What would Aristotle think of the American Dream, conceptually speaking? Would he approve of it or condemn it? Achievement of such an end may seem at first glance to be only a pipe dream, far out of reach in the money hungry nation we call home. It may even provoke some to conversely wonder if our capitalist economy is actually hindering individuals’ ability to achieve their educational, financial, career, and even social ambitions. So, is it a help or a hindrance? Could it possibly do both?
Eventually these debates become muddled, chaotic, and frankly impossible matters to dissect and discuss after a while. Aristotle defines the “good life” in The Nicomachean Ethics as living contemplatively according to an individual’s function and level of happiness. His definition differs quite dramatically with the mold of the American Dream in its simplest form that most of our nation knows and covets. This ideal would most often include a romanticized vision of a comfortable home, marriage, family, stable self-made career, and fulfilling social life. The American Dream has extremely little to absolutely no room at all for contemplation. This is most likely explained by the vastly different lifestyle that a Mr. Jones today would lead compared to that of Aristotle and the other Classical Greek philosophers in Ancient Greece. Instead, twenty-first century happiness is generally rooted in the number of zeroes in the balance of a bank account and the expensive cars, toys, and gadgets Americans today possess. They see no value in spending the time to contemplate anything but keeping up with their competitors to stay at the top of the ladder in all contexts.
First of all, the Aristotelian ultimate goal of life is certainly one to be broken down prior to evaluation. He claims in The Nicomachean Ethics, “Thus it seems that happiness is something final and self-sufficing, and is the end of all that man does.” This “final and self-sufficing…end” varies according to the individual based on his or her lifestyle, occupation, and ambitions. After all, it would not be plausible by any means for a coming-of-age college student and a retiree to have the same goals.
For example, a college student may name scholastic standing as the “end” while pursuing a degree, but this will undoubtedly change upon graduation. With a diploma in hand, the graduate will search for a job to jumpstart his or her career path, so employment thus becomes the new “end.” As he or she ages, marriage and starting a family may one day take the place of the prior goals held during youth. Eventually, many people of advanced age focus on making the most of the remaining years in his or her lifetime by rearranging his or her priorities according to leisure and preference. A retiree of sixty-five years old, for example, might prioritize his or her life differently at this new stage of life by perhaps valuing practicality over fashion and holding necessity in higher regard than frivolity. For example, playing a few rounds of gold with friends each Saturday morning may gradually replace the past importance of copiously staying on top of changes in the stock market.
But Aristotle continues writing that “man’s good would seem to lie in his function, if he has one.” What is each human’s function? To be happy or to be rich? Or is it specific to each person’s occupation and/or societal role, according to Americans? These smaller, more manageable “ends” are the stepping stones to determining man’s function– the final destination. In fact, the very same college student mentioned above may have believed in high school that studying and high SAT scores would lead to admission to a prestigious university, and that graduation from that institution would grant a perfect and seamless entry into the career world.
Another example could be a member of an impoverished household that holds the final end as survival alone. Smaller goals lead up to this end, of course, such as securing provisions, maintaining health, taking safety precautions, and staying financially afloat. This more primitive list of needs is certainly more basic and primal as it is parallel to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This pyramid taught in psychology courses outlines the basic needs of humans and the succession of how these needs are satisfied or denied. Starting with physiological needs such as food and shelter, the structure stretches upward until the individual has completed each level to reach the pinnacle, self-actualization.4 Evidently these more practical and pragmatic ends are quite different than those on a college student’s mind, since the “final good” is entirely dependent on circumstance. Aristotle may have declared a universal goal for the human race by labeling it “the final good,” but the definition of the good itself is in no way universal.
Aristotle would most likely evaluate the American Dream as too dependent on financial success and totally devoid of the alleged benefits he attributes to regularly practicing contemplation. He would most likely notice that Americans live in accordance to action, not thought. After all, Nike tells consumers to “Just Do It” while the Latin phrase Carpe diem has always permeated society. It seems that our nation today finds no value in overthought as opposed to immediate action, which could be attributed to the country’s obsession with instant gratification.
Many have opinions and templates for this pursuit, especially in the political realm, such as how Aristotle specifically declared that contemplation is the path to happiness. Republicans advocate capitalism as the channel to success because of the belief that it continues to foster the ambition and risk that have shaped America and its entrepreneurs. Democrats, while supportive of capitalism, still criticize it as well as “big business” for widening the distribution gap between today’s rich and poor.3 But is it the entrepreneurial risk takers who can achieve the “good life” compounded by their understanding of the American Dream?
Those who have taken advantage of America’s capitalist nature include prominent CEOs such as Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Mark Zuckerberg. Yet Gates of Microsoft in particular recognizes the impossible absolutes that some profess about capitalism. He remarks, “Capitalism has improved the lives of billions of people…But it has left out billions more.”2 He concedes that capitalism is “this wonderful thing that motivates people,” but Gates still maintains that “in this area of diseases of the world at large, it’s [capitalism] really let us down.”2 Other high caliber thinkers and activists offer opposing viewpoints. Ralph Waldo Emerson, author of Self-Reliance, claims that “Doing well is the result of doing good. That’s what capitalism is all about.”6 In addition, college professor and feminist social critic Camille Paglia notes that capitalism, weaknesses and all, “raised the standard of living for most of the world and enabled the emancipation of women.”1,6
Considering The Nicomachean Ethics in conjunction with capitalism today, it seems that this particular economic philosophy does not aid the achievement of ultimate fulfillment in terms of the “good life.” Though the State, or polis, in America advocates capitalism and risk-taking as the paths to success, capitalism knows only one color: green. Happiness and fulfillment, according to his writings, are only derived from the inside.5 Considering that financial success, which denotes bursting pocketbooks and back accounts, is an extrinsic end, it seems that capitalism as a result would not correlate with Aristotle’s definition of fulfillment. This is not to make an absolute, concrete, irrevocable declaration that capitalism is a cancer on the human quest for happiness, but instead it just does not conform to Aristotle’s point of view. According to an aspiring member of the Forbes 500 List, capitalism would undoubtedly be the path to success, but many would agree that life encompasses infinitely more than money. In fact, some would argue that contentment and service are the keys to fulfillment in a lifetime.
“Camille Paglia Biography.” Camille Paglia Biography. http://www.biographybase.com/biography/paglia_camille.html (accessed May 5, 2014).
Gates, Barbara. “Making Capitalism More Creative.” Time. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1828417,00.html (accessed May 5, 2014).
Newport, Frank. “Democrats, Republicans Diverge on Capitalism, Federal Gov’t.” Democrats, Republicans Diverge on Capitalism, Federal Gov’t. http://www.gallup.com/poll/158978/democrats-republicans-diverge-capitalism-federal-gov.aspx (accessed May 2, 2014).
McLeod, Sean. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Simply Psychology. http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html (accessed May 5, 2014).
McManaman, Doug. “Aristotle and the Good Life.” lifeissues.net. http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/mcm/ph/ph_01philosophyyouth14.html (accessed May 2, 2014).
Xplore. “Capitalism Quotes.” BrainyQuote. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/capitalism.html (accessed May 4, 2014).