In last week’s episode, we discussed how difficult the choice of what to do after university can be. This article calls upon the wisdom of Aristotle to guide you in making decisions and the importance of sometimes getting it wrong.
In his works, The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses how to achieve eudaimonia, a happy and flourishing life. Aristotle believes that we could achieve this using Virtue Theory, an ethical theory that emphasises on an individual’s character rather than following a set of rules.
‘How do we achieve such a state?’, you might ask. Well, Aristotle believes that humans flourish by exercising virtues and being good people.
Being good is our function as humans. Such virtues are formed through experience and are the ‘middle states’ of character traits, such as courage, generosity or pride.
Aristotle’s Golden Mean is particularly useful in explaining how to achieve those ‘middle states’. The Golden Mean demonstrates how one can exercise virtues, such as courage, generosity or modesty, without falling into excess or deficiency.
The Golden Mean:
Aristotle believes that humans rely on their virtues to decide how they behave. Doing good makes us feel good. Let us look at a few examples:
- Courage: falling short means you are a coward, and going too far means you are reckless, so the ‘mean’ is being brave.
- Generosity: falling short means you are ungenerous, and going too far means you are extravagant, so the ‘mean’ is being generous.
- Modesty: falling short means you are shameless, and going too far means you are extremely shy, so the ‘mean’ is having a sense of modesty.
Thus, when pursuing a flourishing life, one should aim to exude these virtuous character traits. The mean traits represent the perfect balance between too little and too much, therefore, are the perfect choice to make in order to achieve eudaimonia. However, achieving this perfect balance between all things takes time and practise:
“Character virtues come through habit, and hence, need time and experience.”
The Importance of Making Mistakes:
One way you can practise living a fulfilling life is by actually making mistakes. Aristotle describes virtue as a form of ‘practical wisdom’, meaning it is learnt through experience:
“We should sometimes lean towards going too far, and sometimes lean towards falling short because they’ll actually be the easiest way of hitting the midpoint and getting it right.”
Aristotle explains that the wisdom that comes with making the right choices are learnt but cannot be taught, and thus, wisdom derives from experience.
According to Aristotle, this allows us to continuously improve and strive for a goal. It is how we experience pleasures, failures and challenges throughout life.
This means there is no magic technique when it comes to making decisions. You have to make the mistake of choosing the wrong path before knowing which one is right for you.
Aristotle’s Golden Mean can show us how different virtues can be exercised in order to achieve eudaimonia. However, part of the process is also making mistakes and getting it wrong.
This is why we believe that in your early twenties, after you have finished the long-winded path of education, you should try different things if you are unsure of what to do next. It will allow you to decide what you like and do not like, and, eventually, one of these choices will lead you to the right path and help you find your purpose.
Taking a break (if feasible to you) is also very valuable. It will allow you to do nothing and think about your deepest desires, therefore, helping you find what you want the most out of life.
“The highest good meets all your needs […] it makes your life not just a desirable one, but a life from which nothing is missing”.
Aristotle (2020 edition), The Nicomachean Ethics, Penguin Classics.
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