The Purpose of Existence
Why are we here? What is our purpose? For all of history, humanity’s greatest minds have tried to answer these questions, to understand the human condition. To accomplish this task, one must understand the primary drive behind human life – happiness. Aristotle, one of the most notable philosophers in human history, understood happiness as the end result of the pursuit of good, arguing that other virtues, which are acquired and mastered along the way, are only “bonus” virtues, virtues which are not the end result of ones toils and faculties.
Aristotle asks the simple question of: What is the end goal for which we direct all of our activities? In the eyes of Aristotle, the end goal is happiness. Have we, as a society, achieved that? The answer is no. Our society is so wrapped up in materialistic goods that we fail to remember what our purpose on earth is. To be happy. We live in a very unhappy world with people because people do not pursue good, and therefore they do not find happiness. Our world is also unhappy due to poverty, disadvantages, and hardships people struggle through. Aristotle states that “happiness…does not consist in amusement; and indeed it is absurd to suppose that the end is amusement, and that we toil and moil all our life long for the sake of amusing ourselves” (Ethics Book II, 7). That is exactly what our society has been doing since the fall of man. That is not our pursuit of the good that Aristotle was talking about. Our scapegoat to our incapability to obtaining happiness is our society itself.
Aristotle goes into depth on how man is co-dependent with the society. In Politics, Aristotle claims that man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than a human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as to not need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god (Politics, 6). This infers and reassures that society and the pursuit of happiness are completely co-dependent. Without our society, one cannot practice virtue and potentially the pursuit of the good – happiness.
How can we fix this problem of focusing on consumerism of materialistic goods that are completely useless? Service. Serviam: to serve others. Service allows people to pursue the good by helping and serving those in need. By doing this, people will find happiness by solving the original problem of an unhappy world. It is easy enough to see that what people think happiness is money and pleasure. Happiness is often conceived as a subjective state of mind. Society believes that happiness is something that can be physically tangible. For Aristotle, happiness is a final end that incorporates the totality of one’s life. Because of this, one cannot make an assertion about whether one has lived a happy life until it is over. He states that we cannot say that a child is happy because “he is as yet, because of his age, unable to do such things. If we ever call a child happy, it is because we hope he will do them” (Nicomachean Ethics Book II, 9). Aristotle also says that “happiness requires not only perfect excellence or virtue, but also a full term of years for its exercise” (Nicomachean Ethics Book II, 9).
There is a common link between happiness and virtue, and that virtue that society should attain is helping others. Essentially, Aristotle argues that virtue is achieved by maintain the “mean,” which is the process of achieving virtue. By helping others, that will help end the unhappiness society endures. The excellence of one’s art or science is the practice of one’s virtue. In the example of the harper versus the good harper, Aristotle states that “the harper’s function is to harp and the good harper’s to harp well” (Nicomachean Ethics Book , 5). The good harper is performing his function well, with much practice, in order to master his virtue and ultimately find his happiness. Aristotle then goes on to sketch the framework of three types of characters of happy people which include: those who are naturally disposed to happiness, those who make a habit out of working towards happiness, and those who are trained in virtue to achieve happiness. If one truly desires to serve others they fall under all three of those categories. Aiding others contributes to creating goodness. He then states that, “goodness is simple, ill takes any shape” (Nicomachean Ethics Book II, 6). The good is helping those who are in need of support, comfort, and aid. Virtue, then, becomes a habitual act that contributes to the greater good. As stated by Aristotle, “virtue, then, is a kind of moderation, inasmuch as it aims at the mean or moderate amount” (Nicomachean Ethics Book II, 6).
The phenomenon of helping others is a very beneficial ideal that is important to the human mind. This natural occurrence can begin with the aspirations of obtaining positive affirmations. Positive affirmations are widely available and can change a life. Believing in positive affirmations gives you the power to change your life and others. Instead of watching people struggle through obstacles and hardships, one may use their skills and virtues that they acquire to help aid and end destitutions that go on in society. This forces one to step outside of them and look at life in a different perspective. Those affirmations allow one to gain a special feeling of fulfillment by changing someone else’s life as well as their own. Think about it…if one spends a substantial amount of time enjoying helping others, they themselves are experiencing a piece of their happiness. Doing good makes you feel good. Helping others goes off Aristotle’s teaching that “Man’s function then being, as we say, a kind of life – that is to say, exercise of his faculties and action of various kinds with reason – the good man’s function is to this well and beautifully [or nobly]” (Nicomachean Ethics Book, 7). The idea of helping others also goes under Aristotle’s teaching that “Our account, again, is in harmony with the common saying that the happy man lives well and does well; for we may say that happiness, according to us, is a living well and doing well” (Nicomachean Ethics Book, 7). The “doing well” ideal falls under serving others.
As stated, one potential way to cut the unhappiness that society withstands is by helping others. In Nicomachean Ethics Book II, Aristotle describes goodness and virtue and how it is man’s duty to use his skills and virtues to add to the goodness of a society. “Goodness is simple” (Nicomachean Ethics Book II, 6). The simplicity of helping others by sacrificing time, energy, and selflessly putting someone else’s needs before your own needs not only solves the problem of unhappiness but also sets an example for others on how to live a selfless life and therefore how to be happy. It is not necessary to move to Africa, for example, to help those suffering from Ebola and various diseases. The desire to want to move to Africa to help those suffering is indeed admirable, but not necessary. There is always help needed nearby. For example, many people in the Dallas metropolis suffer from poverty. One does not need to sacrifice their entire life savings to help those with financial disadvantages, instead, one could devote their time and effort into helping them get a job, increase their life skills, and just being with them. Serviam: to serve others, is a broad statement that only one can choose what to do with it. Aristotle stated that “The virtue or excellence that we are to consider is, of course, the excellence of man for it is the good of man and the happiness of man that we started to seek. And by the excellence of man I mean excellence not of body, but of soul; for happiness we take to be an activity of the soul” (Nicomachean Ethics Book II, 13.).
“The Pursuit of Happiness.” Pursuit of Happiness. Accessed December 9, 2014. http://www.pursuit-of happiness.org/history-of-happiness/aristotle/.
Aristotle and Ross, W. D. Nicomachean Ethics. Raleigh, N.C.: Alex Catalogue, 2000.