Aristotle on the meaning of life

Sarah asked:

What would Aristotle’s response be to ‘what is the meaning of life?’

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

For Aristotle the meaning of life is eudaimonia. I believe that Aristotle discovered something really fundamental about human beings when he thought about what makes them happy, what they want out of life and how they wish to organise society to achieve it.

Aristotle finds that people pursue many different activities. For example, some want to get married and have children, others want to do business or play sports, or travel to distant lands, or read books, or they like to sit in parliament, or they want to be professional soldiers.

Aristotle asked, is there something in these many activities which they have in common?

Let’s look at a few examples and ask, why does a person do this?

a. Jack likes a game of golf. Of course he likes to win, but that’s not the end of it. In the main his interest is just in a good game.

b. Jacqueline like lots of money in the bank. But it isn’t the money for itself, but because she can buy what she wants with it.

c. Bill is ambitious and wants public recognition for helping poor people. But if he asks himself why he does this, he would answer, it makes me feel good to help others.

d. Mary likes romantic novels. But for her, the interest is not in the novels as such, but because she likes to fantasise about love and foreign countries.

And so we can go through a long list of activities people do. They are entertained, challenged, moved, satisfied, interested — in a word, they do these things with some particular end in view. What is this end they are seeking?

Aristotle says that all these activities are designed to achieve something other than the apparent purpose for which we do them. I might build a house, but the house is for living in. So the house again has another purpose behind it. I might go to war and my purpose is victory, but the victory points to another end beyond it.

In other words, when we finish one activity, we look to another. Therefore it is the activity in itself that is common to all these many pursuits. And why activity? Because it makes us happy to pursue something which we think is good for us:

Therefore if there is an end for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and if there are more than one, this will be the goods achievable by action.

Therefore the end we strive to achieve is feeling good, feeling happy: ‘Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.’ And when we do these things, we always try to do the best we can. This trying the best we can he calls arete = excellence.

In sum, what’s common to the activities of all human beings is this: We look for the good (agathon) in what we do, and we pursue this good for the happiness (eudaimonia) it brings. And in pursuit of these things, we tend to find the greatest satisfaction in doing them really well (arete). So: the good life is the pursuit of happiness. And happiness is not in the things done and the end achieved, but in the doing it; and furthermore, happiness is the ‘end product’ so to speak.

8 thoughts on “Aristotle on the meaning of life

  1. Very well written. For Aristotle, the meaning of life for humans lies in the happiness from the experience of actions taken. But, let us consider the possibility that all the many ways for a human to obtain happiness can be rank ordered. The question then becomes, would Aristotle find a rational and universal experience of happiness that all humans would agree upon, a universal meaning of life from which all other forms of human happiness derive? I think yes. For while it is true that Susan can gain individual happiness by picking berries in the peaceful forest, and John from a competitive game of golf, a universal meaning of life for all humans is obtained from the happiness that results from the rational experience of being alive.

  2. He is on to something there.

    I’d say this was a useful piece. Learned something about my motives.

  3. What an excellent explanation on Aristotle. I appreciate how you used a modern-day interpretation. This cleared up alot of unknown that I had about Aristotle. I haven’t found a better explanation than this one. Thank you!

  4. Im not gonna judge the explanation only going to say few things based on the answer.our main focus was to get the meaning of life not what it consists of as it goes with its passengers,getting the meaning from actions is not gonna help because we do and perform different.our focus is what it is as it always carry and unload along the way.did it invite us or we invited it.WHAT IS LIFE.

    1. The meaning of life according to Aristotle is achieiving happiness, and through our good actions we find happiness.

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