The Ends of Productive Activity (EN 1094a3-6)
I’m reading EN I in preparation for the MPhil seminar on the same this coming term, and it’s already proving to be a fruitful exercise. After working through the first four or five chapters, I have a long list of questions, and I’ve just written a paper on the purpose of the EN and the Politics – as a reply to John Cooper’s forthcoming article “Political Community and the Highest Good”  – that draws primarily on these early chapters and EN X.9. I want to try out some of the interpretive points I make in the paper in this forum, especially since many of them deal with difficult and crucial passages in the text.
Today, however, I was reading Gabriel Richardson Lear’s Happy Lives and the Highest Good , where she makes a point about a claim to do with productive activity that Aristotle makes at the very beginning of the EN. As it happens, I was thinking about this point earlier this year when, as I recall, Carlo Natali brought up a similar worry at a conference on κίνησις and ἐνέργεια in Oxford.
Aristotle’s claim is this:
There’s a certain distinction to be made among ends (τελῶν); for some are activities, others are products (ἔργα) of some sort over and above the activities. Where there are ends (τέλη) over and above the activities, the products (ἔργα) are by nature better than the activities. (EN I.1, 1094a3-6)
This is what Lear has to say:
This will become an important claim, and it is one with which we might disagree. For instance, we tend to recommend productive activity for its therapeutic value. From this perspective, it doesn’t matter if your clay pots are a bit wobbly or your mosaic made of broken dishes is rather hideous. The value of undertaking handicrafts is in doing something–anything–with your hands. Similarly, we think it is an open question whether the excellent exercise of carpentry is less valuable than the house it produces. After all, such activities can constitute a valuable life. (p. 16)
There are two different objections here to Aristotle’s claim that the products are always better than productive activities. I’ll focus on the first, the hideous mosaic case. As Lear goes on to argue persuasively, for Aristotle, the τέλος of an intentional action is much more than simply the desired goal of the action (see esp. pp. 34-6). Genuine τέλη are normative – they set the conditions for what counts as a successful engagement in that type of action. So even if a doctor aims at making as much money as possible, we judge her practice of medicine on the basis of the τέλος internal to medicine, i.e., creating health in one’s patients. Our avaricious doctor counts as a bad doctor, even if she’s very good at making money. So when we turn to therapeutic mosaic-making, we’re faced with a dilemma – making bad mosaics is just as effective at bringing about the goal of relaxation, but isn’t the goal of mosaic-making the mosaics? In other words, why in this case don’t we judge the success of the activity on the basis of the quality of the products?
I think there’s a perfectly good Aristotelian response here. Let’s say I sit down to relax for an hour by making mosaics, but I finish my hideous mosaic more quickly than I’d anticipated, say in 45 minutes. What do I do then? Is my activity complete? Not necessarily – if I have more materials around, I’ll simply carry on making another mosaic for another 15 minutes, and then I’ll be finished. In the case of making a wobbly pot, I might even collapse the pot and start over. These seem to be part of one and the same activity that I started at the beginning of the hour. So, in therapeutic uses of crafts, the craft-product isn’t actually the τέλος of my activity. My ultimate end is relaxation, just as my desires would indicate, and I secure this end via the proximate end of the activity itself. Of course, as the doctor case nicely illustrates, desires aren’t a firm guide to the τέλος of an activity since I might just be ‘doing it wrong’. But we don’t think that I’m doing it wrong when I collapse my pot and start over. That wobbly pot just wasn’t the point. Hence, therapeutic uses of crafts are ἐνέργειαι, that is, complete activities not mere productions .
A similar response might be possible in the second case, of what one might call productive ‘life-activities’, but I haven’t quite worked through the implications there. All the same, I have the same intuition that Carlo expressed at the conference and that bears some relation to Lear’s point – that Aristotle doesn’t give us a satisfying account of why a κίνησις cannot be valued in the same way as an ἐνέργεια . But it might be that in the end he does give us the tools to do so on his behalf.
 Princeton University Press, 2004
 UPDATE: Nakul points out, rightly, that my use of ἐνέργεια here is a bit confusing – or perhaps, confused. Where I write or translate ‘activity’ above, I am referring to ἐνέργεια in the broad sense in which Aristotle contrasts it with δύναμις, ‘capacity’. This is the way the word is used above in ΕΝ Ι.1. Where I write ἐνέργεια, I mean it in the narrow sense in which Aristotle contrasts it with κίνησις, ‘process’ or ‘change’ (cf. ΕΝ X.4, Metaph. Θ.6). In this sense, it refers to the first category mentioned in EN I.1 – an activity undertaken for its own sake where the end is contained in or is the activity itself.