"I sought among them for a man that might set up a hedge, and stand in the gap before me in favor of the land." Ezekiel 22:30

Monday, May 18, 2009

Aristotle on the Good Life

I originally wrote this as a philosophy class in college. I've posted it here verbatim with sources included.

What does it mean to live the good life? How is that accomplished? What does it involve? Is it easy to do? And how many people actually do it? These are questions which have persisted since man was first created and will continue to exist in the hearts and minds of human beings everywhere until the end of time. Even today, the notion of a “good life” is a vague generality. Some of the brightest minds among us have trouble defining exactly what it means. It was well over 2000 years ago when Aristotle described what he thought was a good life, and still today his description of the good life is considered a worthwhile aim. The following paper attempts to summarize Aristotle’s idea of the good life, and provide an evaluation of those ideas and virtues, as well as an analysis of the film Crimes and Misdemeanors in the context of Aristotle’s ideas.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics begins by saying that “Every art and every kind of inquiry, and likewise every act and purpose, seems to aim at some good; and so it has been well said that the good is that at which everything aims.”[1] So it is with humans. Aristotle agrees with the mass of people who, if asked “what is the highest aim of human life” or “What is the highest of all realizable goods” would answer that it is to be happy. And it seems reasonable that happiness could be a worthwhile goal. “But they differ as to what this happiness is, and the masses do not give the same account of it as the philosophers.”[2] Everyone wants to be happy, but no one agrees what happiness is. Aristotle defines happiness as the exercise of our vital faculties in accordance with excellence or virtue. In other words, happiness is the ultimate goal, and more specifically a state of being Aristotle calls eudaimonia. Happiness is the goal of human beings because it is enjoyed for its own sake; it is intrinsic. Happiness can be enjoyed by itself, and is not a means to an end, unlike the three usual goals in life, money, honor, and pleasure, which are instrumental to something else. Happiness is the perfect exercise of our vital faculties in accordance with reason. Still, this definition does not fully answer our overall inquiry – what does it mean to live the good life? To understand what the good life means we first must understand what humans are supposed to do (their function), and in what way they should accomplish this function. Then, we can determine what exactly the good life is by examining the fulfillment of a human’s functions through the use of his or her faculties.

Aristotle calls the function, purpose, or goal of all living things the telos. Thus, Aristotle’s theories relating to virtue are called Teleological Ethics. According to this theory, a telos is universal; it applies to all things in a certain category. For example, a lion has at least two purposes. First, it is programmed to survive, partly by killing other animals. Secondly, it is built to reproduce. All lions are meant to perform these two main functions. Thus, a lion’s telos is universal to all lions. Furthermore, the characteristics that make a thing excellent at its functions are called arĂȘte. To use a lion again as an example, it has large paws, sharp teeth, and tremendous quickness, among other characteristics that help it survive in the wild. But for Aristotle, a living organism’s purpose or function is also tied to the level of its soul or psyche.

In ancient Greece, the concept of soul was far different than our Judeo-Christian notion of an immortal part of our being. Aristotle thought of the soul as a life source, rather than a spiritual phenomenon. His three levels of the soul are the vegetative, sensitive, and rational. The functions of the vegetative soul are nutrition, growth, and reproduction. These are obviously the lowest, most basic life functions contained in all living organisms. The next level of soul is the sensitive soul. It is responsible for sensation and perception, feelings and desires, and motivation. Animals and other irrational beings have a sensitive soul as well as a vegetative sould. But the highest level of soul, the rational soul, is only found in human beings along with the other two. Its functions are understanding and comprehension, free-will, and planning and deliberation. Aristotle’s argument for the good life lies here, in the rational soul. He says that the faculty of reason is the highest of all human faculties and contemplation (the pursuit of wisdom) is thus the highest of all human activities. Pleasure, though not true happiness by itself, is a part happiness. The use of reason with excellence, or the life of contemplation, is the pleasantest of all activities because it is good for its own sake, it is the most self-sufficient, and it can be sustained for the longest period of time. Contemplation is also a leisure activity, and leisure is associated with happiness. The three usual ideas of a good life – wealth, pleasure, and honor – are very unlike contemplation in that they rely on an external factor – money, material objects, and other people – to provide happiness.

