Aristotle: the Soul, Happiness, and Human Excellence

Recent events in the United States have brought happiness to many. There has been a renewed sense of hope that life in this country, and the lives of individual citizens, will soon become better or more worthwhile. Of course, the discussion of individual happiness, as well as how ones happiness relates to the rest of humankind, is not a new phenomenon. Aristotle asked the same questions even before the birth of Christ, and seems to have come up with a solid explanation of moral duty as it relates to personal behavior and outcomes. What makes people happy? What is the ultimate aim of human existence, the very best life? How can people be sure that their actions are virtuous? These questions, among others, are perhaps the most important to ask, and most difficult to answer.
A starting point for the answers which Aristotle proposed can be found in his rendition of the human soul. In the first place, Aristotle believed that the soul is a material substance in some sense. In a way, the soul is separate from the body, but the two are interdependent on one another. The soul is what animates living beings, be it in the act of growing, reproducing, reasoning, and so on. Every animate being uses the soul in some way. Aristotle argued, “The soul, then, must be a substance inasmuch as it is the form of a natural body that potentially possesses life; and such substance is in fact realization, so that the soul is the realization of a body of this kind” (Melchert, 183). The soul is not superimposed on the body; rather, the body is living because it has a soul.
After determining the existence and substance of the soul, Aristotle went on to suggest that there are three levels of the soul, and that indeed, all animate life possesses one or all of these levels. The lowest, fundamental level of the soul is the vegetative or nutritive level. Plants are limited in that they only have this fundamental soul. The nutritive soul is the capacity to take in nourishment and reproduce,...