A Worthy Life

The Essence of Aristotelian Ethics

by Peter Saint-Andre

1. A First Encounter

Aristotle's views on living well and doing well — what the ancient Greeks called εὐδαιμονία — are some of the most enduring insights into ethics ever put into words. Yet the deepest meaning of those words is usually obscured by efforts to translate and interpret Aristotle's thoughts. In part the problem is linguistic, in part it is cultural, but ultimately it is philosophical: ancient Greek world views, Aristotle's among them, are very far from our modern ways of thinking and feeling.

Consider some key concepts in Aristotle's ethical philosophy.

First, εὐδαιμονία (eudaimonia). Although it's usually rendered as "happiness", nowadays we associate happiness with a pleasurable feeling, whereas it was something much deeper to the ancients. A daimon was an inner god or the divine aspect of a human being. To be εὐδαίμων was to have a good inner god or to be well-favored in personal divinity, and thus to flourish and to fulfill your highest potential — as Aristotle defined it, to "live well and do well".

Second, ἀρετή (arete). Those who translate it as "virtue" make Aristotle sound like a good Victorian. Others translate ἀρετή as "excellence", which is closer to the mark but implies that the quality is fundamentally comparative. Pursuing a hint from the Greek verb ἀρετάω (meaning to prosper, to fare well, to thrive), I use the Anglo-Saxon word "thriving" to capture this important idea.

Third, ψυχή (psyche). Two millennia of Christianity make the word "soul" sound otherworldly to us, but for the ancients ψυχή was the breath of life. Because Aristotle held that all animals and even plants have ψυχή, I render it as "aliveness".

Similarly with ἕξις (a settled state of being, not a mindless habit), ὄρεξις (striving, not appetition), διάνοια (thinking, not intellection), θεωρία (active inquiry, not passive contemplation), σωφροσύνη (mindfulness, not temperance), φρόνησις (good judgment, not prudence), μεσότης (balance, not "the mean"), καλός (beauty, not nobility or "the fine"), ἠθικός (having to do with character, not morals), ἁμαρτάνειν (missing the mark, not error or (!) sin), ἔργον (task, not function), ἐνέργεια (working at a task), τέλος (goal), ἐντελέχεια (achieving a goal), and many other terms: I render them in novel ways to set Aristotle's thoughts into sharp relief. I also do not shy away from using the Greek words themselves, untransliterated into the Latin alphabet, so that you don't forget we're dealing with a deeply foreign conception of the good life.

As I see it, the essence of that conception is this:

Aristotle held that εὐδαιμονία consists of living a life worthy of a human being. We humans are thinking and striving animals, whose aliveness is more complex than that of other animals; whereas they strive for things based on relatively immediate feelings of pleasure or pain and on short-term desires to obtain or avoid things, we are also thinking beings who have abstract understandings of the world and who pursue long-term plans and purposes. Thus, for humans, a worthy life is the beautifully harmonious work of thinking aliveness (whose goal is achieving a true understanding of what is) and striving aliveness (whose goal is achieving our long-term plans and purposes, 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 benevolence. Each of these thrivings is a balance between behavioral and emotional extremes, in a way that is appropriate to your individual disposition, abilities, and situation.

In the remainder of this epitome, I will unpack and explain that conception as best I can.

2. Ways of Life

A thought experiment: what would you do with your life if you didn't need to earn a living? There must be something higher than accumulating more money or just having fun. For Aristotle, that would be a life of public service (philanthropy) or of active inquiry into the nature of things (philosophy).

3. The Task of a Human Life

The compound nature of being human. What we inherit from our animal nature, and what is added above that. Your daimon as an inner god, and human sharing in the divine. The task of thinking aliveness and the task of striving aliveness. Interactions and dependencies between the two. The practices of character involved, and the role of education and learning. Habituation as settling into the right ways of thinking and striving.

4. Mind

The thinking aspects of aliveness and the thriving of the mind. Knowledge, skill, good judgment, ethical understanding, attention, insight, intuition, astuteness, curiosity, etc. The desire for and pursuit of understanding the world and yourself.

5. Character

The striving aspects of aliveness and the thriving of character. Courage, justice, benevolence, etc. The right management of emotions and feelings (fear, pleasure, anger, etc.).

6. Balance and Beauty

Balance in your thinking and striving. Ensuring that your actions are proportionate to your disposition, your situation, your talents and abilities, etc. The so-called doctrine of the mean. Differences between Aristotle's approach and the "seven deadly sins" in Christianity and Epicureanism. Ethical beauty as requiring a certain stature, and thus grandeur of soul.

7. Friendship

Love of others and of self. Shared love and shared practices in a wise community of friends. A friend as another self. Love, friendship, marriage, and family.

8. Action

Realization of potential. The role of purposes and planning. Humans as social animals. The life of action in society as Aristotle's second-highest ideal. Philanthropy as a way of life.

9. Wisdom

Love of wisdom. Theoria as active inquiry, not passive contemplation. The life of inquiry as Aristotle's highest ideal. Philosophy as a way of life.

10. Aristotle for Moderns

Bringing Aristotle's insights into the present. In modern times, labor and meaning have been integrated as they were not in classical civilization; what are the implications for the best form of life? Work and love. Creativity. Meaning. Being human.

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