Aristotle and the Good Life
What is Aristotle's conception of the good life and his argument, based on man's distinctive capacities, in favor of this conception?
What is Aristotle's conception of the good life and his argument, based on man's distinctive capacities, in favor of this conception? Is he right, given his premises, to conclude that the contemplative (theoretical) life, devoted to exercising the intellectual virtues and to understanding the fundamental structure of the world, is a better form of life than the one devoted to the exercise of moral virtues?
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explores his conception of the good life and defines it in terms of the greek concept of Eudaimonia. Eudaimonia can be understood as the ultimate “happiness”; it is a life lived well, and does not derive from subjective, pleasurable experiences but rather from the exercise of virtue and reason. Aristotle emphasizes that Eudaimonia is not simply goodness (arete) and the possession of reason and virtue; a sleeping man may be by nature benevolent, but it is very hard for us to say so without his exercise of this benevolence. Hence, it must consist of the exercise of these attributes.
There are some characteristics that differentiate Eudaimonia from other goals in life, namely that Eudaimonia is in line with our innate function as Humans, is a “Most Final End”, and is “Self-sufficient”. Aristotle believes that our capacity for rational thought is what differentiates us from other sentient life like horse and cattle; because it is the hallmark of our humanity, exercising practical and theoretical reason becomes our function and our meaning of life. Furthermore, as something distinctive to us, it also becomes our highest attribute that positions us closest to the Gods. Aristotle insists that we should not consider immortality and the characteristics of Gods as unattainable, but instead, the ideal life that we should strive towards. In fact, Aristotle expresses that we also have a natural tendency to exercise reason; similar to the ways that an intellectual conversation with a friend is often considered more emotionally satisfying than a trivial gossip session, intellectual pleasures are preferred to sensuous one. Hence, as something both desired and natural, a life lived well must consist of developing and exercising our reason.
Aristotle delineates the three different kinds of ends: Instrumental ends, Final Ends, and Most Final Ends. Instrumental Ends are chosen for the sake of something else. An example of one is the act of going to the gym for the sake of getting fit; some people may enjoy it for its own sake, but for most, it is for the purpose of staying healthy. The act itself is not the purpose. A Final End is one valued for its own sake but also valued for something else. Examples include the exercise of virtues, the acquisition of wealth, and the strive for honor. They are appreciated for their own sake: for the instant gratification derived from performing a virtuous act, the objects of pleasure our wealth can obtain, and the social status that honor can bring. Ultimately however, if we continue questioning the reasoning behind our strive for these worldly goals, we arrive at the rationalization that we do these in the belief that they are instrumental to our happiness. This is where Aristotle introduces the concept of a Most Final End, one which is valued only for its own sake. Here, the line of questioning regarding fundamental impetus comes to an end: there is no reason beyond the point that it is simply for itself. Aristotle defines Eudaimonia as this Most Final End, because we would ultimately choose happiness for its own sake, and its sake only. Because of this, Eudaimonia must be self-sufficient and not lacking anything else of value. This establishes the monistic nature of Eudaimonia, where it’s nature as the most desirable of things and not one item of many establishes that no addition of anything else could possibly be desirable.
In order to achieve a life lived well, there are three main features that must be attained: virtue, pleasure, and external goods. As previously mentioned, virtue must be exercised and not just possessed; in the same way that a car in storage is useless, a courageous woman with no acts of courage to prove her worth is not actually courageous. Aristotle continues on to remark that pleasure is a good that life depends upon, but is not meant to be the ultimate goal one strives towards. Rather, it is a byproduct of exercising virtue: the good man, by disposition nurtured through education, will automatically find virtuous activities pleasurable and will have grown to like and dislike the correct things. As a result, they will find the exercise of virtue and reason pleasurable. However, Aristotle acknowledges that the exercise of virtue and ultimately happiness still depends on external resources. Generosity cannot always be performed without wealth, political power, and powerful friends; without food on the table and water in the wells, happiness can be hard to attain.
In Book Ten, Aristotle comes to the conclusion that the contemplative theoretical life devoted to exercising the intellectual virtues and to understanding the fundamental structure of the world is a better form of life than the one devoted to the exercise of moral virtues. His premises for this argument reside ultimately in that a theoretical life is closer to those of the Gods and resides in an idealized space; it is more continuous, more self-sufficient, and most pleasant of the virtuous activities. By “continuous”, Aristotle refers to our ability to most continuously perform the act of intellectual contemplation than we are capable of performing other activities like virtuous acts; pleasure derived from the exercise of virtue cannot be experienced continuously, because our bodies must become fatigued, yet pleasure derived from contemplation can be permanently exercised. Furthermore, contemplation is the most “self-sufficient”, by which Aristotle means it is done solely for its own sake. While the wise man may need the necessities of life, he does not need them to perform contemplation in the ways that moral virtues requires of him. While others may help him in this process of contemplation, like how group discussions in class can lead to insight one may not have attained individually, the exercise of a theoretical life can ultimately be done by oneself. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, Aristotle argues that the exercise of reason is what ultimately makes something most desirable; this is the premise on which Aristotle rejects pleasure as the ultimate good, because an experience can be preferred over another even though they might bring about the same amount of pleasure on the grounds that one might be more intellectually stimulating. Because nothing can be further added to the exercise of reason to make it more desirable, it is self-sufficient and is thus the ultimate good. Finally, Aristotle argues that because the intellect is our highest attribute and is what positions us closest to the Gods, it is the most pleasant of the virtuous activities.
