Mastering Human Existence

Aristotle(384-322 BC) Bust White

Aristotle

Happiness—what is it, how do we achieve it, and why? Some would say it is a feeling, an emotion that is achieved by gaining something that we desire and that it makes us “feel good.” Others may say that it is a state of mind, a choice that we make, as it makes what we do and who we interact with, easier to “deal” with. And there are the few that would lay claim that happiness is a way of life. It is in everything we do, everything we strive for, everything we accomplish, and all that we reflect upon. I have been in places where each of these has been true for me. Aristotle (384-322 BC), an ancient Greek Philosopher, believed that there is an end to all things, and that end is the mastering of that thing, such as “…the end of medical art is health, that of shipbuilding is a vessel, that of strategy victory, and that of economics, wealth.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, sec. 1) Aristotle also believed that the end of human existence was happiness.  As I sit and write this, reflecting on how all this relates to me, I realize that the last of these, happiness being life itself, is something I have, myself, reached. Interestingly enough, I had to live a life of the complete opposite in order to discover how to achieve this new way of life.

I am a recovering addict. The daily use of drugs, which I did for seven years, is one of the most miserable ways to go through life. Drugs, no matter what they are, when abused, can take complete control of you, your thoughts, your feelings, your intentions, and your actions. Through this lifestyle, a person is dishonest and feels nothing. You do not experience remorse, sympathy or empathy, compassion or joy, and you have little or no self-esteem or self-worth. Your friends, if you are foolish enough, as a drug addict, to call anyone your friend, are, as Aristotle says, “…in so far as the one has need of the other, they are in the friendship which is based on utility.” (Magna Moralia, Book 2, sec. 2) In other words, the people you associate with, you only do so if you stand to gain something. Or, in all likelihood, they stand to gain something from you.

This has been my experience. I didn’t take care of myself at all, bathing only occasionally, and if I ate, it was usually junk food that only made me sick. I also could not keep a job, keep a residence for very long, and even lost my children for four years to the courts. My only goal was to get more drugs and as far as I was concerned, there was no tomorrow to plan for or consider. Survival became a chore and one that, as each day passed, was less worth the effort. A life of drugs has no meaning or purpose and the only end that can be expected is death, if not literally, then figuratively.

Aristotle’s philosophy was, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” (http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Aristotle) When one has a skill or an art, the goal is to master that skill. We seek to become adept in the work that we do, as it is our life’s goal, our passion. If a doctor could not return health to the sick, why become a doctor? But, as Aristotle pointed out, what about man? What about being human? What is the end, or the mastering of a person’s existence? Aristotle speaks of this often in the few of his writings that were salvaged over time. “Now we come to happiness, which we all declare to be, and which seems in fact to be, the final good and the most complete thing, and this we maintain to be identical with doing well and living well.” (Magna Moralia, Book 1, sec. 3) He elaborates on this further, “But to live well and do well we say is nothing else than being happy. Being happy, then, and happiness, consists in living well, and living well is living in accordance with the virtues. This, then, is the end and happiness and the best thing.” (Magna Moralia, Book 1, sec. 4)

Aristotle believed that if we strive for the best in all that we do, in the actions and in the results of our actions, that we would be achieving happiness, the goal of our existence.  “…but when we have happiness we need nothing more. This then is the best thing of which we are in search, which is the complete end.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, sec. 1) He believed, and argued, that happiness was the goal for to be happy.

The life I was living as a drug addict was not a happy one and when I dared to look at my life, I saw no purpose and could see that I had become worthless as I was. I couldn’t do it anymore. I needed to learn how to “live” or just decide to die. There was nothing in the middle. I had already experienced a kind of death in its own right for many years and wondered if there was any chance of choosing life and being successful. So, on August 10, 2005, I put down the drugs and began to seek worthiness in the world I lived in. I found a group of people who were just like me and with their help and learning to follow some instructions in which they lived by, I too, began to live. I dug deep to find what virtues I had within myself, and in all that I did and with those I associated with, I worked on behaving according to those virtues. It took some time to break old bad habits and to establish new, good, and acceptable ones, but in time, I started waking up and smiling. I can now look in the mirror at night and feel good about the woman I see there. I can reflect back on my day and know that I did my best, that I was friendly and honest and trustworthy. I now have a direction, a goal, a purpose. Today I am worth the effort.

“Since then the best good is happiness, and this is the end, and the final end is an activity, it follows that it is by living in accordance with the virtues that we shall be happy and shall have the best good.” (Magna Moralia, Book 1, sec. 4) Living well is in the action of doing well, in all the roles of our life, whether it is that of a parent, a student, a colleague, a friend, a neighbor, or even as a teammate in a sports league. If we act in accordance with our virtues, no matter the time or the place, the company we hold or the circumstances before us, we will be doing well and therefore living well, creating the inevitable end result—happiness.

Virtues are defined as conformity of one’s life and conduct to moral and ethical principles; a good or admirable quality, such as courage, temperance, patience, and truthfulness. It is always good to practice justice, fortitude, and friendliness, no matter what the situation. Who, among us, would find disgust and regret in remaining calm and listening with patience to an angry employee? And would we find disappointment within ourselves if we behave in a friendly manner to our neighbor? Would we consider it a failure to teach honesty to our children? Happiness is not about what we have or who we know, but about how we act in our daily lives. We may never reach perfection, but do strive for excellence. In other words, as we continue to do our best and live by our virtues, we will continue to excel toward perfection. Sure, I still have difficulties and obstacles in my life, and I may not always feel happy, however, being and feeling are nary the same. I still have bills, but I pay them. I still have responsibilities, but I attend to them. I still make mistakes, but I learn from them. It is what I do with what comes my way, the good, the bad, and the ugly, that are the result of what makes my life a happy one. It is my actions that are the purpose of my life. How I behave and the results of my behaviors are the measure by which my life and my existence as a human being, is happiness.

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