Plato and Aristotle's Meaning of the Good Life

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What does it mean to live a good life? Two philosophers during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, Plato, and Aristotle had an opinion on precisely what consisted of the good life and how to go about accomplishing this goal. Plato and Aristotle both maintain a notion that happiness and well-being are the highest ambitions of moral thought and behavior, and virtues are the depositions needed to achieve them. In order to learn about the concept of the good life, we must compare these ideas while also looking at the differences between how the philosophers believe we should go about acquiring these virtues.

The primary basis for Plato’s teachings was on the foundation of eudaemonia and the idea of a minimized physical world. This foundation that Plato built upon leads us to answer the questions on what he viewed about the good life. First, this idea of a minimized physical world is primarily connected to his Theory of Forms. “He strongly believed that some things are fixed, unchanging, perfect, and true. These he called “Forms” or “Ideas,” and he placed them outside the physical world”. To understand a deeper meaning of The Forms, one must read and understand Plato’s writing Allegory of the Cave. In this piece of writing, Plato refers to life as being chained up in a cave. By not being able to move your neck left or right, the prisoners are forced to watch shadows appearing across a stone wall right in front of them. The prisoners in this cave do not know the outside world; all they can see are shadows. They can name and classify these illusions but are deceived into believing that they see actual entities. The people in the cave regarded the shadows as some truth. Shadows, as well as things in the physical world, are flawed reflections of the ideal Forms.

Second, the other fundamental aspect of Plato’s teachings is based around the idea of a eudaemonia. Eudaemonia is a concept that all humans naturally desire through moral thought and actions; it also strongly relates well-being to the ultimate good for people. This concept of well-being does not depend on external goods but on how humans choose to use these external goods. For example, Plato states, “I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private”. If an individual spends his whole life aspiring for wealth and fame, he is mistaken. Instead, an individual needs to pursue a higher goal of knowledge and the common good. This idea plays into the opinion of Plato that humans need to control our “appetites” and passions through reason, and this will lead not only to eudaemonia but also promote the stability of one’s community. Plato also considered that happiness and virtue were tied together in a way that you could not possess one without the other.

In order to achieve this ultimate happiness, one has to live a truly virtuous life. We have to decide first what Plato meant by being truly virtuous. For a person to live a truly virtuous life, they must first obtain these four virtues: wisdom, self-discipline, justice, and courage. These four virtues are not only considered in a political aspect but also as a goal for individuals to meet. “The virtue of wisdom more than anything else contains a divine element which always remains, and by this conversion is rendered useful and profitable”. One way to possess wisdom is by pursuing a life fueled by curiosity. The virtues of justice and courage connect because having justice requires societies to have courageous individuals to stand up for what they believe. Finally, an individual must be taught self-discipline. If one lacks self-discipline, Plato believes that they cannot live a flourishing life. “Sensual pleasures, such as eating and drinking, which, like leaden weights, were attached to them at their birth, and which drag them down and turn the vision of their souls upon the things that are below”. If an individual chooses to focus continuously on the wrong things, it can lead to a life full of chaos.

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Aristotle’s teachings derived from the fundamental aspects of both experimenting and observing. In the readings of Nicomachean Ethics and Metaphysics, one can get a clear picture of the way Aristotle discusses the nature of happiness and how humans build a good life. For Aristotle, what does being virtuous consist of? Aristotle believed that humans, by nature, were capable of pursuing virtue and happiness through reason. An individual cannot just merely seek virtue; one has to apply it in their daily lives. Aristotle states, “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason, the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim”. Though he believed that every human being seeks to aim at something good, that is not enough to earn happiness. Happiness truly “results from contemplating how one ought to live one’s life, and then moving from contemplation to exemplary action”.

The concept of fulfilling happiness through action relates to the same ideas present in Aristotle’s writing from Metaphysics. Aristotle highly valued one concept called ‘telos’ or the ultimate end. The form end of something is the fulfillment of its true essence. He states, “Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action” . One must then conclude that happiness must be an end to itself. However, Aristotle expresses one other idea in Metaphysics on what it means to be good. What could be so perfect that it can move without being moved, and that its movement is always toward its own perfection? This is the idea of the Unmoved Mover. Aristotle asserts, “that the Unmoved Mover is a living creature and represents the pinnacle of goodness, it is completely transcendent”. This substance is out of time, always moving but eternal. So, what does the Unmoved Mover tell us about how to achieve good? First, we have to understand that God and the good are connected. God is an end in itself, moving but never changing. Likewise, good is something with an end in itself, and it does not require an outside purpose. Aristotle believes that humans should make the pursuit of this true and non-contingent goodness our object of desire; it should be what moves us. The idea of the Unmoved Mover tells us three reasons why this is the basis for a good life. One, as mentioned before, happiness is self-sufficient. Second, humans have to strive for something outside ourselves. Lastly, Aristotle believes that if a human makes the Unmoved Mover their object of desire, one will become less reliant on outside factors.

Aristotle and Plato’s views combine to answer what it means to live a good life. We do see some ideas about happiness and virtue overlapping among the two philosophers. However, as mentioned earlier, the critical difference arises when it comes to how exactly we acquire those virtues. One word mentioned throughout the essay is eudaemonia. This idea of a “life well lived” is apparent in both the teachings of Aristotle and Plato. Another comparable ideal among the two philosophers is that wealth is not a means by which happiness can be achieved. “The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else”. Aristotle believes that wealth is not an end within itself but is a means to further ends.

Acquiring and living by the virtues is the main topic of debate between Plato and Aristotle. One of the four virtues Plato believed in was wisdom. For Plato, he thought that if one were wise, then that would mean that the other three virtues, self-disciple, courage, and justice, would follow. For Aristotle, wisdom was a high form of virtue; however, he rejected the idea that wisdom would lead to all other virtues. Another key argument for Aristotle is that just simply knowing what is good is not enough. He inferred that to be truly virtuous; one must practice virtue. So, while Plato believed that virtue was sufficient for happiness, Aristotle believed that virtue is necessary for achieving a good life.

One can compare and contrast many different ideas regarding Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle’s values as a whole come down to being very individualistic while Plato, is more about how these concepts apply to everyone. Though there beliefs on virtue and how to act on them differ, they both conclude what a good life entails, and how an individual should go about achieving this life.

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