On Aristotle, eudaimonia, and the Golden Mean

Ancient philosophers attempted to answer a lot of the questions we still grapple with today. Questions about the nature of reality, our existence, and understanding what knowledge is.

Aristotle, who is sometimes credited with founding the field of biology as we know it today, had many of the same interests. I like to think of him as the og polymath.

One of questions he mulled over was “how should we live?”

And he had some interesting ideas. He believed that humans should pursue eudaimonia, which loosely translates to flourishing or thriving. The best way to think of it is as a verb, not a noun. It’s a way of life, a practice rather than a state, an attempt to be the best version of oneself.

This, he would argue, is in stark contrast to many of the things we chase in modern life with the goal of achieving “happiness.” Think status, money, fame, power. Our cultures are increasingly built around providing hedonistic or momentary pleasures via material pursuits. And yet they fail to provide long-lasting fulfillment and flourishing.

Aristotle advocated for a life of virtue leading to intellectual growth, where he defined virtue as the Golden Mean between two extremes. For example, courage is the mean between recklessness and cowardice. Generosity is the sweet spot between extravagance and miserliness.

He would argue that leading a life of virtue helps a person to develop a character of stability, moderation, and balance.

This seems like a useful guideline to follow given my recent interest in finding more balance in my life. Yet it doesn’t provide definitive answers for what values should be considered objectively better than others, and if objectivity in this matter is even possible. That’s an issue to tackle another time.

What’s more interesting to me is that a lot of modern research on happiness aligns really well with Aristotle’s ideas about the good life. We know that beyond a certain level of income or wealth, we see diminishing returns on well-being.

The work of cognitive scientist Laurie Santos provides further clues. She highlights that external factors like wealth, good looks, or high grades don't contribute to lasting happiness as much as we’re inclined to think. This aligns with Aristotle's idea of eudaimonia being about personal growth and intrinsic motivations, rather than external achievements.

She encourages practices such as reflection to pause and pay attention to what one has, which have been proven to increase happiness. Aristotle might see this as an expression of the virtue of gratitude.

Santos emphasizes the importance of nurturing strong social connections, as we are fundamentally social creatures. Aristotle also recognized the social dimension of eudaimonia, arguing that a good life involves active participation in communal and political life.

I’m particularly interested in ideas from hundreds or thousands of years ago that are backed up by modern research. This kind of continuity signals the enduring relevance of concepts regardless of whether it’s 1023 or 2023. It’s eudaimonia that I seek.