Complete Yourself: Aristotle on Personal Excellence (Draft)

by Peter Saint-Andre

Last Updated: 2019-01-11

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

Life 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 but also have wishes (βούλησεις) and make choices (αἵρεσεις) and establish plans (προαίρεσεις) and take action (πράξις); we can succeed in reflection (εὐβουλία) and conduct (εὐπραξία); we can not only live, but live well (εὐδαιμονία).

Living well is a continuum, too. 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 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); to help us achieve this height of excellence, we study what Aristotle wrote about character and wisdom. At times Aristotle hints at the possibility of the sage, who leads a godlike existence; but he says so little about the matter, and his portrait of personal excellence is already so challenging, that it is enough to focus instead on the life of ἀρετή.

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