Misquoting Aristotle

by Jason Stotts

We’re about one third of the way through editing the penultimate draft of Eros and Ethos and one thing I’m doing is cleaning up some of the quotes that I want to include. With most of the quotes, I already had references, since they came from my own research. However, there were some that I wanted to include that I found online or in other books without a textual reference. Being a serious scholar, I can’t very well include a quote without a reference, so I’ve been hunting them down. One quote that I really loved was:

“Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

This was attributed to Aristotle, but without a reference. Now, this is a wonderful quote. It’s beautiful, eloquent, and says exactly what I’d like it to say. Unfortunately, I had never seen it in Aristotle before. After combing my Aristotle, and with some help from Facebook friends, we discovered this article which gave the source as “Nichomachean (sic) Ethics 1097b: 20 in Aristotle 1982″. The text there says:

“τέλειον δή τι φαίνεται καὶ αὔταρκες ἡ εὐδαιμονία, τῶν πρακτῶν οὖσα τέλος”

Which Ross translates as:

“Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.”

After conferring with a couple of friends who know Greek and are qualified to speak on the matter, the Ross translation is correct and the original quote is much too loose. While this is somewhat disappointing, I’m glad I won’t be continuing the chain of this misquote.

I’m posting this here so that that others looking to track down this quote can save themselves the search. I think it’s also a useful reminder that even if a quote is often repeated, it’s always important to go back to the source to verify.

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