Aristotle's Theory of the Good Life: A Consideration of the Role of Luck in the Good Life and the Concept of Self-Sufficiency

What is the good life? Aristotle acknowledges that luck has a role to play in the good life, but to what extent does luck effect the good life? If the good life is dependent on external factors, then it would appear that it could not be considered self-sufficient. However, Aristotle argues that the good life is self-sufficient, but communally self-sufficient. Why does Aristotle argue for what appears to be a contradiction in terms? It is my contention that luck's effect on the good life was much greater than Aristotle was prepared to acknowledge and that as a result of the good life being dependent on luck, the good life cannot be considered self-sufficient.

Aristotle believed that the good for humans would be the maximum realization of the function that was unique to humans. Since reason was understood by Aristotle to be the unique quality that humans possessed, it followed that the good for humans was to reason well. Since part of the task of reason was to teach human beings how to act virtuously, the good for humans was the exercise of their faculties in accordance with virtue. The good life, then, was defined by Aristotle as the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. [1] Virtue consisted of intellectual virtue and moral virtue. Intellectual virtue was comprised of theoretical wisdom, practical wisdom and understanding. Experience and time were necessary requirements for the development of intellectual virtue. Moral virtue was controlled by practical wisdom and owed its development to habit. [2]

Aristotle identified many that could not lead the good life. Women, slaves and the lower classes (trades people and farmers) were unable to lead the good life since they could not make their own decisions, nor could they choose an action for its own sake; therefore they were unable to practice the virtues. Animals were excluded from the good life as they could not exercise rationality. Children were excluded as they had not yet had occasion to practice the virtues, particularly intellectual virtues. Those who had experienced great loss were unable to lead the good life since it would be difficult to learn new friendships and friendship was a necessary requirement for leading the good life. The chronically ill would find it difficult to learn the desires of a healthy person, and since health was a requirement of leading the good life, this group was also excluded. Even the gods, according to Aristotle, could not lead the good life since they found their own lack of limit restricting and would long for riskier things as exemplified by the gods falling in love with mortals. Isolated persons were unable to lead the good life as the virtues necessitated action and therefore required an object to be acted upon; for example, generosity requires a person in a state of deprivation. Aristotle excluded these groups from leading the good life on the basis of factors outside their control.

In order to live the good life, one had to be born into the correct family, social class, a Greek, male* and be of the correct age (thirty to forty years). In addition, this person could not experience any unfortunate circumstances such as illness, bereavement or isolation. The candidate for the good life, besides having the opportunity to act on the virtues, must have known what he was doing; chosen to act the way he did and chose it for its own sake; and the act must come from a firm and unchangeable character. [3] The good life, then, is dependent on favorable external factor outside a person's control.

In order to assess the effect of luck on the good life, we first need to consider what is meant by "luck". In the book, The Fragility of Goodness, written by Martha Nussbaum, luck is defined as, "...just what does not happen through his or her own agency, what just happens to him, as opposed to what he does or makes". [4] Aristotle is prepared to acknowledge that luck plays a role in leading the good life, as evidenced by, "most people suppose that the eudaimon life is the fortunate life, or not without good fortune, and no doubt correctly, for without the external goods which are in the control of luck, it is not possible to be eudaimon." [5] Eudaimonia is defined by Nussbaum as activity according to excellence, living well and doing well. However, to what extent is Aristotle prepared to acknowledge luck's role?

Aristotle argued against those wanting to leave everything up to the mercy of luck, "to turn what is greatest and best over to luck would strike too false a note." [6] If everything was left up to luck, and therefore all necessary conditions for leading the good life were acknowledged to be outside the agent's control, Aristotle felt that there would be no point in living as all our actions would be means to some other ends and there would be no final purpose to our actions. If we are to attribute too much to the element of luck in leading the good life, Aristotle believes that life would have no meaning while at the same time acknowledging that without good fortune, one could not lead the good life. Is there some way for Aristotle to resolve this dilemma?