Firstly, it is important to notice that Aristotle is not discounting the importance of exercising moral virtues in a life lived well, but rather stating it as inferior to the contemplative theoretical life. While I agree that the exercise of reason is indispensable in a life lived well, I believe this cannot be argued as a better form of life to one devoted to the exercise of moral virtues, but instead, simultaneously important. Aristotle’s first criteria of a better life, “self-sufficiency”, depends on whether it requires any additional “thing” for happiness. Morality without the exercise of intellect will not bring about lasting happiness, but the opposite also holds true: intellect without the exercise of morality will not bring about happiness, either. For the majority of us, our actions are governed by a perceived moral compass. “Improving the world” or “helping the community” are often rationales behind our activities, whether that is founding a new green-energy startup to reduce carbon emissions, or becoming a lawyer to represent the underprivileged populace. The exercise of moral virtues, as Aristotle agrees, gives meaning to our lives. The point, however, is that moral virtue not only gives meaning, but is indispensable in our search for happiness, which Aristotle has stated does not revolve about experiences but instead, consists in the long-term. The happiness of the people around us which we can personally achieve through the exercise of moral virtues is so intrinsic to our own happiness as social creatures that we cannot discount it as secondary. If two activities like solving a Soduku problem and code-breaking in World War 2 demanded the same amount of exercising reason, we would likely prefer the latter because it has the potential of saving a large number of other people. The fact that something other than intellectual virtue can make a difference in our decision process shows that the exercise of reason is not self-sufficient; it is an important form of life, but it is not the only one that is.
Aristotle’s second premise of a better life revolves around the function of man as prescribed by Gods. It is better simply because it imitates the lives of Gods most closely, and as a result, is most pleasant of the virtuous activities. It is important to observe that this premise does not reside in any internal, physical or biological dispositions but from an external source: from a God who is accepted as intrinsically correct. It resides in an idealized state of perfection, and rejecting the existence of this external God severs the origins of Aristotle’s logical reasonings. Furthermore, he argues that because reason is unique to humans, it is our destiny to exercise it. That is fundamentally questionable: I may be the only person alive who can curl my tongue in a certain way; does it mean my life’s destiny is in doing so everyday? Of course, it can be argued that curling a tongue is a trivial matter of little significance, while exercising reason is a noble activity. The question then arises: why is exercising reason more significant than warping my body in a specific way? Aristotle would answer that it is because reason is an attribute of the Gods, while tongue-twisting is not. This brings us to the realization that God is still the origin of his reasonings, one that has no basis.
In addition, by holding that the contemplative life devoted to understanding the fundamental structure of the world is superior, Aristotle considers human interactions as secondary to those of an individual’s interactions with the ideal space. Yet, he states himself that humans are fundamentally social creatures. How can a transient life be lived well without temporal interactions with the creatures around us? A life of reason without a life of social interactions cannot be lived well in the long term, if at all, and hence, reason depends on external goods and is not self-sufficient. Aristotle’s final premise of a better life derives from his argument that the theoretical life is more continuous. This is from his belief that the assessment of whether Eudaimonia has been achieved must consider a life holistically, and hence, the criteria for a life lived well must not be based on temporal experiences. Assuming this is true, on a very trivial level, if the point through which Aristotle attacks the exercise of moral virtues is the presence of fatigue resulting in a lack of continuity, how can the exercise of reason be continuous if we also must sleep? Aristotle is thus suggesting that the exercise of reason can grant us access to another dimension that is pure, permanent, and operates as an ideal. If this is the case, it would not be fair to subject the exercise of reason and moral virtues to the same standard of continuity that requires a material, physical element. Going back to the initial premise however, we must question why continuity even fundamentally entails a better life. Continuity and an independence from external social influence suggests a life of no surprises; it demands that a good life cannot be annulled at any point because it is solely in our own control. Yet, as Epicurus observes, life without anxiety does not necessarily entail a good life, and hence, Aristotle’s premise that continuity means better must be questioned.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s conception of the good life is one that consists in the exercise of intellectual and moral virtues. He ultimately concludes that while both are important, the theoretical life is a better form of life than one devoted to the exercise of moral virtues. I have refuted this argument by showing that his premises are not grounded, namely that the theoretical life is not self-sufficient, his use of God as the origin of his reasonings is not founded, and that continuity does not suggest superiority.