For Aristotle, the moral development of a person progresses in three stages. From the child, which cannot resist temptation, through the intermediate stage of the grown up, who is tempted but resists temptation, to the final stage of the wise person, who is never even tempted and always, spontaneously, does the morally right thing.
For Aristotle, there is only one purpose of human life, and that is to live a flourishing life. A flourishing life is one that is good in every respect: a life that is happy, successful, and morally good. A life in which we help others, and therefore these others want to benefit us back — so that in the end everyone is better off. Aristotle thinks that being good is therefore the ultimate goal of human life.
But we don’t begin life in this way. As small children, we are naturally selfish, looking only at what we can get for ourselves: toys, food, attention. Over the course of our youth, we learn that this attitude does not really benefit us in the long run, and so we learn the value of being altruistic and we learn to cooperate with others. So we reach an intermediate stage in our human development: we learn to suppress our self-centeredness, but we still have to fight against our natural impulses. We still feel the urge to be selfish, we are still envious of what others have, we still measure ourselves against them, we are still, occasionally, tempted to act out of self-centeredness. Many of us will be stuck in this intermediate mode all our lives. Some will become fraudsters and criminals; others will call it “competitive” behaviour in business, but it is, at its root, the same thing: the constant need to benefit ourselves at the expense of someone else, the inability to be truly an altruist, to truly work for the good of others in any way that’s more than a superficial display of concern.
Life Is a Skill
Aristotle on living a life well through exercising one’s virtues.
Only some will, according to Aristotle, fulfil the ultimate goal of human life and become sophron, wise men and women. They are those who realise that we’re all in it together and that the benefit of each of us depends on the benefit of everyone. With Aristotle, they will realise that being good is the precondition to their own happiness. We’re not alone in the world. One person cannot be truly happy if others are not. We depend on others for so many things: our food, our material goods, and even for the state of our environment, as we can forcefully see today. Someone driving a car or taking an intercontinental flight half a world away contributes to the destruction of my world as well as everyone else’s. And this is what the wise finally realise: that being beneficial and good to others is not really altruism in the sense that I harm myself to benefit another. Rather, egoism and altruism coincide: the enlightened pursuit of my own good requires that I also further the good of everyone else.
A lone tree cannot flourish, Aristotle thinks. Only a forest can.
Humans are very bad at cooperating for the common good. What took us out of the animal kingdom and into this life of cars, planes and little privately-owned flats, was precisely our self-centeredness, the urge to be better, richer, more powerful than the other person. And the genetic legacy of this has stayed with us, even now that we can no longer afford it. If we have any future as a species, it not be because we are good trees, each one stronger and higher than the next. It will be because we’ve learned to cooperate, to work together, to identify our own benefit with that of all.
To survive, we’ll have to learn to be the forest.
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