The circumstances that make it likely or unlikely that a person will lead the good life are external and not of one's own choosing, and are, therefore, dependent on luck. Why not, it might be postulated, limit luck's effects, specifically narrowing the scope of what constitutes the elements of the good life so as to limit, while not eliminating luck's role? Aristotle argued that limiting the scope of the external factors that affected the good life would make the good life too limiting and that the beauty of the good life was in its fragility. Yet what could be more limiting than the factors Aristotle sets out as requirements for leading the good life? If we consider Aristotle's view that a person cannot lead the good life unless they are a male of thirty to forty years of age, of good health, of many friends, have many good children; enjoy beauty, strength, stature; and be fortunate enough not to experience illness, bereavement or isolation; the restrictions posed by these limitations renders the probability of one's leading the good life slim to none.

What are the ramifications of holding the view that one can lead the good life for such a limited period of time? In narrowing the scope of when one can lead the good life, does this not render this period of thirty to forty years too limiting? If one was fortunate enough to be a male, not a slave or trades person and of good health, then the good life would be something to aspire to. However, what happens once one passes forty years of age? (It should be noted that Aristotle through his observation of men,** felt that the body was at its peak from thirty to thirty-five years of age but realized some men may be at their optimum prior to thirty and that the mind may continue in full force after fifty years of age.) [7] Aristotle had argued that to limit the scope of luck's effects on the good life would make the good life too limiting, rendering it meaningless. Could the same statement not be made concerning the limits imposed on leading the good life? If one is not considered to be leading the good life after forty years of age (approximately), what would be the point of living? Would life after this point in time not be considered meaningless?

Aristotle held that even if one could be viewed as leading the good life, should one experience any adverse circumstances such as illness, bereavement or isolation, then one could no longer be considered to be leading the good life. "For many reversals and all sorts of luck come about in the course of a life; and it is possible for the person who was most especially doing well to encounter great calamities in old age, as in the stories told about Priam in the Trojan war. But when a person has such misfortunes and ends in a wretched condition, nobody says that he is living well." [8] Priam was considered to be living the good life until he experienced the loss of family, children, friends, power, and freedom through war. Aristotle considered Priam's capacity to act well diminished and concluded that Priam could no longer live the good life. While Priam's circumstances may be extreme, a person may still experience some of these losses, the probability increasing as one aged. "A good old age means growing old slowly and without pain; for an old age that comes on quickly is not a good one, nor is an old age that comes on slowly indeed, but with pain. A good old age depends upon physical excellencies and good fortune, both; for if a man is not free from ailments, and is not strong, he will not escape suffering, nor will he continue free from pain and live to a great age without good fortune." [9]

Aristotle had argued that limiting the scope of luck's effect on the good life would render life meaningless, yet is this not what is happening here? Knowing that as one ages the probability of experiencing misfortune is heightened, and still maintaining that this is a yardstick by which to measure whether one can be considered to be leading the good life, severely limits the chances of anyone attaining the good life. Limiting the scope of the external factors that affected the good life would render the good life too limiting, according to Aristotle; yet Aristotle has placed such severe limitations on the criteria that needs to be met in order to lead the good life that the probability of anyone ever leading the good life are practically non-existent.

If we accept Aristotle's view of virtue, we can see that to be virtuous requires action. One must choose the mean in a situation that requires you to act. The person must know what they*** are doing, choose to act the way they do and choose it for its own sake and the act must come from a firm and unchangeable character. [10] This situation requires an object to be acted upon and is, therefore, dependent on external factors. What would happen if we eliminate the need to act on an object to be virtuous but consider the state of virtue sufficient for leading the good life? By eliminating the object to be acted upon, we are eliminating an external requirement necessary to lead the good life.

Aristotle argues that the state is not enough to be virtuous. If an adult thought to be of good character entered a comatose state, then that person could not be said to be virtuous while in this state. Life could only be considered worth living through actions that were voluntary.

A child may have the potential to be virtuous but would not be considered virtuous since they would not have occasion to practice the virtues; similarly a comatose person may have the potential to act virtuously, particularly if that person would have been considered virtuous prior to the comatose state, yet would not be considered virtuous since this person would not have occasion to practice the virtues. The good life, then, is dependent on external factors.

