Human flourishing: Aristotle on how to live your best life

Imagine you’re living your best life. You spend your time doing stuff you love and find satisfying. That stuff contributes to your community, which is thriving, and enriches your relationships, which are mutually beneficial. You want for nothing, and are deeply, peacefully satisfied.

Congratulations! You’ve achieved eudaimonia.

Considered by Aristotle to be the ultimate goal of life, eudaimonia, is next-level thriving. There is no direct English translation, but “flourishing” seems the nearest. Fortunately, Aristotle also thought about the conditions necessary for thriving which he outlines in his Nichomachean Ethics.

You are what you think

The Nichomachean Ethics is a dense text, and it is impossible to unpack fully in a short blog. However, the gist is that a virtuous personal, social, and political life leads to flourishing.  

Unlike Plato, whose ideal Forms are an impossible goal, Aristotle is concerned with practical aspects of everyday living. One need not be godly to achieve happiness, which is good news for us mere mortals.

Aristotle believed that virtue occurs naturally in humans, and that all actions are taken in pursuit of the good. But while virtue may occur naturally, it still requires tending and practice. Habituation, literally the forming of good habits, is key. It starts with contemplation, of thinking about how you are in the world, your actions and motivations, and what the result of those is.

There is no prescription for “right” actions per se because they vary with individual station and circumstance, but they fundamentally require choice and intent.

To determine “right” action, we must check our excesses, be alert to our pleasure-seeking biases, and strive for a “middle way,” a kind of fulcrum between extremes. Courage, for instance, is the middle way between cowardice and rashness.

An aggregation of right action, derived from right thinking, will in time lead to a state of flourishing. This is more substantive and lasting than mere pleasure. Flourishing allows one to enjoy deep and lasting contentment and to weather life’s pitfalls with grace and ease.

They weren’t all great ideas

Aristotle was a brilliant thinker across the sciences, arts, politics, and philosophy. He didn’t get it right all the time, though, and some of his ideas are of dubious merit. Nichomachian Ethics feature a few zingers, such as:

  • On beauty: “beauty implies a godsized body, and little people may be neat and well-proportioned but cannot be beautiful.”[i]
  • On slavery: “no one assigns a slave a share in happiness – unless he assigns to him also a share in human life. For happiness does not lie in such occupations, but, as we have said before, in virtuous activities.”[ii]
  • On animals: “it is natural, then, that we call neither ox nor horse nor any other of the animals happy; for none of them is capable of sharing in (virtuous) activity.”[iii]
  • On patriarchy: “the association of a father with his sons bears the form of monarchy…it is the ideal of monarchy to be paternal rule,” continuing that, “sometimes, however, women rule, because they are heiresses; so their rule is not in virtue of excellence but due to wealth and power, as in oligarchies.”[iv]

Thanks, Aristotle, for propagating the patriarchy for millennia to follow. </sarcasm>

Ancient Greek society was patriarchal and misogyny would have been a prevailing attitude, and yes, that legacy remains with us.

Slaves in ancient Greece were war captives, set to domestic work. Surely serving a “master” isn’t virtuous work, but might they have been contemplative regardless, cultivating a “right” mind for their station? If virtue is in every person, so is the potential for flourishing.

And, indeed, to the modern reader, how is it even ethical to keep slaves?

Finally, Aristotle clearly never met my favourite kitten rescuer. Those little guys may or may not know eudaimonia, but they are clearly happy after some needed t.l.c.

Community first

However, let us find the gems where we may. Let us also grant that all people, not just the citizens privileged men whom Aristotle taught, can flourish. Since he considered the good of the community as paramount, so it would be folly to discount any member.

Yes, community comes first, even before individual good. And, just as the virtuous life calls us to seek the “middle way” personally, so too must society find a middle way to ensure that it is just and fair.

