Brady F. Anderson

Aristotle’s Guide to the Good Life

Everyone wants the best life. Here is a functional account of Aristotle’s argument on what the best human life looks like.

Our actions fall into three categories. We often act for the only sake of something else, for example, working for money so that you can buy a nice house. We also act just for the sake of the activity itself, think meditating or taking a walk. The last type of action is a combination of the first two: I love listening to music for its own sake, but I also want to dazzle people with my superb taste when I put on Mambo No. 5 at parties.

Aristotle claims that every action we take is for the sake of living well. Even activities like meditation and walking that are good for the sake of themselves are also good for the sake of living well. Most people can get on board with this argument but disagree about what it means to live well. This much is obvious. Some more popular candidates for living well include being wealthy, healthy, happy, wise, and not being an asshole to waiters.

For Aristotle, living well is living virtuously. The best life is living justly, courageously, generously, wisely, and so on–the list of virtues is not finite. These virtues are best understood in two groups. Virtues of character concern the ways in which we act. We want to act with kindness, generosity, and integrity. Intellectual virtues support the rationale on which we act. We want to act on the basis of wise and logical reasons.

A virtue of character is a firm and unchanging tendency to act and have emotions in a way that hits upon the intermediate for the reasons one should without regret.

Let’s unpack that.

A firm and unchanging tendency is both what tends to actually happen and what you would tend to do if the circumstances were different. When you tell your new lady friend late at night “Hold up, it’s not normally like this” or “If only I didn’t have that whisky” you don’t have a firm and unchanging tendency to erm… well…

To hit upon the intermediate is to act and have emotions when one should, at the things one should, in relationship to people one should, in the circumstances one should, for the duration one should, etc. In simpler terms hitting upon the intermediate is doing the right thing for the particular situation you are in. Aristotle uses the term intermediate because he views improper actions and emotions as being either excessive or deficient. For example, when fighting a war, you should not act cowardly as that would be deficient. Nor should you act rashly and charge mindlessly into battle, that would be excessive. To hit the intermediate between these two extremes would be to act courageously.

The intermediate is not some fixed place that never changes, it depends on the context you are in. For example, you should never drink too much alcohol, but the intermediate action of how much to drink changes based on your circumstances. You shouldn’t drink any booze when you’re pregnant, driving, or as part of your daily breakfast, but if you are attending a legendary Greg Popovich dinner drinking is permissible.

Acting on the basis of good deliberation enables you to act for the reasons one should. Good deliberation means having the correct universal claim, correct particular claim, and correct conclusion.

1) I should treat humans with respect

2) Sally is a human

3) I should treat Sally with respect

1) Is a correct universal claim. Some of my other favorite universal claims include the following: you should forgive people who have made mistakes, you should do kind actions toward others even if it inconveniences yourself, and you should let others know what you admire and appreciate about them. Each person has their own universal claims they act on and must use their own wisdom to decide whether they are acting on the correct universal claims. 

2) Is a correct particular claim. The correctness of particular claims relies on your judgements of true and false. Claiming “Sally is a turtle” when she is in fact a human is false, so my particular claim would be incorrect. Having quality information is essential to making good judgements of particular claims. 

3) Is a correct conclusion. It logically follows from the first two claims.

Even if you act in the intermediate, you must act for the reasons one should in order to act virtuously. If you slap your brother in the head, killing the venomous spider that was about to bite them, you may have acted in the intermediate. However, if the reason you slapped him was because he’s an annoying punk and you wanted to show him a lesson, then you have not acted virtuously just because of the happy circumstance that you saved his life.

You could do everything in the intermediate and for the correct reasons, but if you regret what you’ve done, you have not acted virtuously. You could do the right thing and give a large sum of your money to charity on the basis of good deliberation, but if parting with that money is so painful that you regret giving it away, that action is not virtuous.

Aristotle’s vision of living virtuously provides a good standard by which to measure other candidates for what it means to live well.

Being wealthy and healthy: these are qualities that enable virtuous actions and emotions. It is difficult to have good judgement and act consistently when you are hungry, in pain, too cold, too hot, or physically/mentally incapacitated. Wealth and health alleviate these conditions.

Being wise, rational, and logical: these are intellectual virtues that help people make correct universal claims, correct particular claims, and correct conclusions. Without these virtues we wouldn’t be able to have good deliberation.

Being happy: the most popular candidate of them all. Being happy is an emotion that hits upon the intermediate between feeling depressed and manic. Yet there are contexts in which we should not feel happy. Contexts like the death of a loved one, financial failure, making sacrifices, and convicting criminals. Aristotle’s argument gives people a guide to living well in all circumstances, while being happy is an emotion that hits upon the intermediate in most situations.

There’s a lot going on here. When it comes to using this stuff in real life, here’s what I think about most.

Is my emotional reaction too excessive or deficient? When I find myself asking this, I am typically a) too angry b) frustrated c) feeling excessive emotions for a duration far too long. It’s an easy way to check in and recalibrate.

What’s really going on here? When you ask people why they did something they will usually give you a particular claim instead of a universal one. For example, “Why do you still live in your hometown?” “Because my whole family is still there” This is not the same as the universal claim they are acting on, which could be, “I should live near my family so I can spend time with them.” People answer like this because forming a universal claim requires clarity on your values and that needs lots of mental energy. You’ll find that many people inherit their universal claims from religions (myself included). 

Mistakes are compatible with the best life. So long as you have a tendency to do the right things, even if you find yourself in unusual circumstances, you are living well in Aristotle’s eyes. This implies virtuous habits are the foundation of the good life, rather than perfect actions. 

Are my actions for the sake of living well? It’s easy to feel lost or on autopilot and wonder why the heck you are doing certain things. Especially so after binging or in a break after a long period of intense busyness. I like to remind myself that I should be doing things that enable living well, like making money, exercising, and becoming wiser, and doing things that constitute living well, like spending time with loved ones, enjoying the outdoors and art, and doing kind things for others. I usually end up changing whatever I’m doing at that moment.