Fulfilling our unique human nature

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Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge, 1899, National Gallery of Art

In my previous post, I presented the elements of living well and doing well that Aristotle discusses in Books I & X of the Nicomachean Ethics: Nature-fulfillment: Why we do the things we do; Reason: Our unique human function; Independence: A complete and self-sufficient good; Whole life: A long term process; Virtue: Character and intellectual excellence; and Contemplating:  The activity of wisdom.

In this post, I am discussing the first element.

Nature fulfillment: Why we do the things we do?

Fulfilling our human nature is the first of the elements of eudaimonia and it’s grounded in Aristotle’s teleological theory. In essence, it’s about the goals and goods we seek in life. As he says,

Every art and every method, and similarly every action and choice, seems to aim at some good. That is why it has been correctly declared that the good is that at which all things aim. (1094a1)

This is the opening statement of the Nicomachean Ethics and presents the Aristotelian teleology: unless something happens by chance, is an automatic biological function or a behavioral reflex, all our actions aim at a telos that in Greek means end, final purposeor ultimate goal. We don’t live our life randomly, we don’t exist in vain. Our behavior is intentional.

Telos, as an ultimate goal, can also be considered a cause for the sake of which we do what we do, the final cause of our actions, what our actions are for. As an example, if we ask ‘Why is she exercising?’, the answer ‘To be healthy’ indicates according to Aristotle the cause and the ultimate goal of the action and so explains it.

We can’t impose ultimate goals on nature. We can only observe in it the ultimate goals of different living organisms – plants, animals, humans – that drive them to function toward their telos, to fulfill their true nature and reach their potential.

Aristotle explains what an ultimate goal is in terms of the good (to agathon that in Greek means a thing or a good thing). His main aim in Book I is to define the goodwe seek in life that for him has no moral value. It’s an ultimate goal for the sake of which we do everything else – no more, no less.

For all our actions and choices, we have a purpose in mind. We realize our human excellence if we grow in harmony with our nature, and in fact, for anything to be on the list for eudaimonia, it has to fulfill our human nature. If it does, then it’s good: it contributes to a balanced and rational life that enables us to serve our social and political duties and gain the respect, friendship and recognition of others.

Goals and priorities

Are some of our goals more important than others? Yes, they are. In some cases, our goal is an action we do for its own sake – we go for a walk. In other cases, our goal is an outcome separate from the action, it’s an accomplishment – we go to university to obtain a degree. The accomplishment, the degree, is more important than the action – attending a class. Why? Because we attend for the sake of the degree – physically or online.

We have higher goals we pursue for their own sake – we want to be healthy, and secondary goals we seek for the sake of the higher ones – we follow a healthy diet to be healthy. So, though we always act with a goal in mind, we don’t aim at any goal: in fact, we aim at the ultimate goal that is best and an end in itself, one for the sake of which we do everything else. Such a goal must exist, otherwise we would waste our life in a useless and endless pursuit of different but trivial goals. As we will read, this goal is eudaimonia.

The art of politics

Political science makes an important contribution to the achievement of the ultimate human goal. The Politics, Aristotle’s political theory, follow and complete the Ethics,his ethical theory. Ethics and politics are practical sciences that concern behavior and good action at the individual and social level. The Ethics is about the best human life – individual excellence; the Politics is about the best forms of social organization that can make such a life possible – social excellence.

Political science is instrumental for creating a society that helps citizens attain eudaimonia and true politicians should study the virtues of the soul to prepare good citizens who are willing to obey the laws.

Human beings are made to live in a political society, we are political animals. As Aristotle says elsewhere, “But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state.” (Politics, 1253a28). (Translated by Benjamin Jowett, 1952)

Political authority and obedience should be based on expertise, or they are the result of force. Political expertise is the highest authority: it defines the most respected skills and methods of production; and what the various sciences should investigate and to what extent, though outcomes are flexible. It defines what citizens should or shouldn’t do and is concerned with their good. Most importantly, however, it’s concerned with the good of the city (or polis) as a whole. Political science then is the highest expert authority that aims at the highest good.

Things that can be otherwise

To achieve the highest good, we need to know what it is. But can we know exactly? Well, we can’t, not exactly at least, because we deal with human affairs that change and can be otherwise (they are ta endexomena). Ethics is about good things that are open to diversity of opinion and uncertainty and seem to exist by law, not by nature.

Aristotle tells us that we can’t expect to find precise answers about the human good as those we find in the sciences that deal with unchangeable laws, like mathematics. What we can do is first draw a general outline and then add the details with as much precision as the topic allows.

Take care, Sophia P.