EXCELLENCE AND FLOURISHING
By Ann K Johnson
Flourishing is an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue.
–Aristole* (note I’ve changed the term happiness to flourishing)
The quote above usually is interpreted as happiness rather than flourishing (eudaimonia), but I want to recommend, along with many others, that flourishing better represents what Aristotle meant by this term. Happiness has the connotation that one is in an elated kind of state, but I think that Aristotle was aware that even a good person could encounter troubles. However, even during times of trouble we might still say that the good person is flourishing because their soul is actively in accordance with virtue. However, we might also suggest that happiness is a great accompaniment to a flourishing life and may be a likely side-effect. Oh, happy day! I like to use the term excellence (arete) to designate the kind of life that leads to flourishing without leaving out Aristotle’s emphasis on virtue, as his emphasis on virtue implies a life of excellence lived in practice of hitting the mark in each of life’s situations and circumstances, as well as the practice of emulating virtuous exemplars until we have become ourselves an exemplar for others.
HITTING THE MARK
What does it mean to hit the mark?
Well, Aristotle believed that hitting the mark was consequent the practice of various valuable virtues pertaining to various situations and circumstances of life until one had cultivated a virtuous character, marked by one’s virtuous disposition to hit the mark. Hitting the mark is a kind of mastery of virtuous activity within the Golden Mean of the moment. One of Aristotle’s famous examples in his Nichomachean Ethics* is that of courage. To be courageous is to be courageous at the right place, time, and with the right amount of courage to boot. So, if one is to run headlong into battle in a rash manner, it could lead to a lot of negative externalities and the needless loss of one’s comrades. To run away in a cowardly manner would be to leave one’s comrades without your aid and to create a negative reputation for oneself. But, to move forward in the face of fear with the courage to see the task through at the right place, moment and time, is to show one’s virtue in the battle and to set an example. And to get a feel for hitting the mark, like a good archer, is to practice the amount of tension needed between the bow and string AND skill at aiming for the mark, reflecting one’s acuity when time comes to perform. Excellence, therefore, can be learned as long as one applies the discipline necessary to acquire the skill.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
What this means is that the soul, the moving spirit in activity is something that can be developed and aimed for through a disciplined practice. We might think of it as flexing our soul until it becomes strong and conditioned for flourishing. For Aristotle it didn’t hurt to have some other things to aid our flourishing like money and friends, but flourishing, for Aristotle, centered on one’s care and practice in achieving excellence in the place it matters most, in our inner-most selves. Only then could we be an example to others.
BEING AN EXAMPLE
When it comes to being an example for others, we often beat ourselves up for missing the mark. While this is probably an inevitability and we might use Aristotle’s method as a kind of standard, we must face the facts that we will make mistakes along the way. However, it does little good to cry over our misfortune and failure if we are failing to do the work. Remember, practice means we are in activity – we have to DO something! And, practice means, we have to do it regularly like anything that is worth doing. It is easy to dismiss our practice when it comes to our appetites because the justifications seem ultimately harmless in many ways, but when it comes to the soul, can we be so complacent? Aristotle thought not, especially because his character practice was linked to the good of the state, so that future leaders would have set this practice from a very young age so they could lead for the good of the state and serve as an example for the people, leaving those philosophers, like himself, free to pursue the intellectual good that fosters further growth. Even if we do not have any intention of being a future leader, being an example can be a valuable encounter in our everydayness. Serving as an example of one devoted to their own flourishing is to serve as a beacon of light to those who can’t find their way. We owe it not only to ourselves, but to the good of the world to reach for our own excellence, to be in harmony with virtue, as the good life is blessed and vibrant, and the only one worth living.
© 2018 Arete Center for Excellence, LLC.
*Aristotle (1947). Nichomachean Ethics. In Introduction to Aristotle (Ed. Richard McKeon). Modern Library, NY: pp. 316-581.