“Not life, but the good life, is to be chiefly valued” (Socrates). These wise words may have originated from Socrates, however he was one among many philosophers who agreed with such a basic sentiment.
Aristotle was among these influential philosophers. He had his own thoughts on what the good life truly consisted of which was clearly outlined throughout Book I of Nicomachean Ethics. In short, the good life was one which included the study of political science, which was really just the study of the soul, and using this study to actualize systems that could benefit a large number of people. Aristotle’s perception of the good life also contained some ambiguity, since the definition of the good is up to one’s interpretation. Pursuing virtue allowing one to obtain happiness was one of the final key aspects of Aristotle’s good life. The following essay will address this idea of the good life according to the philosophy of Aristotle as presented in Nicomachean Ethics. “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim” (Aristotle 1). This first sentence to Book I of Nicomachean Ethics helps to simply outline what Aristotle constituted as good.
He believed that when individuals acted, they did not do so out of malice. Instead, each and every person pursued what they interpreted as good. Therefore, in each person pursuing their own sense of good, it became the perceived goal of everything people did. Every person’s interpretation of what constitutes as good varies because good is a subjective concept. As in, what one person considers as good may not be the same for another person.
Aristotle found that much like the definition of good varied, so did the end of people’s pursuit of the good. Furthermore, he believed that in order for humanity to gain an understanding of how to truly pursue the good, a consensus must be reached on what particular field would most directly result in this. He found that this particular field of study was political science. Aristotle saw the fact that it encompassed all other scientific studies, thus making the good its ultimate end. He saw political science as what one may call some sort of supreme science. This is due to the fact that the good it was aiming to achieve was for many people as opposed to the good of one individual. He states, “though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states” (2).
While Aristotle was aware of the possible benefit of attempting to achieve the good for a single person, he believed attaining such a thing for a nation would be of much greater significance. His focus on the greatest good for the greatest number gives his thoughts on the good life utilitarian undertones. Aristotle even equated this utilitarian aspect of the good life to the divine in terms of its effects, which further highlighted its importance to him. So far in the work, he was able to establish that all actions are in pursuit of individuals’ interpretation of good. Also, the greatest of all these goods, that an individual could plausibly achieve, was mastering the study of political science. In the sixth division of Book I, Aristotle focuses on defining universal good. This quickly leads him to the conclusion that universal good does not exist. Good, in a general sense, can be used to describe the substance of something, its caliber, how it is in relative to other things, and so on.
This causes an explanation for what good is to not be at all attainable. A more important focus within the realm of good for Aristotle seemed to be distinguishing between goods people could and could not attain. His logic was that if individuals knew what good was possible, they would proceed to use their efforts to try and achieve it. This is the point at which he reaches the understanding that whether there is one good or multiple, these goods are the ends to which every individual’s actions aim. There is also the concept presented that “clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final” (7). Simply put, Aristotle believed no matter what other ends people may have attempted to aim for, the very final end to their pursuits would always be the good.
The goal of happiness went directly along with the final end of the good. This is because he believed happiness is always the final aim of the things that people do. Individuals do not aim for happiness in order to ultimately obtain some other end. Yet, Aristotle found this conclusion to be too cliche, which lead him to the idea that human good is a virtuous pursuit an individual takes. He then found it crucial to explain the three different types of goods as those which are external, related to the soul, and related to the body.
This distinction was for the purpose of highlighting that goods relating to each category possess a level significance for different reasons. Aristotle also found necessity in utilizing an analogy to illustrate the following point he made. He stated, “And as in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete” (8). The specific point he was trying to make was that the good life could only be achieved through actions not merely just one’s state of mind, no matter how much people wish it did. This is because people can think things all they want, but if they do not take action to achieve it, nothing will come of the positive thinking.
He realized in order to get results, positive or negative, action must be taken. Thus to obtain goods in life, one must take action, not just sit around expecting thoughts to come to fruition. Those who were living a good life were also living a pleasant one, according to Aristotle. This pleasantry, however, comes directly from the virtuous actions themselves, not the other aspects of life. He believed individuals who were unable to feel joy from acting virtuously, were in actuality not good people at all.
