Friday, November 14, 2008

Three Visions of the Good Life: Aristotle

The next three posts will be from the paper that I turned in as my "writing sample" for my grad school applications. It's going to be significantly more, well, academic than my recent posts, but if I haven't written anything on my blog in a while, it's because I've been putting this paper together. This first post is on Aristotle's vision of the good life; post #2 will be on Paul's, and post #3 will be on Thomas Aquinas'. Feel free to ignore it if it's not your cup of tea.


Aristotle's eudaimonistic account of the good life is notable on many levels. It is subtle and sophisticated, but nevertheless makes a successful appeal to common sense. More than two millennia later, it remains plausible, interesting, and provocative.

Still, Aristotle's ethical perspective differs significantly from the view of the good life assumed and proclaimed by the New Testament, and by Paul in particular. Paul was of course influenced by Hellenism in various ways, but his Jewish heritage, transformed by his encounter with the life and death of Jesus Christ, was ultimately determinative in his outlook. For Paul, the only adequate account of the good life was one which placed God's gift of His son, Jesus Christ, firmly at the center.

Like us, Thomas Aquinas was heir to both the Hellenistic and the Judeo-Christian traditions, and struggled to reconcile their divergent perspectives. While Aristotle provided a philosophical vocabulary and a great deal of content for Thomas, the New Testament was divine in origin and thus ultimately authoritative. And of course, these two primary sources for his ethical theory at times differed significantly from each other in both form and substance. An overview and critique of Thomas' attempts to synthesize the Pauline and Aristotelian accounts of the good life may be informative and helpful as we struggle with similar challenges in our own modern context.

Aristotle's Account of the Good Life

Teleological Happiness

At the heart of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is his contention that the ultimate good for humans is "happiness", or in Greek, εὐδαιμονία. His reasoning is fairly simple: the good is that at which all things aim; and all human beings aim primarily at happiness.

Of course, neither culturally nor linguistically is "happiness" quite the right English translation. Our psychological age is obsessed with emotions, and while Aristotle is quite clear that εὐδαιμονία is connected with the παθήματα, it is not in itself a feeling, and may even at times involve painful emotions. Etymologically, εὐδαιμονία seems to refer to the spirit, or δαίμον, which every individual was believed to possess; and it ascribes either to this daemon or to its bearer a certain state of wellness (Liddell 564). Generally, therefore, εὐδαιμονία should be understood as a state of human well-being or flourishing.

However, Aristotle also has a somewhat more specific definition in mind: "an activity of soul in accordance with virtue" (ψυχῆς ἐνέργεια κατ᾽ ἀρετήν) (NE 1098a15). How he arrives at this definition is worth some exploration. In Aristotle's view, the good of an object resides in its ἔργον, or function: the ἔργον of a flute is to produce music, the ἔργον of a hammer is to pound nails, and similarly the function of a human being is a certain kind of action (NE 1097b27). Furthermore, the defining attribute of a human being, according to Aristotle, is rationality: our genus is animal, the differentia is rationality, and the resulting species is a "rational animal". Thus, the appropriate function of a human being is rationality (NE 1098a5): this is the "action of the soul" that partially constitutes happiness.

Τhe nature of this action is further elaborated in the second part of Aristotle's definition, that happiness is an action of the soul in accordance with virtue (ἄρετη, or excellence). The function of a flute is to play music, but its τέλος, its ultimate good, is to play music in an excellent manner (NE 1098a10). Because humans are rational animals, their ἀρετὴ is to be found when their rational soul acts in an excellent manner, and consequently, the τέλος of a human being (and thus human good, and thus happiness) is the action of our soul in accordance with virtue. Throughout books 2-9 of the Ethics, Aristotle continues to build on this basic understanding of virtue. In book 2, he argues that human moral virtue is κατὰ λόγον in the sense that it obeys the law of the mean. A virtuous action will always be less than an error in the maximal direction, and more than the opposite error in the minimal direction (NE 1106b). He works through the individual moral virtues in this way, showing (sometimes more successfully than others) that courage (ἀνδρεία) is the rational mean between cowardice and unwarranted confidence, that temperance (σωφροσύνη) is the mean between self-indulgence and insensibility, that liberality (ἐλευθεριότης) is the mean between prodigality and meanness, and so on, through proper pride (μεγαλοψυχία), gentleness (πραότης), friendliness (φιλία), truthfulness (ἀληθεία), ready wit (εὐτραπελία), and justice (δικαιοσύνη).

