Study Guide

The Nicomachean Ethics Happiness

By Aristotle

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For it seems possible for someone to possess virtue even while asleep or while being inactive throughout life and, in addition to these, while suffering badly and undergoing the greatest misfortunes. But no one would deem happy somebody living in this way, unless he were defending a thesis. (1.5.1095b34-1096a2)

It's rare, but we see a little bit of Aristotelian humor in here—zing! The philosopher's telling us that we have to be very careful when defining happiness, since there are so many loopholes. While he does feel that virtue is part of a happy life, he knows that it can't be the extent of it, since a person can display virtue and still lack other essential characteristics of a good life (i.e. consciousness and health). His conclusion: there has to be something greater that defines happiness.

But in every action and choice, it is the end involved, since it is for the sake of this that all people do everything else. As a result, if there is some end of all actions, this would be the good related to action; and if there are several, then it would be these. (I.7.1097a21-24)

Aristotle's told us that in our pursuit of happiness, we seek the ultimate, complete good. Any good that can be made better by something else simply doesn't qualify. But what is this great good, this end that we all search for? Happiness, of course. There is nothing greater that we hope or aim for when we do anything (including waking up in the morning).

The simply complete thing, then, is that which is always chosen for itself and never on account of something else. Happiness above all seems to be of this character, for we always choose it on account of itself and never on account of something else. Yet honor, pleasure, intellect, and every virtue we choose on their own account...but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, because we suppose that, through them, we will be happy. (1.7.1097a35-1097b5)

Aristotle supposes that the ultimate good that every human being searches for has to be something so fantastic that we would live inside of it and only it forever if we could, without the need for anything else. And while the virtues are admirable, they aren't that certain something we reach for through good behavior. Happiness fits the bill precisely because it is the thing that motivates all our actions and choices—even if we make the wrong ones.

Happiness, therefore, is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing; and these are not separated...For all these are present in the best activities, and we assert that happiness is these activities—or the best among them. (1.8.1099a25-30)

Just in case you weren't catching Aristotle's drift: happiness is the bestest thing of all good things in the world. All the virtues he'll discuss plus all the external goods (i.e. money, health) come together to create the blissful state of happiness. You just can't get any higher.

For it is impossible or not easy for someone without equipment to do what is noble: many things are done through instruments, as it were—through friends, wealth, and political power. Those who are bereft of some of these...disfigure their blessedness, for a person who is altogether ugly in appearance, or of poor birth, or solitary and childless cannot really be characterized as happy... (I.8.1099b31-1099b5)

Even in the 4th Century B.C., Aristotle knows that those who are born without social privilege have a much harder time doing the things that bring them honor and happiness in this world. And although there is a kind of self-sufficiency in happiness (or "blessedness"), Aristotle's observations here show that even the happy person needs some external goods—like companionship and wealth—to maintain a good life.

But those fortunes that turn out in the contrary way restrict and even ruin one's blessedness, for they both inflict pains and impede many activities. Nevertheless, even in the midst of these, nobility shines through, whenever someone bears up calmly under many great misfortunes, not because of any insensitivity to pain but because he is wellborn and great souled. (I.10.110027-33)

It'd be impossible to talk about happiness without talking about its opposite (hey, it's Aristotle). He is responding to the idea that a person's life is often judged happy or unhappy based on last-minute reversals of fortune. He warns us not let the natural variations in good fortune change our opinion of a person's happiness. Still, there are some catastrophes that really do make us re-assess our bliss levels. Even when we suffer, there's an opportunity to recover a bit of life satisfaction, if we respond with a stiff upper lip.

What, then, prevents one from calling happy someone who is active in accord with complete virtue and who is adequately equipped with external goods, not for any chance time but in a complete life? Or must one posit in addition that he will both live in this way and meet his end accordingly—since the future is immanifest to us, and we posit happiness, wholly and in every way, as an end and as complete? (1.10.1101a15-19)

Aristotle's been wrestling with the idea of calling a man happy before he is dead. Why is this even an issue? Because what happens if a person lives a happy life all the way till the end, and something catastrophic happens to him? Should happiness be judged only when the whole of it can be assessed? Aristotle thinks that it is perfectly possible to assess a life in progress, especially if a person is living a life of virtue and is well equipped to deal with adversity…if it should come along.

...let us say that wisdom and prudence are necessarily choiceworthy in themselves, since each of them is a virtue of each part [of the soul], even if neither one of them makes or produces anything. Second, they do in fact make or produce something, not as the art of medicine produces health, but, rather, just as health produces health, so wisdom produces happiness. For wisdom, being part of the whole of virtue, makes one happy by being possessed and by being active. (6.12.1144a1-6)

This argument resembles a dog chasing its tail: wisdom makes us happy because we are happy being wise. But Aristotle sees more subtlety to this argument. By choosing a life conducive to wisdom, we're making a good choice—a choice that accords with an intellectual virtue. And people who make good choices tend to be happy people. It seems so simple, but of course, the acquisition of knowledge is a serious undertaking.

For this reason, all people suppose the happy life to be pleasant, and they weave pleasure into happiness—reasonably so. For no activity is complete when it is impeded, but happiness is among the things that are complete. Hence the happy person needs in addition the goods residing in the body as well as external goods and chance, so that he not be impeded in these respects. (7.13.1153b14-19)

Aristotle's responding here to allegations that pleasures are naughty and should be avoided. Okay, that's an oversimplification of the discussion, but that is the essential point. We must be realistic enough to understand that no person can be happy without pleasure—since the opposite of pleasure is pain.

Since happiness is the most complete of all goods (needing nothing further to be most excellent) and since humans live inside of a body, pleasure is clearly part of those goods possessed by the happy person. Of course, there are ways that we can go overboard with pleasure—but that's another discussion.

If happiness is an activity in accord with virtue, it is reasonable that it would accord with the most excellent virtue, and this would be the virtue belonging to what is best. So whether this is the intellect or something else that naturally seems to rule, to command, and to possess intelligence concerning what is noble and divine, whether it itself is in fact divine or the most divine of the things in us—the activity of this, in accord with the virtue proper to it, would be complete happiness. (10.7.1177a13-17)

We've made it to the big reveal here: the thing that will make us most happy. Aristotle believes since perception (and especially self-perception) is the thing that makes us uniquely human, the part of us that is capable of acknowledging our existence is what will do it for us.

He's cagey about naming the exact part responsible—intellect? Reason? Comprehension?—but it's clear that he's speaking of the activity of the rational soul. The joys of contemplation (and of course, the philosophical life) are the very best thing ever. No bias here—not from a philosopher like Aristotle. (Ha.)

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