Aristotle [384–322 BC] was an ancient Greek philosopher and scientist. Holding a colossal legacy as one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Aristotle’s works shaped centuries of philosophic-thought from Late Antiquity through the Renaissance, and even today continue to be studied with keen interest from intellectuals far and wide. A student of Plato’s Academy, a teacher of Alexander the Great and credited for being the earliest man to study formal logic. Aristotle was known to be a prodigious researcher and writer who found himself fascinated by a wide range of disciplines; From biology, ethics, governance, logic, metaphysics, rhetoric and aesthetics. Aristotle’s contribution towards almost all subjects on earth and his influence upon them makes him one of the most famous personalities of all time.
Capable Men of History Series: A bite-sized motivational collection of the thoughts and lessons of a selected assortment of capable men throughout history.
Episode I: Aristotle
Episode II: Marcus Aurelius
Episode III: Socrates
Episode IV: Sun Tzu
Episode V: [Coming Soon]
Please take a moment to appreciate the situation here. You’re reading this article, soon to embark on a journey into the thoughts of somebody who passed away over 2000 years ago. They had some ideas on the best way to live life, leaving their wisdom behind for us to ponder and reflect over. Try to think how these concepts relate to your own life – The upcoming ideas have stood the test of time for a reason.
Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.
Aristotle assumed happiness was self-evidently the key goal of life. Why? Because happiness was the fundamental attribute that all humans apparently sought, with no further agenda desired beyond the achievement in itself. The question for Aristotle then—What would provide the best life for humans to achieve happiness?
Aristotle understood the individual nature of humans. Each of us will go through unique individual experiences and construct individual perspectives of our external world. And it is within these individual perspectives, that we all form our notions of what is desirable to each and every one of us. This is why we witness certain people pursuing a life of competition while others choose a life of the arts or learning. Regardless of our individual desires, Aristotle noted that all humans share common desires regardless of their individual perspectives: Shelter, warmth, sleeping, eating, water etc.
Through all these individual perspectives, people will find themselves desiring things that they don’t actually need to stay alive. Think of those who obsess over material goods. We’re constantly seeking things that we believe will enrich our lives for the better while often failing to grasp their inadequacies until it’s too late. Aristotle concluded that if we see something as desirable we generally perceive it as good. But that’s hardly the case now, is it? We’re regularly drawn to desires that are actually harmful to us. (Unhealthy food and alcohol come to mind for me.) Aristotle marks the aforementioned points as a distinction between things that we think are desirable to us, and things that we know are desirable as a constant—My survival depends on this. Wants and needs… Both present in the family of desire but entirely different in their meaning. It is the wants that have derived from our individual experiences in life, formed entirely from each of our own unique journeys. As a result, Aristotle claimed that it is the natural desires, that are the only things that are truly good for us—For our natural desires are things we all need whether we’re aware of it or not.
Aristotle concluded that genuine happiness was something that all humans desired. Through our own unique journeys, we may attempt to seek these natural desires that provide us with true value and not just temporary amusement. We all typically form our own unique approach to seeking the consistent needs of food, shelter and water. But it goes without saying, some plans are better at doing this than others. Aristotle suggested that good and successful people all possessed distinct virtues that merely needed to be observed, so we can nurture these successful virtues in ourselves through habit and honour them in others.
Aristotle identified 12 virtues:
1. Courage in the face of fear
2. Temperance in the face of pleasure and pain
3. Liberality with wealth and possessions
4. Magnificence with great wealth and possessions
5. Magnanimity with great honours
6. Proper ambition with normal honours
7. Patience with enduring all kinds of evils
8. Truthfulness with self-expression
9. Wittiness in conversation
10. Friendliness in social conduct
11. Modesty in the face of shame or shamelessness
12. Righteous indignation in the face of injury
The Golden Mean
Aristotle determined that on either side of these virtues, stood vices that we should aim to avoid. Aristotle argued that these deficiencies or excess positions are what destroys true virtue. And it was the Golden mean, which involves finding the balance between two vices that we should all seek.
Imagine if you were out for a walk and you witnessed a group of thieves attempting to prey upon their elderly victim in open view. Those of you reading who lack courage would do nothing, those of you who are reckless would charge into the situation without a second thought resulting in a high-likelihood of negligence and defeat. But the man who holds the golden mean (courage) will act in the most virtuous way available to the situation.
We most certainly can’t expect to align our personalities to the sweet spots of the golden mean with the drop of a hat. Aristotle himself understood this—He felt that habit and practice were the fundamental keys to building these virtues into one’s own life. Aristotle also believed that those who lacked virtue in life weren’t evil but simply needed better guidance from good teachers with encouragement and wisdom.
“He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.”
“Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all.”
“The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole.”
“The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.”
“If there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake, clearly this must be the good. Will not knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is.
“The truly good and wise man will bear all kinds of fortune in a seemly way, and will always act in the noblest manner that the circumstances allow.”
“It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good. But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do.”
“It is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of reason is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs.”
“The young have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations; moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things—and that means having exalted notions. They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones: Their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning…. All their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They overdo everything; they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else.”
“Evils draw men together”
“But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.”
“Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.”