Aristotle on the Good Life

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Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) was a Greek philosopher, a student of Plato, and teacher of Alexander the Great. His wrote on: physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology. His thought in multiple fields was considered definitive for millennia, and his work in ethics and politics is still widely influential today. He is one of the greatest philosophers in the history of western philosophy.

Aristotle’s views on living well begin with a consideration of ends and means. Suppose I want a car—the car is my end or goal. I can earn, borrow, or steal the money to get the car—these are my means. The means I choose depends on which is easier, quicker, likelier 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, getting to class or a job. And these are the means of making money, which is itself a means of buying food, clothing, and shelter, which are the means to staying alive. 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 don’t know what we are trying to do or why we’re trying to do it. Moreover, not just any plan will do—we need the right plan, which is one that aims at the final or ultimate end. But what is the final end of 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 actions 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 living well is the final end for humans; it is not a means to anything else. Aristotle thinks this is obvious because few people want to live poorly.

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. And 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 we 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. 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 states 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 any one of us corresponds to the natural needs that are the same for all of us. Thus what is good for one person is good for another; in other words, there is a right plan for living well. So what are these real goods that we 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 – 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 isn’t sufficient to actually living a good life? I may know for example that drinking alcohol is bad for me but do it anyway. So how do we learn to desire these real goods?

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 of playing the piano, studying hard, hitting golf balls, or thinking well. 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 live poorly.

So we need to develop the 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 merely appear good. 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 moderation, courage, and justice. Moderation keeps us from overindulging in pleasure or seeking too 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, both 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 didn’t create the initial conditions of our birth or the environment in which we were born. Thus moral virtue, while necessary, doesn’t guarantee a good life. We also need to be fortunate or lucky. However, if we are knowledgeable, virtuous, and fortunate we will 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 also need good luck.

(You can find a brief explanation of Aristotle’s philosophy here. Also, this entry owes much to my reading, more than thirty years ago, of Mortimer Adler’s Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy.)

28 thoughts on “Aristotle on the Good Life

  1. Thanks for this post. I have been searching for “philosophy and the value of life” only to end up here and i must say it was helpful. Thanks

  2. Due to external environment,we acquire external desires,which becomes our own desires…. Everybody starts chasing their desires, leaving moral values
    Only a TRUE saint can lead a desire less life…with natural needs…

  3. thanks for the comment, and I do believe that Aristotle offered good advice on this. – JGM

  4. I echo James and Anom…this is an excellent essay that makes me want to learn more about Aristotle. I was particularly intrigued by the emphasis on developing good habits as the key to living a good life. Yes, that is clearly “common sense” and easily dismissed as “old advice”. But in our current society, we are awash with an overabundance of habit-forming products and devices – some good and some bad. We almost need lessons in how to develop good habits and avoid developing bad habits amid this sometimes overwhelming overabundance. First and foremost, parents and grandparents need to reflect on Aristotle’s philosophy and examine all the habits they have developed as they simultaneously work to instill good habits in their children and grandchildren.

  5. Of all the many things I’ve taught in philosophy classes through the years I have always thought this was some of the simplest yet most profound.

  6. I was reading “The burn out Society” by Byung-Chul Han, Korean-born German philosophy teacher, in Berlin. He refers to Aristotle and “the good life” several times, and I felt that I needed a refresher course on the topic, “googled” it, and this article popped up at the top of the list : Magic of the Internet!
    I found it excellent, concise, limpid; the best I read for a long time. I shall start the day happily equipped with renewed clarity. Another step into my ‘good life’.

    I shall make sure to recommend this article to friends and students.
    Many thanks.

    ps: However I don’t get the last sentence of § 12:”If we make too many bad choices we will not live poorly”. Surely, too many bad choices lead to an impoverished life, no?

  7. 1st year Classics student, I found this a very helpful and well written summary! Thank you

  8. Terrific explanation John – can I suggest:
    1. that “opportunity”, both socio-economic and personal, describes “fortunate” very well
    2. “purposeful actions” – might translate appropriately today as worthwhile projects by a right plan that builds sustainable societies and good lives

    So much thought went into these writings that its value just increases with every layer peeled back…

  9. Of these universal goods should we seek to acquire the limited goods first, (in moderation so as to live morally & virtuously).
    Then once we are satisfied with our possession of these first 2 categories of goods, ought we try and obtain the goods of the soul in order to maximise well being?
    What’s your take on what needs prioritising?
    Also is pleasure a good in itself?
    My view is that it isn’t because it comes as a reward to us as we are reaching fulfilment and when we fulfil our desires (climax) via our activities in which the goal is to obtain other goods.
    Thank you for an interesting article.

  10. Aristotle does believe that the unlimited goods are superior but I assume he also believed that you need to acquire the limited goods as a prerequisite to having the chance to acquire those unlimited goods (as in Maslow’s hierarchy.) I don’t remember his specific views on pleasure, sorry. JGM

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