All natural things have their purposes given to them by nature and according to their level of soul. We as humans go through life trying to develop these functions so that we may reach our telos because all things are made to be perfect in their functions. Yet, in order to reach the proper fulfillment of our functions, Aristotle argues that we need virtues, or our arĂȘte. Then, by developing these characteristics, we can become happy. Like the lion’s paws or teeth, which help it to be perfect in the exercise of its telos, so are the virtues necessary to a person striving for the good life. A virtue is a trait that enables a human to achieve his or her function with excellence. Virtues concern our dealing with many difference situations and feelings. How we handle those situations determines whether it is a virtue or a vice. According to Aristotle, a virtue is a mean between two extremes. He lists three virtues associated with our sensitive psyche: courage, patience, and moderation. These he calls moral virtues. Wisdom and prudence are two virtues associated with our rational psyche, called intellectual virtues. For example, the virtue of courage concerns our dealing with fear and it is a mean between cowardice and foolishness. Aristotle also lists nine other virtues concerning our social relations: liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, ambitiousness, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, modesty, and righteous indignation. Human beings are not born with all these virtues, but instead develop them throughout life. All the virtues are formed through practice and are intended to be a unified group of standards that a truly virtuous person would always acts in complete accordance with for an extended period of time. For Aristotle, the virtue of magnanimity is the “crown of excellences” because it is like a combination of all the virtues. To be virtuous is essentially a life-long process; showing virtue on only a few occasions does not necessarily make a person virtuous. We either have all of them all the time, or we don’t really have any. A person who exhibits all of his or her functions with excellence, and has all the virtues working together towards the common goal of living the good life is said to fulfill the concept of eudaimonia, which means a happy, harmonious, ordered soul. Eudaimonia is a state of the soul that is essentially the pinnacle of human happiness. Such a person is rare indeed.

The film Crimes and Misdemeanors, presents two characters, Judah and Clifford who provide good case studies of virtues, the virtuous person, and what it means to be happy or live the good life. On the one hand we have Judah, a successful eye doctor who throughout the film is vexed by problems in his life, some controllable, some not. He becomes very perplexed after hiring his brother to murder a woman with whom he has had an affair. In short, it seems that he is a very unhappy person until the end of the film when he at least appears to figure out how to overcome his guilt. The character opposite of Judah is Clifford. Clifford is a struggling documentary film-maker with a deteriorating marriage, but a somewhat positive outlook on life. In the film, he lands the job of making a documentary of his brother-in-law Lester, whom he absolutely hates. He even falls in love with the producer for the documentary he is filming. Contrary to Judah, he seems relatively happy until the end of the film when his heart is broken and he loses almost everything meaningful to him.

So, which character, Judah or Clifford, is happy and leads the “good life” as Aristotle describes it? Of course at the end, Judah at least outwardly appears to be happy; Clifford is distraught. What did both men do to get to this point? Judah got himself into trouble by having an affair in the first place, and then compounded the problem by murdering the woman. The affair was of course motivated by pleasure, and once the pleasure of the relationship was lost, the murder was arranged because of self-interest. As said before, the life of pleasure is not a complete form of happiness. Pleasure is usually a part of happiness, but is not true happiness by itself. Clifford nearly started an affair, although he wanted to divorce his wife anyway. Both men seem to have gotten into their situations because they sought pleasure. If contemplation is the happiest life, as Aristotle says, then I would say both men do their share of contemplating in the film. But does that make them happy? What is the motivation for each man? What makes Judah finally become at least externally happy? Throughout the film, it seems like Clifford should be the good guy and Judah the bad guy. How could such an evil man like Judah become happy? Aristotle’s virtues do not deal with murder per-say, so we really can’t judge Judah. He says that the virtuous person is just, but there not enough space to fully describe justice. I think a closer examination of the two characters is necessary. Let us see how the two men hold up under Aristotle’s fourteen virtues.

