What Aristotle can teach us about finding our purpose in modern times

Are you drifting around aimlessly, feeling like you don’t have a clear direction where to go in life? 

I think we’ve all felt this way at some point in our lives. 

Unfortunately, in these modern times, it has never become easier to feel lost. All the noise, misleading notions of success, and focus on superficial matters can easily make us lose sight of our purpose. 

The thing is, purpose is ultimately what makes life feel meaningful. So unless you find yours, life can seem like a series of meaningless events. 

How then can we find our purpose amidst the challenges of the modern world? I’d like to suggest we take some advice from Greek philosopher Aristotle. 

Surprisingly, Aristotle’s words still remain practical today, over two millennia from the time he walked the earth. If that’s not proof of his wisdom, I don’t know what is. 

Let’s take a look at what Aristotle can teach us about finding our purpose in these modern times: 

The power of rational thought

“It concerns us to know the purpose we seek in life, for then, like archers aiming at a definite mark, we shall be more likely to attain what we want.”

First up, let’s talk about “telos” – an idea Aristotle introduced during his time. 

Essentially, telos refers to an ultimate aim or purpose. Aristotle believed that everything, including humans, has a purpose it naturally seeks. 

In his own words, “Nature creates nothing without a purpose.”

And as humans, we have even more agency than the rest of the other living things. Because we have the “power of reasoned speech.”

Think about that for a moment. 

Yes, you might be feeling lost and unsure of your purpose in life. You may even have resorted to the pursuit of hedonistic pleasures (or maybe the opposite – overachieving and self-sacrifice) just to fill a void within yourself and feel alive. 

But don’t forget – you have the power of rational thought. Of reasoned speech, as the good philosopher put it. 

And that’s tremendous power right there. You can look deeper, examine your values, consider if your actions align with those. 

Then make the right adjustments until you arrive at a path that resonates with you. 

The role of virtue and excellence

“Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses and avoids.”

Now, let’s talk about another one of Aristotle’s concepts – eudaimonia. 

Often translated as happiness or welfare, eudaimonia is most definitely not about momentary pleasures. 

Forget the hedonistic lifestyle – eudaimonia is about achieving the best version of ourselves. It’s about us flourishing as human beings.

Sounds good, right? But make no mistake – the path to our best version isn’t easy. 

Because according to Aristotle, the way to get there is to be virtuous. He emphasized that qualities like courage, justice, wisdom, and the like are what will give us eudaimonia. 

In short, aiming to be virtuous and live an excellent life will help us find our purpose. 

Looks easy on paper, incredibly hard in practice. But once again, because we’re capable of rational thought, we’re capable of choosing the right actions. 

And believe me, sometimes the right actions might look wrong to the rest of the world. Sometimes they might seem counterintuitive given society’s notions of success. 

But keep making the right choices, and you’ll achieve excellence and fulfillment. 

For instance, a friend of mine once turned down an opportunity to climb the corporate ladder a few notches higher. His reason? The higher-paying job meant that he’d have to make choices that he wasn’t at peace with.

But with what he was doing at the time in his lower position, he felt fulfilled. He found meaning and pride in his work.

Not everybody has this kind of self-awareness and virtue. I suppose this is a matter of practice makes perfect. Get to know yourself and what gives you peace, and keep trying to make choices that align with that. 

This is what Aristotle meant when he said that: 

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” 

It doesn’t matter what the rest of the world says – if you live a disciplined and righteous life and you find meaning in what you do, then you’ve found a worthy purpose. 

The importance of balance

“At the intersection wherein your gifts, talents, and abilities meet a human need, therein lies your purpose.”

Real talk – when there are bills to pay, it’s hard to take the risk and do what we love over something we don’t love but pays more. 

I totally get that. I’ve been in that exact spot myself. But it didn’t last long because it left me feeling empty. 

This totally makes sense with what Aristotle teaches, specifically when it comes to the balance between practicality and passion. 

After all, he did propose the idea of the Golden Mean – that sweet spot between two extremes of excess and deficiency in behavior and thinking.

In this context, being overly practical or being overly passionate isn’t a good thing. There needs to be some balance. 

If you read the quote above, your purpose lies where passion (your gifts and talents) and practicality (answering a human need) meet. 

If what you do hits both of those requirements, then congratulations! You’ve hit your Golden Mean. 

To illustrate, I used to work as a dentist. It was a great source of income, and it did meet a human need. But one thing was lacking – I wasn’t particularly gifted or talented in it. I most definitely didn’t enjoy it. 

There was practicality, but zero passion. 

So I was forever asking myself, “Is this all there is? Am I doomed to a lifetime of humdrum days like this?”

Thankfully, rational thought kicked in and said, “Of course not! You’re not a tree, you can move!” 

And move I did. I took the risk and pursued what I really wanted – teaching and writing. 

Does it pay as much as dentistry? Not even close. Is it stress-free? Absolutely not. 

But I feel super fulfilled and useful, and most importantly, I feel like I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing. 

Purpose achieved!

The importance of community and relationships

Now, let’s pause and dissect that little bit about addressing a human need in the formula for purpose. 

You see, Aristotle placed great importance on community and relationships. In his view, we’re all naturally social, and we need strong community ties and relationships to live a fulfilling life

That’s a great reminder in these modern times, when we’re more connected yet more detached. Isn’t that such an oxymoron? 

Technology has provided us with new ways to connect, and yet it seems like we’ve become content with superficial connections. In many ways, social media has replaced genuine interaction. 

Which brings me back to this question – how exactly are we meeting a human need? 

Your purpose doesn’t have to be some huge, lofty endeavor that changes the world overnight. 

Wherever you are, whatever it is you’re doing, as long as you’re making genuine connections and helping others in some way, that’s a worthy enough purpose. 

And trust me, it will give you a sense of fulfillment and happiness.

Happiness is the end goal

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

Of course it is. This is what we all want out of life, isn’t it?

But – there’s a key difference in the popular definition of happiness and Aristotle’s. 

For him, happiness is not an emotion. It’s not just the quick pleasures we get from things like, say, a great meal, a pay raise, or a fun day out. 

He thought of happiness as something bigger – how you live your life over time, the choices you make, and the kind of person you become.

Once again, it comes down to living a life where you do the right thing and grow into a good person. 

That, ultimately, is what purpose is – discovering and committing to a path where we can be our best selves, do good, and in turn, find lasting happiness.

In today’s context, this could mean ditching our old habits and notions of success and replacing them with these: 

  • Choosing a career that aligns with our values
  • Engaging in activities that nurture our talents and help others
  • Developing habits that enhance our character

As you can see, it’s more about self-realization rather than checking off goals on a list and indulging our desires and impulses. 

Final thoughts

Virtue. Excellence. Passion. Serving others. Whew. There’s a lot to consider when it comes to finding our purpose, isn’t it? 

Building character is never easy. It requires us to make difficult choices that run counter to our primal urges. 

But as Aristotle said, we have it in us to do it. We can let the power of reasoned speech lead us to our purpose. 

The question now is, how will you use his insights to shape your journey towards a purposeful life? 

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