NOTES on Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.): The Good Life


Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) was an ancient Greek philosopher who is important in many areas of philosophical inquiry. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he explains his ethical theory.

Instrumental and Intrinsic Goods

Aristotle believed that a human being’s chief good is happiness. In determining this, he makes a distinction between instrumental goods and intrinsic goods. An instrumental good is one that we desire for the sake of something else. For example, I may desire to be a multimillionaire, but for the sake of spending those millions of dollars — not for the millions of dollars themselves. (If I were alone on a deserted island with no stores nearby, those millions of dollars would do me no good whatsoever.) An intrinsic good, however, is one that we desire for its own sake. And, as Aristotle says (and I agree), happiness is an intrinsic good. All of us want to be happy, for the sake of happiness itself. According to Aristotle, the chief good of Humankind must be an intrinsic good.

Human Happiness

Of course, we then have to ask in what human happiness lies. We already know that happiness does not lie in wealth, because wealth is an instrumental good. Aristotle also said that happiness does not lie in honor from others, for that is something that relies on fickle human opinion. (Some of the best human beings have been reviled during their lifetimes. Jesus was crucified, Socrates was condemned to death, Lincoln and Kennedy were assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. was called a Communist and was also assassinated.) In addition, happiness does not lie in physical pleasures, for those are things animals can enjoy, and man is above the animals. (Pigs move to the shade when they get hot, and they eat when they are hungry.)

According to Aristotle, human happiness consists in doing what is distinctively human. So we must analyze human beings to discover in what lies their arete (excellence). Aristotle believed that what is distinctively human is reason. But since one can have excellence without using it (you could have a talent for painting, but never do any painting), and that is bad, Aristotle believed that true human excellence lies in action in accordance with a rational principle. Happiness results when such action is performed with the appropriate excellence or virtue.

Moral Virtue, and the Mean Between Extremes

Aristotle thought that we can acquire two different kinds of virtues: moral and intellectual. The appetitive element (the desiring element) of the human soul can lead us to moral virtue, if we have desires toward worthy goals and these desires are subjected to the rational regulating principle known as the mean between extremes.

This theory of the mean between extremes is a famous part of Aristotle’s thought. He believed in moderation — as most Greeks did. If you have too much or too little of something, you will suffer from an excess or a deficiency of that thing. What you need is exactly the right amount. Thus courage is the mean between the extremes of rashness (excess) and cowardice (deficiency). Applying Aristotle’s ideas (but not always his names for the qualities listed), we can make a list illustrating some means between extremes: 

  1. Courage

Rashness (Excess); Courage (Virtue); Cowardice (Deficiency)

  1. Liberality

Prodigality (Excess); Liberality (Mean/Virtue); Miserliness (Deficiency)

  1. Charitable

Overly Generous (Excess); Charitable (Mean/Virtue); Cheap (Deficiency)

  1. Weight

Obese (Excess); Normal Weight (Mean/Virtue); Anorexic (Deficiency)

  1. Nobility

Vanity (Excess); Nobility (Mean/Virtue); Ignobility (Deficiency)

  1. Good Temper

Hot Temper (Excess); Good Temper (Mean/Virtue); Indifference (Deficiency)

  1. Truthfulness

Boastfulness (Excess); Truthfulness (Mean/Virtue); False Modesty (Deficiency)

The first example shows that courage is the mean between the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice. Let’s say that a person is walking down the street and sees a house on fire. A rash person would shout, “Don’t worry, I’ll save you,” and rush inside the burning building without even bothering to find out whether anyone is inside to be rescued! A coward would ignore the fire and not even call the fire department. However, a courageous person would call the fire department, find out whether anyone was trapped inside the burning building, and render whatever assistance he or she rationally can.

The second example shows that liberality is the mean between the excess of prodigality and the deficiency of miserliness. A prodigal person would leave a $100 tip after eating a $10 pizza (however, this can be a good deed when done by someone who can easily spare the money and wants to help the server. If I give a $100 tip for a $10 pizza, I am being prodigal. If Microsoft founder Bill Gates gives a $100 tip for a $10 pizza, he is doing a good deed / being charitable). A miser would not leave any tip at all. However, a person who is liberal with money would leave a 15 percent tip for good service. (This example refers to the USA; most other countries don’t have tipping.)

The third example shows that being charitable is the mean between the excess of being overly generous and the deficiency of being cheap. An overly generous person will give away all of his or her money to charity, not saving enough to live on. A cheap person will never give money to charity. However, a charitable person will pay his or her bills, keep enough money to live on (and keep some to save), but also give a portion that he or she can afford to charity.

The fourth example shows that normal weight is the mean between the excess of obesity and the deficiency of anorexia. An obese person pigs out every night (and every morning, and every noon, and two or three other times a day). An anorexic person will do 100 situps after chewing a stick of sugarless gum. However, a person who maintains his or her normal weight will eat three square meals a day, and is willing to eat cake and ice cream at birthday parties (and salad for lunch the next day).

One point to notice is that not all activities have a mean between extremes. Some activities are already excessive in themselves. Thus, adultery is always wrong. You will never be able to commit adultery with the right woman at the right time and in the right manner. (You should never say, “I don’t want to commit too little adultery or too much adultery; I just want to commit exactly the right amount of adultery”!)

Also, the mean can vary among people (see liberality above). In determining how much food to eat, the mean for a 300-pound weightlifter will be much greater than the mean for a 100-pound secretary. Also, a wealthy person such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates can afford to give much more money to charity than a college student can.

The way we acquire moral virtue, according to Aristotle, is through imitation and acquiring good habits. If we act the way a brave person acts, we will become brave. If we act the way a truthful person acts, we will become truthful. If we act the way a noble person acts, we will become noble.

Intellectual Virtue

Aristotle gives as examples of intellectual virtue philosophic wisdom and practical wisdom. We acquire intellectual virtue through being taught and through studying. Examples of intellectual virtue include learning to speak French fluently, learning geometry, and learning to play the piano well.

A Complete Life

Aristotle believes that to be happy we must be virtuous throughout our life. He writes, “For one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one sunny day; similarly, one day or a short time does not make a man blessed or happy.”

Concluding Points

Some important points to note about Aristotle’s ethics include these:

1) It is teleological — it is concerned with the purpose of Humankind, which is to use reason, and

2) It is an ethics of self-realization. Aristotle wanted us to realize our potential, to be all that we can be, and for Aristotle, that means to use our reason to acquire both moral and intellectual virtue.

Note: The quotations by Aristotle that appear in this essay are from his Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Martin Ostwald.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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