17 September 2016

Aristotle on the Meaning of Life

Last Saturday's brief introduction of the Aristotle's approach to political science noted Aristotle's insistence that politics is the "master art" or "master science."

He makes this conclusion for two reasons. First, politics in way subsumes all other arts or sciences. In modern terms, the arts and sciences of economics, education, war making, etc. all constitute parts of politics--the science of the state. Second, politics is the science needed to understand what is the supreme good for mankind. All other arts and sciences like economics, education, and war serve limited purposes, ends, or goods. Although to a limited extent they seek ends that seem good in themselves, these ends or goods are really the means or constituent parts of a greater or supreme good.

So if politics is the science for discovering the supreme good for mankind, what is that good? What could it be that is good in itself and not simply the means to something else?


As Aristotle puts it, “happiness more than anything else is thought to be just such an end because we always choose if for itself and never for any other reason.”

At this point, however, Aristotle throws us modern readers a twist. Usually we think of happiness as the psychological or emotional state that comes from acquiring whatever it is that we want. The Greek word for happiness is eudaimonia, which means flourishing or thriving. While happiness in the emotional sense might accompany human flourishing, it is secondary. Perhaps the best modern phrase that captures the meaning of  Aristotle's concept of happiness is "living good life." And as previously implied, that differs from "having a good time."

Aristotle develops further into this question of happiness. What does it mean for a human to flourish? To find this answer, one must understand the function of a human being. And according to Aristotle, what distinguishes the functioning of human beings from every other creature is reason. Flourishing is living rationally. Therefore, Aristotle sees happiness or "the good life" as the rational activity of the soul or life of a man.

Finally, he adds that any activity worth doing is worth doing well. “The function of a good man is to perform well and rightly . . . and if all this is so, the conclusion is that the good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with excellence.”

Excellence derives from the Greek word arete, which most translations render virtue.

Aristotle's complete definition of happiness [flourishing] then is rational activity of the soul in accordance with excellence or virtue.

Or said another way, happiness, or the supreme goal of life, simply means to excel at being human.  

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