Last Updated: 2023-11-26
These are the key terms used in my forthcoming book Complete Thyself: Aristotle on Human Fulfillment.
Activity translates energeia (ἐνέργεια). This is perhaps the most important concept in Aristotle's account of human Fulfillment. Its core meaning is being engaged in working at a Task, which is why translator Joe Sachs rendered it as "being-at-work". Aristotle repeatedly points out that it's not good enough to be Thriving in your Character and Thinking, if that means merely having a Trait but not using and applying it in your life Conduct (after all, even someone who is asleep can have a trait). In short, life simply is activity. [Traditionally rendered as Actuality.]
Aliveness translates psuchē (ψυχή). Aliveness is what animates a living being, what makes it a living thing. Even plants have psuchē! The specifics of an organism's Aliveness are Inherent in its Nature and its characteristic Way of Life. [Traditionally rendered as Soul.]
Awareness translates theōria (θεωρία). At root, the Activity that mostly starkly separates humans and other animals from plants and inanimate objects is their keen awareness of the world around them. For the other animals, this takes the form of the Capacity for perception (aisthesis), including limited varieties of memory, imagination, and foresight. To this humans add Thinking and a full range of symbolic faculties, such as speech, recollection, planning, and culture - all of which are built upon the foundation of conceptual awareness. Most intensively, human awareness arises when we actively use and apply our Understanding of ourselves and the world around us, in the Activities of ethical Conduct and intellectual Inquiry. [Traditionally rendered as Contemplation.]
Bad translates kakos (κακός). As with the Good, what's Bad is what is actually (not apparently) detrimental, harmful, or damaging to a living organism.
Balance-Point translates meson (μέσον). All Thrivings of Character and Thinking avoid excesses in our Conduct and Emotions, whether falling short or going beyond what is Fitting or Beautifully Right. When we hit the Target, we've reached a Balance-Point that is worth savoring and beholding. [Traditionally rendered as the Mean.]
Beautifully Right translates kalos (καλός). The Greek word kalos straddles the line between ethics and aesthetics: it can mean beautiful, fine, right, noble, and so on. Rendering it as "beautifully right" does justice to both of these aspects. All of the Thrivings of Character are done for the benefit (the Good) of the individual and with the aim of doing what is Beautifully Right. [Traditionally rendered as Noble.]
Capacity translates dunamis (δύναμις). All living things have bodily parts that afford the ability to engage in certain Activities, such as seeing, hearing, walking, flying, swimming, grazing, hunting, finding shelter, building nests, remembering things, and using tools. In humans, the range of Capacities widens considerably to include Thinking, language, planning, learning Skills, and so on - all of which provide a foundation for individual and societal development, interpersonal relationships, personal Traits, and human Fulfillment. [Traditionally rendered as Potentiality.]
Commitment translates prohairesis (προαίρεσις). A Commitment is a reliable preference for one pattern of Conduct over another. Commitment to a pattern of Conduct or practice of life is much more powerful and thoroughgoing than a decision to take a particular action in a particular situation, because it shapes the form of all of your decisions and actions. This is why a Thriving of Character is a Trait. [Traditionally rendered as Decision.]
Completion translates entelecheia (ἐντελέχεια). Completion is the state of having become fully developed, and more precisely the full range of Activities made possible by having become fully developed. [Traditionally rendered as Actuality.]
Conduct translates praxis (πρᾶξις). Conduct is an overall practice or pattern of active living and thus more significant than any particular action.
Correct translates orthos (ὀρθός). A Correct Conduct finds the active Truth in particular situations and takes a straight path to the Target of Conduct and Emotion. The term is most common in the phrase orthos logos: the Correct Thinking underlyling the Correct Conduct in a given domain of life. [Traditionally rendered as Right.]
Corruption translates mochthēria (μοχθηρία). The thoroughly corrupted person has no Understanding of human Fulfillment and the Beautifully Right Way of Life, and therefore consistently engages in ignoble Conduct and Emotions. [Traditionally rendered as Evil.]
Decadence translates akolasia (ἀκολασία). The decadent person has one policy in life: to pursue immediate pleasure and Enjoyment without regard to whether or not the Activities that gives rise to it are Inherently Good, Serious, or Beautifully Right. Indeed, because Decadence is one variety of Corruption, the decadent person reliably indulges in the exact opposite: activities that are bad, unworthy, and repulsively wrong.
