How can life live?
The pursuit of the good life begins with categorizing kinds of goods. According to Aristotle, there are three types of goods: external, such as friends and wealth; bodily, or the beauty, health, and strength of an individual; and those concerning the soul, which includes virtue.
Activities that are done with accordance to the soul are the “most important and are goods in the highest sense” and actions and mental activities are associated with the soul as well. In this regard, activities of the soul are the highest goods, but what does that mean? Before we tackle this idea, we must understand that these activities must be performed according to reason.
Reason comes in two senses: “that which has reason in itself, this being the principle sense, and that which listens to reason, like a child listening to a father”. Aristotle combines both the virtuous activity and reason by introducing the distinction between a lyre player and a good lyre player. A good lyre player plays well because he plays nobly and in accordance with how a lyre sounds.
In other words, a good lyre player plays the right notes in a rhythm, tone, and pace that is correct. On the other hand, the lyre player achieves this by using reason during the activity; the lyre player thinks about how to pluck the correct strings at the right times and in the right sequence. This picture is analogous to the person who strives to live the virtuous life. The person must practice virtues until the virtues develop into habits; this is the function of humankind.
Hence this explains why Aristotle believes that a person should pursue the “activity of the soul according to virtue, and if the virtues are many, then according to the best and most complete virtue. And we should add ‘in a complete life’”. At this point, we understand that virtues are actions associated with the soul and practicing and honing these actions will lead us to the highest good.
But is it necessary to pursue the highest good? External goods such as wealth, friends, strength, and beauty are definitely extolled through the media. These trends include luxurious but economical cars, beauty, going to college, health, proper dieting, among many other ones. These are certainly important points; however, Aristotle believes that we ought to pursue the highest good because it is the most complete one. What he means to say is that we should seek a good for the sake of itself and not to use it to gain some other good. For instance, imagine that beauty is the highest good that we pursue. Can that be an ultimate realistic goal in Aristotle’s conception? Does beauty serve other purposes?
It can attract others which could lead to marriage, so beauty could be used to find love. Beauty may help to secure a modeling job. Aristotle would contend that this good should not be pursued only for itself and not for the sake of something else, but that does not devalue beauty; it is simply not the most sought after good. From these instances we can see that beauty is probably not the most complete good because it is not pursued for its own sake, but for the sake of other things. In other words, the external goods are not the best goods to pursue; virtue is, and Aristotle reasons that “clearly, then, virtue, according to these, is superior to the other goods”.
So instead of pursuing the external goods, Aristotle argues that we should focus on the Greek concept of eudaimonia, which in English translates roughly as “happiness8 ”. It is crucial to understand the definition of eudaimonia, for eu means “well” and daimon means “divinity” or “spirit,” which indicates that the person lives in accordance with some kind of divinity. This definition demonstrates that this happiness is more than just a temporal feeling. Rosalind Hursthouse echoes this definition as she sees Aristotle’s conception of happiness as more than just “living in a fool’s paradise, or engaged in what we know is pointless activity”.
Hursthouse sees this conception of happiness as “only possible for rational beings,” or humans. Hence this type of “happiness” is a more developed and more fulfilling sense of happiness. Aristotle believes that is the case because he says that “happiness is something perfect and self-sufficient, and it is the end of things we do”.
Unlike wealth, beauty, strength, or any of those other mentioned ideas, happiness is pursued for its own sake and not to obtain something else. This is why Aristotle concludes that the ultimate end we seek in pursuing the virtuous life is to have a fulfilling happiness, and the virtues are actions that we take in order to attain happiness. By engaging in virtue, we also partake in happiness.
How does one pursue complete happiness? Aristotle says that “for happiness requires both complete virtue and a complete life”. In other words, one cannot attain happiness by remaining idle, but through action. Virtue ties into the makeup of the best and most complete life as well because virtues are purposeful actions.
Aristotle also mentions that a person who pursues virtue should “always be engaged always or most of all in actions and studies of things done according to virtue”. Aristotle defines virtue in association with “the soul, for it is of the soul, too, that happiness is stated by us to be an activity”. Therefore if we want to participate in happiness, we involve ourselves in virtuous actions.
According to Aristotle, there are two different categories of virtues: intellectual and ethical. Intellectual virtues (wisdom, intelligence, prudence, etc.) are those that “[originate] and [grow] mostly by teaching”. In this category of virtues, it is required that a person teach these virtues, for they are learned only through that medium which one learns through education. On the other hand, ethical virtues (generosity, temperance, etc.) cannot be taught to a person but are attained by habituation.
Aristotle displays this ability to acquire habits by learning how Aristotle learned them: by observing and documenting at other people who resemble such an ethical virtue. Consequently, if a person wants to learn how to be brave, the person observes the actions of a brave person. To deepen this definition, Aristotle claims that ethical virtue “is a habit, disposed toward action by deliberate choice, being at the mean relative to us, and defined by reason and as a prudent man would define it” .
These virtues are not inherent; we have the capacity to pursue them. Still, we need to practice these virtues in order to transform them into habitual dispositions that we possess all the time and use when necessary. For instance, parents can teach their children what generosity means and demonstrate how to carry out the virtue, but if the child does not listen and practice being generous, the child will not acquire the virtue. Once the child practices the virtue enough and acquires the habit, the child no longer has to constantly use the virtue at every moment in order to possess an ethical virtue – the habit remains within the child Although we are not born with virtues, we have the capacity to accept and perfect virtues within our lives in order to achieve the best life.
Aristotle believes that we have the power to make our own choices insofar as doing what is right or wrong is concerned; in other words, to do evil is a voluntary act of will. The same format applies to society and the law. If a person commits an evil act, that offender will be punished by the legislators but if a person performs a noble action, such as returning a lost wallet, the person will likely be honored or rewarded.
A counterargument that undercuts this idea is that a person could be inebriated while the person commits an evil act. Aristotle rebuts this claim when he says that a person “has the power of avoiding drunkenness, which is the cause of his ignorance while drunk”. To strengthen this quotation, ignorance of the law is also not a reasonable excuse to commit an evil act, for “men are punished also for being ignorant of certain legal matters which are not difficult to learn and should be known”. Therefore the actions that we take determine the type of person we are, so next I take a closer look at the type of actions that people take, namely through ethical virtue.