Aristotle’s Purpose of Life

Aristotle’s Purpose of Life

In Book One of Aristotle’s Ethics, he considers perhaps the most vexing question that humanity confronts: What is the purpose of life? Aristotle argues that everything has a purpose or goal, and that the purpose is always to attain some good. The “Chief Good” for humanity is that purpose for which all human action is performed. Aristotle believes that the Chief Good for humans is Eudaimonia (often translated as ‘happiness’). However, Aristotle’s ‘Eudaimonia’ is not the feeling or experience most modern people associate with the word happiness. This post will describe how Aristotle concluded that the purpose of human life is to attain happiness, and also the definition of Aristotle’s Eudaimonia.

Man’s function is what distinguishes him from all other beings, and thus the function of man is the activity of the rational soul according to the best and most complete virtue.

Man’s function is what distinguishes him from all other beings, and thus the function of man is the activity of the rational soul according to the best and most complete virtue.

Beginning with the proposition that everything has a purpose, Aristotle argues that the ultimate purpose for humans will be something that we desire for the sake of itself and never for the sake of anything else. For example, imagine a curious adolescent who ceaselessly asks ‘why’ to every answer you provide him. Why are you going to school? To earn a degree. Why do you want a degree? I need a degree to obtain employment. Why do you want a job? I need a job so that I can earn money to buy the things I need, such as a house, clothes, food, etc. Why do you need all that? Those things will make me happy. Why do you want to be happy? At this point you realize that there is no further answer. You want to be happy for the sake of being happy, and not for the sake of something else.

As in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete, so those who act rightly win the noble and good things in life.

As in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete, so those who act rightly win the noble and good things in life.

Believing that he has found something desirable for the sake of itself, Aristotle proceeds to determine what it means to be happy. First, he considers some of the common definitions of happiness proposed. Some believe that happiness consists in satisfying the bodily passions. But Aristotle dismisses this definition as a life “suitable to a beast.” Humanity is distinct from beasts that act according to the dictates of their desires and instincts. As Iago says, “we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts.”

Two slightly more refined definition of happiness are the possession of honor or virtue. Aristotle refutes those who identify the possession of honor with happiness by illustrating honor is dependent upon the opinion of others. Aristotle believes that happiness cannot be something that is easily taken or given. Regarding those who identify happiness with the possession of virtue, Aristotle argues that a person can be virtuous yet suffer tremendous misfortune. This certainly cannot be the purpose for which all our action is directed.

Finally, after much intellectual flexing, Aristotle embarks on his definition of happiness, or Eudaimonia. Everything, including man, has a function, or particular activity for which it is suited. Excellence, and therefore happiness, consists in performing one’s function well. We say that a flute player is a good flute player when he performs his function, playing the flute, well. Man’s function is what distinguishes him from all other beings, and that attribute is his rational ability. Thus, happiness is reasoning well, or acting rationally according to virtue. A man must rationally act according to virtue for his whole life because one day does not make a man happy. This definition encompasses all of the attributes conventionally identified with happiness; i.e. virtue, practical wisdom, philosophic wisdom, pleasure, external prosperity.

Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all. If he has not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony.

Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all. If he has not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony.

For those who wish to understand the concept of Eudaimonia a little bit better, I have provided my notes on the topic in the following paragraphs. Please excuse the lack of organization; these are disconnected thoughts, paraphrases, and quotations compiled while I was reading the treatise.

A very critical part of this definition is the active component. A man must not merely possess virtue, but must act according to it. Merely possessing virtue will not produce good results, but a man who acts virtuously will rightly win the good and noble things in life. As in the Olympics, it is not the strongest and swiftest who win, but those who compete.

A virtuous life is also full of pleasure; for man loves what is pleasant, and a lover of virtue who acts virtuously will derive much pleasure from his life. He will delight in virtuous acts, and will not require the base pleasures to which the mass of mankind is enslaved.

A man must also possess external prosperity; for misfortune and suffering can decrease happiness to some extent.

We need not wait until a man has died before we can call him happy. We should not follow the change of fortune’s wheel, or we would call a man happy and then wretched and then happy numerous times. Happiness does not depend on chance or fortune. No function of man has as much permanence as virtuous activity. A happy man engaged in virtuous activity and contemplation will remain happy and bear misfortunes nobly. A happy man can never be miserable, though he may not attain blessedness if he meets with sufferings similar to those of Priam.

The well-being of descendants and friends will affect the happiness of a dead man very little. Posterity’s fortunes will not make a happy man unhappy nor an unhappy man happy.

The end of politics must be the chief good because the art of politics uses the highest esteemed arts (rhetoric, strategy, economics, etc.) and legislates what we are to do and from what we are to abstain. The end of political science is to make citizens good and capable of noble acts. Therefore, the student of politics must know the facts of the soul.

The soul is divided into an irrational element and a rational element. The irrational element contains a vegetative part concerned with nutrition and growth. The vegetative part is common to all living beings. Since this part of the soul is not concerned with morality, we will examine it no further. The irrational element of the soul also contains an appetitive part. This part is concerned with impulses. The appetitive part obeys the commands of the rational element in the soul of a virtuous man, but disobeys the rational element in the soul of an incontinent man.

