Last week I explored how we might apply Aristotle’s ideas about ethical beauty to the “micro level” of specific virtues and particular situations. This week I’d like to see how we might apply the same basic insights to the “macro level” of living a beautiful life.
Here again I’ll consider Aristotle’s six criteria:
- Coherence (τάξις) is all about the arrangement of the parts of a thing. Several “things” seem relevant in this context. The first thing is what the ancients called the soul or ψυχή (my preferred translation is “aliveness”); Aristotle talked about the “nutritive soul” (physical needs like metabolism and growth, which we share even with the plants), the “perceptual soul” (wants engendered by the ability to perceive and move around in the world), and the “intellective soul” (wishes and imaginings made possible by the human faculty of λόγος = reason-and-speech). Finding the right balance or arrangement among these aspects of oneself contributes mightily to living well. The second thing is the various domains of life – health and vitality, achievement and purpose, relationships and caring, character and self-improvement, wisdom and learning, wonder and spirituality, etc. Here, too, generating deep coherence among them matters a great deal.
- Proportion (συμμετρία) might be closely related to coherence, in the sense that most people don’t want any particular aspect or pursuit to take up a disproportionate amount of time and energy. If all you do is, say, engage in physical exercise to stay healthy, then you might neglect other parts of life that need attention. However, what’s proportionate for one person might not be proportionate for another: some folks really do focus most of their energies on just one or two aspects of life (say, great artists or scholars) and seem to be happy that way. Know thyself!
- Order (τὸ ὡρισμένον) might involve a due ordering of your purposes in life: for instance, knowing what is valuable in itself vs. a means to an end. As an example, Aristotle argued that physical health is not a core constituent of eudaimonia but a precondition for the more fundamental pursuits involved in living a good life, such as relationships with other people. Similarly, he argued that wealth is not an end in itself.
- Stature (μέγεθος) could be interpreted in terms of the scope or timespan involved in living well. A famous quote from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics observes that “one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one day; and in the same way one day or a short time does not make a person blessed and happy”. Achieving eudaimonia requires a lifelong approach to learning, self-improvement, relationships, and one’s goals and purposes. That’s stature.
- Unity (τὸ ὅλος) might imply what I like to translate as “wholeness” (αὐτάρκεια): a sense that your life isn’t missing anything important; a related topic could be having a comprehensive understanding of life and your place in it, and applying that wisdom as unifying a force in your life.
- Significance (σπουδαῖα) refers to the seriousness, significance, worth, and meaning of your life and the actions, projects, relationships, goals, and purposes that make it up. One of my favorite books about Aristotle’s views on human flourishing is Taking Life Seriously by Francis Sparshott and that captures this idea quite well!
Again, I’ll note that these applications of Aristotle’s ideas are quite speculative, but I hope you find them provocative for your own reflections.