In the Greek tradition–at least following our old friend Aristotle–there’s this concept of Eudaimonia, or human flourishing. In some ways, Eudaimonia is a word you might hear someone employ in a fancy restaurant when talking about well-being. Eudaimonia a little bit more than well-being in the way most of us think about it, but we can settle on that definition to serve us today.
Now, are you paying attention? Because we’re about to get into the very crux of the meaning of life.
As we discussed last week, Aristotle said the point of life is to live a “good life.”
Now, you may think this a painfully obvious point, but Aristotle reasons into it from a number of ways that are altogether deep and interesting and worth reading about. Only those reasons don’t concern us today. All we want to know today is, “What is a good life?” And, beyond that, “How do we get there?”
According to Aristotle, and many great philosophers inspired by him, including Thomas Aquinas, a good life should involve developing certain virtues through moral behavior. Moral behavior, according to Aristotle and Aquinas, is not just about what you do, but also who you become. Good acts make for good people; it’s the egg, in other words, that comes before the chicken. So living the good life involves, at least in one part, being a moral person.
So, (according to Aristotle and Aquinas) morality is just as much about becoming as doing: It’s not enough to do something nice for someone to get them to stop bothering you. Because Aquinas–switching between our two philosophers–would say a loving act is to will the good of the other, for other. It’s aligning altruism with self-fulfillment. That is, you want to help someone not to shoo them away, but because you want to help them. I hope you see how big of a difference this makes. The claim being made is that morality is not only about outcome, but intention, because intention is what shapes you.
All of this, I promise, will be coming to a point, and make a lot of sense as to how it applies to each of our lives, individually–even how it applies to fitness, specifically. Please bear with me.
So if morality is just as much about becoming as doing, and the good life is just as much about who we are because of what we do–then how do we get there? The answer, according to our friends the philosophers, is by acting in virtue.
But what are these virtues?
Well, if we take it from Aquinas, there are four “cardinal” virtues: Prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice.
Can you maybe see how some of these might tie into fitness and health? And can you see how these virtues go beyond fitness and health?
Prudence, for example, is using good judgment. That is, a prudent person decides not only to do what he or she thinks is right, but also takes the time to learn which decision is most likely right. They think things through, in other words.
A prudent person both initiates AND investigates. It’s not enough for a person just to start something, even if they think that something may be right, since often good intentions come with ineffective outcomes, sometimes even negative outcomes. Thus prudence involves taking the time to learn what the best action in every situation is, based on determination of outcome–thinking things through, in other words. Prudence is what stops charitable people from being lazy people. Because with prudence, it’s not enough to just *give* your money away. You must think about who you are giving your money away to, and what they are mostly likely doing with it. Only then, can you say you’ve made a prudent decision.
Prudence also ties into exercise. For example, it’s not enough to just *start* working out. Because wouldn’t you at least owe it to yourself to see if what your doing aligns with your values and goals and the good of all humanity? Further examples are endless, but the point is this: Action without thinking is not enough to be prudent. Rather, you must evaluate every act to ensure you’re doing what is effective and right.
Temperance–well, we should all be familiar with this, now shouldn’t we? Anybody who’s gone on a diet has been asked to exhibit temperance of some kind. Same with anyone on a workout plan. Temperance is one part about moderating our impulses and another part about curbing our “concupiscent passions.” It’s mostly about focus and will, about making better decisions even when they’re harder decisions, which is often the case.
As for justice, Aquinas would define this as extending to others what they deserve. Justice does not always mean equality so much as it does fairness. Aquinas believed that each member of a community is a part of the whole, and what affects any part, affects everyone. This is why caring for your neighbor is doubly important. Altruistic actions not only make you a happier person, they also create a healthier, more sustainable community.
Finally, we have fortitude, or courage. I’ll put it like this: To have fortitude is to do what is right, no matter what. To take right action and to engage in right speech. Fortitude may also mean overcoming your fears even if they don’t seem relevant to the rest of the world. Here’s what I mean: For the person with a severe phobia of cats to adopt a cat is a display of fortitude. The point is virtues are both relative and not. They matter individually and collectively.
So this brings us to our ultimate talking point: How do we live the good life?
The answer is simple and not easy: Develop the four cardinal virtues. Align everything you do according to prudence, justice,temperance, and fortitude. (There are also, it should be said, three “theological virtues”, but we can get at those another time.)
Now, you may already be doing a lot of the right things. But you may also be doing them for the wrong reasons.
Here’s where we can have a look at fitness. Because if you work out for the sake of wanting to “one up” somebody, do you think you are becoming a more virtuous person?. But if you work out because you want to preserve, protect, and make the most of the the gifts that God gave you, then you are developing a virtue. That is, if you work out because you want to be fit and an inspiration, that is virtuous–to use strength to lift others up, rather than lowering them down, is, I’m sure Aquinas would agree, very appropriate.
Same with dieting. Are you restricting intake to develop temperance and increase fortitude, or because you want to get back at some ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend for cheating on you? Because one of these actions is virtuous, the other not.
This doesn’t mean it’s wrong to want to look good and to want to feel good–all of that can fit easily into our definition of Eudaimonia. But it needs to be a part of a virtuous whole, and not the sole reason for doing something.
But fitness and health are not enough, are they? Because the buck doesn’t stop when you’ve reached a certain body fat percentage, does it? If it did, then wouldn’t every lean person also be completely fulfilled? And has that ever been the case? Has anybody ever lost weight and because of losing weight found the meaning of life?
Sure, health and fitness are important measures for developing virtue when done for the right reasons–reasons we have just discussed. So often they are necessary measures, if not sufficient measures. In other words, you need more than just gym time to live a good life, at least in the Aristotelian-Thomistic sense.
So what–and this brings us to the final question, at least for today–are these other things a person ought to be doing?
Well, the highest aim of humanity, as to which Aquinas and Aristotle would agree, is to find communion with our creator–the cause of all things–what Aquinas, as well as most of us, would simply call, “God.” But to get there requires not only direct efforts of spiritual practice, meditation, and prayer, but indirect efforts of virtuous activity, of which we have just described in some lengthy, maybe even laborious detail.
This means loving efforts toward everyone around you, and everyone not around you. This means seeking the right vocation, which is not necessarily your “job.” All of us need to pay the bills with whatever our skills are, but a vocation is with what we mainly occupy ourselves. And with what we mainly occupy ourselves does not need to be our job. With what we mainly occupy ourselves with should be becoming virtuous–willing the good of other, for other, willing the good of yourself, for virtue, and seeking God.
Now, let’s pause. Because is all of this getting too much for you? Or are you still with me? And, are you still interested? Because these are fundamental questions, and I believe they deserve fundamental answers–answers that very few people are willing to get at because they are often so deep and so personal. I hope you’re OK with where we’re going, because I don’t think we could be having a more important conversation than the one we’re having now.