Judah is a generous person with his money. Clifford doesn’t seem to care too much about not being rich. Judah exhibits courage when he hires a murderer. (I don’t care what you say, that takes guts!) Clifford shows courage too, by turning his documentary into an expose of Lester’s pretentiousness and womanizing. Judah shows patience by trying to work with his mistress Delores, until he realizes that he has to stop her from ruining his life. Again, Judah is worried about his self-interests (not a virtue). Clifford shows patience by waiting for Hally when she goes to Europe. Concerning the two characters dealing with pleasure and pain, the two extremes are licentiousness and insensibility. The mean, or virtue is moderation. I wouldn’t classify either Judah or Clifford as licentious or insensible, but they aren’t terribly moderate either because they are both searching for some pleasure in their lives. With wisdom and prudence, Judah goes through a very strenuous process of deciding for himself what course of action to take regarding his mistress. Clifford actually shows less wisdom and prudence in many situations, like when he kisses Hally without really knowing what she feels about him. We might say he jumps the gun in some situations. I think the pattern is becoming obvious with both characters. Neither one is truly virtuous nor “happy” as Aristotle would describe it, but on the other hand they are not entirely without virtues either.

If the movie were to continue, of the two men I think Clifford would end up being happier. This is not to say that Clifford would be truly happy. The development of virtues is a lifelong process, and I think Clifford’s virtues are stronger than Judah’s. Clifford hates Lester, but for good reasons, not simply out of spite. Judah fights viciously with himself over the murder of Delores, but he lets it happen. The source of Clifford’s distress at the close of the film is really just a temporary thing. He can recover and find another woman to love somewhere. However, he would need to become less jealous of successful people such as Lester, and focus a little less on his pleasures. I think Judah will never totally forget about what he did, so that will haunt him for the rest of his life. But, Aristotle says that virtues need to be shown over an extended period of time in order to really be called virtues. So, if the two men were to begin practicing the virtues they lacked, and further develop the virtues they have from the very moment the movie ends until the end of their fictional lives, perhaps we could consider both of them to be happy.

I tend to agree with Aristotle’s notion of the good life. I think his virtues are completely applicable to today’s world, except I would broaden the perspective. When Aristotle came up with his Ethics and the idea of the good life, the way of living was much different. First of all, men were considered far superior to women. Aristotle does not even consider woman capable of living the good life. Secondly, poor persons in ancient Greece had to struggle just to survive on a day to day basis. The amount of work a poor peasant had to put into survival precluded his ability to realize the good life, or the life of contemplation. On the other hand, the wealthy aristocrats and statesmen of Greece had much more leisure time to contemplate and think about the world. Therefore, Aristotle’s idea of the good life being the life of contemplation, and a life only possible for the rich men, is grounded in the culture of his time. Whereas Aristotle speaks of these virtues and the good life being only available to wealthy men, I think that nowadays everyone can and should model their lives on his list of virtues, at least in a general sense. Obviously, a wealthy person has more of an ability to display the virtue of magnificence, but nonetheless a poorer person could try to be as generous as possible with what money they have. Especially in America today, even our poorest have many more material goods than the wealthy of ancient Greece. Surviving is not nearly as much of a struggle for as many people as it was back then, granted there are exceptions. If we say the life of contemplation is the good life, and that is the model for which we should all strive, then there is much more time for contemplation in the contemporary world. Just think of all the time human beings spend in cars, waiting for computers to load, waiting for the bus, or waiting on some of our other modern “conveniences.” However, it might also be harder today to live the good life because of the ease with which one could choose a life of pleasure, wealth, or honor. So, on the one hand I think it would be easier for more people to live the good life, yet that ideal life is also made harder to reach because of our modern world and its conveniences. Regardless of the ease or difficulty in living the good life, we should take Aristotle’s timeless advice “that we ought to incline sometimes towards excess, sometimes towards deficiency; for in this way we shall most easily hit the mean and attain the right doing.”[3]
[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Morality and the Good Life: An Introduction to Ethics through Classical Sources (5th Ed.) Ed. Robert C. Solomon, Clancy Martin, Wayne Vaught, (McGraw-Hill: New York, 2009) p. 109
[2] Ibid., p. 112
[3] Ibid., 135

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