Aristotle vs. Urban Monk Round 3: The Highest Human Good and finding yours.
How do you know when you have succeeded, when you have made it? Unless you’ve been on a spiritual path, you would probably have a standard list that matches 99% of the human population.
“I need wealth, health, many beautiful women or handsome men, and a body everyone will lust after.” Is that close to what you had in mind?
What does Aristotle have to say about this? And, if anyone cares, what are my opinions on this? Anyone? … Hello?
If you do want to know more, please read on. This is Part 3 of the Aristotle series. You can find Part 1 and Part 2 here. If you enjoy this series, please take 10 seconds to support me by bookmarking my posts at your favourite services. StumbleUpon and Del.icio.us have worked best for me so far. Much appreciated!
The Trappings of Success
Aristotle has discussed in detail everything we commonly aim for, and how they ultimately relate to a happy and successful life. For easier discussion, we can break up the list into four broad types.
– Pleasure: Everything we enjoy, ranging from good food, wine, music, sex, health, to an attractive body.
Aristotle argues that these are not the keys to maximum pleasure. Rather, the successful life, as defined in the previous articles, is.
That is not to say these are wrong, but that they should be sought alongside everything else. There is danger in seeking the good life in pleasures of the flesh alone, for it can lead us down an increasingly unbalanced lifestyle.
We might begin seeking it in the wrong places, or get addicted to the wrong things. Over indulgence will also compromise our virtues. Remember from the previous post that moral virtue lies in temperance – knowing the medium between too much and too little.
– Wealth: For most people, wealth is not the end goal. It is often a means to get to something that they truly want; even if that goal is just to prove that they can.
If you want wealth, how much are you looking to make, and why? Think about this for a few seconds now: it will come in handy in the next couple of sections.
– Honour: Once an exalted concept, it has become something of a dirty word or at best a joke or an unreachable ideal. Its safe to assume that Aristotle discussed this as part of his standard list because people from his era often sought honour to be successful. I think its a sad reflection on us, then, that this word wont show up on most of our modern lists.
Honour is the code that a person lives his or her life to. This can range from the small, such as always buying a homeless person a sandwich, to the big. Soldiers, for example, risk their lives to defend their loved ones and their country, because their code of honour demands it of them.
Note that to be part of an excellent life, honour has to come from inside. If it is external, it means you are merely concerned with how others see you. It is not honour if you give to the needy simply to look good in front of others.
– Virtue: And finally, the virtues themselves. While we have discussed how vital the virtues are, Aristotle warns against making the main focus of your life.
As an example, if you insist on developing too much charity, you end up becoming a hermit who has donated his entire estate and has to live in rags for the rest of his life. While this is fine according to my definition (more on that later), Aristotle claims you will lose much of the resources you would need to be happy.
Your highest good and how to find it
Can you detect a pattern in the four categories? It is simple; they all point to something higher. All of these contribute to a happy life, but are not end goals in themselves.
Lets assume that one of your goals is to have a good body. It is easy to see that this isnt the end goal for most people. Instead, the goal above that might be to a successful athlete, to live longer, or to attract a quality lover. But is there anything above those?
If you place each goal on a pyramid or a hierarchy, you can inquire into them to find if there is one above it. If there isn’t, then you have found something that you do for its own sake.
Aristotle maintains that a true goal is something that you always follow for its own sake and never for anything else.
This is also where he introduces the highest good. It is a combination of all your end goals. When you can add nothing to your goals, or adding it wont make a difference, you have your highest good and your ultimate happiness.
The internal state can be the end goal
Before you run off to do some soul-searching, let me move away from Aristotle for some information of my own. (So dont use this part if youre writing a research essay on him.)
The end goal is not always external. Often, it comes back to a feeling or another internal state.
Let’s continue with the hot body example. If you are a young male, your goal behind that is probably to bed lots of beautiful women. Sounds like a great end goal, but thats if you are thinking of the external life only.
When you move inside yourself, you can go higher. He might have been abandoned by his mother as a child, and seek to mask that pain by conquering women as an adult. Maybe he was wounded by his first love. The possibilities are endless.
Does that make sense? With this in mind, you can go higher up the hierarchy then you could before. Spend some time now and find out your end goals, and from there, your highest good.
Why the internal end goal works for you
The internal end goal makes your life so much easier and simpler, for many goals often lead back into one internal end state.