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26 thoughts on “Aristotle’s Purpose of Life

  1. I’ve wanted to read Aristotle’s ethical writings for years. I read some of Physics and Metaphysics in college. Wonderful stuff.

  2. I admire how you have a set reading plan to conquer the classics. For me, reading is usually a burn-and-cool off endeavor, and I often get overwhelmed by the backlog of books. Sometimes I know I need to be reading, but I want to write, or read entries such as yours!

    Ostensibly all of our politicians are required to take at least one course on ancient Greco-Roman politics in obtaining their Poli Sci degrees. Maybe all of the arguing they do later on banishes good lessons on politics (such as “knowing the facts of the soul”) – you’d have to wonder why many of our representatives say that their aim is to obtain a “larger constituency”!

    Commenting and reflecting upon recent reads is also a good habit, especially when those books are not assigned by school. You’ve inspired me to go back to the books I have (Ten Great Works of Philosophy, and a book by Plato that I got on sale).

  3. Smart guy, and I have a big chunk of education missing because I was never assigned these Greek and Roman classics. Also many of the great thinkers of Christian history. The beginning of wisdom is in the Bible, but I like deep thinkers.

  4. I swear Aristotle can screw your mind up, if you analyze everything to its deepest core. I know it did screw mine up. But I love it. I especially love: “You want to be happy for the sake of being happy, and not for the sake of something else.” BTW, thanks for stopping by at my blog. 🙂

  5. Thanks so much for the “like.” The image of Branagh as Hamlet staring at Yorik’s skull is one that I just began using last week as an Avatar for one of my A.P. Literature classes–coincidences are always fascinating. Thanks again.

  6. I embrace eudaemonism (ataraxia) from an Existential Nihilistic perspective. What brings happiness is affirmed and what brings sorrow is negated. Anand Bose from Kerala.

  7. Your description of Aristotle’s position is excellent, and helps to make explicitly clear the fundamental errors of that position.

    From my understanding, the idea of purpose is fundamentally flawed.
    In so far as we understand the notion of purpose today, it implicitly assumes an intentional being – so in this sense simply assumes some god(s) made us with some intention in mind. That was (and still is) a common way of thinking, but not one that is supported by the evidence sets supplied by scientific enquiry.

    It seems clear now, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that what gave Aristotle the illusion of purpose in existence was the selective pressure of survival operating in the multi-levelled Darwinian process of evolution by natural selection over some 4 billion years of life on earth. In the battle for survival within populations in varieties of environments, variations on strategies have led, through varying probabilities of survival of those variations over time and space, to the vast array of variations on themes of life we see today.

    That conceptual set was not available to Aristotle. To him (and to many still) the idea of purpose made sense, seemed likely.
    Compared to the ideas encompassed in evolutionary theory, molecular genetics, games theory, complexity theory, computational theory, probability theory, quantum mechanics, relativity, etc – with the vast array of experimental evidence collected, recorded and reviewed and available to the serious student; Aristotle’s notion of purpose seems a simplistic approximation (though an understandable mistake in the absence of the evidence sets referred to).

    It seems that evolution has equipped our brains with the ability to experience a set of positive feelings, feelings that reinforce behaviours, and that we have sufficient flexibility in our neural networks to be able to recursively apply that set of systems to ever more abstract conceptual sets.

    That would seem to imply an approximation to infinite freedom of choice in one’s actions.

    If one is still concerned with matters of survival, then it behoves one to explore all the risks to survival and the sorts of strategies that can effectively mitigate those risks, while not unduly restricting one’s freedom to act – and there seems to be infinite room for choice in the finer points of those intersecting sets of probabilities. However, at the coarser end of the probabilities, it seems that a respect for individual life, and individual liberty (where it doesn’t pose undue risk to life) are fundamental survival constraints common to all individuals.

    At deeper levels – it seems that logic and reason are tools that deliver useful approximations of reality, useful predictions of utility of action, most of the time, and not always.

    It seems that reality, at its deepest levels, is stochastic, within constraints (random within probability distributions), and that summed over vast collections these elements give a useful approximation of causality in action (and all unaided human perception is of such vast collections of very small things).

    It seems that we human beings have no direct access to reality. It seems that for each of us as individuals, our experiential reality is the model of reality our subconscious brains assemble for us based upon selection over vast evolutionary time at the genetic level, assisted by evolution over long evolutionary time at the cultural level, supplemented by our past experience and our distinction and abstraction sets available to us (and for most of us these sets are delivered implicitly by culture through experience).

    It seems we are capable of choice, at ever more abstract levels, and as such are capable of leaving all the normal definition of pleasure (even Aristotle’s) behind.

    It seems to be a very interesting thing, this thing called life.

    • I agree with what you say about the modern sense of the word ‘purpose’ and its implications. But I do not believe that Aristotle meant the same thing that we do when he writes about the purpose of a thing, at least not in the context of this argument.

