Aristotle on Ways of Life

While I’m reflecting on philosophies and ways of life, I thought it would be interesting to look at what Aristotle says about ways of life in his writings on ethics.

First, he states that there is a fundamentally human way of life or bios (it always helps to remember that Aristotle founded the science of biology, i.e., the formal study of the bios of living things). Human beings are social animals whose activities are characterized by speech-and-reason (logos). Thus, for instance, a being that leads an utterly solitary existence could not be a human being, but would be either a god or a beast.

Second, within the fundamentally human way of life Aristotle delineates four particular forms of living that have a primary focus: the life of money-making, of pleasure-seeking, of political engagement, or of theoretical inquiry. He quickly dismisses the life of money-making. Why? The way I see it, he’s engaging in a thought experiment: if you had enough money to live on, what would you do? He thinks it’s absurd to say “I’d make more money” because that is a path without any natural limits. (More on this in a future post.)

This leaves the three lives of pleasure, politics, or inquiry. But why just these three? Why not also lives of family relations, artistic creation, religious devotion, professional service, philanthropy, invention, entrepreneurship, etc.? I see a few possible and perhaps overlapping explanations:

  • Some of our modern ways of life were simply not an option 2400 years ago (e.g., entrepreneurship in our sense of creating value through companies didn’t exist).
  • He denigrated certain ways of life (e.g., even though Aristotle was a parent – unlike, I’ll note, Plato and many other ancient philosophers – he seems to have thought that homelife was second best).
  • He might have thought that some ways of life can be subsumed under pleasure, politics, and inquiry. For instance, he came from a long line of doctors and he might have seen medicine as a combination of social service and theoretical investigation. Similarly, the political life (literally, life in a polis or community) could be seen as a philanthropic endeavor.

To amplify on my previous post, the sense of “way of life” used here is different from the sense in “philosophy as a way of life”, because every philosophical school falls under the latter rather than the former. Yet there could be interesting relationships between these senses: for example, Stoicism lends itself to the political life whereas Epicureanism lends itself to a certain life of pleasure.

Finally, nothing says it’s necessary to dedicate all of your activities to a singular focus: it seems at least possible to, say, make money as a nurse while raising a family or pursuing music in your spare time. This points in the direction of what I think of as a “portfolio management” approach to life, but that’s a topic for another post as well.

4 thoughts on “Aristotle on Ways of Life

  1. It does seem strange that Aristotle left out the professions. Doctors, engineers, and professional advocates existed in his time, and of course midwives and accountants. He seems to have some sort of bias, perhaps toward the upper classes.

    It’s interesting to compare Rand to Aristotle. If I understand what you’re saying correctly, Aristotle also said that one’s life should have a single telos. Rand definitely says so: You should organize your life around a central productive activity that will give you a locus of accomplishments to achieve. I have such a purpose in my writing, which is the most important value in my life after my wife.

    I have a friend who put me off by describing my writing as a “hobby.” Apparently, although she considers herself an Objectivist, she has no central purpose, just a “portfolio” as you would say. Thus, she didn’t see that my writing was of paramount importance to me. I think there’s a lot more to explore here, and it looks like you’re going to do so!


    1. Hi Kurt, thanks for your stimulating comment. All the ancient Greek philosophers had an animus toward what Rand would call productivity, and they wouldn’t have included it among the virtues. Work was considered a painful necessity, best avoided if possible by being a member of the aristocracy. But it wasn’t really a matter of thinking that the love of money was the root of all evil. There’s an amusing sentence somewhere in Aristotle’s works where he scoffs at a particular statement by comparing it to saying that if you want to eat well you’d actually have to do the cooking yourself – how absurd!

      And no, for you writing is not a hobby but a calling. Big difference!

      To my mind, the portfolio approach to life makes a lot of sense: you need to take care of your health, your wealth broadly construed, your relationships, your character, etc. I guess I’d better write that post soon so you can see where I’m going with it…


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