Although Socrates left the world no written material explaining his philosophical thoughts, through the writings of Plato, Aristotle , and others we know that one of his most important postulates is “the unexamined life is not worth living.” In their writings, both Plato and Aristotle explore Socrates’ concepts of what...
Although Socrates left the world no written material explaining his philosophical thoughts, through the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and others we know that one of his most important postulates is “the unexamined life is not worth living.” In their writings, both Plato and Aristotle explore Socrates’ concepts of what exactly constitutes “the good life,” which led them to the study of virtue ethics. While Plato believes “wisdom” is the most significant virtue around which all other virtues unify, Aristotle disagrees. He opines that wisdom is virtuous, but does not unify all other virtues. In one of his most celebrated works, Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle examines virtue ethics and analyzes the nature of a good life.
Aristotle argues that the ultimate aim of a human being is to attain happiness. What he means by happiness is more than pleasure. It is not a static state enjoyed by one fortunate enough to be living well, but requires some activity. In his view, happiness means flourishing or Eudaimonia:
“The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement.”
In other words, happiness lies “in virtuous activities.” It is not a passive concept, but an active one. It is not a feeling, but something people do. It is “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”
In Aristotle’s view, the way to achieve happiness is to cultivate rationality and practice it in society. This is flourishing, or doing the right thing under different circumstances. In Nicomachean Ethics, he breaks down virtues into two categories: Moral and intellectual.
Moral virtues are developed by “habit.” Among moral virtues, the author categorizes courage, temperance, justice, truthfulness, self-discipline, moderation, modesty, humility, generosity, friendliness, and honesty. These virtues bring honor to human beings. Among moral vices, he considers cowardice, self-indulgence, recklessness, wastefulness, greed, vanity, untruthfulness, dishonesty, and injustice. These acts are vices that bring dishonor to human beings.
One virtue not discussed by Aristotle in depth is love. He does make casual references to the concept of love in his discussion of friendship as a virtue. He touches on love only as a dispassionate virtuous love and only in the context of friendship:
“Most people seem, from a desire for honor, to wish to be loved rather than to love . . .” Friendship, however, seems to lie in the loving, rather than in being loved.”
He extolls the virtues of friendship as the object of love.
An Aristotelian analysis would consider the emotion of love itself as a virtue and discuss its corresponding vices as well. The good life requires people to be virtuous for the benefit of others, which also increases an individual’s sense of well-being. Love is a highly emotional state of kindness and affection. It fosters compassion for other human beings and is an unselfish expression of virtue. As a virtue, love would be an unselfish activity aimed at benefitting those who are being loved as opposed to those who are doing the loving.
Like all virtues, love is often accompanied by vices such as hatred, selfishness, or egotism. These negative qualities are the opposite of virtuous activities aimed at benefiting others, making a good life unattainable.
According to Aristotle, intellectual virtues are acquired at birth and through education as people proceed through life. He holds intellectual virtues in high regard, especially practical wisdom:
“Practical wisdom . . . is concerned with things human and things about which it is possible to deliberate; for we say this is above all the work of the man of practical wisdom, to deliberate well, but no one deliberates about things invariable, nor about things which have not an end, and that a good that can be brought about by action. The man who is without qualification good at deliberating is the man who is capable of aiming in accordance with calculation at the best for man of things attainable by action.”
Aristotle appears to hold intellectual contemplation as the highest virtue. The opposite of practical wisdom is “intuitive reason; for intuitive reason is of the limiting premises, for which no reason can be given.” Therefore, an Aristotelian analysis of “intuitive reason” would determine that opinion and conjecture are not virtuous because they do not involve deliberation or calculation.
Happiness necessary to achieve the good life must be attained by applying reason and intellect to virtuous activity.