Aristotle’s Ethics – Happiness and the Good Life

“Happiness depends on ourselves.” More than anyone else in the early canon, Aristotle wanted to understand how we can live and good live, and how we can know we are living a good one. So, what do you think? Are you living a good life? Are you aware of what you are doing to gain and maintain that life? I would like to think so, but I have always believed that being happy with our lives and loving ourselves is the hardest thing we can do.

Often within philosophy, we seem to want to ask the most cliche question of “what is your purpose?” To wit, we almost always never have a satisfactory answer. In fact, four thousand years of philosophy from all cultures and belief systems have deigned to answer the question at hand. So, what is the meaning of life? Is it virtue over vice? Is it living in a oneness with nature? Is it something much more esoteric?

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) wanted us to look at happiness as a life lived for the cultivation of virtue, or one living in conjunction with what we know to be right and good. This is not simply doing the right thing, but living the right way, questioning what needed to be questioned and thinking through all our situations. This is difficult and presents a problem because we do focus on in today’s society through the concept of “doing good” as a notion of doing one thing right at a time. The problem I see is that we don’t focus on the nature of how we live a good life, as much as how we can somehow do good here and there. Those instances of “good” are supposed to add up to a good life or a habit of good, but how do they translate?

One example that I like is the notion of “pay it forward”. On the whole, this is a wonderful idea. One pays for their own bill and the person in line next to them with the assumption that somewhere down the line, there is someone who deeply needs the break over the bill for coffee, or a sandwich, or whatever.  It’s hard to find fault in this, right? I think what Aristotle would have done with this is question why people behind the first ‘forward payer’ give at all. Is it out of joy that we are paying for others, or is it guilt at not being the person to break the line of payers, which can become quite staggeringly long. On top of that, how many people walk out of line with their coffee and then adjust their mentality of life to help others? Certainly, it has happened. I may be a cynic, but I am not so much so that I think no one is affected. What Aristotle would want of us is to make that good act a habit, and I think that I have not seen it become a habit in this world.

How do we make doing good a habit? Aristotle thought we were a blank slate or tabula rosa when we were born. That made us uniquely able to mold our lives to whatever aim we wish to achieve. We are able to start over, not necessarily through knowledge, but through good acts toward each other coming from the soul, or in other terms, organic experiences. If happiness depends on what we do coming in from ourselves, then we would need organic and authentic acts of good to help us be happy. Think about that next time you are encouraged to do good. Does the act come from yourself, or outside yourself? Can you encourage those habits of simple acts of kindness to bleed into you and become the norm from which you exercise judgment?

I am going to use Aristotle’s notions of good and the good life in a series because he had lots of thoughts about it that are still relevant today. Keep your eyes peeled. Though not too much, at the rate that I get these out, your eyes will be quite dry if you keep them open.

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