It is hard to overstate the impact that Aristotle has had on Western philosophy.

He, along with his teacher Plato, set the tone for over two millennia of philosophical enquiry, with much subsequent work either building on or refuting his ideas.

His influence on philosophy has been unparalleled for over two thousand years, in fields including logic, metaphysics, science, ethics and politics.

Aristotle was born in the 4th century BC in Thrace, in the north of Greece. At around 18 years of age he moved south to Athens, the capital of philosophical thought, to study under Plato at his famous Academy. He spent around two decades there, absorbing – but not always agreeing with – Plato and his disciples.

After Plato’s death, he departed Athens and landed a gig tutoring the teenage Alexander of Macedon – soon to be Alexander the Great. However, it appears Aristotle summarily failed to imbue the budding general with a taste for either philosophy or ethics.

After Alexander was appointed regent of Macedon at the age of 16, Aristotle returned to Athens, where he established the Lyceum, his own philosophical school where he taught and wrote on a startling array of topics.

His followers became known as peripatetics, after the Greek word for “walking”, due to the walkways that surrounded the school and Aristotle’s reputed tendency to give lectures on the move.

Ethics and Eudaimonia

One of the areas of lasting impact was Aristotle’s work on ethics and politics, which he considered to be intimately related subjects (much to the surprise of modern folk).

His ethical theory was based on the idea that each of us ultimately seeks a concept he called eudaimonia, often translated as “happiness” but better rendered as “flourishing” or “wellbeing.”

The basic idea is that every (non-frivolous) thing we do is directed towards achieving some end. For example, you might fetch an apple from the fruit bowl to sate your hunger. But it doesn’t stop there. You might sate your hunger to promote your health, and you might promote your health because it enables you to do other things that you want to do – and so on.

Aristotle argued that if you follow this chain of ends all the way down, you’ll eventually reach something that you do because it’s an ‘end in itself’, not because it leads to some other end. He argued that the enlightened individual would inevitably arrive at the single ultimate end or good: eudaimonia.

Aristotle’s ethical theory is more like a theory of enlightened prudence or ‘practical wisdom’, which he called phronesis, that helps guide people towards achieving eudaimonia.

This sets Aristotle’s ethics apart from many modern ethical theories, such as utilitarianism, in that he’s not calling for us to maximise happiness or eudaimonia for all people but only helping us to live a good life.

Compared to more modern ethical theories, he is also less focused on explicit issues of preventing harm or preventing injustice than on the cultivation of good people.

Whereas the primary question guiding many ethical theories is ‘what should we do?’, Aristotle’s main concern is ‘how should we live?’.

Virtues and Friendship

This doesn’t mean Aristotle disregarded how we ought to behave towards others. Indeed, he argued that the best way to achieve eudaimonia was to embody certain virtues, such as honesty, courage and charity, which encourage us to be good to other people.

Each of these virtues occupies a “golden mean” between two extremes, which were considered vices. So too little courage was cowardice, and too much was recklessness, but just enough would lead to decisions that would promote eudaimonia.

He also lent us a useful term, akrasia, which means a kind of weakness of will, whereby people do the wrong thing not due to embodying vices, but by some inability to resist temptation.

We have all likely experienced akrasia from time to time, such as when we devour that last cookie or lie to escape blame, which we know is not conducive to our health or ethical flourishing.

While Aristotle’s “virtue ethics” fell out of favour for many centuries, it has enjoyed a resurgence since the mid-20th century and has a growing following today.

Aristotle also argued that one of the benefits of being a virtuous person was the kinds of friendships you could form.

 

 

The second reason is because you think they’re fun to be around, such as when two people simply enjoy each other’s company or enjoy shared activities like watching sport or playing board games, but don’t have any deeper connection when those activities are absent.

It’s the third type of friendship that Aristotle thought was the highest, which is when you like someone because they are a good person.

This is a mutual recognition of virtuous character, and you have reciprocal good will, where you genuinely care for them – even love them – and want the best for them. Aristotle argued that by cultivating virtues, and seeking out other virtuous people, we could form the strongest and most nourishing friendships.

Interestingly, modern science has vindicated the idea that one of the most important factors in living a happy and fulfilled life is the number of genuine and deep relationships one has, particularly with friends whom they care for and who care for them in return.

Artistotle on Politics

Aristotle’s political theory concerned how to structure a society in such a way that it enabled all its citizens to achieve eudaimonia.

His ancient Greek predilections – as well as the influence of Plato, who believed society should be ruled by ‘Philosopher Kings’ – are visible in his contempt for democracy in favour of rule by an enlightened aristocracy or monarchy.

However, Aristotle disagreed with his mentor in one important respect: Aristotle favoured private property, which he said promoted personal responsibility and fostered a kind of meritocracy that treated great achievers as being more morally worthy than the ‘lazy’.

The breadth, sophistication and influence of Aristotle’s thinking is formidable, especially considering that we only have access to 31 of the 200+ treatises that he wrote during his lifetime.

Tragically, the rest were lost in antiquity. While much of Aristotle’s philosophy is contested today given developments in logic and science over the last few centuries, arguably many of these developments were built on or were inspired by his work.

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