Aristotle on Flourishing


Kathryn Rombs // Metaphysics of Motherhood

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September 15  

Aristotle was concerned with human happiness. Aristotle’s word for “happiness” is eudaimonia, which is better translated “flourishing.” An acorn that falls into the ground, sprouts, grows deep roots and tall branches has eudaimonia. As an acorn it had potential, and as it grows into a tall oak tree, that potential becomes actualized. The little acorn has become what it was supposed to become. The deeper its roots, the better it can withstand storms and droughts. All organisms have potential; “flourishing” means realizing that potential. Becoming the fullness of what you were designed to be: that, Aristotle says, is how to have a great life.
One of Aristotle’s major insights is that when we are making choices, we seek good things, and that those good things are arranged in a hierarchy. The top priority then determines the value of all the lesser priorities or “means to the end.” Take Aristotle’s example: I am holding a bridle in my hand. What is that bridle worth to me? Is it valuable? Or is it just a worthless strap of leather? The value of the bridle is determined by my higher values. If horsemanship is of high value to me, then the horse and its equipment are important. With horsemanship as a value, my skill at riding, the horse, and its gear all fall into a hierarchy of importance.
But not all people value horsemanship. This person values fitness; another values the arts; another values military success. Why? For each of these people that is their main means to the over-arching good that all people desire: happiness. It is their “means to the end.” For an athlete, a dumbbell is valuable as a means to getting stronger. For a writer, the same dumbbell is valuable only as a paperweight. But for both of them, Aristotle says, flourishing is the highest value. We all want to be happy. It is what makes sense out of our other values. Having an ordered life, one where all the means we need are in place to actualize our potential, is how to live a good life, flourish, and be happy.
This can be helpful to mothers as they discern how to order their lives. “How much should I prioritize my work outside my home? My time with my children? Should I be spending more time in prayer? More time with friends or pursuing a talent or hobby?” Mothers never have enough time to do everything they want. As choices come before them, it can be helpful to ask: What will help me flourish? What makes for a truly happy life? What seems attractive but does not really lead to happiness? What are the means to that end?
For me, that extra effort getting my relationship right with my children is worth it. Flourishing in my old age means, to me, having a cohesive family in which all of us actually like to be together when we have the chance. It is a family in which we all find support and encouragement, rather than being something to escape. That kind of family does not happen without lots of effort, time, and prayer. For me, flourishing requires me to get on my knees now and throughout these decades and employ my secret weapon–prayer–for the sake of happiness in the years to come.

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