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Aristotle: the Life Well Lived

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The good life can easily be defined as the prototypical life that we should all strive to live. There are countless ideas as to what exactly the good life is, some more reasonable than others. In Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle tells us what he thinks the life lived well truly is. The basis of his argument is that happiness, or eudaimonia in Greek, is the final end that humans should strive for. The first step in achieving happiness, according to Aristotle is through reason. Aristotle starts off by saying that what makes humans unique from other animals is our ability to reason. It is through reason that we can become more like the “Gods” and come closer to living Aristotle’s view of the good life. Aristotle separates reason into two distinct categories: practical reason and theoretical reason. Practical reason can be thought of as the ability, through contemplation, to decide what one ought to do. Theoretical reason, on the other hand, can be viewed as reasoning that is directed at answering questions that are, coincidentally enough, theoretical. By theoretical I mean questions that are concerned with explaining and predicting what is going on around us. Going back to Aristotle’s assertion that reason is what separates us from lower beings, we can see that he is probably referring more to theoretical reason as opposed to practical reason. Any animal can exercise practical reason in determining what to do to survive, but can an animal reason theoretically? Aristotle says no and that is what separates human beings from animals.
It is through reason, both practical and theoretical, that we develop virtue. According to Aristotle, virtue is the next step towards eudaimonia and it is developed through the exercise of reason. Just like with reason, Aristotle separates virtue into two categories. The first form of virtue is moral virtue. Moral virtue is excellence in reasoning about what to do. Moral virtue is concerned with choices and actions, namely performing just actions and making just choices. Aristotle believes that we acquire moral virtue by habituation, meaning that in order to become just or moral we have to perform just or moral actions. This second type of virtue is intellectual virtue. Intellectual virtue is excellence in reasoning in thought. Unlike moral virtue, Aristotle believes that intellectual virtue is not acquired through habituation. Instead, he believes that intellectual virtue is obtained through instruction. So, while all it takes to have moral virtue is to perform just acts (within a certain set of parameters), in order to have intellectual virtue we must be taught intellectual virtue. It is this type of virtue, the one that must be taught, that Aristotle believes is most important in living the good life. Aristotle does not believe that a balanced mix between moral and intellectual virtue is the best way to live ones life, he believes that the life most focused on intellectual virtue is the best life.
From this, we can conclude that happiness, the good life, is the exercise of virtue. But in order to exercise virtue, says Aristotle, we must have certain internal and external goods. Internal goods are things such as talent and ability that are distinct within each different person. External goods, however, can be viewed as the wherewithal to exercise virtue. External goods can be physical, such as books or money, but they can also be things such as honor, fame, or respect. Aristotle believes that luck is the only way we can receive these external goods. For example, in ancient Greek society social classes were very rigid and if you were not born into a wealthy or powerful family it would have been very hard to accumulate any sort of wealth or influence. Aristotle goes on to say that the purpose of a government is to decrease the amount of influence that luck, the acquiring of external goods, plays in each individuals quest to live the good life. Aristotle thinks that society should be organized to tame chance. On this point, Aristotle does not believe that general happiness of everyone in society should be our goal; he believes that our ultimate end should be individual happiness. It is Aristotle’s view on external goods that most intrigues me. There are many aspects of what he says that I believe are fundamentally true. The first is that luck plays a significant role in whether or not we will be able to live the good life. I think that in modern society, as well as Aristotle’s, if you are not born or do not receive certain external goods it is very difficult to achieve Aristotle’s vision of eudaimonia. Certain things are needed if we want to spend our existence exercising intellectual virtue. We need food, shelter, water, and clothing (not for some). But in order to receive these basic necessities we either have to have some form of wealth to purchase them or we have to be unnaturally skilled at persuading people to give these things to us. While the latter is technically an internal good, it is highly improbable and the former, definitely an external good, is needed in pretty much every case. I also agree with Aristotle’s belief that society should be organized to provide external goods. That to me is just something that is a given. Everyone should have the same chance to live the good life and without some sort of governing body making sure that happens, it probably never will. Where my thoughts diverge from Aristotle’s is when he says that the ultimate end in life is personal happiness, not the happiness of the general populace. This seems very contradictory to the premise of moral virtue to me. Moral virtue is excellence in reasoning about what to do, but how does Aristotle come to the conclusion that our happiness is more important than the general population’s happiness? For example, what if we could perform an act that brought about no change in our state of living, meaning it did not increase nor decrease our pleasure in any way, but it brought about a significant increase in the happiness of the general populace. Would we perform that act? To me, Aristotle is saying that since our happiness is the ultimate end we wouldn’t perform that act because it would not bring about our own personal happiness. That just does not make sense to me. It seems to me that even if that act would not bring us happiness it should still be something that we should aim to do. Another point of Aristotle’s that I think is flawed is where he says that the life most fully devoted to intellectual virtue is truly the good life. I get to some extent that in a purely theoretical world where humans have no cares, worries, or necessities that this way of living would definitely be the way to go. Unfortunately, surviving on planet earth takes a large degree of effort and determination, so we ultimately have to focus on that. When we focus on making sure we have the means to continue our survival, I believe that we are exercising what Aristotle calls moral virtue or practical reasoning. In order to stay alive we need to use basic reasoning skills, not the ones that are unique to humans, to stay alive. We have to determine where the best place to build shelter and obtain food is. That takes very little to no exercise of intellectual virtue to do. So, because of this, I believe that Aristotle’s view of the good life is fundamentally flawed. It is practically impossible to live a life that is completely devoted to the exercise of intellectual virtue because we have to exercise our moral virtues and practical reasoning to simply stay alive. Aristotle’s views on the good life are unique to say the least. I believe that his views are extremely influenced by the culture he lived in. Ancient Greece and modern day America are two vastly different places, so the probability of two people agreeing on something as important as what is a life lived well is extremely low. I think that if a few adjustments were made to Aristotle’s beliefs, they would be very compatible with my own. However, the way it currently stands there is a large disconnect between our viewpoints.…...

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