Aristotle on The Good Life

aristotle1“It is true of the good man too that he does many acts for the sake of his friends and his country, and if necessary dies for them; for he will throw away both wealth and honours and in general the goods that are objects of competition, gaining for himself nobility; since he would prefer a short period of intense pleasure to a long one of mild enjoyment, a twelve-month of noble life to many years of humdrum existence, and one great and noble action to many trivial ones. Now those who die for others doubtless attain this result.” – Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics

In a age where “the good life” is often associated with the pursuit of status and personal luxury, Aristotle reminds us not to loose sight of the greater good in favor of fleeting pleasures. In maintaining sight of the greater good, we don’t sacrifice our long-term happiness in favor of temporary satisfaction.

For Aristotle, the good life is dedicated to virtuous activity. He calls the highest form of virtuous activity, “Magnanimity” or “greatness of soul”. The magnanimous man is one who has developed altruistic character traits such as service and devotion to an honorable cause. This includes selfless risk-taking behaviors.

Although our contemporary idea of “the good life” does not provoke images of being shot at while sitting in an armored vehicle at temperatures over 130 degrees Fahrenheit, Aristotle might beg to differ.

In preferring “a twelve-month of noble life to many years of humdrum existence, and one great and noble action to many trivial ones” Aristotle’s philosophy mirrors the sentiment of Sebastian Junger when he states:

“…in some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else.”

Aside from the stimulation of a combat-high, there is a form of altruistic nobility in collective defense that seems to be lost when returning to civilian-life, which is captured in this quote by exgiexpcv:

“…you’re used to doing things that mattered, and suddenly your life is simply digesting bullshit and consuming instead…”

Flipping the idea of “the good life” on its head, Aristotle teaches us that “the good life” is not one in pursuit of consumption. Although Aristotle was far from condemning luxury – he was very much in favor of the upper-class ideals of his time – he was very careful not to loose sight of what mattered more: the life of virtue.

Through cultivating good character traits through noble acts, Aristotle believed that the good life could sustain long-term happiness. Although this is true for many individuals who have cultivated these virtues through military service, I argue that it has also caused suffering for many who have returned home to an individualistic capitalist environment.

Although Aristotle said “happiness depends upon ourselves,” he also believed we need to develop good political societies and policies that are conducive to the good life. Aristotle’s ideas can teach us how to achieve the good life, but even more, it can teach us the necessity of building a good society.

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