Aristotle’s Concept of Good Life

Aristotle’s understanding of “ethics” has more to do with what makes life worth living than with obedience to the moral law. Aristotle refers to the rational activity that will make us happy as virtuous activity. We shall be happy, he says, when we act in accordance with virtue and we shall be most happy when we act in accordance with the highest form of virtue.

Aristotle has identified as parts of the soul the four levels of existence the fulfilment of which constitutes our happiness. They are the vegetative, the appetitive, the deliberative and the contemplative.

The vegetative level

  • The vegetative level of our existence is what we would describe today as the biological functioning of our bodies.
  • Aristotle understands the vegetative part of the soul as a mode of functioning of the person that aims at a specific goal. For him, all of the parts of the soul have a tendency or internal goal that is distinctive of them and that they seek to fulfil. I do not use my skin to protect me from infections and other hurts; the skin has this purpose and goal within itself.

The appetitive level

  • Aristotle’s positing of an “appetitive part of the soul” is based on the obvious fact that human beings desire things and strive to attain them. The appetitive aspect of our being also allows us to understand emotion and feeling.
  • Aristotle suggests that the appetitive aspect of our being is the tendency of the organism to seek its own fulfilment through the excellence of its desires. Desiring the right things is as important as obtaining what is desired.

The Deliberative level

  • The third part of the soul that Aristotle identifies is the “deliberative” or “calculative” part. He has in mind our ability to think about what we do, to plan our actions, to be strategic in our approach to our needs and to review the effectiveness of what we have done.
  • Rather than being driven by instincts or habits, human beings can be rational and reflective in their approach to the exigencies of life. Being rational beings, we fulfil ourselves when we think clearly, coherently and effectively so as to increase our ability to attain our goals.

The contemplative level

  • He sees contemplation as a further aspect of our reasoning, but it is distinguished from the deliberative part in terms of what it is about: that is, in terms of its objects.
  • Aristotle suggests that the contemplative aspect of our being is detached from our active lives and is fulfilled by thinking about eternal and changeless things.

Aristotle’s theory becomes normative in that he regards certain behaviours, especially those that relate to pleasure, as worthy of human beings but other behaviours as not worthy. The reason that one should be virtuous is that it is honourable to be so. The goal of virtue is to be happy in Aristotle’s special sense of that term. You cannot be happy without being good.

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