This video series I posted last week will help to illustrate Aristotle’s theory of how the best way to live is:
Let’s focus on the second woman. I trust it’s uncontroversial to say that the Hollywood socialite indulging in sex, drugs and rock and roll is having pleasure. But this only serves to bring out how there seems to be a disconnect between our concepts of pleasure and happiness. Happiness seems to be something more than this. It is a concept above and beyond the enjoyment of bodily delights.
For Aristotle, the Greek term that best captures this idea is eudaimonia. There’s no adequate translation, but when we’re in some frames of minds ‘happiness’ will probably come closest to what he meant. The idea is to judge whether a person is eudaimon not by assessing their mental states, but considering their life as a whole, offering a kind of post-humous review. It’s less a question of ‘what would I love to do now?’ and more ‘what sort of life would I want for my children?’
And Aristotle denies categorically that the hedonistic lifestyle gives rise to eudaimonia. His chief complaint is that these activities are slavish: they blindly follow the demands of one’s appetite without once reflecting on alternative values or using our higher faculties.
And this, in turn, leads us to his argument from function as to why the Good Life must involve the employment of reason: to work out what it is good for something to do, Aristotle thinks we need to know what it is for. In the same way we can only assess the quality of a house once we understand that it serves the purpose of shelter, rendering a leaky house necessarily bad, Aristotle thinks we can only judge what’s good for a human by discerning our purpose.
How, you might wonder, are we meant to detect this? What sort of test does he have in mind? Why even assume we have a function? It is, after all, not at all natural to think about persons in this way, the same way we may assess the function of an inanimate object like a tool.
For Aristotle, though, his mindset is such that it’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask. His perspective means that all of nature bursts with purpose. So the only question is not whether we have a function, but what it is. And here he proposes a test according to which we locate something’s function by discerning what is distinct to it. So Aristotle denies our function is to simply breathe and live, for we share this with plants. Nor is it to merely experience bodily pleasures – that’s something we have in common with animals. Hence, all that’s left is our capacity to think, reflect, in a word: reason. And so to ignore this is to fail to do what it is that humans should do. Hence the problem with hedonism.
A note on the function argument. I have not read enough about it to comment at length, but one thing it is easy to note as striking is the apparent flaw in thinking that something’s function must be what is distinct to it. One simple counterexample: a bike, car and train all facilitate my travelling from A to B. Their function is to get me from A to B. But this isn’t unique to each. What’s unique to the train is that I don’t have to operate it myself. Does this mean that is the train’s function?
So there’s prima facie reason to think there’s something fishy going on in Aristotle’s argument, but it leads him nonetheless in two directions: on the one hand, he is led to champion theoria: abstract contemplation of reality. Science. Study. Philosophy. A life of the intellect. Only humans can do this. Similarly, he sees that activity may also involve reason insofar as virtue seems to involve action in accordance with reason. He thus ends up equating eudaimonia predominantly with the life of virtue.
Now, he recognises this isn’t the whole story. He does not think virtue suffices for happiness. His claim is only that it is necessary and it gets you most of the way there. The rest of the story belongs to a few goods of fortune which have the ability to tip the balance: things like one’s looks, friends, the goodness of one’s children and the kindness of one’s family. If you have all of your property stolen or lost in a storm, that’s undoubtedly going to ‘mar your blessedness’ too. He doesn’t, as Plato seems to, endorse the theory that virtue alone makes your life eudaimon. But without it, you cannot live the Good Life. And if you have it along with all these other smaller goods listed above, you’re going to have come as close as possible to achieving human happiness.