Happiness, Death, Anxiety, Resurrection – Part II: Aristotle

In my first post, I noted that—to the question of what whole way of life makes for the most worthwhile life—Plato proposed it must be the just life; the life of the one internally ordered toward the Good. In this post, I’ll consider briefly Aristotle’s musings on the same question. As stated in part I, the purpose of this is not so much historical survey or a ‘rereading’ of these thinkers and their respective positions. Rather, I’m setting up both the question of ethics in its classical frame and a certain trajectory of an answer, which will allow me to trace a line of thought from the classical period through Koheleth and then to Paul (over my next two posts respectively).

Aristotle, Justice, and Happiness

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics begins with much the same question as Plato’s Republic. He argues that there must be a ‘chief good’ of human life and asks what that could be (1094a18-22). Most will agree, he says, that at base what we all strive for, live for, is ‘happiness’ (eudaimonia) (1095a18-20). This, then, is a good candidate for the chief good of human life. But it raises the question: What is happiness? At this point the common agreement ends. There are many opinions about what constitutes happiness for humans. Yet as we saw in the last post, certain candidates always make an appearance: wealth, honor, pleasure, the pursuit of the Good.

For Aristotle, the best way to get at human happiness is first to ask what the function of the human being is. This is because the question of happiness for a human being is the same thing as asking what constitutes an excellent human life. Excellence is a function of a particular purpose. He illustrates: “for a flute-player, or a sculptor, or any expert, and generally for all those who have some characteristic function or activity, the good—their doing well—seems to reside in their function, so too it would seem for the human being” (1097b25-27). The excellence of the flautist is understood with respect to the act, the function, of playing the flute—in this case the particular skills she has in fluid finger movements, breath control, sense of timing, ability to read music, etc. Those skills constitute the level of goodness she has achieved as a flautist, whether it attains excellence or no.

Aristotle thinks that human life, as an activity, also has a function (1097b27-32). What, according to Aristotle, is the peculiar function of human life? Beginning most broadly, he entertains the possible answer that it may be life itself: being alive is the function of human life. Yet this cannot be correct because plants and animals also share life of a sort, “and we are looking for what is peculiar to human beings” (1098a1). (As an aside, there is much at this point in Aristotle’s argument to consider in light of the current reign of reductionistic naturalism. I leave that for pursuit in another post.)

He then considers what he calls ‘perception.’ But this has the same problem. Other animals, higher order mammals at least, share perception. They too are able to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, and some are even able to mentally process these to a certain level (1098a2-3). It must be reason, then, that is distinctive of human beings. And so, the distinctive function of human life must be “activity of the soul and actions accompanied by reason” (1098a15). In other words, we are the kind of beings whose activities—both inner (soul) and external (actions)—are accompanied by reason. We are ‘thinking actors,’ as it were; that is the function of human beings.

Now the question is apparent: How does one ‘think-act’ well? If the excellence of the flautist consists in certain physical abilities, certain mental abilities, and certain skills, are there certain physical abilities, certain mental abilities, and certain skills that constitute the excellence of ‘think-acting’? Aristotle says that there are, but we must first distinguish between the two parts of the ‘think-acting:’ the intellectual part (part issuing in theoretical thinking) and the character part (part issuing in actions) (1103a15). Both of these parts have their own distinctive excellences.

The excellences of the character part of the soul, the part of our soul concerned with actions, are intermediate dispositions, says Aristotle. By ‘disposition’ he means not an affection or capacity, but that by which we relate to our affections, whether well or badly (1105b20-25). Affections we might think of roughly as our emotions, or passions. Capacities are those parts of our nature that enable us to have certain capabilities and not others. So, for example, with respect to affections, plants do not get angry because they have no natural capacity to become angry. Humans, however, do have that capacity. Now, Dispositions are those parts of our nature by which we relate to our affections. So, for example, my dog, unlike a plant, does have the capacity for certain affections. She can fear (or something like it), for example. When she hears the thunderclap, she cowers and shakes. Unlike humans, however, she does not have dispositions. She cannot relate well or badly to her affection of fear. She cannot, for example, calm herself with the realization that thunder at a distance poses no physical threat. These affections simply arise in her, whether appropriate to the situation or not, and she simply acts on them.

In contrast to both plants and animals, humans both have the capacity for affections and can deliberate about the appropriateness of certain affections and actions issuing therefrom in certain situations. What does all this have to do with living well? Aristotle thinks that it is by virtue of dispositions that humans can actually train their own affections; and hence their own desires; and hence their own actions. To think-act well, one has to think well, in order to train one’s dispositions, in order to act in accord with the good.

