Aristotle on the Meaning of Life

The meaning of life is surprisingly simple.

Posted Jan 01, 2021

Source: BarbaraALane/Pixabay

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (d. 322 BCE) tries to discover what is "the supreme good for man," that is, what is the best way to lead our life and give it meaning.

For Aristotle, a thing is most clearly and easily understood by looking at its end, purpose, or goal. For example, the purpose of a knife is to cut, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what a knife is; the goal of medicine is good health, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what medicine is, or, at least, ought to be.

Now, if one persists with this, it soon becomes apparent that some goals are subordinate to other goals, which are themselves subordinate to yet other goals. For example, a medical student’s goal may be to qualify as a doctor, but this goal is subordinate to her goal to heal the sick, which is itself subordinate to her goal to make a living by doing something useful. This could go on and on, but unless the medical student has a goal that is an end-in-itself, nothing that she does is actually worth doing.

What, asks Aristotle, is this goal that is an end-in-itself? What, in other words, is the final purpose of everything that we do?

The answer, says Aristotle, is happiness.

And of this nature happiness is mostly thought to be, for this we choose always for its own sake, and never with a view to anything further: whereas honour, pleasure, intellect, in fact every excellence we choose for their own sakes, it is true, but we choose them also with a view to happiness, conceiving that through their instrumentality we shall be happy: but no man chooses happiness with a view to them, nor in fact with a view to any other thing whatsoever.

Why did we get dressed this morning? Why do we go to the dentist? Why do we go on a diet? Why am I writing this article? Why are you reading it? Because we want to be happy, simple as that.

That the meaning of life is happiness may seem moot, but it is something that most of us forget somewhere along the way. Oxford and Cambridge are infamous for their fiendish admission interviews, and one question that is sometimes asked is, "What is the meaning of life?" So, when I prepare prospective doctors for their medical school interviews, I frequently put this question to them. When they flounder, as invariably they do, I ask them, "Well, tell me, why are you here?"

Our exchange might go something like this:

"What do you mean, why am I here?"

"Well, why are you sitting here with me, prepping for your interviews, when you could be outside enjoying the sunshine?"

"Because I want to do well in my interviews."

"Why do you want to do well in your interviews?"

"Because I want to get into medical school."

"Why do you want to get into medical school?"

"Because I want to become a doctor."

"Why do you want to put yourself through all that trouble?"

And so on. 

But the one thing that the students never tell me is the truth, which is:

"I am sitting here, putting myself through all this, because I want to be happy, and this is the best way I have found of becoming or remaining so."

Somewhere along the road, the students lost the wood for the trees, even though they are only at the beginning of their journey. With the passing of the years, their short-sightedness will only get worse—unless, of course, they read and remember their Aristotle.

Books save lives.

Read my related article, What is the Meaning of Life?