Complete Yourself: Aristotle on Personal Excellence (Draft)

by Peter Saint-Andre

Last Updated: 2019-02-27

Note: So far this is only a rough outline - an "epitome of the epitome"...

Living things are the most natural of things, and human beings are the most natural of living beings.

Aliveness (ψυχή) is a continuum. All living things have needs (ἐπιθυμίαι) for sunlight, water, warmth, nutrition, homeostasis, and the like. Animals, because they have perception and movement, not only have needs but also wants (θυμοί) and thus seek to gain what appears pleasant or beneficial; they not only live, they have a way of life (βίος). Humans, because we have reason and speech and a sense of the future, not only have underlying needs and immediate wants — we also have wishes (βούλησεις) and make choices (αἵρεσεις) and establish plans (προαίρεσεις) and take action (πράξις); we can succeed in both reflection (εὐβουλία) and conduct (εὐπραξία); we can not only live, but live well (εὐδαιμονία).

Living well is a continuum, too. There are many ways to miss the mark (ἁμαρτία) in life. Some people are from birth so lacking in forethought and other basic human qualities that they lead a kind of animal existence. Others, altogether the worst, fall so far short of their human potential that they descend into corruption (μοχθηρία) and thus choose purposes that are unworthy (φαῦλος), take actions that are bad (κακός), and act for reasons that are repulsively wrong (αίσχρός). Somewhat better are those who wish for what is good but whose thoughts and actions can be warped by desires and pleasures, so that they experience a lack of self-restraint (ἀκρασία); they might function well in some areas of life but miss the mark in areas where they cannot resist temptation (e.g., they might be unfaithful spouses or heavy drinkers or compulsive gamblers). The more decent sort of human being experiences the same kind of desires and pleasures, but is able to overcome them through force of thought and will, and thus to act with self-control (ἐγκράτεια). Altogether good (ἀγαθός) are those with such excellence (ἀρετή) that they take pleasure in acting for the sake of what is beautifully right (καλός). At times Aristotle hints at the possibility of the perfect sage, who leads a godlike existence; but he says so little about this ideal, and his portrait of personal excellence is already so challenging, that it is enough to focus instead on the life of ἀρετή.

Human beings are not only the most natural, but also the most complex, of animals. In particular, if they are not guided by reason, humans can be the worst of animals; if they are guided by reason, they can be the best. But what does it mean to be "guided by reason"? In essence it means thinking things through as an ongoing practice and settled disposition, taking counsel with oneself before taking action, and being minded in a measured way.

This practice, best called wisdom or mindfulness (φρόνησις), enables you to have a balanced response to your experiences. Without such a practice, you feel and take action in an unbalanced way; for example, you might get angry with the wrong people, in the wrong situations, too quickly, too strongly, for the wrong reasons, and so on. Your aim is wayward, and you miss the target (σκοπός). The primary causes of going off course are the lure of pleasure, the avoidance of pain, the temptation of gain, and the fear of loss — in all their specific forms and in the many domains of life such as bodily pleasures, social interactions, and monetary affairs.

Balanced activity is pursued neither for the sake of enjoyment nor for the sake of advantage, yet paradoxically it brings the greatest enjoyment and the greatest advantage in life.

All the excellences of character take the form of a balance or mean (μεσότης) between overdoing or underdoing something, guided by straight thinking (ὀρθός λόγος) and straight yearning (ὀρθός ὄρεξις). Many of the excellences Aristotle discusses in his writings are still important today (e.g., justice). However, because of the more communal nature of ancient society, Aristotle emphasized thrivings that we no longer value as highly (e.g., valor in battle), whereas the more individualist nature of the modern world leads us to value qualities that Aristotle did not value or mention (e.g., frugality).

This raises the question: was Aristotle an egoist? He certainly wasn't an altruist in the modern sense. In many ways, his philosophy goes beyond egoism vs. altruism through his focus on personal relationships of love, family, and friendship, in which each person acts for the sake of the other.

Furthermore, for Aristotle the best activities are performed not for the sake of either enjoyment or advantage, but for the sake of what is beautifully right (καλός). This is true not only of particular actions, but more deeply at the level of your character, your way of being, your form of life. Following ancient Greek tradition, Aristotle distinguished between three fundamental kinds of goal (τέλος): a life of enjoyment, a life of community involvement, and a life of philosophical inquiry. Conspicuously absent from this list are ways of life that nowadays we consider valuable, such as professional engagement (say, being a doctor or starting a company) or creative achievement (say, being a writer or an artist). We might be able to broaden Aristotle's categories to include such pursuits, for instance by seeing how professionalism is a form of philanthropy and how creativity is a kind of inquiry. It also helps to look at Aristotle's three ways of life as a thought experiment: what would you do if you were financially independent? Would you have fun, serve your community, or try to learn as much as you can or even experience the divine aspects of reality?

At the beginning of his Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle says that not having a plan for your life is the height of foolishness. By contrast, the height of wisdom is knowing what kind of life you want to craft for yourself — who you want to be, with whom you want to share your life, what you want to learn and achieve, and how to cultivate the best within you. Even though reflection on Aristotle's deep insights into the human experience can provide wonderful guidance in that endeavor, in the end the task (ἔργον) of crafting a life well lived is up to you.

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Aristotle