Aristotle’s landmark work, The Nicomachean Ethics, puts forth many prescriptions and claims about how to live the right kind of life, what to value, and how human beings ought to ideally act. Especially considering the incredible age of the work, it has to go down as one of the most influential pieces of writing by not just Aristotle, but any philosopher. One of Aristotle’s theses in Book I.5 is that that neither pleasure, nor honor, nor virtue is equivalent to happiness. Aristotle claims the nature of happiness is something unique, and this blog is my very brief take on this claim.
Aristotle indicates “…most men of the most vulgar type, seem (not without ground) to identify the good, or happiness, with pleasure;…”. The good indicates those ideals, states, and activities “that are pursued and loved for themselves….” In other words, the good “is for the sake of this that all men do whatever else they do.” Happiness is the ultimate, and is non-contingent; I mean to say that he believes it to be the first thing and the highest aspiration for humankind. What he is pointing out is that happiness is a goal sought above all because it is that thing beyond which no one would be searching. If you had a Genie in a bottle, in other words, the nature of happiness is that you would be wise to wish for it, not money, power, or various possessions.
What does he mean that pleasure, honor, and virtue are not equivalent to happiness, then? Aristotle is indicating that most men are “slavish” to pleasures of the flesh (food, drink, sexual pleasures, a life of repose, etc.); they try to fill a cup that, not unlike the situation of the Greek absurd figure Sisyphus, is ever found to be empty upon waking.
As well, “People of superior refinement…identify happiness with honor” [i.e., political life], for honor was an extrinsic goal even more important than money was in his day. Virtue (i.e., what he would term mere excellence) is compatible with being “asleep” and with “sufferings and misfortunes”. As far back and as far removed as ancient Egypt, the pharaoh Akhnaton said, “Honor is the inner garment of the soul; the first thing put on by it with the flesh, and the last it layeth down at its separation from it.” Aristotle is claiming that the nature of happiness is greater than honor, though.
Finally, wealth falls short of true happiness because it is “evidently not the good we are seeking”, Aristotle holds. Gold is only worth what it can purchase. It is said that a donkey prefers straw over gold, and though humans have long coveted precious metals and the like, it seems to be only because they long to feel happier and believe gold can buy that state/feeling.
Fame, wealth, youth, health, honor, and even power all fall short in part because, unlike the good, they can be “easily taken from one” Aristotle points out, or because their pursuit is merely for the sake of one’s shallow pride; that one “may be assured of their [own] merit”. The nature of happiness, however, is that which all these ends point; it is loved for itself, and thus, it is the highest good. The happy person wishes for nothing more.
Humans are rational creatures, and political animals, he says. Thus, what is unique to us (rationality, reason) is the route to our happiness. We must do that which is in our nature, just like cats hunt and birds nest. If we pursue human flourishing, we will be happy – our highest good. It’s not a feeling, though; it is more like doing what we are meant to do. An activity of the soul in accord with reason and the virtues for an entire life (with sufficient external goods, e.g., money, friends, etc.) and a good death is basically his formula.
How to bring about more happiness? Try this blog.