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Ancient: Aristotle on the Purpose of Life

Video transcript

(intro music) Hi, my name is Monte Johnson. I'm a professor at the University[br]of California, San Diego, and today I want to talk about[br]the purpose of human life, Aristotle's Ergon Argument. The word "ergon" in Greek means "work," or "job," or[br]"product," or "function." The term is most clearly used[br]in the context of artifacts or skills. So the ergon of a saw is to cut. The ergon of a house is[br]to protect against weather and intruders. And the argon of an[br]architect is to build houses. A connected term is "arete," which means "excellence" or "virtue." The excellence of a saw is sharpness, since its function is to cut. The excellence of a house[br]is stability and security, since its function is protection. And the excellence of an architect is the[br]building of good houses. Do human beings have[br]an ergon, or a function? And if so, do they also have a corresponding[br]arete, or excellence? Aristotle argues that they do, And his argument can help[br]us think more clearly about the purpose of human life. But before we can discuss[br]the ergon argument itself we need to discuss some[br]background assumptions about the nature of life. Aristotle recognizes four[br]distinct classes of living things: plants, animals, humans, and Gods. And we'll set Gods[br]aside for a moment here. Aristotle defines living things by their capabilities. Plants have the ability to grow, use energy, and reproduce. When we talk about a[br]plant doing well or poorly, we refer to these capabilities. Thus, when a plant is growing properly, deepening its roots, throwing out leaves and flowers and shoots, and fructifying, we say that it is flourishing. The opposite happens when a[br]plant's capabilities are stymied, when a tree, for instance, is stunted, or leaves are withering[br]and dying on the vine. Botanists and gardeners know what is good or bad for plants, that is, what kinds of things help and what kinds of things[br]hurt the activities related to their capabilities. Notice that it is not a matter of opinion, but of scientific fact, what is good and bad for[br]plants in this respect. Different plants might require[br]different kinds of nutrients or different amounts of shade and water. But every plant is said[br]to do well or poorly on the objective basis of the activities related to[br]its specific capabilities. Animals, in a way, are like[br]superpowered plants. They too have the ability to grow, use nutrition, and reproduce. These things are just[br]as objectively important for animals as they are for plants, as veterinarians and[br]zoologists can tell you. But animals also have other[br]and higher capabilities. For example animals, unlike plants, can move themselves around in space. Animals that cannot do so, whether because of a birth[br]defect or because they're encaged, cannot be said to be doing well. This is why animal rights activists campaign for larger cages[br]or free ranges for animals, because it's obvious that[br]it is better for the animals if they are capable of exercising their capacity[br]for self-movement fully. Most importantly, animals have the capability of perception. They can feel hot and cold, smell, taste, hear, and see. And some of them can[br]do all of these things. Animals that are incapable of seeing, even though members of[br]their species are normally able to do so, are thought not to be doing as well as their relatives that can. With the ability to sense comes the ability to[br]feel pain and pleasure, and thus appetite and aversion. These capabilities are connected with an animal's capability for self-movement, since they pursue that which they have an appetite for and avoid things that might interfere with[br]their natural activities. Now an animal cannot do[br]well if it is deficient with respect to its plant-like[br]or vegetative capabilities. But even if it is fine with[br]respect to those capabilities, it cannot be said to[br]flourish if it is stymied with respect to[br]self-movement and sensation. For example, if an animal is in a lot of pain or is unable to satisfy[br]its desire for food because of injury to[br]its organs of movement, that animal will not be said to do well. For an animal to flourish, it needs to be able to move around and to sense the world in such a way that produces, for it, pleasure or at least more pleasure than pain. Now let's move on to humans. It's often pointed out[br]that humans are animals, animals with superpowers. But it is less often pointed out that we are plants too. That is, we, like other animals, have the capabilities of plants: growth, nutrition, and reproduction. And we need to exercise these capabilities if we are to live. And like the other animals, we have the capabilities for[br]self-movement and sensation. And with these, pleasure and pain, appetite and aversion. All life is deeply connected in this way. But humans also have unique capabilities that no other animals have, most importantly the ability[br]to reason and to use language. These capabilities allow[br]us to cultivate friendships and social relations, build and contribute to[br]political structures, plan for the future, modify our appetites and desires, educate our young, develop music and mathematics, and even to contemplate[br]the nature of the universe and the purpose of human life. If a human does not[br]have these capabilities, they are missing out on part[br]of what it is to be human. And if they also lack even[br]the animal capabilities we might consider them[br]less than animal, at least while they're in what we, for these very reasons, call a "persistent vegetative state." Thus, we can determine what is good for us in a parallel fashion to how we determine what is good with respect to the other kinds of living things. Those things that allow us[br]to engage in the activities that exercise our capacities are good, and those that impede[br]or prevent this are bad. Now that we have that background in place, we should be in a good position to answer "What, for Aristotle, "is the ergon of a human being?" It would be odd if the[br]purpose of human life was related to our lowest[br]vegetative capabilities, unless we aspire to being a good plant. Thus, the exercise of our[br]capabilities for reproduction, growth and stature, and even nutrition, however important for us, cannot be the ultimate purpose of our life any more than it could[br]be for a brute animal. Similarly, mere sensation, pleasure, and satisfaction of our bodily appetites cannot, as they are for brute animals, be the purpose of our life. What makes cows and pigs flourish can no more make a human flourish than what makes oaks and vine flourish can do so for cows and pigs. Even if those lower[br]vegetative capabilities must be in a satisfactory condition in order for the higher[br]ones to do their work. Thus, by a process of elimination, we arrive at the capabilities[br]to use reason and language. These are the capabilities that define us, which is why Aristotle[br]defined the human being as a rational animal, which is reflected in the[br]modern name for our species, "Homo sapiens." Thus, the forming of friendships[br]and social relations, the controlling of our[br]appetites and emotions, the cultivation of moral[br]and intellectual virtues, and the observing of the cosmos and our place in it are the activities that, because they correspond with our highest and most unique capabilities, give meaning to human life and represent the flourishing[br]of our kind of living thing. The things that are good for us follow from this, and thus can be determined with the same degree of[br]objectivity that gardeners and botanists can for plants, and veterinarians and[br]zoologists can for animals. These arts and sciences[br]can objectively determine what is good and bad for[br]those kind of living things, and so anthropology and[br]philosophy can determine what is good and bad for[br]our kind of living thing. In fact, the very highest activity, the one that Aristotle calls godlike, is philosophy, because this involves the pure exercise of reason and thought, just as the Gods constantly engage in, according to Aristotle. And philosophy engages[br]in reason and thought not only in order to serve our[br]vegetative and animal needs, but just for its own sake as well, for the sake of living a human life. For this reason, Aristotle[br]thought that doing philosophy was the ultimate end of human existence. In conclusion, you should be happy that[br]you're watching this video, because I have just shown[br]how you are now engaging in the exercise of your highest and most godlike capabilities. Good work. Subtitles by the Amara.org community