Questions about the Good Life, or what it means to live well, have been debated in philosophic and religious texts, world literature, and in every human being’s mind around the world for an extensive time. In the end, each of us must answer these questions ourselves. Aristotle teaches us how to achieve happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics, and in his great treatise, Aristotle compares our attempts to live good lives to an archer’s attempt to aim an arrow properly (Irwin). The archer is more likely to hit the right mark if he has a target to aim at, so similarly, we can continue our journey toward finding the good life, as long as we possess the knowledge to define what makes a life good. In the Ethics, Aristotle explores the question: what is the best way of life? Furthermore, which way of life which most fully expresses the meaning of being human? In Aristotle’s view, the purpose of human life is to achieve eudaimonia, also known as life success, or human flourishing (Milch, Patterson).
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In this essay, I will outline Aristotle’s argument for this position, and offer a critical analysis of this view. On top of that, I will offer my own reasoning for agreeing with Aristotle, stating that happiness (eudaimonia) is the purpose of life and is achieved by excellent reasoning in accordance to each individual’s own lifestyle. According to Aristotle, eudaimonia’s central criterion is activity exhibiting excellence and involves the use of reason (Irwin).
First we must ask: what is happiness? Happiness can be defined as something entirely different from one person to the next. It can be defined as celebrating a special birthday with your family or watching a hilarious movie with your friends, but these things do not make us successful at life or even flourishing human beings. According to Aristotle, instead of trying to have a good time, we should be trying to create a good life for ourselves. Instead of seeking the shallow pleasures of an ordinary experience, we should be seeking the deep pleasure of self-perfection. Aristotle states that every art, procedure, action, or undertaking aims at something good (Woodfin). As a whole, people will generally do almost anything for the sake of something good, or at least for what they think is worth aiming at. The essential point is that when a person does something, there will be an answer to the question of why he or she is doing it. Action, in general, is not pointless. However, there is an important distinction to be made: some of the things we do are for our own sake, and we do other things in order to bring about something beyond the action itself. Perhaps we listen to music or wander around the park because that is the sort of thing we want to do; it is an end in itself. But most people catch buses in order to reach some destination and make cakes only because they want to eat them. The chain can be much longer; we plow through fields in order to grow wheat, which we do to get the grain. We then grind that grain to get flour, use that flour to make bread, and in the endaˆ¦ we eat it. The chain can continue on and on, but the point is, Aristotle is claiming that the chain must have a final link that is comprised of the resulting desire that one took action for (Strathern).
More often than not, we all have come across the question: what is the purpose of life? What should I do to live a good life? These are not questions about what we should do to ensure that our life contains the signs of success, such as money, power, or respect. These might be necessary for the success at life, but they do not constitute it. Aristotle states that the answer lies within people who live their lives fully in accordance to their own desires (Milch, Patterson). To do this, they must live both rationally and virtuously. A “contented, fulfilled and flourishing life with serenity and lots of activity” (Collinson) sums it up, but how to achieve it was a major topic for debate. Could it be fame and public recognition? Aristotle does think that it is important to be well respected by others and to have self-respect, but these cannot be final links (Irwin). In any case, it could also be a life of pleasure, but he has firm views about this. He sees pleasures as a good but not the Good. Aristotle points out those powerful men often seem to dedicate their lives to pleasure, perhaps simply because they can. This sets a bad example, and many others try to emulate them (Luce). But this is to live a life suited only to animals and children. For him, pleasure is something that perfects an activity. When we get wrapped up in some useful and productive work that we lose ourselves in it, especially if we are doing it well, we cease to notice the passing of time. This, for Aristotle, is the meaning of real pleasure.
By observing what is unique to every person and what they, in fact, do seek, Aristotle came to the conclusion that the highest good or end for human is eudaimonia (Luce). While this word is generally translated as “happiness,” one must be careful to acknowledge that Aristotle’s understanding of “happiness” is rather different from ours. Eudaimonia happiness is not a feeling of euphoria. In fact, it is not a feeling at all. It is rather “activity in accordance with virtue.” Aristotle took it as self-evident that every action aims at achieving some good, and that there must be a supreme good, which is the ultimate goal of human activity (Woodfin). Pleasure, he thinks, is a component in well-being, but does not constitute its essence, and pleasure-seeking should not be made the main aim of life (Irwin). He reaches his own conception of well-being by viewing human life in the perspective of all life. Plants and animal are also alive and share the functions of nutrition and reproduction with humans. Animals and humans stand on a higher level than plants because they can perceive and move, but the power of perception and movement is in no way confined to humans (Strathern). Aristotle then asks whether there is any power or function which is typical of human beings alone, and which serves to distinguish mankind from the animal kingdom. He finds this distinctive feature in man’s ability to reason, which is shown in both his response to reason and his exercise of reason (Milch, Patterson). Since the active rational element is peculiar to man, it serves to define his proper function, which is to live actively in accordance with reason. If one lives the moral life one is, no doubt, to be praised. If one lives the eudaimonia life, one is to be congratulated. Aristotle frequently makes the distinction between what is to be prized and what is to be praised, and eudaimonia is to be prized. It is success, an achievement. A good man is one who successfully fulfills his function, and so fulfills himself. He does this by living up to the highest excellence of which he is capable, which means that he lives well and so achieves well being.
The main points of the discourse are then gathered together in a formal definition of the good for man, which can be defined according to Aristotle as: the good for man (well-being or happiness) is an activity of the soul in accordance with its own excellence (that is, in accordance with virtue). The definition is completed by the addition of the phrase “in a complete life” to reinforce the point that a moment of happiness does not constitute well-being. Aristotle has now met the challenge of defining the essence of well-being, but accepts that his definition provides an outline sketch only, and that it needs to be given body by a discussion of the nature of the human excellences or virtues in accordance with which human activity must proceed. But before continuing to this discussion, he tests his definition by comparing it with accepted beliefs about human happiness. This is typical of his method. He regards himself as refining rather than rejecting common-sense views (Woodfin). The definition holds up because it finds well-being in the soul rather than in external or bodily goods. It also allows for pleasure as a component in well-being because pleasure is related to activity. But its primary virtue is to stress that activity is the very essence of well-being. This is in line with Olympic practice where the crown is given, not to the most handsome competitor, but to the one who competes and wins (Irwin).
In conclusion, we look at Aristotle’s point of view. Everything that exists has a special purpose, something that is suited for better than any other thing. Just as the parts of humans have a purpose (the eye to see, the ear to hear, and so forth) humans as a whole must have some special purpose. Fulfilling this purpose is something that only humans can accomplish and would result in a sense of fulfillment or happiness. The human purpose, as Aristotle pointed out, is “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” To live in accordance with virtue is to fulfill the unique potential of the human soul; nothing else in the universe has this potential.