Monday, June 21, 2010

An Aristotelian Life (Part 1)

"An Aristotelian Life" is an essay by Marcia Homiak that appears in the collection Philosophers Without Gods. This is a pretty good collection of essays with some solid philosophical pieces being mixed-in with more anecdotal and autobiographical pieces.

Homiak's essay lies more on the philosophical side of the ledger, although it is an easy read (not that reading philosophy should always be like wading through verbal quicksand).

Homiak, like many of the contributors to the collection, adopts a conciliatory tone towards religion. She begins by praising her religious friends and noting how their beliefs have helped them to live good, decent, hard-working and charitable lives.

This acknowledgement inspires the remainder of her essay. She asks the question: is there any secular philosophy that can have a similar effect on our lives? She answers in the affirmative by outlining an Aristotelian vision of life.

The essay has three main sections. The first section gives us the basic sketch of an Aristotelian life. The second section shows how these Aristotelian principles can be used in everyday life. The author draws on her own experiences in this section. The final section compares the Aristotelian life with the religious life.

In this post, we will focus on the first of those sections.

1. Seek Happiness or Eudaimonia
The Aristotelian vision of life is set out in the Nicomachean Ethics. It begins with the simple observation that the good life is the life of happiness or flourishing.

For some, this goal of happiness is compatible with being an emaciated, malnourished but deliriously happy heroin addict. This is obviously not Aristotle's vision. For him, happiness consists in the exercise of our distinctively human capacities for rational thought and cognition.

What are these capacities? They are those with which we explore the deep nature of reality, seek reasons for action, and appreciate beauty, symmetry and elegance. Or to put it another way, they are the capacities with which we go beyond the superficial but essential business of survival and approach the ideals of the good, the true and the beautiful.

2. Individual Activity
The first sphere in which these capacities need to be exercised is the sphere of individual activity. This encompasses our jobs and our hobbies.

For the Aristotelian, these quotidian practices should be besieged by all the powers of the rational intellect. If you wish to be chef, you should explore the nuances of textures and flavours. If you wish to be a football player, you should try to understand the rhythms and strategies of the game. If you wish to be an accountant, you should try to plumb the intellectual depths of bookkeeping.

It also important not to become too absorbed by one activity; not to put all of your cognitive eggs in the one basket. Such a life would be shallow and unstable. For example, the life of the footballer can only be sustained in youth and good health.

Instead, you should seek to exercise your mind across a range of disciplines and activities.

3. Collective Activity
Of course, no man (or woman) is an island. They cannot pursue activities in total isolation. There are two reasons for this. First, we need the help of others to prevent life becoming a grueling, back-breaking struggle for subsistence.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, we need the help of others to fully realise the potential of our rational and cognitive powers. Think, for example, of the musician playing in an orchestra, or a physicist participating in the experiments at CERN. Both individuals supersede their personal limits.

Something interesting happens when we engage in these collective activities. We begin to feel a deep sympathy and empathy for the other participants in these activities. We call this friendship and it gives us a new set of motivations and desires, namely: desires for the well-being of others.

4. Political Activity
This leads us finally to the Aristotelian view of politics. Aristotle argued that flourishing can only be achieved in a properly-constituted political system.

Aristotle's most radical proposals (for the era) were in favour of compulsory public education and some system of welfare. The educational system would give people the training they need to utilise their rational and cognitive powers, while the welfare system would give people access to the materials they need to survive. Both are necessary preconditions for flourishing.

Turning to the question of governance, Aristotle advocates an egalitarian and democratic system. Every citizen has a vote in a citizen assembly that elects executive officials, and these officials can only hold office for a specified period of time. This prevents the concentration of power in one person or group of persons. This is in stark contrast to the political system of Plato, which envisioned governance by an elite (nb: there is some elitism in Aristotle due to his prejudices against women and slaves -- more on this in the next part).

5. Virtue and Vice
So there you have it: an Aristotelian vision of the good life. And as can be seen it is wholly secular. One final point that is worth raising is Aristotle's thoughts about the consequences of living the good life.

He does not think that the person who lives the good life will be morally vicious. For to truly exercise one's rational and cognitive powers, one must achieve an appropriate balance between competing moral vices.

For instance, one will not be cowardly or rash but will display courage and valour; one will not be profligate or insensible, but will display temperance and self-control; one will not be obsequious or sulkily insular, but will display friendliness and compassion; and so on.

This is the famous idea of the Aristotelian mean.

That's it for now, in part two we will see how practicable the Aristotelian model is in real life.


  1. Hi John,

    As a usually silent reader, I just wanted to chime in and say how much I enjoy reading your blog. Your table of contents reads like a dessert menu to me, and I often savour your posts as I would a physical dessert: outside on a coffee shop patio, with coffee and a clove cigarette.

    Today I particularly enjoyed the idea that Aristotle thought you shouldn't put all your cognitive eggs in one basket. I'm a programmer by day but a philosophy addict by night, and I often have lamented that philosophy isn't my main profession. But reading this post, it occured to me that maybe I shouldn't be as bothered about that. Plumbing the depths of programming can be a final good in its own right.

    Thanks for all your work, and I look forward to more posts!

  2. Bill and Tedism seems similar..

  3. Andy,

    Nice to hear from you. It's always reassuring to know that I'm not simply shouting into the abyss (although I'd probably keep doing it anyway).

    It's also good to know that this post helped you gain a new perspective on your life. I've always found philosophical analysis to be a useful self-help tool. Although I prefer when the self-help aspect is something you discover rather than something that is preached at you.


    Sounds pretty good to me.

    Be excellent and party on!