Aristotle: A Life of Flourishing
Episode #4 of the course The philosophy of happiness by Dr. Will Buckingham
Hello again. Today, we’ll be looking more closely at Aristotle’s philosophy of flourishing, or eudaimonia.
Aristotle was born in 384 BCE, in the town of Stagira on the coast of Macedonia in Greece. While still a teenager, he moved to Athens and there, entered Plato’s academy. He remained there until Plato’s death in 367 BCE. After that, he traveled around Greece, briefly becoming tutor to a young prince called Alexander, who later became Alexander the Great. Then Aristotle returned to Athens and set up his own philosophical school, the Lyceum.
Aristotle was famous for his systematic approach to philosophy. Whatever he studied—whether it was politics, zoology, ethics, or happiness—he took the same approach: He carefully analyzed, categorized, and divided up the world, looking for the simple structures behind complex things. For this reason, he is sometimes seen as the first scientist.
The Only Thing You Want for Its Own Sake
When he started to think about happiness, Aristotle realized that there are many things that people want. So, he asked about why we want the things we want. Almost everything we want, Aristotle claimed, we want for the sake of something else.
For example, you want to study philosophy. Why? Because you want to understand Aristotle. But why do you want to understand Aristotle? Because Aristotle has important things to say about happiness. Okay, so why do you want to know what Aristotle has to say about happiness? Because if you know what he has to say, you might be able to put his ideas into practice. But why do you want to put his ideas into practice? Because you want to be happy. Finally, why do you want to be happy? Well (Aristotle says), just because!
For almost everything we might want, Aristotle argues, we want it for the sake of something else. Happiness is the only thing that we want for its own sake.
Try this out: Write down something you want. Now keep asking why you want this thing: “I want X because I want Y because I want Z because I want P …” Follow the chain of desires and see where you end up. Is the last link in the chain “happiness,” or is it something else?
Flourishing Is What We’re For
For Aristotle, happiness is our “final end.” But happiness is not just about pleasure. It is about eudaimonia. Flourishing is what human beings are for. The purpose of life is to actively use our capacities and talents in accord with reason. This, as we have seen, is aretē.
But what does it mean to say that somebody’s actions are “excellent”? Aristotle says that what we call excellent is having neither too much nor too little of a particular quality. When it comes to dealing with money, being stingy is not excellent but neither is being foolish. The middle position is being generous but prudent. When it comes to dealing with fear, being cowardly and being rash are both less than excellent. But acting courageously and with reason is the middle position between the two. This is sometimes called the “golden mean.”
Are You Happy with How You Have Lived?
We can now see why flourishing isn’t quite the same as subjective well-being. The question asked when measuring subjective well-being is, “Are you happy with your life?” But Aristotle asks a more subtle question: “Are you happy with how you have lived?”
Remember that eudaimonic approaches to happiness are not the only approaches. So tomorrow, we will be looking again at pleasure and exploring one of the most important advocates of hedonistic approaches: the Greek philosopher, Epicurus.
All the best,
There is a great essay on Aeon about Aristotle and happiness.
Watch this video from the BBC, where Stephen Fry talks about Aristotle and flourishing.
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