Emotion translates pathos (πάθος). An Emotion is a feeling or mental state that you undergo because of your interaction with and assessment of things you experience in your environment. Because humans are deeply Social creatures, our most salient Emotions are interpersonal, such as anger, sympathy, and affection. Such Emotions are Inherently bound up with various Thrivings, such as gentleness, compassion, and benevolence. [Traditionally rendered as Passion.]
Enjoyment translates hēdonē (ἡδονή). Every kind of Activity has its own Inherent kind of enjoyment: the joys of eating, say, are quite different from the joys of beholding works of art. This is why the Standard of what's truly enjoyable is the Serious person of Complete Thriving in both Character and Thinking. [Traditionally rendered as Pleasure.]
Freedom translates eleutheria (ἐλευθερία). For the ancient Greeks, the highest freedom was not freedom from government but freedom from the necessity of work, strife, war, and other forms of hard toil. This state of peace and ease freed them up for Activities that are Beautifully Right, such as conversation with loved ones, games and festivals, artistic appreciation, intellectual inquiry, and philosophical speculation
Fulfillment translates eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία). The first level of Fulfillment is the activation of all of your core human Capacities by developing the Thrivings of Character and Thinking. The second level is the Activity of applying those Thrivings to the practice of living well, i.e., demonstrating a reliable Commitment to Conduct and Emotions that are Beautifully Right. Becoming a fully developed person makes your life Complete, Whole, and uniquely Valuable. [Traditionally rendered as Happiness.]
Good translates agathos (ἀγαθός). Whereas most religions and modern ethical theories assert that the Good must conform to some pre-established rule, for Aristotle the Good is what benefits a living organism or person: not what merely seems to be beneficial, but what is truly beneficial in accordance with a being's Nature, Identity, Task, and Purpose (indeed, these terms are virtually synonymous). Thus Fulfillment is mostly objective, not subjective.
Growth translates ethismos (ἐθισμός). Growth is the process of mindfully developing the Traits of Character and Thinking that provide a foundation for Fulfillment. [Traditionally rendered as Habituation.]
Identity translates to ti ēn einai (τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι). Literally, this phrase means "what it is to be a thing". The Romans translated it as "essentia", which was modernized as "essence", thus leading to all sorts of confusion about independently existing essences. Aristotle's idea is much more straightforward, and is most reasonably Englished as "identity". [Traditionally rendered as Essence.]
Inherent translates oikeios (οἰκεῖος). The Greek word oikeios derives from their word for home, and thus connotes that which is close to home, native as opposed to foreign, familiar as opposed to strange, inner as opposed to outer, and that which is inherently bound up with the nature of a thing. A good example is the intimate tie between an Activity and the Enjoyment that completes it. [Traditionally rendered as Proper.]
Insight translates nous (νοῦς). Whereas Understanding goes deep to elucidate the factors responsible for the Identity common to all entities that share a Nature, Insight is the Trait of seeing that underlying Identity in the particular entities and situations you encounter in intellectual Inquiry and life Conduct. Just as the Inherent Activity of Understanding is Explanation, so the Inherent Activity of Insight is calling in the particulars as witnesses to the deep Nature of the entity under consideration. [Traditionally rendered as Mind or Intuition.]
Knowledge translates gnōsis (γνῶσις). There are several forms of Knowledge, including perception and Insight. Understanding imparts greater generality to such Knowledge by explaining why the things you know are the way they are. Of all the forms of knowledge, the most difficult to attain is self-knowledge, because human beings are their own greatest enigma; yet knowing yourself is the only reliable path to Fulfillment.
Leisure translates scholē (σχολή). We moderns think of leisure as the relatively brief episodes between longer stretches of work, or as the golden years of fun and relaxation after retirement from a career; for us work is fundamental and leisure is the absence of work. By contrast, for the ancient Greeks (or at least the aristocracy) scholē was fundamental and work was ascholia: the absence of leisure. Scholē is the Purpose of people who live in Freedom and is to be spent not in frivolous amusements but in Serious pursuits like artistic appreciation and intellectual inquiry.
Life translates zōē (ζωή). Ancient Greek had two words for life: zōē (whence zoology) and bios (whence biology). The former signifies the life Activities of any living thing, whereas the latter signifies the Way of Life of an organism, especially of animals.
Love translates philia (φιλία). The Greek word philia covers a wide range of close personal relationships, including the love and affection of parents, children, siblings, spouses, friends, even fellow citizens. The highest form of philia is rooted in the good Character of those involved in the relationship and provides a fertile field for applying all the Thrivings of Character and Thinking through the many Activities of a shared life. [Traditionally rendered as Friendship.]
