Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) was a Greek philosopher, student of Plato, and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology. His thought in multiple fields was thought definitive for millennia, and his thought in ethics and politics is still widely influential today. He has had more influence in more fields of study than probably any philosopher in the western tradition, and is widely thought to be one of the greatest philosophers in the entire history of western philosophy.
Aristotle’s views on living well begin with a simple consideration of ends and means. Suppose I want a car –the car is my end, goal or purpose. I can borrow, earn, steal, or save to get the car—these are my means. The means I choose depends on which is easier, quicker, more likely to succeed, etc. Thinking about the goal we are aiming at, and the means we must employ to reach that goal is practical thinking. But such thinking bears no fruit until it results in purposeful action, which is acting with some end, goal, or purpose in mind. Purposeful action contrasts with aimless or thoughtless action, which is action with no end in view.
But suppose I get my car? Getting a car is itself a means to another end, say of getting to school or work. And of course getting to school or work is the means to another end, say of getting to class or the job. Such considerations led Aristotle to wonder whether there is any final or ultimate end, an end for which everything else is a means, an end that is not a means to anything else. In short, he wanted to know if there is an ultimate end, goal, or purpose for human life.
Aristotle argued that as we mature, we act less aimlessly and more purposefully. We try to develop a plan for living that unites all our various purposes. Without a plan for living, we do not know what we are trying to do or why. But Aristotle argued that—not only do we need a plan—we need the right plan; and the right plan is the one that aims at the final or ultimate end. But again, what is the final end for human life, the end that all of us ought to aim at?
For Aristotle the final end of human life is to flourish, to live well, to have a good life. All acts should aim at this end. Of course in order to live at all we need food, clothing, and shelter, but living is itself the means to the end of living well. And what is living well a means to? Aristotle says that having a good life is the final end for humans; it is not a means to anything else. Anything we call good we do so because it is the means to living or living well. Aristotle thinks this is obvious because no one wants to live poorly. (We think Aristotle would have agreed that this is as meaningful as life could be.)
But now another question arises: don’t different people have different ideas about what a good life is? For some it may consist of accumulating wealth; for others it is having power or being famous or experiencing pleasure. But if people construe the good life differently, if they have different desires, how can there be a right plan for living well? How can there be one final end that all ought to seek?
To answer these questions Aristotle argued that not all desires are of the same sort. There are acquired desires, which differ between individuals, and natural desires, which are the same for all individuals. Acquired desires—say for caviar—correspond to our wants, whereas natural desires—say for food—correspond to our needs. You may want something you do not need or which is bad for you, but the things you need are always good for you. Acquired desires or wants correspond to apparent goods; things that appear good because you want them. Natural desires or needs correspond to real goods; things that are good for you whether you want them or not.
Aristotle concludes that the good life consists in the possession, over the course of a lifetime, of all those things that are really good for us. What is really good for us corresponds to the natural needs that are the same for all human beings; thus what is good for one person is good for another. There is a right plan for living well. So what are the real goods that a person should seek to obtain in order to live well? According to Aristotle they are:
1) bodily goods – health, vitality, vigor, and pleasure;
2) external goods (wealth) – food, drink, shelter, clothing, and sleep; and
3) goods of the soul – knowledge, skill, love, friendship, aesthetic enjoyment, self-esteem, and honor.
The first two types of good are limited goods—we can have more of them than we need. Goods of the soul are unlimited goods—we cannot have more of them than we need. But surely the knowledge of the good life is insufficient to actually living a good life? So how exactly do we go about trying to come into possession of all these things?
Aristotle argued that the way to bridge the gap between knowledge of the good life and actually living it was through the development of a good moral character. And this entails developing good habits. A good habit allows us to perform certain actions without effort. We can have a good habit for hitting golf balls, playing the piano, or reading books. We can also habitually make good choices to avoid overeating or drinking too much.
Aristotle calls good habits virtues or excellences. Virtues of the mind are intellectual virtues; while virtues exemplified by a regular disposition to choose correctly, are moral virtues. For Aristotle, moral virtue plays a special role in living well. The reason moral virtue—the habit of making the right choices—is so important is that our choices determine whether we live well. If we make too many bad choices we will not live well but live poorly. So we need to develop good habits or virtues which help us obtain what is really good for us, as opposed to bad habits or vices which lead us toward things that appear good, but may turn out to be bad for us. Good habits or moral virtues are the principle means to having good lives, because they allow us to habitually make the choices that both constitute and lead to good lives.
The most important moral virtues or habits are temperance, courage, and justice. Temperance or moderation keeps us from overindulging in pleasure or seeking to much of the limited goods. Courage is having the disposition to do what it takes to live a good life, and justice is the virtue that allows us to have friends and enjoy the benefits of cooperation. However knowledge of the good life and good habits may not be enough because living well is not completely within our control. Why? First, some real goods, like wealth or health, are not completely within our power to possess. And second, we did not create the initial conditions of our birth or environment; we cannot make fortune smile upon us. Thus moral virtue, while necessary, does not guarantee a good life; we need not only good habits, but good luck. But if we are knowledgeable, virtuous, and lucky we can have good, meaningful lives.
Summary – The end, goal, purpose (or meaning) of human life is to live well. We do this by accumulating, over the course of our lives, all the real goods that correspond to our natural needs; and we increase our chances of having good lives by cultivating good habits. In addition we need good luck.
(This entry owes much to my reading, thirty years ago, of Mortimer Adler’s Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy.)