Aristotle argues that "it is a generally accepted view that the perfect good is self-sufficient." [11] The Hindu belief system is an example of a more self-sufficient lifestyle. A Hindu, who is unable to shed blood according to their religion, must stand away when they watch a violent act towards another person. The pain of another is the result of Karma in a past life. No person is able to take away that pain. It is not their duty to interfere. Aristotle would argue that it is not the state of courage but the action that is virtuous. The Hindu belief system is clearly more self-sufficient, especially when one considers that self-sufficiency is commonly held to be the ability to maintain oneself without dependency on others. Does Aristotle hold a different definition of self-sufficiency to than we do? "However, we define something as self-sufficient not by reference to the "self" alone. We do not mean a man who lives his life in isolation, but a man who also lives with parents, children, a wife, and friends and fellow citizens generally, since man is by nature a social and political being." [12]

Aristotle argues for the good life as a self-sufficient life, but a communal self-sufficiency. The concept of a communal self-sufficiency appears to be a contradiction in terms. Aristotle broadens the term self-sufficiency to such an extent, one wonders why he would argue for it at all. How can Aristotle's view of the good life as self-sufficient, qualified by Aristotle as communally self-sufficient, account for the emphasis Aristotle placed on tragedy. Aristotle insisted on the importance of tragic poems in each citizen's moral education. [13] "Tragedy arises out of a need to come to terms with the fact of death, and the forces with which human life is surrounded." [14]

The Greek people acknowledged that some of the forces that controlled human destiny were the gods, " ... the other-than-human powers that supervise the order of the world on occasions make use of humans in the performance of this supervision." [15] How can Aristotle account for the influence of the gods on the lives of the Greek people? Aristotle would argue that the beauty of the good life is its fragility. Further, Aristotle would argue that if we attribute too much to luck, all of our actions are means to other ends but there is no final end, and life would not be worth living. Aristotle would also hold that if we limit the factors that constitute the good life, we make the scope of the good life too narrow.

Aristotle believed that it was the ability to reason that was exclusive to human beings and therefore the good for humans was the maximum realization of that function. The good life was thought by Aristotle to be the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. However, rationality is not exclusive to humans as animals have been shown to exhibit rational behavior. Notwithstanding the fact that rationality is not an exclusive property of humans, I am prepared to grant Aristotle this fundamental presupposition in view of the era in which the idea of the good was formulated and particularly because I wish to concentrate on the limited role Aristotle is prepared to attribute to luck.

The good life is limited exclusively to males yet Aristotle had maintained that the good life should be attainable by all otherwise there would be no point in living. Whether one is born male or female is outside of the agent's control and is therefore dependent on external elements. Accordingly, being born male was considered "fortunate" if one aspired to lead the good life. At this point, one could conclude that since the good life was limited to males and that since being born male was dependent on external elements, i.e. chromosomes, then the good life was solely based on luck. However, despite the hierarchically and patriarchically ordered schema this view represents, I am prepared to grant this presupposition in order to give further consideration to the fragility of the good life. The good life was extremely fragile, owing its fragility to its dependency on external elements. Acting virtuously was a fundamental part of leading the good life, but in order to act, one had to have an object to act upon. If one considers that the good life was limited to males between the ages of thirty to thirty-five of the proper social class (and the other requirements as noted earlier), one is reminded of the extent to which the good life is dependent on external factors. If someone lived to the age of sixty-five and in the latter years of their life experienced loss, Aristotle held that this person would not be considered to be leading a virtuous life since they would be embittered as regards their loss. It would appear that regardless of how virtuous this person may have been prior to experiencing severe loss, once loss happened, one could no longer be considered to be leading the good life. To lose this consideration through no action of one's own is, to be certain, exemplary of the vulnerability of the good life. In view of the extent to which the good life is dependent on luck, or favorable external circumstances, how is it possible that Aristotle can consider the good life self-sufficient? It is my contention that he cannot. In order for a person to be exercising the virtues, there needs to be an object to be acted upon. The criteria for leading the good life are dependent on favorable external factors outside the agent's control. Self-sufficiency, by definition, is the ability to maintain oneself without dependency on others. Aristotle attempts to account for the good life's requiring favorable external circumstances by arguing that the good life is self-sufficient but not as we generally understand the definition of self-sufficiency.