Moderation translates sōphrosunē (σωφροσύνη). Aristotle never said to pursue moderation in everything, but Moderation might be the best way to render the multifaceted Greek word sōphrosunē. This Thriving of Character implies an ability to temper your Emotions, to keep your head in difficult situations, to avoid excess, and to honor the Delphic maxim "Nothing Too Much". [Traditionally rendered as Temperance.]
Need translates epithumia (ἐπιθυμία). Of the three kinds of Reaching, Need is the most basic. Even plants have needs for sunlight, water, air, and nutrients in the earth, which enable them to live, grow, and reproduce. Although animals and humans experience more advanced levels of Awareness and thus have Wants and (for humans) Resolutions to action, they too have inescapable Needs that are Inherent in the processes of Life.
Purpose translates telos (τέλος). Every living organism serves a Purpose: not some cosmic end or something the benefits other beings, but its own Activity in accordance with its own Nature and Inherent Task.
Reaching translates orexis (ὄρεξις). All living organisms reach out into the world to achieve Purposes such as metabolism, growth, and reproduction. For Aristotle, there are three kinds of reaching: Needs (evident even in plants), Wants (which emerge with Awareness and locomotion in animals), and Resolution (which results from Thinking, Deliberation, and Commitment in humans). [Traditionally rendered as Desire.]
Resolution translates boulēsis (βούλησις). Beyond Needs and Wants, humans can resolve to take action based on their Deliberations about the future. The close connection between Deliberation and Resolution can be seen in their Greek roots: bouleusis or taking counsel leads to boulēsis or forming a resolution. Because Deliberation is an action-oriented form of Inquiry, Resolution is bound up with Thinking and conceptual Awareness; because the Commitment that produces a Resolution is part and parcel of your life Conduct, Resolution is bound up with Character and acquired Traits. [Traditionally rendered as Wish.]
Sagacity translates sophia (σοφία). Sagacity is the combination of Understanding and Insight. Whereas the Trait of Wisdom is focused on good Deliberation and good Conduct, Sagacity is focused on finding Truth regarding human Nature and human Fulfillment. Thus its opposites are ignorance and sophistry about the Good. [Traditionally rendered as Theoretical Wisdom.]
Self-Indulgence translates akrasia (ἀκρασία). The self-indulgent or unrestrained person has some Knowledge of human Fulfillment and the Beautifully Right Way of Life, but that Knowledge is frequently overruled by momentary Wants to indulge in ignoble Conduct and Emotions, at least in some domains of life. Although this kind of person has not descended into Corruption or Decadence, they don't have a consistent Conduct of Correct Conduct and Emotion, and thus doesn't experience inner harmony. [Traditionally rendered as Incontinence.]
Self-Restraint translates enkrateia (ἐγκράτεια). The self-restrained person has a fairly complete Understanding of human Fulfillment and the Beautifully Right Way of Life, and uses that understanding to override momentary Wants to indulge in ignoble Conduct and Emotions, at least in some domains of life. This kind of person takes Correct Conduct (in contrast to the Self-Induglent person) but doesn't have consistently Correct Emotions, and thus doesn't always experience inner harmony. [Traditionally rendered as Continence.]
Serious translates spoudaios (σπουδαῖος). The completely Thriving person who takes life seriously has a thorough Understanding of human Fulfillment and the Beautifully Right Way of Life, and also has a settled Commitment to consistently apply that understanding in their Conduct and Emotions. As a result, this kind of person reliably experiences inner harmony and represents a Standard for Wisdom and the Good. [Traditionally rendered as Good.]
Skill translates technē (τέχνη). Aristotle often compares the person of great Thriving to skilled practitioners such as carpenters, doctors, musicians, and archers. These respective Traits are all acquired and perfected in similar ways, but have one crucial difference: a Skill can be used for Good or for Bad, but a Thriving can be used only for Good. [Traditionally rendered as Art.]
Social translates politikē (πολιτική). Although it is characteristic of humans to live in a town or city (a polis), Aristotle identified a wide variety of social animals and was especially impressed with social insects like ants and honeybees. All such creatures live in societies that have a common Purpose on which they collaborate in different ways. For other animals this goal is mere Life, but for humans it is living well or Fulfillment, which involves highly sophisticated forms of social interaction that give rise to both political Deliberation and philosophical Inquiry. [Traditionally rendered as Political.]