It is the job of justice to preserve the social mean, “intermediate since the judge is so.” (Literally, the judge is an intermediary). Justice relies on restitution and proportion to balance deficiency and excess between individuals. There is no ruler but the laws, which exist to “to encourage us to be courageous, moderate, and gentle.”

Does anyone else feel like we’re missing the mark on that one?

Aristotle might look at modern society and suggest that things are out of balance; that we have lost the middle way. The scales have tipped toward excess and hoarding on one hand, and privation and denial on the other.

As a practical thinker, Aristotle acknowledges that life requires certain basic needs be met. Flourishing cannot occur without sufficient “external wealth.” One cannot flourish when exhausted from a workaday life that provides neither satisfaction nor financial freedom. Maybe this is the kind of state that Aristotle likened slavery to.

Studies show more equitable countries to experience higher overall happiness than less equitable ones. Studies also show that, after a certain amount of income, money does not increase happiness.

Courage, modesty, and gentleness, writ large, would make this a radically different world. People could be flourishing widely, and we would all be the better for it. But it requires a return to virtue: in politics, in daily life, and action benefiting community.  

Justice doesn’t fix everything

Of course, in our modern world, too many people are patently not flourishing, and too many live in psychic pain. For some, this can lead to addiction, the effect of which seems to them to dull a much greater pain.

Aristotle posits that if you make bad choices because of drunkenness, that’s still your fault because you chose to become drunk. And so, the law would proscribe a solution to any unjust action you caused. He further rationalizes that self-harm is unjust against the state; perhaps there is something to it in the social costs of care and lost contribution.

But self-harm is less a matter of justice and more a matter of health and well-being. Aristiole’s advocating for the loss of one’s civil rights as a result is problematic.[v]

The logic works on paper, and makes a tidy conclusion of a gain-and-loss type scenario. But punishing someone for their pain only makes it worse. A person cannot willpower themselves from a mental illness or chemical dependency, and in such cases, a holistic, medical approach to treatment seems more appropriate – and more humane.

The goal would be to help these folks on their way toward their own eudaimoina. We would all be better off for it.

Virtue is the Phoenix rising

The modern age is one of too much suffering and disparity, considering the degree of wealth that exists in the world. States of nature, politics, commerce, and community are too often broken, and brokenness cannot flourish.

Perhaps it is no surprise that virtue ethics is on the rise. We are all in this together, and things are better when they are in balance. Aristotle reminds us that social consciousness is key to a good life. The right action ought to consider the benefit to the community even before our individual selves.

Indeed, in this covid era, many are realizing the importance of social interaction and support. Perhaps the silver lining of the pandemic is that it has given us pause. Many are freed of the pace and pressures of life as we knew it, and are settling into new ways of being. We question anew why we do things, the way we do them, and whether there is a better way.

A better way starts with becoming a better person, benefiting community by your betterment. While the prospect of change may seem frightening (or liberating), socially, culturally, and economically, Aristotle isn’t advocating for perfection, or for some golden ideal as Plato did.

Rather, the good life is iterative. It’s a choice followed by an action, repeated over time; eudaimonia is the result of the aggregate. Act virtuously and you become virtuous: it’s a practice.

Your personal path to flourishing is yours to discern. But whether it’s making shoes, spreadsheets or (insert your interest here) switches you on, you can choose to bring your best self to the game.

We can be more considerate, at no cost to ourselves. We can live more modestly, at no disservice to ourselves. We can give ourselves the gift of time to think, and to choose better actions.

If we all did this, what a world it would be.


[i] Book 4, Chapter 3

[ii] Book 10, Chapter 6

[iii] Book 1, Chapter 9

[iv] Book 8, Chapter10

[v] Book 5, Chapter 11

[vi] Book 1, Chapter9

2 thoughts on “Human flourishing: Aristotle on how to live your best life

  1. Pingback: Leading wisely: how benevolent governance can help society flourish | Teresa Stolarskyj

  2. Pingback: Reason and pleasure: The Epicurean way of good living | Teresa Stolarskyj

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