Aristotle on being human
What is the function of human beings?
We saw that the ancient philosopher Aristotle believes that happiness is the greatest good for human beings. But what is this happiness? Is eating a cookie already happiness? Is watching TV happiness? Meeting with friends? Having a child? Winning the lottery? Sacrificing oneself for a political cause? What is, for Aristotle, the essence of being human?
For Aristotle, happiness is connected to function. Everything in the universe has a function, and a happy human life is one in which we fulfil that function. But what is our function as human beings? What is the purpose of being human?
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Aristotle explains: everything in the universe is good in its own way. A pen is good if it writes well. A car is good if it fulfils its purpose of bringing me where I want to go quickly and safely. Of course, if I want to use the car to transport a piano, then another car will be ‘good’: one that is slow, perhaps, but that can carry a piano. Whether something is ‘good’ depends on a purpose we have. ‘Good’ therefore means ‘suited to a purpose’.
It’s similar with human beings. When is a flute player ‘good’? When he plays the flute well. When is a general ‘good’? When he wins the war. When is a shoemaker good? When he makes the best of the leather he has available and makes a good shoe.
But what of human beings in general? When is man good? What is a good human? If this worked the same way, we’d need to know what the purpose of a human was, so that we could see if a human fulfils this purpose well. For Aristotle, everything has a purpose. Humans too.
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Humans’ purpose is to exercise their virtues in accordance with their reason. In other words, to use their reason in order to act morally right.
Being ‘good’ for Aristotle is the same as being happy. One is happy if one’s life goes well. If all is ‘good’ in it. If one fulfils one’s deepest purpose as a human being. This is the source of true happiness.
Does eating a cookie make happy? No, Aristotle would say. Eating a cookie has nothing to do with fulfilling one’s purpose as a human being. It doesn’t contribute to one’s acting virtuously and in accordance with reason. It’s not related to acting at all, since we’re just passively consuming something. Same with watching TV, or winning the lottery. These things might give some pleasure, but true happiness comes only from the knowledge that one is active and performing at the highest level of one’s capabilities as a human.
Think of the flute player again. What makes him happy? Playing the flute. Now imagine we give him an automated, computerized flute that plays itself at the press of a button. Assume the computer inside the flute plays perfectly, much better than the flute player ever could. Will he now be a happier flute player? Will he press the button on the flute and enjoy true happiness?
Aristotle on moral development
For Aristotle, the moral development of a person progresses in three stages: from akrates, to enkrates, to sophron or wise person.
Probably not, says Aristotle. He might enjoy the beautiful music for a while, but listening to what the flute can do is not the same as playing the flute oneself! There is a satisfaction in playing the flute, in creating art oneself, which can never be found in just pressing a playback button on an automated flute, no matter how sweet the music is.
As human beings, we are made to challenge ourselves, to exercise our abilities and talents, to fight, to look at the world an act in it, to change things, to grow and develop, to use our skills and to be useful ourselves.
As strange as it may seem, there may be more true happiness in sacrificing oneself for a good cause, in suffering for some great ideal, than there is in a lottery win, or an evening spent on the sofa in front of a TV set.
Working, fighting, changing our world, even in the smallest of ways, gives us a feeling of deep satisfaction, of feeling human and active and alive. Consuming pleasures, on the other hand, leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth, and after the pleasure is gone, we’ve got nothing to show for the wasted time.
Get up, Aristotle says. Get up and do something. Because this is what it means to be human, and this is the only place where you can hope to find happiness and meaning.
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