Standard translates horos (ὅρος). The Standard of what is Good, Enjoyable, Valuable, etc., is not a strict rule as in modern ethical theories (e.g., "the greatest good for the greatest number" in utilitarianism) but the person who has achieved Complete Thriving and Wisdom in their Conduct and Thinking. [Traditionally rendered as Rule.]
Target translates skopos (σκοπός). Aristotle often uses analogies from archery to describe important aspects of human life. For example, Thrivings of Character help us avoid "missing the mark". He also counsels us to aim at the Purpose or Task of the human Way of Life as the specific Target of all our Conduct and Commitments.
Task translates ergon (ἔργον). In his biological research, Aristotle thought it was important to identify the contributions of particular parts of the body to the organism's overall Way of Life: the eyes for seeing, the feet for moving, the hands for grasping, etc. By extension, every living thing has a Task that consists of its characteristic Activities; for human beings, this is activity in accordance with Thinking and Thriving. [Traditionally rendered as Function.]
Thinking translates logos (λόγος). Human life is saturated with language and the thinking that lies behind language. These phenomena, two sides of the same coin, are the core meanings of the multifaceted Greek word logos. Thinking in the widest sense is the distinctive mode of Awareness for human beings; specific applications and developments of Thinking include Inquiry, Deliberation, Understanding, Insight, Wisdom, and Sagacity. [Traditionally rendered as Reason.]
Thriving translates aretē (ἀρετή). Thriving has biological roots in Life and Social roots in the human Way of Life. Building on the Homeric verb ἀρετάω (to prosper, to fare well), I turn the infinitive of the English verb "to thrive" into a noun, so that we can speak of, say, generosity as a Thriving of Character. Every Thriving is Trait that finds the Balance-Point between falling short or going too far in a specific domain of life: courage between cowardice and rashness, generosity between stinginess and profligacy, and so on. [Traditionally rendered as Virtue.]
Trait translates hexis (ἕξις). A Trait builds upon one or more human Capacities to establish a stable and well-developed pattern of Activity. All Thrivings of Character and Thinking are Traits, but not all Traits are Thrivings - for example, both Understanding and Insight are Traits, as are all of the various Skills that one might acquire in life. All of these Traits are acquired and improved through instruction, correction, active use, and reflection on that use. [Traditionally rendered as Habit.]
Truth translates alētheia (ἀλήθεια). Truth is the Purpose of all Thinking. To grasp truth (aletheia) is to lack (a-) forgetting (lethe) and thus to have steadfast Understanding and Awareness of the world or some aspect thereof. The only way do this is to engage in the Activity of applying your Understanding of things both in intellectual Inquiry and in life Conduct.
Understanding translates epistēmē (ἐπιστήμη). To know something in the deepest sense is to understand how to explain why it is the way it is. This is a tall order, for a thing's Identity includes its Nature, its Capacities, its Way of Being (and for living things its Way of Life), and the multifarious factors responsible for these phenomena. Once acquired, this kind of Understanding becomes firmly rooted in your mind as a Trait of grasping Truth and thus establishes a foundation for Wisdom and Sagacity. [Traditionally rendered as Knowledge.]
Valuable translates haireta (αἱρετά). What's Valuable are the Activities that are worth pursuing in life (the term is nearly synonymous with the Good). A life that is full of such Activities is eminently worth living. [Traditionally rendered as Choiceworthy.]
Want translates thumos (θυμός). Beyond the basic Needs of all living things, animals also have Wants, which arise because animals have Capacities both for perceptual Awareness and for movement in place. Thus animals can pursue things they perceive as Good or beneficial and avoid things they perceive as Bad or harmful.
Way of Being translates eidos (εἶδος). A thing's Way of Being is its underlying pattern of existence; for humans and other animals this is the organism's Way of Life. [Traditionally rendered as Form.]
Way of Life translates bios (βίος). An animal's Way of Life consists of its characteristic methods of finding food, reproducing, raising its young, acting within its environment, interacting with other members of its species, and the like. In particular, there is a continuum from solitary to highly Social creatures, with human beings at the latter end of the spectrum.
Wholeness translates autarkeia (αὐτάρκεια). When your life has Wholeness, it is self-contained and needs nothing else of significance to be considered Valuable and Complete. [Traditionally rendered as Self-Sufficiency.]
Wisdom translates phronēsis (φρόνησις). As with every other Thriving, Wisdom is a Balance-Point, in this case between foolishness and cunning. Yet Wisdom plays a special role in unifying your Character, because it helps you discover every other Balance-Point and thus is a kind of master Thriving. [Traditionally rendered as Practical Wisdom.]
Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Aristotle