Achieving Aristotle’s “good life”: the impact of picking a college major


McClain Dormer

Based on a full understanding of Aristotle’s “good life”, it is a fair assumption to conclude that a capitalist society helps its citizens achieve this life, particularly when it comes to choosing a college major.

Aristotle states that “the function of man, then, is exercise of his vital faculties (or soul)”. [2] In this, he is expressing that to achieve a good life; one must live out one’s faculties in accordance to reason. Discovering one’s faculties comes from what Aristotle declares as the master-art or master-science, Politics. He says that it “prescribes which of the sciences a state needs, and which each man shall study, and up to what point; and to it we see subordinated even the highest arts, such as economy, rhetoric, and the art of war”.[2] Politics plays a vital role in allowing citizens to understand what their function is. Each state contains citizens with differing functions and each state itself has a different function. It is the duty of each individual to discover what their function is and it is the duty of the state to help its citizens and allow them to properly exercise their faculties. Aristotle emphasizes that “a state is a body of citizens sufficing for the purposes of life”. [3] The state must support its citizens and allow them to live in accordance with their functions, in order to achieve the good life. He continues by saying that “man is by nature a political animal” and that men “desire to live together”. [3] These statements support the idea that if each man discovers his faculties and exercises them properly, the economy of that state will grow and the state itself will in turn flourish due to man’s desire to live with others and not be alone. Because man is a political animal, he is in constant search of his faculties and has an instinct to live them out. Remember, it is politics that help govern a state’s faculties and helps citizens recognize their own.

How does all of this lead to a capitalist society helping people achieve the good life with regard to choosing a college major you may ask? Well let me first give a better understanding as to what both a capitalist society and a communist society are made up of and value. When I refer to a capitalist society, I am referring to the United States. Although the United States is not a completely capitalist country, it is the closest thing to a real life example of capitalism. Continually, when I refer to a communist society, I am specifically referring to the communist country of China. The purpose of this article is to compare what it is like to choose a college major in the United States and what that means for a future career versus in China in order to draw a conclusion on which type of society Aristotle would support in regard to achieving what he defines as a good life.

“The American free enterprise system emphasizes private ownership. Private businesses produce most goods and services, and almost two-thirds of the nation’s total economic output goes to individuals for personal use (the remaining one-third is bought by government and business)”. [4] This private ownership and the idea of private property are two of the main concepts that set capitalism apart from other systems, especially communism. The government does play a role in the American economy, which is what makes it not a complete capitalist state. With that said, it is stated that “if the pure capitalism described by Marx ever existed, it has long since disappeared, as governments in the United States  and many other countries have intervened in their economies to limit concentrations of power and address many of the social problems associated with unchecked private commercial interests”. [4] If the power is only kept between the wealthiest and not distributed in some way, the economy will crash and virtually disappear. Because there must be some sort of government control over the economy, America cannot be purely capitalist, but for our purposes it is close enough to argue that America is today’s version of as a capitalist society. In concluding what a capitalist country is composed of, it is safe to say that a capitalist society like the United States believes in private property, private business, minimal government interference, and freedom to choose and do as one pleases within reason. Reason in this scenario would be governmental laws that protect individual safety and the country as a whole. Citizens of America have a say in their role in the state, they are not enslaved by the government or forced into a certain area of expertise.

Communism works differently. The Chinese Communist Party “oversees and influences many aspects of people’s lives – what they learn at school and watch on TV, even the number of children they are allowed’. [5] Freedom in this country is minimal and everything is controlled. Continually, it is said that the China’s communist party, which is made up mostly of government officials, army officers, farmers, model workers and employees of state-owned companies”, “is obsessive about control, regularly showing itself capable of great brutality in suppressing dissent or any challenge to its authority”. [5] The Communist party makes it incredibly difficult for people to live free lives and choose for themselves the best way of life. The excessive government control hinders China’s citizens from discovering their true potential. They are unable to discover, by themselves, their true function because they are controlled so extensively.

