Aristotle thinks that there’s an art to living well.
When we are small, we don’t know how to live well. We might have virtues, yes: some children are very honest, some are brave, some are kind, some are all three things. But one thing that children have in common is that they don’t know how to use these virtues correctly, and so they can’t reach eudaimonia, the state that, for Aristotle, is the ultimate goal of human life.
A child that’s brave, might feel so fearless climbing high up some rock that it falls down and injures itself. Another, being ruthlessly honest, might hurt someone. And kindness without limits is an invitation to be abused and taken advantage of.
So, Aristotle says
, there’s a kind of wisdom that we need in addition to having these virtues, these good properties of our character. We need the wisdom to apply them to the right amount.
But where does this wisdom come from?
From experience, says Aristotle. From living a life that’s long and active, and rich in lessons that we have learned. Every time we perform an action, every time we speak to a friend, every time we read a book we learn something. But most of all, we learn from our failures, from our attempts that go nowhere. And if we don’t give up, if we try again and again, we will eventually find out how to do it right, and then we’ll have a bit more of that wisdom that will make us better people.
At the end of it all is the promise of a perfect life: a life that’s successful, and happy, and morally good. And this is what Aristotle calls eudaimonia.
But to get there, we need to fail, again and again, and to get ourselves up from the ground and try again. Like a child that learns to walk. Like a beginner learning the scales on a piano. Fail and try again. Fail and try again.
How to Live an Aristotelian Life
Aristotle’s theory of happiness rests on three concepts: (1) the virtues, which are good properties of one’s character that benefit oneself and others; (2) phronesis, which is the ability to employ the virtues to the right amount in any particular situation; and (3) eudaimonia, which is a life that is happy, successful and morally good, all at the same time. This month, we discuss how to actually go about living a life like that.
And so next time when something fails, don’t just give up. Remember, with Aristotle, that every failure brings you one step closer to wisdom and perfection, a state he calls eudaimonia
. Life, like everything else, needs practice. And only our failures give us the opportunities to improve, to become better, to live richer and more fulfilling lives
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