Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 3

Andrew Chau

Aristotle and the Meaning of Life

Aristotles definition of happiness requires us to conform to virtue and some

virtuous acts may include self-sacrifice. This idea seems problematic if good health or

material wealth is necessary to be happy. Our intuition would say that you cannot be

happy if you are poor, and certainly not if you are dead. However, the common view is

not always the correct one. I will argue first that Aristotles views are not contradictory

because for him the good of the soul supercedes the good of the body; and second, that if

our common sense notion of happiness is a goal, acting according to virtue is the only

rational choice.

My approach to the problem of reconciling self-sacrifice with happiness will

proceed in two steps. In the first section I will argue in defense of Aristotle that if we

accept his definition of eudaimonia, we must accept the possibility of self-sacrifice in

accordance with virtue. I will also support his beliefs about the role the body and

external goods may play in achieving eudaimonia through self-sacrifice. In the second

section I will argue that given Aristotles idea of eudaimonia combined with our common

sense idea of happiness, going to war for your country is the only rational choice. The

third section will include objections to my arguments and my replies to them.

Aristotle goes to great lengths in order to discover the telos, or goal, of life. He

formulates his notion of eudaimonia as, an activity of the soul in conformity with

excellence or virtue (text 63). The activity of soul is an introspective act using our

faculty for reason. Aristotle differentiates between speculative and non-speculative

virtue, the former is the activity of the soul and the latter is the activity of the body. He

believes that acting for external, non-rational reasons can only lead to a form of life and

1
Andrew Chau

happiness that is not divine and not eudaimonia (Welldon 346). Eudaimonia is not

simply choosing the divine-virtues by reason, but also acting on, or conforming to those

virtues. Aristotle points out that in sleep the difference between a good man and a bad

man is least apparent whence the saying that for half their lives the happy are no better

off than the wretched (text 67). In other words virtue without integrity, that is, without

the will to act is not worth much. Eudaimonia then is rationally choosing to act from

virtue and actually performing that act. Virtue itself takes on many forms and Aristotle

acknowledges that in some cases virtue may require self-sacrifice. It is not even

necessary to examine the circumstances of such an occasion to see that acting out of self-

sacrifice, if it is rationally chosen, does not contradict the notion of eudaimonia. If the

act is chosen because it is rationally the virtuous thing to do, then it fulfills all of the

requirements for happiness. A contradiction only arises when we posit our own intuitive

conception of happiness in place of Aristotles, but that will be addressed later. Self-

sacrifice is not at all contradictory to Aristotles logical notion of eudaimonia in the

strictest sense.

The issue of selfless acts is taken up by Aristotle in a couple of instances. One

example he uses concerns giving up material wealth for the sake of friendship. He writes

that one would surrender riches gladly if only he may enrich his friends; for then while

his friend gets the money, he gets the nobleness, and so assigns the greater good to

himself (Welldon 310). The nobleness he writes of is not to be confused with prestige;

the noble self-sacrifice is a virtuous act therefore the greater good is the happiness

attained through conformity with virtue. Aristotle also writes that a good man would

even die for his friends or for his country. The logic behind this belief is the same as

2
Andrew Chau

before. If the rational virtuous action happens to be risking life and limb on the

battlefield, that is what one must do in order to be happy. If someone avoids battle

because they are cowardly they may continue to live, but they will not be happy.

Aristotle says that the virtuous man would rather live one year nobly than many years

indifferently, and would rather perform one noble and lofty action than many poor actions

(310 Welldon). The implication is that a good man would rather die happy than live in

disgrace. In both instances the act of self-sacrifice is compatible with Aristotles notion

of eudaimonia.

The problem arises only when our intuitive concept of happiness clashes with

Aristotles view. Many people believe that health, money, and honor are required to

achieve happiness. Furthermore, it may seem unnatural to prefer eudaimonia over self-

preservation. Reconsider the example of the virtuous man faced with the decision of

whether or not to go to war for his country. If he chooses to flee from battle he may

survive, but he will not have acted according to virtue so he cannot be happy in

Aristotles sense. If the man does choose to risk his life in battle he will either live or die.

In the case that the man lives, he survives and has conformed to virtue therefore he will

be happy (in the sense of eudaimonia). If he goes to battle and dies he was at least happy

when he lived. The point is that if he avoids battle he is choosing certain unhappiness,

but if he risks his life in battle he is choosing certain happiness and he may still live. If

someone holds the belief that nothing is worth dying for in any situation, then there is no

way to reconcile the notion of self-sacrifice as an act of virtue. It must also be stated that

such a person would not be considered the good man Aristotle speaks of, since the good

man would always choose rationally in accordance with virtue.