Of all the things that Aristotle spoke and wrote about—and there are a lot, from politics to the arts and sciences—he's best known by modern audiences for his answer to a basic human question: what does it mean to be happy?
Good question, right? We all want to know the answer to that one.
And Aristotle pondered this question long and hard. In fact, his many, many (many) theories about human happiness would fill about a bajillion scrolls' worth of lecture notes—and become the raw material for his Nicomachean Ethics.
Let's back up a minute and make sure we understand each other. Most translators use the word "happiness" to describe the state of being at the heart of Aristotle's Ethics. The word in Greek, however, is eudaimonia—which scholars say means something more like "flourishing" or "thriving." (And we always believe the scholars.)
So the work of Ethics is to show that the greatest thing for human beings is to be happy, flourishing, or thriving—and to suggest a pathway for getting there. It's the original self-help book.
But Aristotle doesn't suggest the KonMari Method or getting the latest mindfulness app. For Aristotle, the best way is through the development of arête, or virtue. That's the good news.
Here's the harder news: while we might be disposed toward certain virtues by nature, we have to work pretty dang hard to develop them and turn them into action. This is where the ethics part comes in, since we have to actively cultivate and nurture our better qualities through hexis (habit-building, practice) and action.
Ugh. This sounds a lot like our very ripped, very scary spin instructor telling us to "move it or lose it."
But there's some really uplifting stuff in ol' Aristotle's Ethics. For one thing, he says that happiness can't be achieved in solitude. This is Aristotle's way of telling us that girls' nights and bro hangs aren't just fun—they're basically mandatory.
And that's just where it starts. Aristotle knows that humans are political creatures—and by that he means not that we love to rock an "I Voted" sticker on election days, but that we live in communities and rely on common laws and exchange to thrive. So it's not just friendships that are important to cultivating virtue, but also business transactions, lawmaking, and governance.
We know from experience that behaving virtuously is pretty challenging—from the first time we pinched our baby brother just to hear him squeak, to that time when lying to get out of that speeding ticket just seemed like the best course of action ("But officer—our dog is at an emergency vet appointment!").
And Aristotle's work confirms this. And while doing the right thing gives us pleasure and can bring affirmation from the people around us (you know you feel good when you give a truly excellent birthday present) it can also be a thankless job that causes us serious pain.
This is where balance comes in. Aristotle says that the person who finds the right balance between the extremes of their character traits—or the "golden mean"—will be a good and just person. And such a person gets an extra perk, even if the work is hard and thankless: he gets to see what's beautiful or noble in reality.
Don't be fooled: Aristotle may be old, but he isn't a curmudgeon. He understands that in order to be happy, humans really do need to have some fun. In his world, pleasure is tops. And he's not being stodgy and talking about, say, the pleasure of feeling virtuous. He's talking pleasure-pleasure: that includes leisure time, fun, and good friends. It also (yes) includes sex and eating Flamin' Hot Cheetos. In moderation.
But don't turn off your brain. Because in the end, the thing that makes us fully human—and therefore, the thing that's the best at making us happy—is thinking.
Basically, the point of acting virtuously is to become more like ourselves. Aristotle calls the origin of virtues our "characteristics," and by helping those virtues shine, we're actually awakening our proper nature as human beings.
And the thing that marks us out as human, in Aristotle's theories, is rational perception. Being able to contemplate our own existence and know that it's awesome is a great pleasure reserved only for us. Cultivating our inner philosopher, then, is the key to a rewarding and happy life.
You heard it here first (and we heard it from Aristotle)—enjoy your buddies, your doughnut holes and your bubbles baths…but don't forget to get your philosophy on.
Why should you care? Two words:
Okay, we're done here.
You didn't actually believe we were done, did you? If we've learned anything from ol' Aristotle (and we have, because we live in a society based, in many ways, on his thoughts and teachings), it's that a two-word answer never suffices.
So why care about Aristotle and what he has to say on the subject of happiness?
Well, besides being the #1 Name For Cats In Our Household (who doesn't like saying "Aristotle got into the catnip again"?), Aristotle has name recognition like few other luminaries in the history of Western Civ. And this is for good reason. Not only did he revolutionize systematic thinking back in the 4th Century B.C.E., but his conversations about "human affairs" have remained timely and pertinent through the ages.
Yeah; his thoughts have stayed relevant for 2,500 years. Top that. We dare you.
His observations of human interaction and behavior are insanely, stunningly perceptive—his work prompts us to think about the overarching systems of thought that rule the way we perceive our place in the universe.