Moving on, it is important to understand what one should think about when choosing a college major. Choosing a college major has a huge impact on what one will do later in life and what ones career will be. At age 18, it seems pretty unreasonable for one to fully understand their potential and what their faculties are. I do not think that Aristotle would support the immature age of 18 as a suitable age for declaring one’s function and pursuing further education in order strengthen it. With that said, 18 is still the age in which one must choose their college major, a decision that defines one’s whole future. In the United States, a capitalist country, there are many things to think about when deciding what to study in college. A few things one might consider are “what is the earning potential of your interest, which schools offer this major? Where are they located, how much will it cost, determine in what areas of your life you are most successful, how will you pay for it, what is the work load, talk to people who have obtained the major you are considering, look at the career options available within the major, financial incentives”. [6] These are all extremely important things to take into account when determining which area of study one wants to pursue. From that list, the two I find the most important are determining in what areas of your life you are most successful and looking at the career options available within the major. Determining what areas of your life you are most successful in follows what Aristotle says about exercising ones faculties. You must determine what your function is and what those faculties that you possess are in order to pick a major, but sometimes that is hard to know at age 18. Furthermore, being aware of what the career options in that major are is extremely important for the same reason listed before. Exercising your faculties consists of doing the proper job, which allows you to carry out your talents and skills. Luckily, in the United States, it is fairly easy to change your major later in the college journey or go back to school at any time to further an education in something entirely different. This allows for the freedom to truly find what you are passionate about and achieve the good life.

In China, things work a little differently. It is stated that “major declaration by students has been adopted by some universities for years in China, however, it was not until recently that all students of a Chinese university can choose their own majors by themselves”. [7] Can you imagine not being able to choose your own major? This idea takes away from the freedom every person should have to choose what they want to do and what career they want to explore. The citizens of China, until recently, have been unable to explore their true functions and exercise their faculties in the ways Aristotle says bring about happiness and the good life. Even though Chinese students can now choose their majors for themselves, it is extremely difficult to change their major if they later realize they have chosen the wrong path. If they are able to change their major, it is still extremely detrimental because “in reality, due to limited teaching resources, not every student can succeed in changing their majors’’. [7] If one is unable to succeed after changing their major, then they are unable to achieve the good life and exercise their faculties in the ways that Aristotle says will bring about happiness. This communistic way of living is only detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

It seems obvious which of the two systems Aristotle would support in regard to helping its citizens achieve the good life. Communist societies do nothing to help their citizens; they only hinder them from reaching their true potential and exercising their faculties to the fullest. With that said, it can be concluded that capitalist societies do indeed help their citizens reach what Aristotle teaches is the good life. The United States provides the resources and freedom necessary for each citizen to find their passion, work towards strengthening it, and carry it out in a career that helps not only themselves, but also the state as a whole. Determining a college major is a scary process and seems stressful, but by living in a capitalist society, one has the tools needed to discover ones true function and to exercise ones vital faculties in order to achieve happiness and a good life supported by the state.


[1] Prosperi, Anne. “The Stress of Picking a Major (And Why It’s Not That Big of a Deal).” Dukes Declassified. Accessed December 07, 2015.

[2] Aristotle. “The Nicomachean Ethics Book 1.”

[3] Aristotle. “The Politics.”

[4] U.S. Department of State. “Does Pure Capitalism Exist in the United States?” Education. Accessed December 07, 2015.

[5] “How China Is Ruled: Communist Party.” BBC News. October 8, 2012. Accessed December 07, 2015.

[6] “10 Things to Consider Before Choosing Your Major.” 10 Things To Consider Before Choosing Your Major. Accessed December 07, 2015.

[7] Beibei, Ji, and Ma Chenguang. “Free Choice of Major at College Comes No Easy Way.” CHINADAILY. April 28, 2013. Accessed December 7, 2015.




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