Hobbes argues that the human good or 'felicity' is 'continual success in obtaining those things which a man from time to time desireth, that is to say, continual prospering' ('Leviathan', ch.6). Aristotle takes a different view, identifying the human good or eudaimonia with an internal state of the individual, namely 'activity of the soul (psuche) in accordance with virtue' (Nicomachean Ethics, I.7). I do not fully understand the exact contrast between Aristotle and Hobbes despite reading the texts carefully. Can anyone explain it ?

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    First off welcome to philosophy.SE. I like part of this question quite well and think it fits strongly with the purpose of this site but am confused by part of it. The first sentence about Hobbes plus a version of the title that's not ahistorical seems like a good question. The answer you suggest in your second sentence is at best misleading about Aristotle and at worst wrong. (Can you edit the question to make clearer how you think the last sentence relates? Is it your attempt to answer your own question? Is it somehow part of the question?)
    – virmaior
    Oct 20 '15 at 21:52

Remember that Aristotle lived two thousand years before Hobbes, and therefore, his criticism of the latter can only be made in retrospect by us.

Aristotle starts off in the Nicomachean Ethics by defining happiness as "living well and doing well" (Book 1 Chapter 4). He then mentions the different ways in which people define a happy life - life of enjoyment, life of politics, life of contemplation, and life of making money (Book1 Chapter 5). He calls the first a "life fit only for cattle." He criticizes the last because people are forced into it, and because money is only a means to happiness and never the end. About the life of politics where people seek honor, he argues that honor is secondary to virtue. And he reserves the life of contemplation to a later chapter.

Happiness, or eudaimonia, for Aristotle is a complex state of being of an individual that comes out of a lifetime of cultivation and practice of the virtues at all levels and in all spheres of human activity, and where the individual is recognized, admired, honored, and rewarded for these virtues. This is what fulfills his definition of doing well and living well, that is, a virtuous life and a prosperous life must go hand in hand for a person to be happy. But Aristotle goes one step further - a prosperous life must only be the consequence of the virtuous life. A person seeking prosperity for its own sake is doomed to not attain happiness.

Hobbes seems to define happiness as being found in the continual success in the acquisition of things. That, for Aristotle, is a form of false happiness.



Aristotle has a teleological view of human nature and of the human good. The nature of human beings is such that they have certain inherent capacities - potentialities - in the realisation and exercise of which their objective flourishing consists. We have all sorts of desires, preferences, and goals - pleasure, fame, wealth and more besides - but none of these is our highest objective good, the supreme goal (telos teleion) to which all others are properly seen as mere means. When that supreme goal is reached, we are in the objectively best state possible for a human being. Aristotle's name for this state - the perfect development of our nature - is eudaimonia, which includes and combines the ideas of human flourishing and of happiness. (Nicomachean Ethics ('NE'), I.1 & 1I.4.)

But what is this perfect development of our nature ? We have emotions and desires, some of which we share with other animals. Two special features of human beings, however, are (a) that these emotions and desires are controllable by reason and (b) that we have a power of reason which expresses and embodies itself in a range of intellectual powers. When reason controls our emotions and desires the resulting state of character is moral virtue or excellence (arete ethike). When on the other hand our power of reason is itself properly regulated and developed we acquire intellectual virtue or excellence (arete dianoetike) (NE 1.13.)

Our moral character, properly developed, is a fixed set of habits or dispositions which Aristotle calls hexeis. Each hexis, particular disposition, is intermediate (mean, mesotes) between excess and defect. So, for instance, courage as a moral virtue is a mean between cowardice and foolhardiness or rashness. Proportionate resentment is a mean between apathy and vengefulness. (NE II.6.) Aristotle identifies other moral virtues in NE III-V.

The intellectual virtues are listed as science (episteme, concerned with the necessary and eternal), art (techne, skill in making), practical wisdom (Phronesis, situational insight into the requirements of action), 'intuitive reason' (sophia, intellectual creativity), and perception of the first principles of knowledge (nous).

In the possession and exercise of the moral and the intellectual virtues - stable conditions of the person - human beings achieve their most perfect state. All this assumes - Aristotle is not remote from the world - the fulfilment of certain external conditions. A sick and starving person cannot exercise more than a few of the virtues, if that.


Hobbes' take on the human good is radically different. He does not share Aristotle's view of the objective, teleological good of human beings. Hobbes observes in human beings traits such as predominant self-interest (not total egoism), fear of death, competitiveness and concern for reputation, and forwardlookingness (an eye on the future). (Leviathan, 1651, esp. ch. XI & XIII.)

For Hobbes the human good does not consist in a state of character - in the possession and exercise of certain fixed habits and dispositions - but rather in the satisfaction of such desires and the avoidance of such aversions as we have and, equally if not more important, in the possession of sufficient power to secure their satisfaction and avoidance in future.

... the object of mans desire, is not to enjoy once onely, and for one instant of time; but to assure for ever, the way of his future desire. And therefore the voluntary actions, and inclinations of all men, tend, not only to the procuring, but also to the assuring of a contented life ... So that in the first place, I put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death. And the cause of this, is not alwayes that a man hopes for a more intensive delight, than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate power: but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more. (Leviathan, Ch. XI : https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm.)

While Aristotle sees human flourishing and happiness in a stable, contented state of character in which we posssess and exercise certain habits or dispositions, Hobbes has a restless view. There is no resting point such as a state of character but the serial satisfaction of desires and the accumulation of ever more power to secure that satisfaction not only in the present but in the future.


Sarah Broadie & Christopher Rowe, Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics, Published by Oxford Univerity Press, Oxford (2002). ISBN 10: 0198752717 ISBN 13: 9780198752714.

H.H. Joachim, Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics, D. A. Rees, Ed., Published by Oxford - Clarendon (1970).

Gregory S. Kavka, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory, Published by Princeton University Press (1986). ISBN 10: 069102765X / ISBN 13: 9780691027654.

Glen Newey, Hobbes' Leviathan, Published by Taylor and Francis 2014-04-15, London (2014) ISBN 10: 0415671329 ISBN 13: 9780415671323.

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