Would Aristotle be considered a Buddhist?

Brigid Brewer

The most controversial questions in our society always revolve around “true happiness”. Everyone wants to find a way to obtain happiness whether it comes from wealth or from a loving relationship. Although everyone shares a common desire: happiness, everyone has their own unique interpretation on what happiness is or what will lead them to happiness. One philosopher, Aristotle, attempted to answer the growing questions of what will lead to happiness and what his understanding of happiness is. Throughout his life, he strove to answer the question: “what is the ultimate purpose of human existence and is the end or goal to which we should direct our actions?” Happiness. Similarly to Aristotle another source, Buddhism, believes our human actions should be directed towards the end goal as well. The great thinker Aristotle and the Buddhist religion hold differing viewpoints pertaining to desire, however both have similar opinions in regards to happiness.

Aristotle and Buddhism have contrasting ideas on desire.  In De Anima, Aristotle states that we are moved to action only when we grasp the object of desire. [5] He goes on to say that desire is “real or the apparent good”. [7] Aristotle believes the widely held conviction that the soul is implicated in motion, meaning all souls are implicated in desire. [3] As humans it is natural to desire many things even if it is as simply as just surviving. Aristotle concludes that all people other than those who are completely and virtuously moderate have depraved desires but do not, precisely because they are content, ever act upon them. [1] “It is manifest, therefore, that what is called desire is the sort of faculty in the soul which initiates movement.” [5]  . In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that happiness is, “believed to be the most desirable thing in the world”. [4] Although Aristotle concludes desire motivates us and that all souls are implicated in desire, Buddhist disagree. In Buddhism, desire, also referred to as tanh, is the cause of the cycle of samara. The cycle of samara is not broken until one is in nirvana which is enlightenment. Buddha states, “There is no fear for one whose mind is not filled with desires.” [6] While Aristotle says that desire is the real good, Buddhism identifies desire as the idea of selfishness. Buddhist accept the fact it is our human nature to desire, however they believe no one will ever be truly happy if they still desire. “Desire has power over us and deludes us only as long as we grasp it, believe in it and react to it”.[11]

While Buddhist and Aristotelian philosophy disagree on some topics, there are others in which they concur. Aristotle and Buddhism define happiness in complementary ways.  In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states happiness is living out the virtues to the fullest extent. He makes the connection that happiness depends on the cultivation of virtues and ourselves. “He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue.” [4] Part of the purpose of human life is to achieve happiness. [8] Aristotle and Buddhists both believe happiness is the ultimate goal. Buddhists define happiness as a peace of mind, which is achieved by detaching oneself from the cycle of craving. After achieving a mental state where one is detached from all needs and wants of life, one can be free and achieve a state of transcendent bliss and wellbeing. Aristotle similarly discusses “eudemonia”, which defines happiness as not just a feeling, but a state of well-being. [4] Both Buddhists and Aristotle believe that happiness, the end of life, is performing activities in accordance to reason. [2] Aristotle states that “Happiness then, is found to be something perfect and self-sufficient, being the end to which our actions are directed.” [4] The two different sources focus on happiness is the central purpose of human life and a goal. Happiness depends on virtue or how we chose to live our life.

Aristotle states virtue is a mean which is the balance between two extremes. [1] Aristotle’s mean relates to Buddhism’s belief in the Middle Way. The Middle Way was discovered when Buddha left his family and community to find a deeper meaning of what his purpose is. He grew up in the Kshatriya which was the wealthy class of the Hindu caste system. Buddha wanted to find the true meaning of life because he knew wealth did not bring him happiness. He became an ascetic and deprived himself from all nutrients and necessitates, however he realized that did not make him happy either. He came to the conclusions that the Middle Way brought blissful happiness. The Middle Way was a balance between his wealthy life and his ascetic life. The Middle Way holds that spiritual happiness and implies complete happiness: in body, mind, and spirit. It also states that salvation is neither achieved through material life nor the other extreme of asceticism. Aristotle agrees. He says, “Virtue lies in our power, and similarly so does vice; because where it is in our power to act, it is also in our power not to act…”  [4] It is very similar to Aristotle’s idea of a mean between two extremes.

The Eightfold Path leads to ultimate happiness, nirvana. Buddhism focuses on ending the tendency to go against nature. The path encourages Buddhist to work with nature and not work against it. Buddha, the enlightened one, describes following the Eightfold Path as right views, right intentions, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and lastly right meditation. Aristotle states that to achieve happiness; one must perform at their highest function of reasoning while utilizing their highest function. He goes on to say, “These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions … The good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life.” [4] The Buddhist Eightfold Path requires Buddhist to live at their highest function of reasoning while utilizing their highest function as well. Both Aristotle and Buddha agree there needs to be certain steps or means taken to achieve happiness. In addition they both believe that happiness depends on ourselves, we can chose to be happy. Aristotle states, “Happiness depends on ourselves.” [4]  While living out the Eightfold Path Buddhist are living to their fullest extent and will achieve nirvana, complete happiness. Both the Eightfold Path and Aristotle focus on moral values.

Since the beginning of time, mankind has sought to understand what happiness is and how it can be attained. Although the two seem to be vastly different, Aristotle and Buddha share similar ideas about human existence and joy. Their similar ideas help us believe that there is a similar answer or idea that will lead our society to happiness.

[1] “Aristotle’s Ethics.” Aristotle’s Ethics. Accessed April 07, 2016. http://philosophy.lander.edu/ethics/aristotle1.html.

[2]”THE BUDDHA AND ARISTOTLE COMPARED.” THE BUDDHA AND ARISTOTLE COMPARED. Accessed April 07, 2016. http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/budarist.htm.

[3]”THREE KINDS OF DESIRE.” THREE KINDS OF DESIRE. Accessed April 07, 2016. http://www.buddhanet.net/4noble12.htm.

[4] Aristotle, and Martin Ostwald. Nicomachean Ethics. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962.

[5]Aristotle, and W. D. Ross. De Anima. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1961.

[6]Bodhi, B. (2005). In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (Teachings of the Buddha). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

[7]Förster, Aurelius, 1912, Aristotelis De Anima Libri III, Budapest: Academiae Litterarum Hungaricae.

[8]Hamlyn, D. W., 1968 [1993], Aristotle De anima, Books II and III (with passages from Book I), translated with Introduction and Notes by D.W. Hamlyn, with a Report on Recent Work and a Revised Bibliography by Christopher Shields, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[9]Müller, M., & Maguire, J. (2002). Dhammapada: Annotated & Explained. Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing. (Translation by Max Müller, annotations and revisions by Jack Maguire.)

[10]Shields, Christopher. “Aristotle’s Psychology.” Stanford University. 2000. Accessed April 07, 2016. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-psychology/#8.

[11]Smith, Huston, and Huston Smith. The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.


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