What does "the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope" mean?

English Language Learners Asked by haile on December 20, 2020

Can anybody help me paraphrase Kennedy’s sentence please? I don’t understand it.

The problem with both such views, for Aristotle, is that they neglect the importance of fulfilling one’s potential. He cites approvingly the primordial Greek maxim that nobody can be called happy until he is dead: nobody wants to end up believing on his deathbed that he didn’t fulfil his potential. In her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying (2011), the palliative nurse Bronnie Ware describes exactly the hazards that Aristotle advises us to avoid. Dying people say: ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’ John F Kennedy summed up Aristotelian happiness thus: ‘the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope’.


4 Answers

Happiness is the exercise of vital powers, along lines of excellence, in a life affording them scope.

This is a precisely-worded and carefully chosen sentence! So it is impossible to put its precise meaning into other words. Bu this is somewhat close:

"Happiness" is the condition whereby a person can and does perform the most important functions of their life, is very successful in doing so in an objectively "good" way, and is fortunate enough to not be prevented from doing so by the circumstances of their life.

Answered by BadZen on December 20, 2020

Your vital powers are whatever strengths or abilities you have.
To be happy you must exercise them = put them to use.

The phrase along lines of excellence has the vagueness of the finest platitudes, but we can take it as meaning that it's no good to exercise your powers randomly; you must seek the best uses for them.

Finally, all your powers and diligence will do you little good if your circumstances are too constraining; you must have scope, an open field of possibilities, in which to work.

Answered by Anton Sherwood on December 20, 2020

I break the sentence down into three parts: (the exercise of vital powers) (along lines of excellence) (in a life affording them scope)

The first is fairly easy. For short, it could be changed to "active living" or "living with intent".

The second part is simply that exerciser of vital powers from part one ought to intend to improve the way they live according to some standard of quality.

The hardest part of the sentence for me is third part, especially "scope". In my experience of English, it is usually qualified as "scope for [something]", like "scope for action" or "scope for display".

Here, he uses it to mean (I think) the area bounded by external limits of a person's life. A person who was blind all of their life would, in Aristotle's view, not be sad they did not learn the purely visual arts.

So, in the second person, it would be something like "consciously trying to improve yourself where ever you can find room for improvement".

Answered by K.A.Monica on December 20, 2020

vital powers = your energies

along lines of excellence = performing with excellence

in a life affording them scope = in a life where they have both the freedom to act and opportunities to act on significant matters

Answered by Tᴚoɯɐuo on December 20, 2020

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