      I believe that Aristotle meant that everything has a purpose towards which it strives. For example, the purpose of a plant seed is to grow into a plant. The purpose of a thing is determined by numerous empirical observations. The purpose of a thing is that which regularly occurs under variable circumstances. In short, I believe that Aristotle’s ‘purpose’ means something similar to what we mean by the word ‘nature.’ It is the nature of a plant seed to grow into a plant, it is the nature of man to grow into a rational being, at least some of us 😉

      “It seems that a respect for individual life, and individual liberty (where it doesn’t pose undue risk to life) are fundamental survival constraints common to all individuals.” Is this true? There are instances throughout history of cultures frequently raiding neighboring lands and enslaving the inhabitants.

      “It seems that we human beings have no direct access to reality….” This is a very interesting train of thought to follow. Could you elaborate a bit more on this position? Do you believe that it is impossible to determine whether physical objects exist? I find Berkeley’s argument that there are only minds very persuasive. I have a strong intuition that he is wrong, but I have been unable to refute his reasoning or articulate my intuition.

      • Hi

        The way you re-wrote what I said doesn’t significantly change anything.

        The thing that so few people seem to get about Darwinian evolution is that it explains how selection delivers systems that seem to be goal oriented, but often are not. It seems clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that for the most part, they are just systems doing what they do, and either surviving or not, in various probability distributions, given the probability distributions of contexts that individuals within those populations encounter. For sexually reproducing organisms, they whole population of organisms can be treated as a single unit for evolutionary purposes, though the survival of the population is mediated through the survival of individuals.

        So using a term like “the purpose of a plant seed is to grow into a plant” is a shorthand that many people find useful and convenient, but what it actually seems to describe, if one is being more strictly correct from a systems perspective, is something like:
        “a seed is a system that, if given appropriate contexts of water, nutrient and soil conditions, atmospheric and land disturbance, light and temperature, predation and disease, may survive to become a tree and be capable of reproducing more seeds.”
        No purpose in that. Just systems doing what systems do, within the constraints and boundaries present. Go outside of any of those limits, and the system goes beyond its ability to recover, and loses coherence, and is said to die. Too dry (drought) dead seedling or tree. Too wet (flood), drowns, dead thing. Too much wind, breaks off at base, dead. etc

        The idea of purpose, is a human invented thing. It is not an attribute of the thing itself (the seed, or whatever).
        Human beings are capable of envisaging an array of possible futures, and choosing one from amongst that, and directing activities to increase the probability of achieving that one over any of the other possibilities. That is a meaningful use of the term purpose (in a system capable of modelling reality including itself and running projections of possible futures, and possible utility functions associated with those futures, and making choices from the arrays of probabilities resulting) – whether that happens consciously or subconsciously.

        The degree of rationality exhibited by human beings is a matter of some debate 😉 !

        It seems very clear to me, that most human beings are no where near as rational as they think they are – which applies to even those who many appear at some levels to be most rational, like E Yudkowski as one example – only picking on him because he is a very high profile example in the “rational”.world of AI.

        I wrote:
        “It seems that a respect for individual life, and individual liberty (where it doesn’t pose undue risk to life) are fundamental survival constraints common to all individuals.”
        And you responded:
        “Is this true? There are instances throughout history of cultures frequently raiding neighboring lands and enslaving the inhabitants.”

        You need to read that comment within the context within which it was written, where I quite explicitly started the context with “If one is still concerned with matters of survival, then it behoves one to explore all the risks to survival and the sorts of strategies that can effectively mitigate those risks, while not unduly restricting one’s freedom to act”.

        So the comment has little or nothing to do with the history of humanity pre-indefinite life extension or pre fully automated production, and everything to do with survival of individuals past those two technological tipping points.

        My statement “It seems that we human beings have no direct access to reality”… has nothing directly to do with Berkeley’s assertion.
        What I was pointing to with that statement is that it now seems clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that what we experience as reality, isn’t. It seems that what we as self aware individuals experience is a model of reality that our subconscious brain processes assemble for us. The model seems to be slightly predictive of aspects of reality most of the time – by about 200ms usually, though it seems it can vary a lot depending on context.

        As such, many of the distinctions in that model have a certain utility in the world, without necessarily being accurate in absolute sense. A table is solid to our bodies and to most things we normally have access to. A table is a close approximation to a vacuum to something like a neutrino.

        It seems clear that the attributes of the model are based on our past experience, strong influenced by present experience, and can also be influenced by a vast array of other brain processes (including recursively abstract processes).

        So it seems clear that reality isn’t what it seems, and our experiential reality is usually a useful approximation to what actually seems to be “out there” in normal circumstances; but not always.
        Stage magicians have many “exploits” (methods that fool the modelling systems of our subconscious into presenting us with an inaccurate for some period of time) that they use, to convinces us that reality is other than what it is – as one example.
        Reality just does it for no “reason” from time to time – we tend to call those “exceptional circumstances” – which they are – mostly.

  8. Pingback: Aristotle’s purpose | Ted Howard NZ's Blog

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