Aristotle on the Meaning and Purpose of Life

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

- Aristotle

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17 thoughts on “Aristotle on the Meaning and Purpose of Life

  1. Right…. define happiness. I think considering that in Aristotle’s time, being a man and not a woman or a slave had a lot to do with it. I don’t recall any abolition or suffrage or child labor movements in Ancient Greece. It’s easy for someone of privilege and wealth to proclaim ‘happiness’ as the end all and be all.

    How’s that for a rant this morning. :D

    • Very short sighted. I would propose to you that while women and slaves may have been oppressed, but that does not exclude them from striving for happiness. Aristotle believed pursuing happiness was the meaning of life, not the feeling itself.

  2. @Brain – nice rant and it holds merit :). But i think the quote resonates beyond the boundaries of time and society. The words may have been said in a certain time by a certain privileged man but they ring true for everyone in every time.

    As for defining happiness, we each have our own individual definitions I’m sure.

    @Paul – lovely quote! …now all we have to do is find out what makes us happy!

  3. Classic quote from a classic book!

    Brian, you raise an excellent point, but I agree with Raatkiranni—what you’ve identified in Ancient Greece is conditions that made it quite difficult for many to attain happiness. And why should they want to change their conditions, unless they want a greater opportunity for happiness?

    rambodoc, what makes you so sure that this quotation isn’t mystical? ;) After all, the Greek word for “happiness” used here (εὐδαιμονία) literally means “good spirit” (eu + daimon). Seems rather mystical to me!

    Amina, how do you distinguish between being content and being happy? And which do you hold to be higher?

  4. @Brian: Define happiness? As Baekho points out, the word Aristotle uses which is here translated as “happiness” is “eudaimonia”. Eudaimonia rarely means joy or pleasure. Usually, a more accurate translation of it than joy or pleasure would be “human flourishing” or “well being”. I wonder to what extent the meaning Aristotle gives eudaimonia is somewhat similar to the contemporary concept of “self-realization”?

    Last, I think your rant is spot on in the sense that “happiness” is even today all too rare for many of the world’s people. But that does not make happiness any less the purpose or meaning of life, does it?

    @Rambodoc: Thanks, Doc! At least we agree Aristotle got it right. So far as I’m concerned, any ethics which does not aim at happiness is alien to me. And any mysticism which does not promote happiness is irrelevant to my ethics.

    @Raatkiranii: Thank you! As you might be aware, some scientists have recently turned their attentions to discovering what makes people happy. The early results are somewhat surprising in that they’ve found great wealth, fame or power do not make people much happier than they were when they had only sufficient wealth, no fame, and power over only their own lives. But one of the keys to happiness, it turns out, is to have good quality, loving relationships with your mate, family, and friends.

    Oddly enough, buying more and more consumer goods doesn’t seem to make people much happier than they would be otherwise. Who would have ever thought it?

    @Amina: Welcome to my blog! That’s a good question. My mom tells me that contentment has been more valuable to her through out her long life than happiness. She’s something of a stoic. But by “contentment” she means something along the lines of “well being”, and by “happiness” she means something along the lines of “joy” or “pleasure”. So, she’s really not all that far from Aristotle, after all.

    @Baekho: Welcome to my blog! Those are excellent questions!

  5. Wow! I sure touched off some controversy here. Maybe I should have said I didn’t agree with Aristotle instead of having a sarcastic comment. ;)

    Being content, satisfied or having a sense of well-being certainly would seem to qualify as goal for all humans. To flatly state that, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

    Sorry, maybe Aristotle meant this as an enlightened state of transcendence, but I stand by my statement above.

    I would offer this instead.

    “Happiness in self-achievement and assisting others to reach their highest potential, is the truest expression of human existence.”

  6. I’m glad your comment has sparked a discussion, Brian! :) I think it’s crucially important to explore this particular topic — it’s so important to the meaning we make of living.

    There seems to me nothing wrong with helping others to reach their highest goal — provided we do not sacrifice our own happiness to do so. Yet, I don’t think we need to sacrifice our happiness to do so because for many of us it makes us happy to help others reach their highest potential.

  7. The quote is badly translated. Aristotle claimed that “Eudaimonia” is the aim of human existence, not “happiness.” Urmson writes in page 11 of his book, _Aristotle’s Ethics,_ that:

    “This Greek word, now part of the English language, is often translated as ‘happiness;’ everyone agrees that this translation is misleading, but many accept it because they cannot think of a better… Aristotle tells us that everyone agrees that ‘eudaimonia’ means the same as ‘living and faring well.’ So to say that somebody is eudamon is to say that he is living a life worth living. It is emphatically not to say, as might be the case when one describes somebody as happy, that he is, at the time of speaking, feeling on top of the world… To call a person eudamon while he is still alive is like calling a book a good book when one has only read part of it – it is not safe, though, of course, people do it. But, says Aristotle, when one calls a young person eudamon it is a forecast on the basis of a favourable start, not a final judgment. It is clear that this notion of eudaimonia is not happiness.”

    I will grant that Aristotle’s ideas are a trifle prosaic, and that his usual method of starting with what everyone knows and trying to justify it afterwards is helpless to identify errors in popular conception, but to say that Aristotle believed that “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence” is to turn him into the most unsubtle and wooden-headed sort of utilitarian imaginable.

    • This is the standard “scholarly” line, but it’s not right. Aristotle argues all through the Nichomachean Ethics that happiness is an activity, despite what most people think. If he meant ‘human flourishing’, it would require no defense to assert it was an activity. He knows everybody thinks happiness is the goal of each human’s life; he just thinks everyone has misconceived it as a feeling when in fact it’s an activity.

  8. The definition of happiness can’t be defined by human beings. Trying to understand Aristotle’s point of view of a meaningful life is basically our search to find a definite answer which does not exist. He’ll leave us seeking for the reason of our existence until our death by fulfilling his aim to life which is a life of contemplation.

  9. Actually, Aristotle said that eudaimonia is the point of human existence, and while sometimes translated as “happiness,” in Aristotle’s case it is more accurately translated as “human flourishing.”

  10. Aristotle says we cannot be called ‘eudaimonia’ until we are dead, by which time presumably you will have reached your full potential!

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