Aristotle held that the good life was communally self-sufficient which is a contradiction in terms. Let us suppose that the good life was held to be a "pink triangle". In order to understand this property of the good life, we would want to know how we defined a pink triangle. A "pink triangle" is described as a figure comprised of three sides of equal length; the sum of the internal angles totaling 180 degrees and the color a vibrant pink. Now let us further suppose that we said when we refer to the good life being a "pink triangle" we did not mean a reference to a triangle alone, but any figure with a maximum number of eight sides, unlimited degrees and any color. (We would want to limit the number of sides or this could go on ad infinitum). The inclusion of all colors and most shapes would broaden this definition of the good life to such an extent that one would wonder why we would want to argue for it at all. In describing the good life as communally self-sufficient, Aristotle has broadened the definition of self-sufficiency to such an extent, one wonders what would count against the good life being self-sufficient. Further, with this all-inclusive definition of self-sufficiency, one would wonder why Aristotle would argue for it at all?

While communally self-sufficient is a contradiction in terms, perhaps Aristotle argued for this contradiction as a means between extremes (allowing for the good life being entirely within the agent's control or attributing the good life exclusively to external elements, i.e. luck). Rather than choose a definite side (self-sufficiency or dependency), Aristotle appears to have found it necessary to sit on the fence, and called this fence communal self-sufficiency. If the good life is independent of external factors, then it is self-sufficient. The good life is not independent, and is, therefore, not self-sufficient. If the good life is not self-sufficient, then it is dependent on external factors or luck. That Aristotle struggled with the extent to which luck should be attributed to the factors that comprised the good life is best shown in Aristotle's qualification of the good life as being communally self-sufficient.

Endnotes

[1.] Lecture on Aristotle, lecturer Professor Suits, University of Waterloo, Winter term, 1991.

[2.] Edel, Abraham, et alii., Morality, Philosophy, and Practice (New York: Random House,.Inc., 1989), p. 45.

[3.] Ibid., p. 47.

[4.] Nussbaum, Martha C., The Fragility of Goodness (Great Britian: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 3.

[5.] Aristotle as quoted by Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 318.

[6.] Nussbaum, op. cit., p. 320.

[7.] Cooper, Lane, The Rhetoric of Aristotle, (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1960), p. 137.

[8.] Nussbaum, op. cit., p. 328.

[9.] Cooper, op. cit., p. 28.

[10.] Edel, op. cit., p. 47.

[11.] Thomson, J. A. K., translator, The Ethics of Aristotle, (England: Penguin Books, 1976), p. 74.

[12.] Edel, op. cit., p. 43.

[13.] Nussbaum, op. cit., p. 14.

[14.] Aylen, Leo, Greek Tragedy and the Modern World, (Great Britain: Richard Clay and Company, Ltd., 1964), p. 15.

[15.] Ibid., p. 17.

Bibliography

Aylen, Leo. Greek Tragedy and the Modern World. Great Britain: Richard Clay and Company, Ltd., 1964.

Cooper, Lane. The Rhetoric of Aristotle. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1960.

Edel, Abraham, et al.. Morality, Philosophy and Practice. New York: Random House, Inc., 1989.

Nussbaum, Martha C. The Fragility of Goodness. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Thomson, J.A.K., translator. The Ethics of Aristotle. England: Penguin Books, 1976.

Appendix

p. 3. A non-discriminatory alternative has not been used to illustrate the point that Aristotle specifies only men could lead the good life.

p. 5. While this paper is written in non-sexist language as noted above, the inclusion of the gender specific "men" is necessary at this point to again emphasize Aristotle's view that the good life was limited exclusively to men (but not just any men, as these men also had to be of correct social status, etc. as detailed in this paper). It is my contention that at this point in the paper it is necessary to include the reference to a specific gender to illustrate just how dependent the good life is on external factors; for the good life is exclusive to one gender, and the choice of gender is outside the agent's control.

p. 7. In order to avoid discriminatory language, "they" has been employed here and in this instance is to be considered in the singular.

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