Aristotle and Living a Virtuous Life


Although he lived 2,392 years ago, Aristotle’s ideas and theories of how people think of themselves and their life are still discussed today. What is good? What are we trying to achieve? Why, how, what, and when are all questions we as people ask ourselves all the time. Aristotle tries to help us understand ourselves and the questions that consume the human mind. The core of his ideas comes down to what appears to be may or may not be the true reality; the difference of true good and what seems good. In order to find “the good”, one must understand the function of a human and find the virtuous way of everything; finding excellence in all they do. All of this leads up to the ultimate goal of happiness. True happiness is being all you can be.

The appearance verses reality concept helps us define what ways we can understand to improve our lives and ultimately find happiness. Appearance is what we believe to be true even if it is false. It is what seems to be the good at the time, like a wolf in sheep’s skin. We might think it is a sheep and believe with our whole being that it is in fact a sheep, when in reality, it is a wolf. In the same way we may think we know something is truth and it is false, Aristotle argues we may believe we are happy, when indeed we are not. Happiness, or eudemonia, means to have a good life; to back on life without regret. This brings up the question: can one truly say they are happy when living? Someone would be able to say they believe they are happy or they are working on achieving that goal.

To be clear, the good is the goal which leads to happiness. One must always strive to “the good” in every part of their life. In order to achieve the balance of the good, one must practice. An example is how long should someone study for a class. For every person, the time will be different. If someone does not study long enough, they could regret it because of a poor grade on a test. If someone studies too long and avoids a balance of studying and having fun with friends, they could regret missing out on the time they did not spend with their friends. So either way, there is regret. In order to achieve “the good” in this situation, the person must find a balance of studying and time spent with their peers. This balance can also be called arête, or virtue and excellence. Performing the ergon, function, of yourself as best as you can is how you achieve virtue, which leads to goodness, which brings happiness.

Aristotle believes the ergon of a human being is to train our desire to desire and love what is best. We must use our reason and our rationality and apply it to our lives. A good person will love what is best for them. Their desires will no longer be driven by pleasure, but by the idea of the higher goal. They will be able to not only have a strong will against pleasurable desires of things that seem good, but will not even desire those things. They will only desire the good. They will love what is best for them, and will ultimately lead them to happiness. In order to begin making rational choices by using self control, one must learn to recognize a moral fact as a fact. Knowing the difference between a fact, acting upon it towards the good is how to begin the way to happiness. Within the human soul, there are two parts; the irrational and the rational. The irrational is made up of vegetative and animal drives. Vegetative makes us grow and the animal can listen to reason but not recognize it by itself. The rational side of the soul is made of the practical and theoretical parts. The practical part uses reason to get what it wants. The theoretical part is relatively useless. It is the abstract part of thinking. The interaction of the animal and the practical is what we need to perfect. Making a habit of doing good things for the right reason and at the right time is how someone can start towards loving what is good.

There are many metaphors that elaborate on the concept of appearance and reality. One is a child and an adult. A child is driven by pleasures alone whereas an adult has the ability to make decisions based on knowledge of what they perceive good to be. This can also be described as asleep verses awake or “enslavement verses freedom” and the practical sylloquism. Children do not make choices. They can act voluntarily and respond to a parent telling them no by not doing something, but cannot decipher what is best for them. There is a major premise, a universal moral fact (example: stealing is wrong). The minor premise is a particular part of the universal idea (example: stealing item X is wrong) and can be mistaken and deemed part of involuntary ignorance. A child can sometimes understand a universal fact once told, but cannot think of it themselves. They might also mix up a minor premise of a major premise and believe they are doing good, when in fact they are not. This is involuntary wickedness. Yet, when a person does not know the universal moral fact, they are deemed wicked. Children may not be able to put the two together, even if they understand both premises, to make a conclusion (“I should not steal this”). This is all related to Choice and deliberation. Most children do not have ends or a major premise. They cannot deliberate and come to a conclusion. This is why they are described as asleep, while an adult can be awake.

Everything to Aristotle is desirable as a means to happiness. Another visual to apply to the idea of finding virtue is an archer aiming an arrow at a target; the bulls-eye is happiness. At first, it takes a lot of work trying to hit the bulls-eye, but eventually it becomes easier. This is just like happiness. At first, you may hit too high or too low on the spectrum around virtue, but eventually the archer will get closer to excellence and happiness.
The danger of the archer is called hamartia, the fatal flaw. It means “missing the mark” because of a lack of practice. In order to get to “the good”, one must practice. If there is no practice, then the good is not even a thought let alone a desire of that person. Finding the good can also be called finding the “golden mean”. This is doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason. In order to find it, one must use self control. There is an insensitive and an indulgent part of self control. When there is not a balance of the two, there will be regret; either regretting not doing enough of something or doing too little. Every person’s mean is different, but everyone must practice and experiment in order to find what is right for them. This is hard to figure because in order to experiment, there will be regrets involved, so can someone ever be truly happy? I believe so. I think that there will be regrets for a short amount of time, but in the long run, at the point of old age, if those regrets have not stayed regrets, then happiness is still achievable.

There are three pieces of advice for being able to hit the mean. 1. Generally avoid extremes. 2. Move away from “proclivity” (when you know you tend to be a certain way, force yourself to find the real mean- not natural inclinations). 3. Beware of pleasure. It is usually not the good, but an instant gratification that can have worse consequences than not meeting that desire. Yet, in order to find the mean, mistakes are inevitable.

People fit into six levels of goodness. One can move up and down the levels throughout life and different experiences and reactions to those experiences. The megalopsyhchias are super virtuous and their mean is higher than everyone’s. The virtuous person knows a fact is a fact and lives a good and happy life. The strong willed person knows a fact is fact, but struggles desiring what is best, but makes the good decision in the end. The weak willed person is knows the right thing and tries to do the right thing, but frequently does the opposite. The bad person does not believe that anything is wrong with feeding the appetite of pleasure; maybe someday they will feel regret. Finally, the brutish person is extremely bad and does not regret it.

When going through life trying to reach the goal of happiness and living a virtuous life, seeing what is truly good and what only seems good can be a very difficult thing to decipher. Acting upon the knowledge of the good is even more difficult. Sometimes it may seem like there is no hope for anyone in Aristotle’s way of seeing the world. So many obstacles come in the way of happiness, that even when you die, an heir can be bad and therefore make your life unhappy. Yet, other people may see Aristotle’s ideas as relieving because mistakes are ok and expected. A person is not stuck on one level of the hierarchy for their whole lives; it is moveable by means of knowledge and thinking. Overall, understanding the good and desiring what is best for you, not necessarily what is instantly pleasurable is the way to the good. Once this is found, what is desirable will become pleasurable to you, leading to a life of happiness.

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