Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, takes up the question of the meaning of life. He begins his study by putting the question, “What is it that distinguishes man from the rest of beings, and that determines the meaning of his life?” One thing that separates us from the rest is that we are the only animal that writes poetry, that builds schools and colleges, writes books and stores them, and has developed a vocabulary consisting of thousands of words covering all shades of meaning and embodying a large number of concepts. In short, we can say that man excels in his knowledge. In a sense we can say he is knowledge.
Next, Aristotle puts forward a very beautiful idea. He says although we are all aware of what is good, the word ‘good’ by itself does not have any special meaning. It is a word like ‘is’. What is the meaning of ‘is’? The meaning of ‘is’ is, you are judging something to be or not to be. It is or it is not. To say something is, there has to be a light within you which discerns an existence. If you cannot discern that by yourself, you cannot live that truth. Aristotle quotes the substance of a verse from Hesiod, which says a man is excellent who can perform all his activities with no confusion in his mind, making his own judgements always right.
Thus, you are good for yourself only when you can discern. Discerning means gaining a certitude of the Self. It becomes evident to your self. When it is self-evident, then alone can you say ‘is’. This evidence of the Self that comes to us operates even in the hydrogen atom as a principle of determination. If I am a hydrogen atom, I should only have one electron and one proton. I should have only the correct atomic weight and my characteristics should be such and such. And if I am a man, I should have awareness, a discerning power. This level of certitude only comes as a result of selfless dedicated activity.
The main reality is the knowledge of the Self. If you choose to be a fully developed person you should naturally put before yourself the highest possible standard of attainment of pure knowledge. The highest possible truth is continuous and contiguous from the very first form reality to you. It is whole, without part, and without any possible division. This makes one not only a brother to all fellow humans, but also in kinship with all of existence.
If everything manifested is our own Self, and we are considering the happiness of the self, such happiness lies in being harmonious with our own nature. From the most minute atom to the foremost philosophy, there is a natural harmony that maintains its beingness. Each has a harmony within itself and a harmony in its relationships with other things. Nature maintains its harmony, and we are by no means foreigners to it. The most beautiful part of it is that nature reveals itself in its own unfoldment of consciousness, which manifests as our consciousness. We who are the knowers of nature are really nature knowing nature.
Because we are the knowers of nature, we know how an atom is constituted. We also know how to fission an atom, blast it apart. Knowledge can be good to maintain and appreciate harmony, and also to destroy it. If I have knowledge of an actual event, I can then distort it or conceal it in such a way that no one will be able to detect it. So, Knowledge for a wise man is a great tool for being good, but for an evil man it is a tool which makes possible tremendous destruction.
Thus, knowledge by itself is amoral. The truth that we are seeking to discover is not only a rational truth, it should be a truth which is rich in its content of love. You love your Self. If your Self is the Self of all, there has to be an extrapolation of the same principle of love going to everyone. You cannot say “I know that you are my Self, but I cannot love you.”
Protagoras put forward the claim that knowledge need not be a virtue. Socrates said knowledge is virtue. Protagoras replied, “No. A man who knows truth can also distort it.” Socrates sad, “In that case he does not know truth. If he really knows, he has to be virtuous. A man who says he knows and is not virtuous knows only on part of it.” If you are concerned with the happiness of the Self, that binds you to commit yourself to live always for the happiness of all.
This verse introduces the concept of svadharma, performance in accordance with your true nature. In deciding this nature, we should know there are two aspects. One is our specific nature, and the other is our general nature. For instance, for all us are humans, that makes it our general nature and our specific nature differ with our vocation. If this is extended to all biological manifestations our general nature is life itself, while our specific nature is exemplified by the species to which we belong.
In the Bhagavad Gita, it is said that in the process of creation, the creator created humankind along with duties, and said, “Prosper in the performance of these yajñas (sacrifices), for they shall bestow upon you all you wish to achieve.” Yajna or sacrifice here means selfless dedicated activity. We should rise above the level of necessity to the level of contingency. Knowing our place in the grand scheme of creation, to give up our little selfish needs and identify ourselves totally with the Absolute. This kind of a functioning will bring up great happiness to ourself and also to others.
The way Aristotle puts it is the self has not only to be but also to activate. It is not a knowledge which we are storing up, but a knowledge we put into operation. And the knowledge we should put into operation is that we are everyone, that other people’s happiness is our concern. That’s very beautiful. Aristotle continues with an example of a musician who sings very well. Everyone is very pleased and says he is a great musician. After some time, he develops an ailment in his larynx and loses his voice, but he is still honoured as a great musician. ‘Is’ really means ‘was’ but out of consideration for the person we don’t take away his musicianship, although it is not presently factual. Aristotle says the greatness of that man is not in himself, it is in the donor.
But, as Aristotle goes on to say, we won’t give this kind of honour to someone when it comes to the matter of being good. A single swallow or one sunny day do not make a spring. If it is spring there should be a songbird singing every morning. Like that, good means being consistently good. So how do you become consistently good? By being fully aware of yourself all the time. If you are concerned with the highest happiness of the Self, it has to be inclusive of all selves without exception. The one you love most is your own Self. If you truly know your own Self, it is not confined to your body, it permeates all beings. Your life should be a consecrated life, dedicated to the happiness of all. Such a person, whether he is healthy or not, all day, all night, whatever he does is motivated to make life a little brighter for others, to bring a little more light on things which are concealed, to make a little more harmony where there is chaos and disorder. This is Narayana Guru’s very basic fundamental of social ethics, which is based on Self-realisation. Realisation and doing good are not two separate things, they are one and the same.