By Auguste Meyrat
One of the paradoxes of modernity is that as living has become easier and more pleasurable, people have become sadder. Depression and loneliness were already major problems in the developed world, and have become even worse with the COVID-19 lockdowns. How is it that people who enjoy so much more freedom and luxury than any generation in the past have less to feel happy about?
Many conservative and religious writers have attributed this modern malaise to the lack of meaning in people’s lives. As culture becomes more secularized and digitized, the activities and beliefs that once supplied this meaning have slowly disappeared. Fewer people attend church, have families, foster close relationships, or even engage with reality on a regular basis. It all makes for an easier life, but also an emptier one.
However, what is seen as a “crisis of meaning” can also be called a crisis of reason. It’s easy to recommend that people infuse their lives with meaning and believe in something beyond the immediate. It’s much more difficult to explain how and why this should happen. To find meaning, and to see its role in enabling true happiness, one must use reason to determine the means and ends of such a quest.
For this reason, the relevance of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics continues to endure as a guide for a happy, fulfilling life. True, one can live such a life without reading Aristotle, just as someone can live a long healthy life without studying medicine. But if a plague hits, whether physical or spiritual, it’s always better to be prepared. Otherwise, whatever remedies proposed (more social welfare programs, loneliness ministries, “safe” spaces) will only worsen the issue.
As with most philosophical classics, the value in reading Aristotle lies in his method more than his conclusions. While there are abundant religious texts and self-help manuals that describe the path to truth, beauty, and goodness, Nicomachean Ethics stands apart by going into the reasoning behind such paths.
Aristotle does not speak in maxims or paradoxes, nor does he tell pithy parables or analects. He uses the dry language of definitions, proofs, qualifiers, and analogies. What he loses in emotion and engagement, he gains in clarity and discipline. While much of this style has to do with the fact that all of his extant works are refined lecture notes, not completed writings intended for the public, the effect of reading them is the same: approaching all things with a more logical, disinterested lens.
Aristotle starts his argument from the top: what is the ultimate goal of life? He answers that it is happiness, and that all actions are performed for the sake of happiness. For example, one studies in college to earn a degree that will help him find a job where he can earn money to buy things that amuse him and keep him alive, which for him is happiness.
For a materialistic culture that encourages the idea that human beings are the products of conditioning and base impulses, this idea that happiness is a cause and product of choice presents a challenge to modern readers. It awakens humanity from souls that hitherto treated themselves as mindless consumers. It also brings attention to the actions one takes without thinking. Knowing that all actions should lead to happiness allows one to objectively evaluate his life.
But what is happiness? According to Aristotle, it is “an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue.” Again, this contradicts the modern idea that continual pleasure and validation is the key to happiness. Rather, one must strive for personal excellence (arete) in all things.
From there, Aristotle analyzes the virtues, which he separates into the moral virtues and the intellectual virtues. He then delineates the nature of virtue, which is deliberate, done with full knowledge, and occupies a middle ground between excess and privation (the “golden mean”). Nevertheless, such virtues only qualify as such based on the circumstance and disposition of the individual. Thus, regarding the importance of the reality and significance of virtues, Aristotle is absolutist, but regarding how the virtues manifest themselves, he is a relativist—or better, a realist.
For most readers, this discussion of the virtues can become tedious and dry. Some of his points are either obvious, irrelevant, or redundant. Nevertheless, this analysis is necessary and constructs the logical framework for understanding a key component of happiness and the good life. Aristotle is not simply rambling; he is applying a method to an incredibly wide variety of activities and intentions.
When this method is abandoned for intuition or conventional wisdom, the definitions of virtues become muddled, often to the point of losing all meaning. To use one example, what does it really mean to be brave today? Some people will use the term for the soldier sacrificing his life for his country while others will use the term for a teenager rebelling against her conservative parents. Most people now use the word “brave” ironically or patronizingly; few give it the thought and attention that Aristotle does. The same is true for virtues like continence, temperance, liberality, prudence, and even justice.
In the same way, few people, including modern intellectuals (with the wonderful exception of C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves), give much attention to friendship. To begin his treatment of the issue, Aristotle states matter-of-factly, “Nobody would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other good things.” Friendship is both practical and good, and is essentially different from the other relationships that people have, which are primarily transactional. Rather than being based on usefulness or pleasure, friendship is based on equality and seeking the good.
This definition of friendship has all but disappeared today. Most people do not really form friendships; they form partnerships and networks. Or, when even this proves too strenuous, many now resort to virtual facsimiles of partnerships and networks. Not only has this trend deterred many from self-improvement, but it has dehumanized many aspects of Western culture. Consequently, people have become insensitive, less self-aware, and less fulfilled.
Perhaps where Nicomachean Ethics resonates most for audiences today is in Aristotle’s two ideals of happiness: the magnanimous man and the contemplative life. Although many different parallels can apply, the magnanimous man represents a person’s public activities while the contemplative life represents his private activities.
True, with the first example, Aristotle imagines famous generals and politicians enjoying their superlative greatness with dignity and grace, and with the second example, he likely envisions himself, living a life of the mind and reworking and revising his own ideas. However, the modern man can imitate that great-souled man’s example, pursuing virtue and status without needing regular validation and compensation. Moreover, he can live a life of the mind, both by reading and writing great books or speaking and listening to wise people. What once required a class of slaves and great wealth is now possible to most people who have the means and the will to be content.
Unfortunately, at this very moment when Aristotle’s wisdom could be put to practical use, too many people have given up the pursuit. Hence, the world groans under the burden of mass mediocrity and the misery it brings.
While reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics may not act as an immediate cure for this problem, it does pave the way for a solution. It makes happiness not just possible, but knowable. And ironically, what was true for people in Aristotle’s time has become even more true for people today. For that reason, it has once again become a necessary book, even if it’s not an easy one.
Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher in the Dallas area. He holds an MA in Humanities and an MEd in Educational Leadership. He is the senior editor of The Everyman and has written essays for The Federalist, American Greatness, Crisis Magazine, and The Imaginative Conservative as well as the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.