Aristotle, Psychology and the Good Life

aristotleFor the greatest part of the historical development of humanity we have had a preoccupation with that which gives life significance. Aristotle, as far back as 350BC, understood this pursuit in terms of question “how should we live?” The answer to this was that people should distance themselves from seeing happiness and fulfilment in the simple gaining of pleasure or of avoiding pain. The best way to live was to pursue the highest values and to live in accordance with them. It was in this concept that he saw what he called the “good life”.

The “good life” represents a calling to which many ascribe. For many, however, it is understood precisely in those terms that Aristotle rejected. For many the good life is the concept that if I can experience happiness in fulfilling my desires and avoiding pain then I have lived a good life. Many spend a fortune in time and money on such endeavours. Always there is the theory that if I can enjoy more pleasure and avoid pain, I will be happy. And yet such does not seem the case and this pursuit takes on the character of a perpetually unfulfilled desire. Aristotle would say that this pursuit cannot bring happiness because happiness is found in achieving the fulfilment of the very best of that which is virtuous.

The concept of the “good-life” has been a constant focus of philosophers since those ideas dominated Aristotle’s philosophical project. For Aristotle the ‘good-life” was achieved in a process of self-realisation as an individual discovered that to be true to the deepest values was to be true to themselves. Sometime in the 1960’s the science of psychology began to consider the idea of moving away from a process of remedial response to human struggle and to an articulation of what psychological health actually entails. The idea of well-being became a feature. It was not a huge leap to connect the idea of well-being with the ancient pursuit of the good-life. In fact a couple of researchers, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, built a theory based upon this Aristotelian pursuit. They theorised that young children are motivated by an intrinsic desire to move toward integration and self-realisation. They called their theory Self Determination Theory. As one grows three things are primarily needed to achieve that goal. Everyone needs to feel competent. That is that they are being given the opportunity to live out of the characteristics and traits that are most reflective of who they really are. It is less about being able to do a particular task and more about fulfilling an innate sense of purpose. Everyone also needs to feel autonomous. That is that the things that one is given to doing have come from one’s self and not simply from some external source, be that a willing or imposed response. An individual can quite happily do something they are told to do but still not experience autonomy. It is only as someone accepts a task given to them as reflective of their own sense of purpose or desire that they experience autonomy. And finally everyone needs to experience relatedness. That is the experience of loving and being loved, of being considered a valuable part of a community. Each of these three things need to be present in order for a person to experience well-being or the good-life. On close inspection there is not a great deal of difference between the SDT view and that one postulated by Aristotle all those years ago.

There is but one problem. And here the focus of my thesis comes into play. We are born into this world not with a well-integrated sense of who we are and where we should be going but a sense of brokenness and shame that flows from an absence of relationship that gives the ultimate sense of who we are. SDT would argue that it is society that either endorses or blocks our search for our true selves. There is much merit in the theory as it prescribes that which is imperative for a sense of wholeness and completeness. They have even spent decades of valid research identifying the legitimacy of their construct. However, the observation is that it is always society that is in the road of an ultimate sense of worth. I would argue that that which stands in the way is only secondarily society but primarily sin and broken relationship with God. God’s grace is able to restore all that has been lost, and give us the sense that all three of those essential psychological needs are being fulfilled.


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