Born in Stagira – then part of Macedonia, nowadays north-eastern Greece – in 384 BC, the already well-known fame of Aristotle grew as the centuries went by. During the Middle Age, it would have sufficed to mention “the Philosopher” in order to refer to the adviser of Alexander the Great; moreover, Dante called him the “master of those who know” in the Divine Comedy. His authority covers a very wide range of studies: from metaphysics, to politics or logic. The philosopher, keen to catalogue, examined all areas of knowledge and he divided Sciences into theoretical, practical and poietic. Sed tempus fugit and the subject of this time draws its arguments from the practical sciences, in particular from Ethics.
Among the three key works of the philosopher dedicated to Ethics – the Eudemian Ethics, Magna Moralia and the Nicomachean Ethics – only the latter goes beyond being studied in a purely scholastic context, since it provides the recipe for a good life, which is discussed and applied even today.
THE NUTS-AND-BOLTS PHILOSOPHER
It is no coincidence that the history of philosophy is often divided between Platonists and Aristotelians. In The School of Athens, Raphael paints Plato with the index pointing upwards: for the world-renowned philosopher, the “truth” of the physical world we perceive resides elsewhere, in a metaphysical dimension, behind or beyond physical appearances. Aristotle was much more of a nuts-and-bolts philosopher. The object of interest is how we can see the world, how we understand and perceive it, by necessarily using our five senses.
In his reasoning about the conduct of the human being, his ethics also adds two major elements, essential for a good life: happiness and virtue.
In a nutshell:
happiness comes from expressing what we have rationally decided is good for us over the longer term. Happiness is not pleasure, but a by-product of a meaningful life.
“His conception of happiness is integral or humanistic, as it invests man in his entirety”
E. Berti (1935 – 2022)
Eudaimonia, or literally “to be in the company of a good demon”.
That happiness is required in order to live a good life does not sound like a great discovery. What still makes Aristotelian ethics so fascinating nowadays is the type of happiness that the Philosopher urges us to seek, and the recipe provided for reaching it.
The meaning of Eudaimonia does not loosely end with “happiness”; it is something more pervasive, which envelops the total life of a man. It is the “doing well”, the “success”, the “flourishing”.
What is the way of living to pursue in order to achieve it, then?
Considering man as a rational being above all is the fundamental premise of Aristotelian ethics.
If our function were only to grow or to age, this would make us equal to a plant; if it were only to see, to hear or to smell, where’s the difference with an ox or a horse?
According to Aristotle, what makes us unique is the ability to act upon reason and to align our life with the principles and values we have built over the years. As rational beings, we will reach our highest form of happiness by following the choices we made through reason.
Therefore, in order to achieve eudaimonia, we need to work out what is best for us in the long run and by following that path, happiness will consequently come, as a by-product.
However, figuring out is not enough; action is also important.
Unlike Plato – the mere appreciation of virtue is enough to make a person virtuous – for Aristotle a good life is a life of virtue expressed through action. The most genuine form of happiness will be achieved through working on ourselves and our purposes, over the time.
But there is something more in his words: happiness is not, therefore, predetermined by some sort of divinity or fate; instead we are fully capable of achieving it by ourselves, leading a life based on virtue, through work, constancy or studies.
“[We] become builders by building, and we become harpists by playing the harp. Similarly, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.”
[Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, II]
In the end, the zenith of happiness will be the personal fulfillment, which might be called so when the individual leads a stable life in pursuing his ideals, without climaxes nor chasms, and he makes the vagaries of fortune irrelevant.
In short, a good life means living according to virtue, expressed in action.
TODAY: THE GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS. ARISTOTELIAN POLITICS
We have been talking about the everlasting relevance of the Nicomachean Ethics. It is worth noting that also his considerations on man as a citizen, the Aristotelian politics, still represent a point of reference.
It is fashionable for today’s governments to be concerned about “gross national happiness”, in addition to the mere economic output. Aristotle’s ideas on the good life and Eudaimonia are still taken as example by advisers to guide policy making that might engineer the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
This is a laudable intent, but is it really possible to provide prescriptions for individual happiness? As Aristotle said, it depends on the personal fulfillment of the individual, and everyone has a different path of life, based on his personal potential to fulfill.
After all, rather than focusing on happiness as a goal in itself, our challenge should be to pursue the life most full of meaning for us, and in doing so, happiness will naturally follow.
If we feel that we are acting to fulfill our highest function, it is difficult not to be happy.
In a similar vein:
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Plato, The Republic
Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness