Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) was a Greek philosopher, a student of Plato, and teacher of Alexander the Great. He wrote on: physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, 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 thinkers 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 will 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.
Now suppose I get my car? That 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 a degree 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 of staying alive. Such considerations led Aristotle to wonder whether there is any ultimate or final 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 people differ about what constitutes a good life? 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 one 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 the same. There are acquired desires, which differ between individuals, and natural desires, which are the same for everyone. Acquired desires—say for caviar—are things we want, whereas natural desires—say for food—are things we need. Acquired desires or wants correspond to apparent goods; things that appear good because we want them. Natural desires or needs correspond to real goods; things that are good for us whether we want them or not.
With these considerations in mind, 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. Moreover, what is really good for each 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. What are these real goods that we should all 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 goods 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 for 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 excellences or virtues. Virtues of the mind are intellectual virtues; while virtues exemplified by a regular disposition to choose correctly are moral virtues. For Aristotle, wisdom is the most important intellectual virtue but 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. In other words, 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 principal 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 to ensure that we have good lives 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 into which we were born. Thus moral virtue, while necessary, doesn’t guarantee a good life. We also need to be fortunate or lucky. But if we are wise, morally virtuous, and fortunate we will likely have good, meaningful lives.1
Postscript – Aristotle’s Politics
Finally, while possessing both virtue and luck gives us a good chance of having good lives, of being happy, it doesn’t completely guarantee it. Why? Because the quality of our lives also depends in large part on the quality of our society and government. It is exceedingly hard to have good lives in societies with bad governments despite our best efforts, and no amount of virtue and good fortune completely compensates for a tyrannical or despotic government. Put simply, we have a much better chance of living good, happy, and meaningful lives in societies with good governments than we do in societies with bad ones.
So what is the end, goal, or purpose of the state? Aristotle says the purpose of the state is to provide the conditions under which all its citizens can flourish. This implies that some governments are better than others—good governments fulfill their purpose whereas bad ones either fail to help or actively hinder their citizen’s chances of living well. Just as a bad family doesn’t care for its children’s well-being, a bad government ignores the well-being of many of its citizens. We have a right to expect more.
In fact, we have a right to expect that the state uses its power to provide the conditions under which all its citizens can flourish. However, a just government cannot guarantee that we will attain moral virtue or have good lives, that is up to us. Nevertheless, a good or just government can and should provide the conditions under which living well, a good life, or human flourishing is possible, thereby alleviating much of the injustice caused by misfortune or bad luck.2
1This essay owes much to my reading, almost forty years ago, of Mortimer Adler’s Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy, and to trying to make Aristotle accessible for generations of college students.
2Obviously there are other threats to living a good life that Aristotle wasn’t aware of such as climate change, nuclear war, asteroids, and more.