Aristotle on Ways of Life

by Peter Saint-Andre


While I'm reflecting on philosophies and ways of life, I thought it would be interesting to look at what Aristotle says about ways of life in his writings on ethics.

First, he states that there is a fundamentally human way of life or bios (it always helps to remember that Aristotle founded the science of biology, i.e., the formal study of the bios of living things). Human beings are social animals whose activities are characterized by speech-and-reason (logos). Thus, for instance, a being that leads an utterly solitary existence could not be a human being, but would be either a god or a beast.

Second, within the fundamentally human way of life Aristotle delineates four particular forms of living that have a primary focus: the life of money-making, of pleasure-seeking, of political engagement, or of theoretical inquiry. He quickly dismisses the life of money-making. Why? The way I see it, he's engaging in a thought experiment: if you had enough money to live on, what would you do? He thinks it's absurd to say "I'd make more money" because that is a path without any natural limits. (More on this in a future post.)

This leaves the three lives of pleasure, politics, or inquiry. But why just these three? Why not also lives of family relations, artistic creation, religious devotion, professional service, philanthropy, invention, entrepreneurship, etc.? I see a few possible and perhaps overlapping explanations:

To amplify on my previous post, the sense of "way of life" used here is different from the sense in "philosophy as a way of life", because every philosophical school falls under the latter rather than the former. Yet there could be interesting relationships between these senses: for example, Stoicism lends itself to the political life whereas Epicureanism lends itself to a certain life of pleasure.

Finally, nothing says it's necessary to dedicate all of your activities to a singular focus: it seems at least possible to, say, make money as a nurse while raising a family or pursuing music in your spare time. This points in the direction of what I think of as a "portfolio management" approach to life, but that's a topic for another post as well.

(Cross-posted at


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