The consequence of this is that it was not possible for them to be living Aristotle’s good life. The work then continued to focus on the importance of external goods by addressing the need for instruments to achieve happiness. It stated, “for the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary and childless is not very likely to be happy” (8). This is meant to make it quite evident that virtuous acts are challenging to execute without the appropriate resources.
Furthermore, there are simply some aspects to life that when not present in conjunction with virtuous action, ruin the possibility of achieving happiness. As much as it seems he might have wished otherwise, Aristotle seemed aware that people’s happiness was not brought on singularly due to the extent of their virtue. The concepts that were presented so far in the work were then linked together. Aristotle saw political science as a good that was a useful catalyst to encourage an individual to act virtuously and, as a result, achieve happiness.
It was also vital to addressing the presence of good when it came to the state of an individual. Aristotle pointed out the fact that both the living and the dead are referred to as experiencing good and bad. This can be attributed to the particular condition of the given individual’s descendants. Such a realization leads Aristotle to a draw a conclusion in regards to happiness, stating, “Now if we must see the end and only then call a man happy, not as being happy but as having been so before, surely this is a paradox” (10). This explained the importance of a further idea, that is the constantly changing nature of happiness.
The basic concept is that the sum of one’s life is not relevant in deciding whether or not they attained happiness, but relevance instead lies in whether the particular individual acted virtuously. This is because acting out of virtue is fairly simple to acknowledge as a source of happiness, unambiguous in nature. However, happiness based on an individual’s fortune goes through constant, sometimes drastic, shifts. Aristotle thought that even when a given individual faces misery due to the trials and tribulations that occur throughout life, reacting in a virtuous manner would allow them to still be able to bask in happiness.
This further reveals the crucial nature of individuals making the best of the situations they find themselves in, in the opinion of Aristotle, because this is what particularly virtuous individuals would do. He also found it important to confront how the fortunes of descendants affected the individual in question. Much like was said about a single person previously, an individual’s descendants all fall victim to the always changing nature of happiness. Since the state of one’s happiness constantly shifts, the happiness of a person cannot rely on their descendant’s happiness. Aristotle even addressed this concern in regards to dead people.
While he believed the fortune of one’s descendants affected the dead, he did not think the effect it had was nearly enough to change whether the individual was happy or unhappy. He then decidedly shifted his focus on to “whether happiness is among the things that are praised or rather among the things that are prized” (12). He deduced that happiness was prized because it seemed to hold a sort of divine value compared to what was praised. Obviously, the good that came with this happiness was prized as well. The work then shifts its focus back to the study of political science and its substantial role in the actualization of Aristotle’s good life. He thought that those who pursued the study of politics, were in actuality pursuing the study of the soul. This was because virtue comes from the soul and the goal of the student of politics is to help their fellow citizens to be more virtuous. In regards to the soul that Aristotle believed should be studied, he recognized both a rational and irrational aspect.
The nutritive property is central to the irrational aspect of the soul, which is not unique to humans. The property of desire had both a rational and irrational aspect in the eyes of Aristotle. With desire, the soul rationally leads an individual to do what is right, but the individual has an irrational urge to act contrary to what the soul suggests.
Much like the soul, Aristotle made a point of dividing virtue into two aspects. He explained them by stating, “For in speaking about a man’s character we do not say that he is wise or has understanding but that he is good-tempered” (13). By this statement he meant that because virtues could either be of a moral or intellectual sort, the language used to describe them could vary immensely. However, while both types of virtue were different, Aristotle wanted to show that they held equal importance when it came to the value of a man and whether he had effectively lived out the good life. In conclusion, many philosophers had different philosophies on what the good life would look like and Aristotle was among them. A clear sense of his views on the good life could be seen throughout Book I of Nicomachean Ethics. For him, the good life was one in which the individual pursued the study of political science, also described as the study of the soul.
The individual would then use this study to actualize systems that could benefit a large number of people. Aristotle’s perception of the good life also contained some ambiguity, since the definition of the good was to one’s interpretation. Still if they pursued virtue, the person could obtain happiness and have led the good life, according to Aristotle.
Aristotle and the many philosophers who had their own ideas on the good life, helped to shape how such things are viewed today.