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The Good Life: Aristotle

Chris Surprenant (University of New Orleans) discusses the account of human well-being and the good life presented by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. He explains why Aristotle believes that a human being lives well when he acts rightly and possesses all virtues, both intellectual and those relating to good character.

Speaker: Dr. Chris Surprenant, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of New Orleans.

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Video transcript

- [Chris] I'm Chris Surprenant, and I teach in the department of philosophy at the University of New Orleans. This video is part of my series on human wellbeing and the good life, and it examines Aristotle's account of wellbeing as presented in the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. At the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle aims to identify the highest good for human beings. While most people believe that the highest good is the acquisition of material wealth, pursuit of honor, or satisfaction of bodily pleasure, Aristotle argues that all of these goods are deficient as the highest good in some way. Material wealth is always acquired for the purpose of attaining something else. Pursuing honor is not connected to any characteristic of the person himself but how others perceive him. And satisfying bodily pleasures is not a good peculiar to human beings. Here, Aristotle gives us insight into an important component of the highest good. It must be something that is consistent with the maximization of our faculties as human beings. What separates human beings from non-human animals is our capacity for reason and a life that aims only at satisfying bodily pleasures is one Aristotle claims is not fit for human beings but for cattle. And so, he argues that a good life for a human being would focus to a significant extent on contemplation and learning or acquiring the intellectual virtues. Aristotle associates the intellectual virtues with what we might identify as scientific knowledge. Here, there are two kinds of knowledge, knowledge of first principles or fundamental truths of nature and knowledge that comes from inference or demonstration or what comes about as the result of applying these principles. But spending your life in contemplation alone is not enough. Aristotle claims the person who lives a good life also acts rightly and develops the appropriate state of character from which to perform those right actions. While the intellectual virtues are acquired as a result of learning, these character virtues, such as courage, temperance, and generosity, are acquired as the result of habituation and life experience. These virtues occupy a middle ground between the vices of excess and deficiency, relative to each person. So, for example, the virtue of courage occupies a middle ground between being cowardly and being overly rash. Acquisition of both the intellectual virtues and these virtues of character make up Aristotle's highest good, which he identifies with the Greek word Eudaimonia, which in translations of Aristotle often is translated as the word happiness. While a person achieves Eudaimonia when he possesses all of the virtues, acquiring some of these virtues requires more than studying or the right amount of habituation. Certain external conditions must be present for their cultivation, external conditions that are often beyond the control of individuals. Perhaps the most important is that an individual is born into the right type of state. Aristotle argues that the state exists not for the purpose of allowing people to live, but for the purpose of allowing them to live well. And he also claims that one aim of the legislators is to make use of the laws to help improve the character of individuals. Individual character develops along a spectrum of worst to better, a spectrum that ranges from vicious to virtuous, with incontinent and continent falling in between. What connects all of these character states is that these individuals possess reason and know the difference between good and bad behavior. The vicious man is the worst. He derives pleasure from acting badly. The incontinent man is next. He is inclined to act wrongly and gives in to these inclinations out of weakness. And so, while he has satisfied his desires, he is dissatisfied with himself in the same way that we are dissatisfied with ourselves when we look back on our own moments of weakness. The continent man possesses strength of will and, unlike the incontinent man, acts rightly even though he was inclined to do what was wrong. But he is not fully satisfied either because he was not able to satisfy his inclinations. Aristotle's virtuous man is able to satisfy both his inclinations and his rational desires because these two things are aligned. He wants to do what is right and does it and as a result derives pleasure from good behavior. Aristotle argues that one function of the well-ordered state is to help individuals make this progression from worst to better. Laws are able to habituate people to perform the correct actions. And so, doing what is right becomes habit over time, and individuals acquire an affinity for this kind of good behavior. It is for this reason that Aristotle argues that a legislator must possess the intellectual virtue of Phronesis, which is connected to understanding what constitutes virtuous and vicious behavior and knowing how to direct people to do what is right. So, for Aristotle, a human lives well when he acts rightly and possesses all of the virtues, both intellectual and those relating to good character. But some elements of a good life are not completely within a person's control. While Aristotle's observations here may be correct, they also allow us to raise issues in the area of social justice and ask what obligations we have to people who are less fortunate in order to help them live as well as possible. Subtitles by the Amara.org community