What i learned from aristotle
Aristotle is essential to any study of moral philosophy. He provides so much and there are many books examining his writings and contributions. I focus here on a couple concepts that influence my thinking and help me learn how to live.
Happiness (eudaimonia/thriving) is the overriding good
Aristotle argues that happiness is life’s purpose. The idea is powerful. Millennia later it became a founding principle for the creation of the United States. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Aristotle’s writings helped me understand happiness more fully and make it my purpose in life. I learned “happiness” is a complex and deep concept that must be well understood for it to be the focal point for living. Feeling good when you get up in the morning is not what living is about.
In Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle explains seeking not just good, but the highest good for humans – the good that all other goods are aimed at. He used the word “eudaimonia.” Much has been written and said about eudaimonia. As I learned more from Aristotle the idea became more meaningful. Happiness always seemed shallow. What Aristotle proposes is far richer and powerful. His explanation made me comfortable with making it the ultimate purpose in my life.
Virtue as a practical method for achieving happiness
There is a practical problem in pursuing happiness. That problem is having a workable framework of principles and guidelines for making the choices affecting happiness. These are choices regarding acting and thinking. This is what moral philosophy is all about – rules for living.
Several schools of moral philosophy address this problem. Aristotle’s writing created the “virtue ethics” approach. This school, more than any others, influences my behavior. Virtues can be described, learned, and practiced. I grew up understanding the idea of virtue and, for the most part, tried to live virtuously. But it was only after reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that it came together as a coherent approach. It is a rich philosophical tradition with many resources to help people understand virtue and live accordingly. It is something that works in everyday life.
Humans as political animals
For years I approached moral and political philosophy from an individualistic perspective. Our own well-being and happiness is what matters. Our actions should maximize our happiness. The only limit is not harming others. Our institutions should make it easier for us to achieve happiness.
I realized after reading Aristotle that my thinking was too narrow and naïve. Aristotle argues that humans are, by nature, political animals. We cannot survive as individuals. We evolved in a social environment. Many of our abilities such as speech and empathy exist for social purposes. Our happiness is dependent upon living with others. Part of our purpose as humans is to help others. The work of the evolutionary biologists provide a scientific foundation for the idea that humans are made to help each other.
His arguments changed my approach to ethical behavior. They increased the importance of actions affecting others. This helped me understand better the concepts of duty and obligation. What I had seen as infringing on my pursuit of happiness, I now see as important to creating a society that makes pursuing happiness possible.
It also exposed a fundamental flaw in a narrow individual basis for ethical behavior. Many actions seem fine assuming they don’t affect others. But it is nearly impossible to act without affecting other people because we interact with and rely on others so extensively. This complicates moral decision-making. An action is good or bad based on how it affects us and everyone around us. That raises the bar for moral action.
Moderation is a key to understanding virtue. Aristotle believed virtue lies between deficiency and excess of certain characteristics. Virtues such as courage, loyalty, and justice can described as the middle ground between extremes. Aristotle is one of the origins for the term “the golden mean” which describes this concept. Determining the right balance between excess and deficiency often requires wisdom. The “mean” changes with the circumstance. It is a broad principle not a simple, yes/no rule.
Courage is often used as an example of this idea. At one extreme is cowardice where someone avoids or runs away from a threat. Fear prevents them from taking correct action. At the other extreme is foolhardiness. Here fear is set aside, and people take unnecessary and pointless risks even if for a good cause. A courageous person takes the middle path. They preserver in the face of danger and adversity but do so wisely and intelligently. They are more likely to achieve a good outcome.
Moderation is a powerful and constant guiding principle in my life. As I reflect on my experience, I see how it pointed me in the right direction many times. Its influence goes far beyond understanding virtue and guides me in many areas. “Moderation in all things” is a good aphorism that has worked for me.
It is easy to go to extremes. Natural competitiveness and the desire to achieve pushes many in this direction. We often outwardly admire people who go to extremes: the athletes, the entrepreneurs, and the artists obsessed with being the best. But it falls short as a principle for living. The hyper-focused, unbalanced approach to living often leads to bad behavior and unhappiness. We may admire, and even benefit from, what these obsessed people accomplish. But we would not want to live in their shoes.
We all experience the downsides of extremes in food and drink. But what about something like work? Working hard is good. Excessive work, being a workaholic, makes work less, not more, effective. It also causes deficits in other parts of life. Our relationships and family may suffer. Other seemingly good or positive behavior – self-sacrifice, humility, empathy – can have negative consequences when taken to extremes.
The challenge with moderation and the golden mean as guides for living is knowing where to draw the line. Where between deficiency and excess should we place ourselves? Here is where wisdom is needed. The wise person knows better where to draw the line. That wisdom may come from experience or by learning from others. The middle way is not always obvious or intuitive. It often takes thought.