Aristotle on Amusement and the Good Life

Do we care too much about being entertained?

Posted Feb 03, 2011

"Happiness, then, is not found in amusement; for it would be absurd if the end were amusement, and our lifelong efforts and sufferings aimed at amusing ourselves. For we choose practically everything for some other end - except for happiness, since it is the end; but serious work and toil aimed only at amusement appears stupid and excessively childish. Rather, it seems correct to amuse ourselves so that we can do something serious...the happy life seems to be a life in accord with virtue, which is a life involving serious actions, and not consisting in amusement" (Nicomachean Ethics, Book X).

Aristotle pulls no punches here, in part because he is concerned with how we ought to live our lives, with what it is that will make us truly happy. And it is clear that he does not think that amusing ourselves will do the trick. This makes sense, given his other beliefs. As you know if you've read some of my earlier posts on Aristotle, he thinks that human fulfillment comes as we order our lives around developing and expressing moral and intellectual virtues, such as courage, wisdom, generosity, and understanding. In order to do this, we must be mentally active. That is, we must engage our minds and rationally deliberate about what has value and how we ought to live. Then, we must apply the fruit of that reflection to our daily lives.

What does this have to do with amusement?  First, we must ask this question:  what is it to muse? It is to meditate on some subject, to think about something in a critical and reflective manner. So a-musement is to not-think. At least it is not to think about serious matters. Aristotle's point is not that amusement is in and of itself a bad thing. He thinks that amusement does have some value. It has value because relaxation and amusement can refresh and invigorate us, enabling us to pursue the life of virtue with renewed strength. We seek amusement so that we can engage in serious activity in pursuit of true happiness and fulfillment.

Today, it seems like many of us have this reversed. We value amusement more than almost anything else. We have a deep hunger for entertainment. We work harder and longer so that we can afford to entertain ourselves in new and sometimes expensive ways. But to make this our highest good in life is to miss out on the true happiness that comes from being a truly good human being (or at least trying to be such a person).

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