Aristotle and the Meaning of Life

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Andrew Chau

Aristotle and the Meaning of Life

Aristotle’s definition of happiness requires us to conform to virtue and some virtuous acts may include self-sacrifice. This idea seems problematic if good health or material wealth is necessary to be happy. Our intuition would say that you cannot be happy if you are poor, and certainly not if you are dead. However, the common view is not always the correct one. I will argue first that Aristotle’s views are not contradictory because for him the good of the soul supercedes the good of the body; and second, that if our common sense notion of happiness is a goal, acting according to virtue is the only rational choice.

My approach to the problem of reconciling self-sacrifice with happiness will proceed in two steps. In the first section I will argue in defense of Aristotle that if we accept his definition of eudaimonia, we must accept the possibility of self-sacrifice in accordance with virtue. I will also support his beliefs about the role the body and external goods may play in achieving eudaimonia through self-sacrifice. In the second section I will argue that given Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia combined with our common sense idea of happiness, going to war for your country is the only rational choice. The third section will include objections to my arguments and my replies to them.

Aristotle goes to great lengths in order to discover the telos, or goal, of life. He formulates his notion of eudaimonia as, “an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue (text 63).” The activity of soul is an introspective act using our faculty for reason. Aristotle differentiates between speculative and non-speculative virtue, the former is the activity of the soul and the latter is the activity of the body. He believes that acting for external, non-rational reasons can only lead to a form of life and happiness that is not divine and not eudaimonia (Welldon 346). Eudaimonia is not simply choosing the divine-virtues by reason, but also acting on, or conforming to those virtues. Aristotle points out that “in sleep the difference between a good man and a bad man is least apparent – whence the saying that for half their lives the happy are no better off than the wretched (text 67).” In other words virtue without integrity, that is, without the will to act is not worth much. Eudaimonia then is rationally choosing to act from virtue and actually performing that act. Virtue itself takes on many forms and Aristotle acknowledges that in some cases virtue may require self-sacrifice. It is not even necessary to examine the circumstances of such an occasion to see that acting out of self-sacrifice, if it is rationally chosen, does not contradict the notion of eudaimonia. If the act is chosen because it is rationally the virtuous thing to do, then it fulfills all of the requirements for happiness. A contradiction only arises when we posit our own intuitive conception of happiness in place of Aristotle’s, but that will be addressed later. Self-sacrifice is not at all contradictory to Aristotle’s logical notion of eudaimonia in the strictest sense.

The issue of selfless acts is taken up by Aristotle in a couple of instances. One example he uses concerns giving up material wealth for the sake of friendship. He writes that one would “surrender riches gladly if only he may enrich his friends; for then while his friend gets the money, he gets the nobleness, and so assigns the greater good to himself (Welldon 310).” The nobleness he writes of is not to be confused with prestige; the noble self-sacrifice is a virtuous act therefore the greater good is the happiness attained through conformity with virtue. Aristotle also writes that a good man would even die for his friends or for his country. The logic behind this belief is the same as before. If the rational virtuous action happens to be risking life and limb on the battlefield, that is what one must do in order to be happy. If someone avoids battle because they are cowardly they may continue to live, but they will not be happy. Aristotle says that the virtuous man “would rather live one year nobly than many years indifferently, and would rather perform one noble and lofty action than many poor actions (310 Welldon).” The implication is that a good man would rather die happy than live in disgrace. In both instances the act of self-sacrifice is compatible with Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia.

The problem arises only when our intuitive concept of happiness clashes with Aristotle’s view. Many people believe that health, money, and honor are required to achieve happiness. Furthermore, it may seem unnatural to prefer eudaimonia over self-preservation. Reconsider the example of the virtuous man faced with the decision of whether or not to go to war for his country. If he chooses to flee from battle he may survive, but he will not have acted according to virtue so he cannot be happy in Aristotle’s sense. If the man does choose to risk his life in battle he will either live or die. In the case that the man lives, he survives and has conformed to virtue therefore he will be happy (in the sense of eudaimonia). If he goes to battle and dies he was at least happy when he lived. The point is that if he avoids battle he is choosing certain unhappiness, but if he risks his life in battle he is choosing certain happiness and he may still live. If someone holds the belief that nothing is worth dying for in any situation, then there is no way to reconcile the notion of self-sacrifice as an act of virtue. It must also be stated that such a person would not be considered the good man Aristotle speaks of, since the good man would always choose rationally in accordance with virtue.

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