Aristotle’s Happiness

“Happiness depends on ourselves,” according to Aristotle. Aristotle preserves happiness as a central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. He dedicated most of his work to the topic of happiness, more than any philosopher prior to the modern era. Aristotle was convinced that a genuinely happy life required the fulfillment of a broad range of conditions, including physical as well as mental well-being. In this way he introduced the idea of a science of happiness in the classical sense, in terms of a new field of knowledge.

Aristotle argues that virtue is achieved by maintaining the Mean, which is the balance between two excesses. Thus Aristotle gives us his definition of happiness, “…the function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. ” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a13).

In this quote we can see of Aristotle’s theory link between the concepts of happiness and virtue. Aristotle tells us that the most important factor in the effort to achieve happiness is to have a good moral character, what he calls “complete virtue. ” Being virtuous is not a passive state: one must act in accordance with virtue. Nor is it enough to have a few virtues, rather one must strive to possess all of them. As Aristotle writes: “He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.

” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1101a10). To Aristotle, happiness consists in achieving, through the course of a whole lifetime, all the goods; health, wealth, knowledge, friends, etc. ; that lead to the perfection of human nature and to the enrichment of human life. This requires us to make choices, some of which may be very challenging. Often the lesser good promises immediate pleasure and is more tempting, while the greater good is painful and requires some sort of sacrifice.

In order to achieve the life of complete virtue, we need to make the right choices, and this involves keeping our eye on the future, on the ultimate result we want for our lives as a whole. We will not achieve happiness simply by enjoying the pleasures of the moment. Unfortunately, this is something most people are not able to overcome in themselves. As he explains, “The mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1095b 20).

Later in the Ethics Aristotle draws attention to the concept of akrasia, or weakness of the will. In many cases the overwhelming prospect of some great pleasure obscures one’s perception of what is truly good. Fortunately, this natural disposition is curable through training, which for Aristotle meant education and the constant aim to perfect virtue. As he puts it, a clumsy archer may indeed get better with practice, so long as he keeps aiming for the target. Also it is not enough to think about doing the right thing, or even intend to do the right thing: we have to actually do it.

There is yet another activity few people engage in which is required to live a truly happy life, according to Aristotle: intellectual contemplation. Since our nature is to be rational, the ultimate perfection of our natures is rational reflection. This means having an intellectual curiosity which perpetuates that natural wonder to know which begins in childhood but seems to be stamped out soon thereafter. For Aristotle, education should be about the cultivation of character, and this involves a practical and a theoretical component.

The practical component is the acquisition of a moral character, as discussed above. The theoretical component is the making of a philosopher. Here there is no tangible reward, but the critical questioning of things raises our minds above the realm of nature and closer to the abode of the gods. For Aristotle, friendship is one of the most important virtues in achieving the goal of eudaimonia (happiness). While there are different kinds of friendship, the highest is one that is based on virtue. This type of friendship is based on a person wishing the best for their friends regardless of utility or pleasure.

Aristotle calls it a “… complete sort of friendship between people who are good and alike in virtue …” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1156b07-08). This type of friendship is long lasting and tough to obtain because these types of people are hard to come by and it takes a lot of work to have a complete, virtuous friendship. Aristotle notes that one cannot have a large number of friends because of the amount of time and care that a virtuous friendship requires. Aristotle values friendship so highly that he argues friendship supersedes justice and honor.

First of all, friendship seems to be so valued by people that no one would choose to live without friends. People who value honor will likely seek out either flattery or those who have more power than they do, in order that they may obtain personal gain through these relationships. Aristotle believes that the love of friendship is greater than this because it can be enjoyed as it is. “Being loved, however, people enjoy for its own sake, and for this reason it would seem it is something better than being honored and that friendship is chosen for its own sake” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1159a25-28).

The emphasis on enjoyment here is noteworthy: a virtuous friendship is one that is most enjoyable since it combines pleasure and virtue together, thus fulfilling our emotional and intellectual natures. I do believe that Aristotle had most of his theory of happiness correct. I do believe happiness does depend on ourselves. We have to make the correct decisions to continue on the path of happiness. We need to have good virtue to do that and having friends along the way, make the journey of live more enjoyable. I believe people can tell if they have had happiness in their life before they die.

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