.

        (2.) Translations from Aristotle’s De anima are taken from Aristotle, 1968.

        (3.) Summa theologiae 1a q75 a2.

        (4.) Translation mine.

        (5.) Except for T17, translations from the Nicomachean Ethics are taken from Aristotole, 1999.

        (6.) Nicomachean Ethics 1.7.

        (7.) Ibid. 1.4.