Knowing your end goal will mean that you can make wiser choices. If you follow the pyramid above, you can see the young man is doing many things in pursuit of one internal state. If he discovers that some of them are not as efficient, or even hurtful, he can stop them.
Lets say that he ends up breaking several hearts if he continues playing women. He knows that he shouldnt do so, but without the benefit of the pyramid, he doesnt know why he feels compelled to do so, and so he finds it hard to stop. With the knowledge, though, he might be able to choose to concentrate his time at the retirement home to achieve the same result.
Even if he isnt hurting anyone with any of his activities, pursuing a hot body, a big car, a great job AND lots of free time might leave him stretched out and tired.
Again, this is just an example I have made up. What is it in your life? Is there anything you can cut out? Think of it as a time management and efficiency, not just for your work / study life, but for your entire life. Knowing yourself in such an intimate manner allows you to keep on track. Note that this doesnt apply for internal end goals only.
If your end goal is internal, you cannot fail to achieve it
Another piece of good news is that you cannot fail if you have an internal end goal.
Sounds like typical self-help fluff? No. Of course there are things you cannot do, but they are all external – if you are seventy years old and never worked out a day in your life, it is near impossible to win a world boxing championship.
But if you trace that goal upwards into the internal states, and allow flexibility in how it comes, you cannot fail. What is behind the goal of being a world-class fighter? Some might see it as a way out of poverty, while others see it as a way of mastering themselves.
I have met a man a long time ago who was born with only one arm, but still wanted to be a world-class fighter. He trained daily, bleeding and sweating, in his chosen discipline of full contact karate.
Now Im a bit hazy on the details as Im not a karate man, but in his particular style, one of the tests he had to go through was sparring a hundred other fighters in a row.
As he began the tests, he asked the fighters not to go easy on him because of his disability. All the others watched with fear and concern obvious on their faces. But his years of training had paid off, and while it was a gruelling experience, he managed to fight his way to the final opponent.
As he approached the last man, he began crying tears of joy.
Why? His end goal wasn’t really to become a world-class fighter, despite what he may have thought. He wanted to prove to himself that he was no wimp, even with one arm. He wanted a sense of confidence, to develop his character, to push himself, and to conquer his fears. In that one moment, he realised two things what he truly wanted, and that he had already achieved it!
I don’t think anyone would disagree with me when I say that while he is not a world class fighter, he is a world class man and a true inspiration. People were talking about him for months after.
Do you need all the stuff in between?
The last benefit to finding out your end goal often means that your early goals were not necessary at all. Looking at the pyramid, you can probably think of faster ways to get to what he wanted. He could even have worked directly on healing the pain of abandonment instead of masking it.
At the risk of making this post long and heavy, Ill throw in another example here, this time career related. I see so many people suffering in their line of work simply because they dont get it. Use your imagination to see if you can catch similarities between your life and that of the main character.
Youve probably heard this story before. And yet (or perhaps because of) how common it is, few people seem to have the courage to follow its simple teachings.
The local fisherman and the tourist
There was a city businessman who once went to a faraway beach for a holiday. In his rented yacht, he steered past a little boat with a local man who was lazing around with a fishing rod in the water, drinking a beer. The spot they were on was a fishing goldmine, and his business mind immediately went to work.
“Why are you so stupid?” He exclaimed. “If you rented some money, you can start your own fishing business. Get some boats, hire some extra hands. You can make so much money from all these fish! And then after a few years of hard work, you can pay back the money you rented, and then a few more years of that, you’ll become a millionaire!”
The local man looked at him lazily. “And what would you do once you became a millionaire?”
The city man stared back. “Why, I would have so much free time that I can laze around all day and drink beer!”
Applying it to yourself
Is this your life? Do you approach your dreams in such a roundabout manner? Why not cut out all the stress and time between?
I would guess: Fear. Fear of deviating from the norm. Fear of criticism. Fear of losing approval.
And so many people waste their youth in a job they don’t enjoy, simply so they can have the approval of others, simply so they can fit in.
End of Round 3
Interval before Round 4!
HmmI promised at the end of Round 2 that I will disagree with Aristotle in this post, but I didnt get a chance to. Sorry. I added in a whole bunch of musings on internal end goals that were uniquely my own, though.
So please stay tuned for the final instalment in this series and yes I will start fighting back against him, I promise!