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Aristotle (1811), by Francesco Hayez

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines eudaimonia as the end of all ends. Just as every action has some purpose, so every end must have its own end – an ultimate end, or an ultimate good as he terms it. Some versions of Nicomachean Ethics translate eudaimonia as “happiness.” Dr. Leon Kass, a physician, educator, and public intellectual, proposes another translation: human flourishing, or “souling well.”

Human flourishing is virtuous activity that enriches the soul. To achieve human excellence – the pinnacle of man’s accomplishments – one must flourish, a task accomplished by nurturing the virtues in oneself.

The question then becomes, What is virtue?

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According to Aristotle, virtue is the mean between the two extremes of excess and deficiency. For example, in the sphere of fear and confidence the excess is rashness, the deficiency is cowardice, and the mean is courage.

A conception misconception surrounding Aristotle’s Golden Mean is that it promotes moral relativism, but this is not the case. Rather, Aristotle acknowledges moral relativity, meaning that one’s virtue may be another’s vice, and vice versa, according to circumstance.

Consider temperance and overindulgence. A marathon runner eating 3,000 calories a day exercise temperance, a virtue. If a sedentary office worker consumed that same amount, he would be exercising overindulgence, a vice. The marathon runner’s virtue is the office worker’s vice. Thus, the Golden Mean allows for relativity without bowing to relativism, wherein each person would decide for themselves which was virtue and which was vice.

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As the ultimate good, human flourishing is pursued for its own sake, and all other actions contribute to or allow for it, whether we know it or not. For example, bridle-making allows for good horse-riding, which helps a traveler move from one place to another or a soldier fight in battle. In the former case, the traveler has greater access to others, with whom he might act virtuously; or he may make another decision that will launch a domino effect culminating in virtuous action. In the latter case, the soldier’s actions will give the traveler this freedom.

Eventually, then, bridle-making ultimately leads to opportunities to soul well.

In the last, Aristotle identifies the great-souled man, he who excels in every virtue and knows himself worthy of honor for this, but he does not pursue honor himself because he has no need of it. He acts not for glory or recognition, though these may come to him, but rather for the sake of acting. The great-souled man fulfills every essence of the Golden Mean.

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What do you think of Aristotle’s definition of happiness, eudaimonia, being the ultimate goal of human existence? Do you agree with him that the great-souled man is the epitome of human excellence?