Aristotle on How to Live a Virtuous Life

One Year, Six Ways #1

Welcome to the first post in our year-long philosophy experiment, where we will try out six different philosophies of life and see how they work out for us! I’m planning to send an email like this every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (7 am Pacific Time, if I got the time zones right) for the coming months. On Mondays, we’ll talk about the principles of each theory, on Wednesdays we’ll focus a bit more on the world of work, and on Fridays, we’ll prepare to apply philosophical insights to our weekend. There’s a discussion forum here, and I’d love to have your feedback on the whole project and to hear how you’re doing and whether you find this useful and fun.

These first two months, we will try to live according to the advice of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC). And we begin with the virtues. Read on!

Can I be too honest?

Aristotle’s view of life starts with the concept of virtues. Virtues are good properties of one’s character that are beneficial to oneself and to others. Think, for instance, of courage, honesty, or kindness.

But not any amount of these virtues is good. One can be too courageous, for example. We would call such a person reckless, perhaps. They do have courage, but they are unable to see that sometimes it’s wiser to be less courageous in order to reach a good outcome. Too much honesty might be hurtful. Too much kindness and one is a doormat. So, for Aristotle, the trick is not only to have the virtues but to be able to control them so that one has them always to the right amount:  the amount that is optimal for every situation that one encounters.

It is important to see that this is not always some “middle” amount. There are situations where zero courage is the right amount: for example, when you’re out on an African photo-safari and a lion suddenly stands in front of you, licking its lips. Then it would be reckless and stupid to do anything but get into your car and close the windows. There are, equally, situations in which the right amount of courage is an extreme amount. For example, if you are a firefighter, called to rescue people from a burning house. In this case, you can’t say “Oh, but I’m supposed to have only a middle amount of courage. Let someone else go in there.” It’s your job to rescue these people, so the right amount of courage in this situation would be what to others might seem reckless. The point Aristotle wants to make is that every single situation calls for a different amount of every virtue, and wisdom consists in knowing exactly how much that right amount is.

Living the Aristotelian life

Aristotle has a lot more to say about how to live a good life, and we’ll explore more of his theory in the coming emails. For the moment, let’s just take two days to observe each one of us our own virtues.

You could, for example, make a list of virtues that you find admirable in others. Is it kindness, courage, a knack for making friends, an outgoing personality, humour, honesty, seriousness, the ability to let go? And then you could make a second list of virtues that you yourself have. The lists will probably not be entirely identical. Sometimes, we admire virtues in others that we don’t have sufficiently developed ourselves.

Then ask yourself: why have I not developed this virtue that I admire in others? Does my partner have it? Do my children have it more or less than I do? Do my friends have it?

For Aristotle, virtues cannot develop in isolation. People develop their virtues because others help them. A person who is surrounded by criminals, for example, would find it hard to live an honest life, Aristotle would think.

Evaluate your friends from this perspective, beginning with the closest and most important to your life. Which of them are helping you develop the virtues you would like to have, and which are standing in your way?

If I admire patience, for example, or kindness, then it wouldn’t be rational to spend most of my time with people who are impatient or selfish.

Then do the experiment the other way round: which vices do you have, which you would like to get rid of, or bring better under control? And do the closest people around you share these vices?

Thanks for reading! I’ll be back on Wednesday with the next step in our experimenting with Aristotle! Stay tuned! If you found this interesting, please share it with your friends!