Aristotle: A First Encounter

2018-02-04

Aristotle's views on living well and doing well - what the ancient Greeks called εὐδαιμονία or eudaimonia - are some of the most enduring insights into ethics ever put into words. Yet the deepest meaning of those words is usually obscured by efforts to translate and interpret Aristotle's thoughts. In part the problem is linguistic, in part it is cultural, but ultimately it is philosophical: ancient Greek world views, Aristotle's among them, are very far from our modern ways of thinking and feeling.

Consider some key concepts in Aristotle's ethical philosophy.

First, εὐδαιμονία (eudaimonia). Although it's usually rendered as "happiness", we moderns associate happiness with a pleasurable feeling, whereas it was something much deeper to the ancients. A daimon was an inner god or the divine aspect of a human being. To be eudaimon was to have a good inner god or to be well-favored in personal divinity, and thus to flourish and to fulfill your highest potential - as Aristotle defined it, to "live well and do well".

Second, ἀρετή (arete). Those who translate it as "virtue" make Aristotle sound like a good Victorian. Others translate ἀρετή as "excellence", which is closer to the mark but implies that the quality is fundamentally comparative. Pursuing a hint from the Greek verb ἀρετάω (meaning to prosper, to fare well, to thrive), I use the Anglo-Saxon word "thriving" to capture this important idea.

Third, ψυχή (psyche). Two millennia of Christianity make the word "soul" sound otherworldly to us, but for the ancients ψυχή was the breath of life. Because Aristotle held that all animals and even plants have ψυχή, I render it as "aliveness".

Similarly with ἕξις or hexis (a settled state of being, not a mindless habit), ὄρεξις or orexis (striving, not appetition), διάνοια or dianoia (thinking, not intellection), θεωρία or theoria (active inquiry, not passive contemplation), σωφροσύνη or sophrosune (self-control, not temperance), φρόνησις or phronesis (good judgment, not prudence), μεσότης or mesotes (balance, not "the mean"), ἔργον or ergon (work, not function), καλός or kalos (beauty, not nobility), ἠθικός or ethikos (having to do with character, not morals), and many other terms: I render them in novel ways to set Aristotle's thoughts into sharp relief. I also do not shy away from using the Greek words themselves, untransliterated into the Latin alphabet, so that you don't forget we're dealing with a deeply foreign conception of the good life.

As I see it, the essence of that conception is this:

Aristotle held that εὐδαιμονία consists of living a life worthy of a human being. We humans are thinking and striving animals, whose aliveness is more complex than that of other animals; whereas they strive for things based on relatively immediate feelings of pleasure or pain and on short-term desires to obtain or avoid things, we are also thinking beings who have abstract understandings of the world and who pursue long-term plans and purposes. Thus, for humans, a worthy life is the beautifully harmonious work of thinking aliveness (whose goal is achieving a true understanding of what is) and striving aliveness (whose goal is achieving our long-term plans and purposes, guided by that true understanding). The forms in which we thrive are settled states of mind like knowledge, good judgment, and wisdom along with settled states of character like courage, justice, and self-control. Each of these thrivings is a balance between behavioral and emotional extremes, in a way that is appropriate to your individual disposition, abilities, and situation.

In my book A Worthy Life, I will unpack and explain that conception as best I can.

FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal