Cliff’s Notes to The Good Life
I’ll continue with my Gulf Island adventure next week. I decided to publish this article in order to break it up a little and continue my series of philosophical posts.As a species, we have made incredible strides the last two hundred years in our quality of life with our tools of culture and technology. But our wisdom: our philosophy and resulting social behavior, have not kept pace.
Take war for example. Regardless of your ethos or religious belief, every human knows, deep down, at the core, that war and fighting is bad. That it represents the ultimate breakdown in intelligent communication. That bloody fighting belongs to the age of the cave man and woolly mammoth and other extinct things. So too do we wish we were evolved enough to let war go extinct.
Here’s another example from the opposite end of the spectrum: a long, happy life. Simply put, the good life. There is far from consensus on what the good life is in American (or global) culture.
Aristotle, over 2000 years ago, seriously tackled this question in his Nicomachean Ethics, and it is still studied to this day, though not much improved upon. In its original form, it’s not as helpful as it stipulates many things that don’t apply to modern culture. Things such as how women had no chance to achieve happiness due to the negative limitation his ancient society burdened them with.
He also said a lot of things that make a lot of sense when reframed in modern society. For instanace, he claimed slaves could not be happy for many of the same reasons women could not. For me, this gives new meaning to the terms ‘wage slave’ and ‘lone drone’ applied to many people today, who suffer from the same social predicament as slaves in Aristotle’s time.
He also said that people who befall unfortunate circumstances, such as physical and mental illnesses, could not live happy, fulfilled lives. This was hard for me to accept, but looking back on my life experiences, I would agree.
I would also apply people saddled with a combination of high debt and low-income future prospects firmly into this category, as well as young people stuck with the burdens and responsibility of providing for a family through youthful and ignorant choices. In today’s society, it is very hard for a young person, saddled with huge debt and obligations, to recover in time to achieve some of the virtues required to live the good life. Unlike those who suffer physical injury, these obstacles can be overcome with time, but they are obstacles during their most productive, active years.
Achieving The Good LifeAristotle is known for his claim that happiness was the chief good to which society and individuals should aim. That the desire for money, pleasure, and fame are merely means to the ultimate end, which is a happy life. Aristotle was convinced that a genuinely happy life required the fulfillment of a broad range of contitions 1, and the avoidance of certain limitations.
Aristotle listed many virtues to which a person wishing to lead a happy life should aspire to. Rather than list them here, I would sum up the ‘spirit’ of them as this: Keep your eye on the future and visualize what the best ‘you’ looks like in that future. Then make it happen. (This view is very much in line with existential philosophy too).
Happiness is not something that can be gained or lost in a day, unlike pleasure. ‘Eudaimonia’, Aristotle’s definition of happiness, has been described as the ultimate value of your life as lived up to this moment, measuring how well you have lived up to your full potential as a human being.1
My favorite quote form Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle’s metaphor for achieving happiness: “…a clumsy archer may indeed get better with practice, so long as he keeps aiming for the target.” I like this quote because it 1) emphasizes that happiness is something to be achieved over a lifetime and 2) mistakes can be made and usually recovered from.
He also notes that it is not enough to think about doing the right thing, or even intend to do the right thing: we have to actually do it.1 To Aristotle, happiness could only be available to people who had choices in life (unlike slaves and women in his day) and would take responsibility for those choices. This concept of making choices was closely tied to his definition of self-sufficiency, which is a topic for a future post.