As an activity of the soul, happiness is ἐνέργεια, active and not passive: to be happy in an Aristotelian sense requires doing something. Whether in the military or in politics, a life well lived is a life of activity. Consequently, the context in which the good life may be pursued is critical. Aristotle is no Stoic: a truly virtuous man needs the economic resources that enable him to do virtuous acts. As he says repeatedly throughout both the Ethics and Politics, "[Happiness] needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment" (NE 1099a31). In addition, the good life is always politically situated, for "man is a political animal" (Politics 1253a5). Aristotle notoriously excludes slaves, farmers and craftsmen from happiness (NE 1177a8; Politics 1328b38; see below), but not even full citizens of a πόλις are necessarily candidates for the virtuous life. "The virtue of a citizen must be suited to his constitution" (Politics 1276b29), and though Aristotle does not state it explicitly, the implication is that a citizen residing in an imperfect πολιτέια must necessarily possess virtue imperfectly.

Political Justice

Because the life of virtue depends to a great degree on its social context, Aristotle's account of happiness is similarly dependent on his account of justice (δικαιοσύνη). In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle introduces his discussion with a popular definition that he seems to largely accept: "Everybody means by justice that state of character [ἕξις] which makes people disposed to do what is just and makes them act justly and wish for what is just" (1125b3). He then proceeds to distinguish between the senses in which the word "justice" is used. The most basic distinction is between "universal justice" (δικαιοσύνη ὅλη), that aspect of virtue which has to do with the law and therefore relates to our neighbor (1129b15), and "particular justice" (δικαιοσύνη κατὰ μέρος), that aspect of universal justice which specifically has to do with fairness (1130b8-15). Within particular justice, Aristotle distinguishes two additional senses: distributive justice, which is concerned with the proper distribution of honors in a community, and corrective justice, which is concerned with fairness in transactions (συνάλλαγμα, 1130b30-1131a9). If I purchase stock in AT&T, it is according to distributive justice that I receive a dividend; if I select AT&T as my mobile carrier and pay my bills, it is according to corrective justice that I'm able to make calls.

Both distributive and corrective justice share a concern with fairness and equality (το ἴσον), but Aristotle uses different mathematical models to describe their key features. If A and B are the two parties concerned and were initially equal, and N is that which has been wrongfully taken from A, then corrective justice says that the situation may be returned to a state of justice if half of the amount by which B now exceeds A is returned to A; and the amount returned will be equal to N (1132a25-1132b12). The model for distributive justice, in contrast, can be expressed as , i.e., the quality or worth [q()] of A stands to the quality of B as the value [v()] of the thing distributed [t()] to A should stand to the value of that which is distributed to B (1131a24-1131b17; see also Keyt 57). Or to put it another way, if A and B are the two shareholders in a company, and A has invested $25 and B has invested $75, and the company sells for $1000, then A should receive $250 and B should receive $750.

This concept of distributive justice is at the heart of Aristotle's political philosophy, and he uses it as both an analytical and a prescriptive tool. In any constitution, the primary honor to be distributed is citizenship, and the primary difference between the various constitutions he describes (monarchy/tyranny, aristocracy/oligarchy, polity/democracy) is how they account for the content of q() in the formula above (Keyt 59). Democracies, for instance, define q() as freedom, and thus contend that all free men should receive citizenship and its associated honors equally. Oligarchies, in contrast, base q() on wealth, and distribute offices to their citizens in proportion to their net worth. Aristotle argues (Politics III.7) that correct constitutions should restrict citizenship to those who contribute virtue to the community, whether military virtue in a polity, ordinary virtue in an aristocracy, or superhuman virtue in a monarchy (Keyt 72); this is, in effect, an argument for several specific ideal values of q().

Slaves and non-Greeks, of course, are excluded entirely from the political life, because they have nothing of independent value to contribute. Slaves are natural slaves (φύσει δοῦλοι): they belong to someone else because they can belong to someone else. A slave "shares in reason [λόγος] to the extent of understanding it, but does not have it himself" (Politics 1254b16-1255a2). Consequently, although slaves can enjoy bodily pleasures, they have no real virtue, no share in human life, and hence no true happiness (NE 1177a8).

The Contemplative Life

In the end, however, the ideal for Aristotle is not a life of physical or even political activity, but a life of contemplation (βίος θεορέτικος). Aristotle argues (NE 1177a10-1178a9) that the life of σοφία must be the best, because it exercises the highest parts of ourselves, is the most pleasant, self-sufficient and leisured, and is virtually divine in origin (θεῖόν τι ἐν ἀυτῳ ὑπάρχει). Indeed, the activity of God must consist solely in contemplation, and to the extent that we engage in it ourselves, we attain to something like the life of God (NE 1178b31). "If, then, God is always in that good state in which we sometimes are, this compels our wonder; and if in a better this compels it yet more" (Meta. 1072b25). Xenophanes once joked that cows would draw gods that looked like themselves (Fairbanks 67), and it must be remarked that Aristotle's God looks suspiciously like a philosopher.


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