Some interesting conversations yesterday caused me to think again about what makes a good life—specifically the role played by personal relationships and productive work. Some seemed to think productive, meaningful work was more important; others that relationships with family and friends were more important. I would say both are part of a good life, thus we should not mistake either as the whole of the good life.
This was exactly Aristotle’ position—we should not mistake a part of what makes life good with all of what makes it good. He thought 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 human beings corresponds to natural needs they all share. So what are the real goods that a person should 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 items on this list, or something like them, are referred to as “universal human goods.” But again it is a not a question of which good is the most important (the “summum bonum” or highest good), but that they are all important (the “totum bonum” or whole of the goods.) We error if we mistake a part of what’s good for the whole of what’s good.
Look again at the list to see why. Suppose I think only bodily goods are important. I do nothing but jog or lift weights all day, developing my body but not my mind, thereby missing the knowledge that is crucial to a good life. Or suppose I do nothing but accumulate wealth. I may have multiple cars, homes, and bank accounts, but I may have no friends. Again I have mistaken a good, wealth, for the whole of the goods. Consider the miser, asked Aristotle, who had wealth but no friends. Would we call him happy? In either case the same mistake has been made, confusing the part for the whole.
Even specific goods of the soul are susceptible to this analysis. Aristotle thought that knowledge and friendship are unlimited good—we cannot have to much of them—but we can still mistake one of them for the all of what is good for us. If I am the world’s greatest mathematician but have no friends or family, I do not live as well as I would otherwise. If I am a loving person but know nothing, I would live better if I were more knowledgeable.
The important point is the role that moderation plays in a good life. As Aristotle said, excellence is the mean between the extremes. Doing good work for the world, sacrificing for your family, or being a great scholar are all wonderful things to do, but they are part of living well, not the whole of a good life. Again, the good life consists in the possession, over the course of a lifetime, of all those things that are really good for us.
I always thought this was sound advice.