Excellence & Aristotle

KristinaW

Active member
Have you ever heard of the word Eudaimonia? It's actually a Greek word that translates as happiness, welfare, or contentedness. Some say it means human flourishing, prosperity, or blessedness. Aristotle used this word to describe how humans are meant to live their lives. He said that eudaimonia means living well, which is more than simply having one good day. He referred to someone having endured a good life as having experienced eudaimonia. And this is what this post is about.

Aristotle believed that the key to complete understanding of something or someone is to understand its or their purpose, nature, and function. He claimed that each thing had an ultimate purpose, whether we know what that purpose is or not. The purpose of the object or thing is its end goal. It's how it moves in nature without restraint. Flowers are meant to grow and exhibit beauty, animals are meant to hunt, eat, play, and reproduce. Humans are meant to endure contentment. These things do this not because they try to, but more because it's their nature to do them. There isn't some sort of rule book that needs to be followed. It just is the way it is. And when a humanfollows its natural form and function, it's said to experience flourishing. According to Aristotle, eudaimonia isn't a one time thing. It's much more a series of long term behaviors. It's what humans were meant to do and to experience. He claimed that it's in human nature and it's a human's goal to live well and to be blessed and happy. We as humans sacrifice much to meet this goal. We work hard and create families and improve out futures all with the goal of living well.

What does it mean to flourish? Well, it can be described as acting in ways that lead you down a path of your most excellent form of expression. According to Aristotle, living the good life can only be achieved by living a life of virtue, practical wisdom, and excellence. He said that a good life can be achieved in accordance with appropriate virtue and when the soul is in accordance with this virtue. Notice the word appropriate. This means that not all virtue is universally good. It means that certain actions are warranted at certain times.

Good character begets ethical wisdom, which begets good actions, which beget a good life. One thing naturally leads to another, which is why it's critical to work effortlessly toward our own development of good characters. Without this, no other thing can stem. And if that good character is achieved, virtuous actions can also ultimately be achieved, which inherently leads to being a virtuous person. Do you see how all of this is connected? It all begins with the will of character and actions.

Now this is where things become slightly more complicated. I'll do my best at explaining Aristotle's logic behind his thought process. To Aristotle, ethics wasn't just a set of feelings that surrounded what's good and what's not good. To him, the study of ethics was actually a science. And as we know, science is built upon rational thought processes and reason. I'm not sure Aristotle took advantage of, or even knew of, the scientific method, but what he claimed ethics to be was something akin to and which stemmed from objective rational principles. He deemed that someone's "goodness" stemmed from objectivity. That a person's goodness can be viewed in an objective manner. It wasn't a feeling or a hunch. It was a rigorous understanding of what was truly good and what wasn't. He used an empirical method to acquire the necessary knowledge to make his judgements and that's what he taught his followers. He observed, applied rigorous skepticism to what he saw, and then he interpreted those observations.

Aristotle also found the human soul to contain three things, or have three compartments. They are:

Nutritive Part: Responsible for acquiring nutrition.

Appetitive Part: Responsible for reacting to the environment and desires that lead to action.

Rational Part: Responsible for being productive and rational.

If you think about these three compartments of being situated in a hierarchy, you'll find that the nutritive part is at the bottom, the appetitive part in the middle, and the rational part at the top. The primary battle occurs between the top two parts. There's always an appetite to obtain desires, but it's up to the rational part to decide whether those desires should be obtained or not. The desires must comply with reason. It's only within a person who has achieved a virtuous life that reason can be used to attain the sought after desires of the appetite. The stable and virtuous soul will not be swayed. And according to Aristotle, ethical decision making isn't innately ingrained into the psyche of the individual. It's rather ingrained by a process of making good decisions and having habits formed by good and rational behavior.

The question remains, how can an average ordinary person learn what's ethical and not ethical? How can they learn what's right and what's not right and incorporate those things into life? The answer, according to Aristotle, has to do with what he refers to as a balanced course of action. He says that virtue is a state of being. A character that's built upon the concern for a choice that's determined by a rational principle. Aristotle's doctrine of the mean says that this principle is one that can be concluded by someone of practical wisdom. So essentially, I think he's saying that you can come to determine your own virtuous course of action by emulating those other courses of action taken by friends and neighbors - people in society who exhibit wisdom and good decision making skills. The average person doesn't need to leave every decision up to themselves when they can simply wait and watch what other trusted individuals would do in similar situations.

Just to clarify Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, we can view any decision that's presented to a person on a scale of deficiency to excessiveness. the mean would be the half way point between the two. According to Aristotle, moral virtue lies at the midpoint between too little and too much. So, if we have cowardice and foolhardiness, the mean would be bravery. If we have stinginess and profligacy, we have generosity. If we have self loathing and boastfulness, we have confidence. You get the idea. The mean is of neither extreme and it sits in the area that most wise and practical people feel comfortable.

Remember though that the mean resides on a scale of independent and unique circumstances. What might be too little or too much for one person might be too much or not enough for another. These types of virtuous situations really do rely on the circumstances and who is involved. What may seem brave under one circumstance may be flat out stupid in another. And what may seen like boasting can easily be viewed as confidence by many. So take the situation into account when determining the mean and your own view on virtue. Also remember that it's more important to learn how to make ethical decisions than to learn and remember exactly what ethical decisions are. Good decisions are balanced and create a well lived life.

I mentioned that it's important to seek out the actions and choices made by those who have practical wisdom to help guide you with your own decision making, but can an average individual form their own practical wisdom? Is that possible or is that something that's attained by only a select few? The answer to those questions is that the average person can certainly become more wise. The more the average person acts according to the mean, the more they'll train themselves to seek out and recognize that which is practical and wise. These types of actions become habit and soon enough, it'll be others who look to you for guidance.

Also, wisdom is open to influence. As we all learn to meet our ethical goals, we'll encounter new information. It's important for us to analyze this information to determine if a course correction is necessary. This is a rational undertaking. No wise person is steadfast in his or her beliefs. New information is abound and it needs to be taken into consideration. An ethical environment is one that's agreed upon by many, so it's critical for those many to remain rational and open-minded. A rational and virtuous individual recognizes and realized what he or she is engaging in, makes the decision to partake in a particular act for the simple sake of it being the most virtuous alternative, is guided by those who have settled upon a moral stance before, and makes their decisions easily and with good character.

It's more a of habitual virtuous disposition that's developed over time. The more we strive for and practice a virtuous way of living, the more easily that type of life will find us. The more rational we are, the happier we'll be and that's exactly what being human is about.
 
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