The Case for Virtue: Striving for Excellence and Balance
The starting point for Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is that our objective, as humans, should be to strive for happiness, properly understood. The Greek concept of Eudaimonia is not, Aristotle asserts, a blind-eyed pursuit of hedonistic pleasure. Rather, it ought to be understood as a striving for excellence, achieved through the cultivation of good habits.
That man should strive for Eudaimonia is taken as a given. Indeed, Aristotle outlines the primacy of one’s upbringing in helping them see and understand this moral truth. It is a notably un-democratic perspective: unless one was instilled with the ability to discern this starting point, they will necessarily pursue the wrong things and, as a result, live a less meaningful life. I do not share this pessimism and I do believe that one can demonstrate the validity of these starting points:
(1) Why choose long-term wellbeing over short-term pleasures
Let us assume that this life is all that we, as subjective beings, have. Even if there exists an afterlife, this realm is inaccessible to us at the present time, and we have greater reason to believe that this life exists than any potential unverifiable underworld. Would it not therefore be right to maximise our short-term and earthly pleasures and, so to speak, enter the experience machine?
My response to this is that a life without pleasure would simply be miserable and that there is nothing wrong with indulging in what nature has given us. One component of living a good life is delighting in the delicacies of this world: looking at beautiful things, dancing, having good sex, and savouring good food.
At the same time, we see everywhere around us that nature tends toward equilibrium. Eat too much chocolate and it, or you, will become revolting. Spend too much time partying and your life and career will collapse. In what is perhaps the most revealing example, those who turn to alcohol or substances as a replacement to finding more holistic pleasure soon realise that these offer nothing of the sort. If one values pleasure, it is essential to understand that it can only come with balance.
(2) Why prioritise wisdom over material goods
Another truth that is not immediately self-evident is why man should prioritise wisdom over material goods. As above, that is not to say that one cannot have both. Insofar as material goods are instrumental to the pursuit of wisdom, they can also provide pleasure in and of themselves. The question therefore becomes one what to prioritise, and like Aristotle, I would assert that one should devote a far larger portion of one’s energy toward the pursuit of wisdom.
The brevity of our lives often leads to feelings of absurdity, as described by philosopher Thomas Nagel in his essay, The Absurd. When we take a step back, we can see that all of the stuff we accumulate does very little to satisfy us and means, ultimately, very little. I would argue that the remedy to these feelings is to attempt to cultivate a more wholesome understanding of the universe. This will not free us of our predicament, but it reveals to us that whilst our lives may be short, we are in fact a part of something far greater than ourselves: the cosmos itself. Only by striving to understand the world around us and our place within it can be find true meaning.
In addition to being a false end, the pursuit of material goods prevents us from pursuing wisdom in other ways. It chains us down to a particular place, for it becomes more difficult to pick up one’s things and move around the world with it. Material goods are costly to maintain: one must devote energy and resources to ensure they persist. Finally, when we accumulate material goods, these things can be used against us — we come to perpetually live in fear of losing them, as the plenitude of security cameras and guard dogs in any gated community attests to. All of this detracts from the pursuit of wisdom, the only thing that can provide true meaning. Wisdom is something that can never be taken away and it is something that, when shared, is not zero-sum. It comes from inside and does not depend on the mercy of others granting it. A good life ought to consist primarily in the pursuit of wisdom over material goods.
(3) Why choose virtue in politics
As is made clear in C.D.C Reeve’s introduction to the Nicomachean Ethics, no real distinction exists between ethics in a personal realm and ethics in a political realm. Man is political by nature: we do not live in isolation. How one acts in a personal capacity is therefore intrinsically interlinked with how one acts in the political realm. The implication of this is that what is good for oneself will in part have a political aspect to it. This is the basis for ordering one’s actions on virtue rather than vice. Treating other individuals with respect, rejecting corruption, and seeking to learn and teach is good not only because one avoids punishment (social, legal or otherwise), but because the principle itself is beneficial to oneself.
Virtue and Happiness
An action is virtuous insofar as it brings us closer to a state of Eudaimonia. This brings up a higher-order question: why should one want what is good for oneself, however understood, at all? The question is at first glance contradictory, especially if goodness is defined as that which one seeks to achieve. It is not contradictory, however, if we take goodness to mean the state of Eudaimonia mentioned above.
My answer to this is that Eudaimonia is living life at its fullest. Striving for excellence gives us a fuller view of the world and our place in it, provides us with a greater sense of meaning, and is in harmony with the natural state of things. One is not obliged to pursue virtue, but acting out of accordance with one’s nature can only lead to suffering, despair, and nihilism. It results in a nagging sense of dissatisfaction, of depression, and of self-doubt. One may attempt to find meaning in other ways, though duty to one’s nation or to a political cause for example, but unless does so in a virtuous way, those feelings will persist. Neither Aristotle nor I can provide an empirical proof that this is true, this is something that can only come from within but that, upon reflection, we know to be true. Man has no choice but to confront with these two alternatives and act accordingly.