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Aristotle: How to know which principles guide your life

Who am I to tell you what principles should guide your life? After all, you’ve probably gotten along just fine without reading this article. I have no authority to tell you what principles you “should live by.” What I can do, however, is ask the question. Is that fair? Let’s deliberate on this question together.

Rather than give you principles that I think you should have, my goal is to give the reader the criterion by which to find those principles that will best produce a self-governing citizen.

In another article, we determined that in order to be free, you must embrace some principles. When it comes to playing a piano, 88 keys can produce noise, but 88 keys plus music theory can produce a certain order that maximizes the performer’s freedom. The same principle is true in life.

OK, let’s switch up the analogy for a second. Think of your favorite dessert. Mine happens to be brownies from Betty Crocker Brownie Mix, which is great because it’s so incredibly easy to make! Still, to make the brownies, we need certain ingredients. Which ones?

That’s the concern of this article. Notice that we can only determine what ingredients we need if we know what kind of dessert we are trying to make. If we’re making brownies, we do not need apples. We’ll keep those for Grandma’s apple pie. So our first order of business is to understand what we’re aiming for as we gather ingredients (a.k.a. principles) – and that is to develop self-governing citizens.

After all, Nazis had principles, but they weren’t the principles that encouraged self-government. So let’s get the right principles here. We certainly don’t want the ingredients to make Nazis.

In the last article we referred to Aristotle’s Ethics. I’m going to stay parked in that camp for a while because I think Aristotle does the best job of demonstrating order in a world of perceived chaos and thus comes closest to answering this question.

So think of a ladder with me. Aristotle says we are all climbing a ladder to reach a certain goal. The thing we are all trying to reach is happiness. From happiness stems all sorts of activities and desires that depend on a person’s desire to be happy. Consider health, which certainly contributes to happiness. In order to be healthy, we must have liquids, like water.  In order to drink water, we need a cup. To have a cup, we must make the cup. And so on.

Let’s stop for a second to get this straight –

Goal: We want to make a self-governing citizen

Need: Principles (ingredients)

Ingredient No. 1: The “good” – that thing we all seek to obtain in order to become fully human

Ingredient No. 2: The “beautiful” – the “good” which is sought after on account of itself – namely anything that is sought because it alone makes you happy …

Think of it this way. What does it mean when you say, “That piano piece was beautiful”? You mean that it brought a certain sense of happiness to you, without being dependent on anything else. On the contrary, if somebody gives you $1 million, you would not say that the $1 million in and of itself is beautiful. Why not? Because it’s not the money itself that is beautiful, but the opportunities that are now before you – the beauty of the money is dependent on what opportunities the money brings.

Let me paraphrase Aristotle briefly and then I’ll try to tie this together in a way that makes sense for all of us.

OK, so you’re on your ladder. At the top is the highest “good” that you can obtain, namely, happiness. If you choose to climb your ladder a little more every day, Aristotle says you’re a “virtuous” person – that is, you maintain an active condition of seeking after the “good” which is pursued on account of itself.

Have you heard of John Dillinger? He’s one of the most famous bank robbers in history (check out the movie Public Enemies for a story on his life). There’s no way to get around the fact that John Dillinger was a good bank robber. The man knew what he was doing, and he did it well.

What do we mean, though, when we say “John Dillinger was a good bank robber”? What if we said “John Dillinger was a good person”? Are both these statements true? Ask anybody who lost a family member to a Dillinger robbery if John Dillinger was a good person. No doubt, however, they can admit he was a good bank robber.

What we really mean when we say he was a good bank robber is that “John Dillinger was good at robbing banks.” If we say John Dillinger was a good man, we mean “John Dillinger was good at being a man.” 

Herein lies the difference. According to Aristotle’s definition, John Dillinger did not recognize the hierarchy of goods that demand certain action. Rather than seeking the things that bring happiness in and of themselves (the beautiful things), John Dillinger made lower things (money) a priority.  So by getting the “goods” out of order, John Dillinger become good at pursuing the lower things; thus he can hardly be called a virtuous or “good” person. As a result, he lost the ability to become a self-governing individual, became Public Enemy No. 1, and lost his life.

Here is what we’re after when we choose those principles by which we should live our lives: Pursue the things that, independent of anything else, will make you sincerely happy.

The men and women who earn their wealth by adhering to principles of integrity; build families that they love, provide for, and protect; and seek those things that are so high they stand alone – these are the people we can call good – for they are good at being men and women.

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