Aristotle argued that the end or purpose of human life was flourishing. But what is flourishing? And how do we flourish?
What's the Point?
What's the point? Some time or other, we've all probably asked ourselves this question. What's the point of doing what we are doing? What's the point of our lives? What's the point of human life in general?
When we ask ourselves these questions, we are not just idly speculating about life. Instead, these are questions that we feel deeply and intensely. They have an existential weight behind them. After all, everything in human life—everything we think and do—seems to depend on the way that we answer these questions.
If you have ever been preoccupied with these questions, then you are not alone. They also preoccupied the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE). And in his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle takes these questions about the purpose, the point, or the end of human life, and he tackles them head-on.
About the Nicomachean Ethics
Before we launch into exploring how Aristotle goes about answering these questions, it is worth saying a bit more about the Nicomachean Ethics itself. The book is probably named after Aristotle's son, Nicomachus (although, confusingly, Aristotle's father was also called Nicomachus). Some have said that Nicomachus edited the work, thereby lending it his name; but the evidence for this is slim, particularly given that Nicomachus himself died young.
As a book, the Nicomachean Ethics—like many of Aristotle's surviving works—reads somewhat sketchily. The book seems more like lecture notes than a final polished work for public consumption (there is evidence that the works Aristotle wrote for wider audiences were much more elegant). But for all this, the work is remarkably consistent and focussed. And it has remained influential down to the present day.
Aiming at the Good
The Nicomachean Ethics starts with a compelling assertion: that pretty much everything we do aims at some good.
Every skill and every inquiry, and similarly every action and rational choice, is thought to aim at some good; and so the good has been aptly described as that at which everything aims. (1094a).
Why do we get ourselves a cat? Because we think it will be a good thing to have a small, furry companion. Why do we learn to sing? Because we think it will be good to serenade our cat. Why do we want to move house? Because we think it will be good to live somewhere where the neighbours don't complain when we sing to our cat at 3 am. And so on. Even the worst of human actions aims at some kind of good (Why do I want to unleash destruction on my enemies? So I can live out my days in peace, singing songs to my cat).
But Aristotle observes that many of the things we do are done not for their own sake, but for the sake of something else. The goods that we aim at are often only temporary or transitional goods, steps on the road to some higher good. We work so that we can make money. We make money so that we can buy a house. We buy a house so that we can have shelter, a foothold in the world. And so on.
Often our desires are linked like this, as if they are a kind of chain: we want A so we can have B; we want B so we can have C; and we want C so we can have D… But these chains don't go on forever. Eventually, you get to an endpoint. And that endpoint, Aristotle says, is happiness.
Why is happiness the end point? Because happiness is not something we want for the sake of something else. Instead, it is something we want for its own sake. After all, why do we want to be happy? Well, just because. So Aristotle concludes that happiness is the ultimate good because it is the one thing we want for its own sake.
On Being Good Spirited
But what does Aristotle mean by happiness? He is not talking about enjoying our lives. Nor is he talking about the feeling of being happy, or having a life filled with pleasure. Instead, for Aristotle, happiness is about being able to fully express the excellence of human being. Happiness, he says, is the condition of “living well and doing well” (1095a).
The word that Aristotle uses for happiness is eudaimonia. In Greek, eu is a prefix meaning “good” or “well”, and daimon can mean “spirit”, “fortune” or “guiding spirit.” This is often translated as “flourishing.” The translation is imperfect. But it does at least bring home to us the idea that a good human life is a life in which—through living well and doing well—we fully express our human capacities. A flourishing grapevine grows strong and vigorous, doesn't suffer from disease or drought, and produces bunches of excellent grapes. Similarly, a flourishing human life is a life where things go well for us, and where we bring forth excellent fruits.
But what are these fruits? Up to this point, this may all seem still a little vague. And Aristotle himself admits that, at least at first glance, “saying that happiness is the chief good sounds rather platitudinous” (1097b). So what does it mean to live well and to do well?
Let's go back to the question we started with: what is the point of human life? In pursuit of an answer to this question, Aristotle starts by asking about what he calls our characteristic activity (or ergon in Greek). The characteristic activity of something is what it is for—its purpose—if it is functioning optimally. The characteristic activity of a knife is cutting. The characteristic activity of the human eye is seeing. The characteristic activity of the tongue is tasting. The characteristic activity of the gut is digesting. And the characteristic activity of the optimally functioning gourmet chef is to put that knife to work to produce food that will please the eye, the tongue, and the gut.
So what, Aristotle asks, is the characteristic activity or the ergon of a human being? It is not just life because this is something we share with other animals and also with plants. It is an activity, but not the characteristic activity we have by virtue of being human. Nor is it sentience because this is something we share with other animals. Instead, Aristotle says, our characteristic activity is “a life, concerned in some way with action, of the element that possesses reason” (1098a). And, he adds, “the characteristic activity of the good person to be to carry this out well and nobly.”
So what does it mean to flourish as a human being? And who gets the chance to flourish? So far, it looks as if flourishing is something that we ourselves enact through virtuous action. We act well in society with others, guided by reason, virtuously using our human capacities in pursuit of the good. And when we do this, then we can be said to be happy and flourishing.
However, Aristotle recognises that eudaimonia or happiness is not just about internal conditions. The “guiding spirit” or daimon of eudaimonia is partly internal. But it is also partly to do with our attunement to the external world, and to our changing fortunes in the external world. To live well and to do well, you need the support of both external and internal conditions.
And here Aristotle is clear-eyed about the extent to which flourishing is a function of our social position.
Happiness obviously needs the presence of external goods as well, since it is impossible, or at least no easy matter, to perform noble actions without resources. For in many actions, we employ, as if they were instruments at our disposal, friends, wealth, and political power. (1099b)
This raises a question that Aristotle himself side-steps. If flourishing is the ultimate human good, it would seem to be an obviously good thing if as many people as possible could be said to flourish.
But if flourishing is important for human life, the question is this: how do we offset the inequities of fate and fortune to make sure that all can flourish, rather than the privileged few?
Books and articles
There are lots of translations of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics out there. I don't have a favourite translation, but the quotes in this piece are taken from Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics translated by Roger Crisp (Cambridge University Press 2000).
CUP also has a good introduction. Try Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: An Introduction by Michael Pakaluk (CUP 2005).
Should we cancel Aristotle? This piece from Agnes Callard on Aristotle's views in contemporary perspective is worth reading, not least because it kicked off a whole load of interesting responses and rebuttals.
And here's a broader-brush piece from the BBC on Aristotle and divergent approaches to happiness.