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.
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.
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.
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.