Essay on Aristotle’s Philosophy of a Life
Aristotle’s book Nicomachean Ethics concentrates on the formation of a life of excellence and provides a blueprint for how to live such a life. Aristotle describes the various ways a life of excellence can be achieved and what it looks like when one lives this way. He determines that a true life of excellence is one where human rationality is in control of the mind and, with the assistance of the virtues, is oriented toward the pursuit of ultimate happiness.
In order to understand Aristotle’s philosophy of an excellent life, one must first understand what is meant by “happiness”. Aristotle believes that humans, like any object under observation, are best understood by looking at their telos. He asserts that rationality is the ultimate telos of a person, and pursuing happiness through the virtues is the way one becomes a rational human being. Happiness, like wealth, pleasure, and honor, is a type of good that is sought after, but Aristotle determines that happiness is different among these three other pursuits since it is the only self-sufficient end. This means that everyone is driven by the desire to be happy, and every choice made is with the hope to reach some level of happiness. Therefore, by choosing to pursue happiness as an end— opposed to material wealth or temporary pleasure where happiness is solely a product— they are fulfilling their purpose, or telos, and are on the path to achieving a life of excellence.
While Aristotle concedes that happiness is a subjective term, he breaks down his definition of happiness by laying out three types of lives. The first two, the life of enjoyment and political life, both are based on temporal pursuits such as pleasure and honor. These two ways of living are good for their consequences but are not good in themselves. On the other hand, the contemplative life, understood as the best type of life, is good because it is representative of the self-sufficient end where happiness and rationality are present. All appetites and desires having been tamed by the virtues allow rational thinking to take control and enable humans to enjoy the highest form of individual freedom. In chapter X.8, Aristotle states “the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man”. Here, Aristotle connects back to the idea that rationality is the telos of a person and implies that since the contemplative life consists of the highest rational faculties of humans, it is the happiest life. The way to reach this capacity of living, according to Aristotle, is through practice of the virtues.
The next significant part of Aristotle’s philosophy is the role that virtues play in living a life of excellence. Aristotle considers the virtues, or excellences, as goods humans innately have but nurture through their pursuit of happiness. In Book II of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains that to become virtuous one must avoid vices and seek the “golden mean”, meaning virtues are found between a deficit and excess. Moderation, therefore, is the most important virtue because once a person can discern what moderate behavior is, they can subsequently determine all other virtues, making it easier to strengthen their rational capacities.
Living a life of excellence is more than just knowing how to act virtuously, but actively engaging in virtuous behavior without giving in to desires or temptations. Aristotle states that all humans are born with the capacity to be good, but there is no guarantee that will happen. Humans are only able to acquire moral virtues through practice and repetition until acting virtuous is second nature, and they are uncomfortable not doing what is right. Happiness can be found when the virtues become ingrained in a person, and they receive pleasure through doing good, rather than doing wrong.
But how does one know if their actions are virtuous or not? Aristotle answers this by providing an important clarification about the virtues. He asserts that virtuous action must be voluntary. There is no way to be virtuous on accident, Aristotle states, because the foundation of completing a virtuous action is knowing why that action was taken. An action is voluntary when a person knows the circumstance, what the situation calls for, and deliberates whether the action is worth any risk or reward. The term deliberation is key due to the fact that it is directed by the rational part of the soul. A life of excellence is achieved through these types of actions since it is clear that a choice, as opposed to a wish, was first deliberated on and then chosen.
In order for a person to learn what actions are right and why they are right, they must see people doing it and learn from them. Aristotle emphasizes the importance of friendship for this reason, and he asserts that a friendship is only complete if it recognizes the goodness and virtue in each person. Many people fall into friendships of utility or pleasure, which often only last while a person receives benefits from the other. A friendship of the good, however, is grounded in the nature of giving and wanting the best for others. These friendships are long lasting and important for a life of excellence since there is mutual respect and the possibility of growth for not only the individuals, but the friendship as a whole.
Aristotle’s philosophy of a life of excellence centers on the pursuit of happiness through practice of the virtues and rational thinking. Since Aristotle stated that the greatest virtue of man is reasoning, it must be in fulfilling that virtue that brings the greatest pleasure. These ideas put forth by Aristotle are important in contemporary society because they help foster a just society where virtuous behavior can become the norm if everyone chooses to follow these principles and orientate their life toward excellence.