Aristotle’s Pursuit of Happiness

Aristotle’s Pursuit of Happiness

Happiness seems to be in short supply today, with acrimony, incivility and bad behavior permeating society and the media from the highest echelons of government on down. Yet happiness has always been something distinctively coveted by Americans. The inalienable right to pursue it, along with life and liberty, was enshrined by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.

If we are to pursue it, however, we need to define it. And to understand what Jefferson really meant by happiness, we must turn to a thinker who influenced him: the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived in the 4th century B.C.

Aristotle’s ethical system—as described in his major treatises, the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics—revolves around the idea that the goal of human life is happiness, which he called eudaimonia. (In Greek, the root eu means “well” or “good,” and daimonia suggests a guardian spirit or one’s lot in life.) Aristotle didn’t equate happiness with wealth, pleasure or fame. For him, happiness was an internal state of mind—a felicity or contentment that we can acquire only by living life in the best way possible.

Aristotle was born in a small, independent Greek city-state, but he spent years at close quarters with the Macedonian royal family. He was an eyewitness to the court of Philip II, Alexander the Great’s despotic father, who was ruthless, acquisitive and addicted to conspicuous consumption. Philip pitted his rivalrous lieutenants, wives, concubines and children against each other, and they responded by endlessly plotting bouts of reciprocal murder.

Aristotle saw that these seemingly fortunate members of the elite were actually miserable. Such people spend their lives acquiring material possessions or seeking sensory gratification, but on some level they know that these pursuits aren’t conducive to true happiness. They may even recognize the right thing to do, but they are too weak or lazy to act on it.

Real happiness, Aristotle believed, comes from a continuous effort to become the best possible version of yourself. Like his teacher Plato and Plato’s own teacher Socrates, he subscribed to the ancient proverb engraved over the oracle at Delphi: Know thyself.

Aristotle’s common-sense prescriptions for happiness also offer hope for the wider community.

In his treatises, Aristotle analyzed a wide range of traits of character—in Greek, ethos, from which we derive the word “ethics.” These included libido, courage, anger, how we treat other people and how we regard money. All of us possess these properties, and happiness comes from cultivating each one in the correct amount, so that it is a virtue (arete) rather than a vice.

It is in this notion of the “mean” that Aristotelian ethics differs from other ancient moral systems. Aristotle does not teach, for instance, that anger is a vice and patience a virtue. Rather, he believes that when we feel anger in the right amount, at the right time and toward the right people, it is virtuous. Without it, we wouldn’t stand up for ourselves or for important principles. Failing to feel anger when we are wronged is a vice, but then so is excessive, misplaced or gratuitous anger.

And the same goes for every other quality. Fiscal responsibility, to take another example, is the virtue lying between the vices of parsimony—which Aristotle despised, especially in the rich—and reckless spending.

Good Aristotelians acknowledge both their best and their worst moral characteristics and work continuously at self-improvement. They try to develop habits of generosity, honesty, responsibility, integrity, fairness, kindness and good humor. The result is a comforting moral self-sufficiency that even bereavement, bankruptcy or sheer bad luck can’t take away.

Aristotle’s common-sense prescriptions for happiness also offer hope for the wider community. When he said that we are political animals, he meant that we flourish by cultivating the virtues in relation not just to ourselves and our families but also to our friends, neighbors and fellow citizens. He offers us a way to pursue our happiness as individuals, but his principles can help us to make the public arena a better place as well.



This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal. Read the original article.

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