Sarah asked:

What would Aristotle’s response be to ‘what is the meaning of life?’

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

For Aristotle the meaning of life is eudaimonia. I believe that Aristotle discovered something really fundamental about human beings when he thought about what makes them happy, what they want out of life and how they wish to organise society to achieve it.

Aristotle finds that people pursue many different activities. For example, some want to get married and have children, others want to do business or play sports, or travel to distant lands, or read books, or they like to sit in parliament, or they want to be professional soldiers.

Aristotle asked, is there something in these many activities which they have in common?

Let’s look at a few examples and ask, why does a person do this?

a. Jack likes a game of golf. Of course he likes to win, but that’s not the end of it. In the main his interest is just in a good game.

b. Jacqueline like lots of money in the bank. But it isn’t the money for itself, but because she can buy what she wants with it.

c. Bill is ambitious and wants public recognition for helping poor people. But if he asks himself why he does this, he would answer, it makes me feel good to help others.

d. Mary likes romantic novels. But for her, the interest is not in the novels as such, but because she likes to fantasise about love and foreign countries.

And so we can go through a long list of activities people do. They are entertained, challenged, moved, satisfied, interested — in a word, they do these things with some particular end in view. What is this end they are seeking?

Aristotle says that all these activities are designed to achieve something other than the apparent purpose for which we do them. I might build a house, but the house is for living in. So the house again has another purpose behind it. I might go to war and my purpose is victory, but the victory points to another end beyond it.

In other words, when we finish one activity, we look to another. Therefore it is the activity in itself that is common to all these many pursuits. And why activity? Because it makes us happy to pursue something which we think is good for us:

Therefore if there is an end for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and if there are more than one, this will be the goods achievable by action.

Therefore the end we strive to achieve is feeling good, feeling happy: ‘Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.’ And when we do these things, we always try to do the best we can. This trying the best we can he calls arete = excellence.

In sum, what’s common to the activities of all human beings is this: We look for the good (agathon) in what we do, and we pursue this good for the happiness (eudaimonia) it brings. And in pursuit of these things, we tend to find the greatest satisfaction in doing them really well (arete). So: the good life is the pursuit of happiness. And happiness is not in the things done and the end achieved, but in the doing it; and furthermore, happiness is the ‘end product’ so to speak.