And in terms of Ethics, Aristotle couldn't have picked a topic that would resonate with Western culture more profoundly than the pursuit of happiness. We're obsessed with things like personal fulfillment, life balance, and finding our bliss. We ask if we can "have it all." Our media is peppered with articles on how to be happier, polls that show us which country is the happiest, and surveys that determine the happiest time of week. We go to happy hours. We go to happiness seminars. We still listen to Pharrell's "Happy" on repeat.
Turns out, Aristotle gave us some pretty excellent tips on the subject of happiness two and a half millennia ago. We're not saying that the Nicomachean Ethics is going to make you a blissful person in five easy steps…but we're also saying that, in our Shmoopinion, it's one of the best self-help guides out there.
Sure, there's some super-outdated and cringe-worthy stuff in here (his thoughts on slaves, women, poor people, and democracy are more than iffy), but at the heart of it, Aristotle is, with characteristic genius and insight, telling humans that the path to joy is:
Of course, ol' Mr. A goes into a whole lot more than that. He ruminates long and hard on the nature of virtue and justice and systems of government. But even as he proves himself to be worthy of the (totally kick-butt) nickname "The Philosopher," he's also cracking wise, being entertaining…and making you feel a little joie de vivre in the process.
That's right. You'll actually probably crack a smile as you read a literally ancient work of Greek philosophy.
But that's not actually surprising. After all, the lessons in Nicomachean Ethics are coming from a dude that taught his students while taking long, idyllic walks in sunny Athenian gardens. He knew a thing or two about living life right.
Just the Facts
This website offers a solid overview of Aristotle's career and works, presented in video and prose formats.
Explore other works of Aristotle, hosted by MIT.
If it's All Greek to You...
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a peer-reviewed collected of articles and entries concerning...well...philosophy. This article discusses three important concepts that appear in Aristotle's Ethics: habit, the mean, and what is noble.
The Pursuit of Happiness (Dot Org)
The mission of this group of mental health professionals is to reinstate the scientific search for happiness in our modern lives. This link will take you to their discussion of Aristotle and how his systematic inquiry into a life of happiness should guide our modern pursuit.
Hector and the Search for Happiness
Watch Simon Pegg (of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead fame) as he portrays a psychologist who goes on a global quest to figure out what makes people happy. It's a modern take on the Aristotelian inquiry. Check out how many of his revelations match Aristotle's—or don't.
Is Literature a Good?
This article asks the very Aristotelian question: can literature make you a better person? The author entertains a variety of points-of-view, including Aristotle's own.
Aristotle, the List
Here's a list of quotable quotes, to impress your friends and awe your enemies.
Beyoncé as Aristotelian Artist?
NPR's Adam Frank ruffled some feathers by suggesting that Beyoncé used both science and art in her professional life. An adjunct professor of Philosophy writes in to defend Frank, and offers a thorough analysis of the Aristotelian types of knowledge Queen Bey must use in her performances.
Ethics, in Three Minutes
Stephen Fry of BritCom fame pretty much sums up the first four books of Ethics in this nifty little video presentation.
Ethics Crash Course—with Stick Figures
Take the level of seriousness down a notch and check out this video, which will help you maintain your sanity as you plow through Ethics.
The School of Philosophy
This YouTube channel offers quick explanations of philosophers' top ideas. This one, for Aristotle, does an excellent job of quickly untangling some of the central discussions of the Nicomachean Ethics.
Happiness for Modern Times
BBC's History of Ideas explores how Aristotle's Ethics helps us to think about flourishing and living the good life in our era.
The Big Hungry Caterpillar and Aristotle
We kid you not. This All Things Considered piece runs through the possible influences that Aristotle, Blake and Wittgenstein might have had on the author of this insanely popular children's book. It's all in good fun, but the author has a very Aristotelian point: in the end, it's all about happiness.
Decoding The School of Athens
Raphael's masterpiece is a massive work of visual name-dropping—which is all very well and good if you're on a first-name basis with folks like Anaximander and Hypatia. For the rest of us, this interactive tool allows us to explore the figures that appear in the painting. Here you will find some luminaries mentioned by Aristotle, including Eudemus of Rhodes, Speusippus, Pythagoras, and Xenocrates.
Hangin' with Homer
In this dark portrait, Rembrandt imagines Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer.
Portraits of the Philosopher
This article describes the portraits (sculptures) made of Aristotle in the 4th and 5th centuries BCE. While this site only includes one image, it provides links out to the existing portraits from this time period, housed online by Perseus.