What constitutes ‘the good’ for human actions? Aristotle means by the term ‘intermediacy’ a kind of balance between excess and deficiency. This is his famous doctrine of the mean. He says that if we look at the kinds of character traits that are praiseworthy, we find that they are often traits situated between extremes on either side. For example, courage is an intermediate disposition between excessively fearless, i.e. rash, and excessively fearful, i.e. cowardly.

Aristotle enumerates and analyzes a list of ten excellences of character: (1) courage (2) moderation (3) open-handedness (4) munificence (5) greatness of soul (6) appropriate love of honor (7) mildness (8) truthfulness (9) wittiness (10) friendliness. Interestingly, and profoundly, these all relate to very basic human instincts: (1) relates to our flight/fight instincts; (2) relates to our ‘lower’ senses of smell, taste and touch (food, drink, sex, etc.); (3) – (10) relate to the social aspects of our lives.

So according to Aristotle excellence of character is having these intermediate dispositions, such that in every particular circumstance we hit upon the mean in our actions. That is, we are “affected when one should, at the things one should, in relation to the way one should…” and our actions coming from these dispositions are appropriate for the situation (1106b21-23). This total excellence of character is what Aristotle calls ‘general justice’ (as different from but including ‘particular justice,’ which is simply equality in person to person interactions) (1129b25-26). General justice is “excellence as a whole,” but with the qualification “as it relates to another person” (1130a12-14). For Aristotle, then, justice is having all the excellences which then issue in actions not simply for oneself but in a community, for other people. Justice, for Aristotle, is a social excellence; or rather, a personal excellence that is outward in its aim.

As noted before, for Aristotle we are essentially ‘thinking-actors.’ We have now discussed the acting part of the soul; what about the thinking part? Aristotle again distinguishes between the part of the intellectual part of the soul that deals with theory and the part of the intellectual part of the soul that deals with practice. We are concerned here with the latter. The excellence of this part of the soul he calls a kind of wisdom. This kind of wisdom is a disposition accompanied by rational prescription relating to action in the sphere of human goods (1140b5;1140b20). This is important because it is by this kind of wisdom that one is able to put one’s excellence (justice) to its best use. Aristotle gives us the illustration of an archer. The bullseye is the intermediate action at which the actor, like the archer, aims. But before shooting at the bullseye the archer must be able to locate it. The archer uses his eyes to locate the bullseye, the actor uses this kind of wisdom to locate the intermediate action appropriate to the situation. Thus, this kind of wisdom is concerned with external action.

On the classical question of the good life, Plato and Aristotle agreed on much. Some important contrasts, however, may now be drawn. When asked about the good life, Plato responds that the good life consists of a life of justice, which is an internal order of the soul, guided by wisdom toward the Good, which stands outside of the world of external goods and actions. This is the good life because, once in this state of justice, your internal psyche is harmonious and you love that which cannot be taken from you. For Aristotle, the good life consists in a life of justice as well. But justice is not so much internal psychic harmony as it is having character excellence and acting in accord with that excellence for the life of the polis. Furthermore, this justice is guided by wisdom, but not toward the ‘Good,’ standing outside the world of external goods and actions. Rather, wisdom guides us as just people precisely toward the world of external goods and actions. The good life for Aristotle is about being a just person guided by wisdom in community.

It seems to me that Aristotle’s contrasting view of the good life hits on an important critique of Plato, at least with respect to this line of thought. There is a sense in which Plato’s answer to the question of the good life is too ‘other-worldly.’ How can one have a good life if one eschews so much of what makes up life in the here and now? Yet, I also think Plato’s account provides a fundamental critique of  Aristotle. If the good life is solely about the here and now, it leaves much too much to chance. Aristotle himself admits that there are many things in this world that are outside of our control and that work against, even destroy, our ability to be finally and fully happy. So perhaps his account is too ‘this-worldly.’

But the biggest problem, I think, with both accounts, is that neither of them deal with death. Perhaps this critique seems unfair. When asking about the good life, surely one wouldn’t think to talk about death. Yet, what I hope to show in the next post is that the specter of death casts its long shadow over life and is therefore always lurking around the question of the good life. In the next post on Koheleth, I’ll take this critique up in earnest.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is professor of theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute in Bozeman, MT, where he lives with his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids.

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