A Worthy Life

The Essence of Aristotle's Ethics

by Peter Saint-Andre

Aristotle held that happiness or eudaimonia consists of living well and doing well: of constructing a life worthy of a human being. We are thinking and striving animals, whose aliveness is more complex than that of other animals; whereas they strive for things based on feelings of pleasure or pain and on desires to obtain or avoid things, we are also thinking beings who have abstract understandings and long-term purposes. Thus, for humans, a worthy life is the coordinated work of thinking aliveness (whose goal is achieving a true understanding of what is) and striving aliveness (whose goal is achieving a balance between behavioral and emotional extremes, 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 moderation.

Although Aristotle's ethical philosophy can be hard to understand, much of that difficulty stems from poor translations of his core ethical concepts, and from a myopic focus on his ethical works without considering his writings on biology and psychology. This short epitome will be a friendly guide to his conception of the good life.

What follows is a very rough outline of the book.

  1. Happiness. What would you do if you didn't need to work? There must be something higher than just making money or having fun: philanthropy (a life of public service) or inquiry (the philosophical life). In recent times, the integration of labor and meaning. Eudaimonia as living well and doing well. One's daimon as an inner god. Human sharing in the divine.
  2. Work. The compound nature of being human. What we inherit from our animal nature, and what is added above that. The work of thinking aliveness and the work of striving aliveness. Interactions and dependencies between the two. The soul work involved. Techniques and practices. Education and learning. Habituation as settling into the right ways of thinking and striving.
  3. Thought. The thinking aspects of aliveness and the thriving of the mind. Knowledge, skill, good judgment, ethical understanding, mindfulness, insight, intuition, astuteness. The desire for and pursuit of understanding.
  4. Character. The striving aspects of aliveness and the thriving of character. The specific forms of thriving: courage, moderation, justice, self-control, generosity, etc. Purposes and planning. Emotions and feelings (fear, hunger, pleasure, anger, etc.).
  5. Beauty. Balance in your thinking and striving. Ensuring that your actions are proportionate to the context. The so-called doctrine of the mean. Differences between Aristotle's approach and the "seven deadly sins" in Christianity and Epicureanism (e.g., according to Aristotle anger can be a proper emotion depending on the context). Ethical beauty requires a certain stature, thus grandeur of soul.
  6. Wisdom. Love of others, of self, and of wisdom. Shared love and shared practices in a wise community of friends. Theoria as active inquiry, not passive contemplation. The life of inquiry. Philosophy as a way of life.

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