In The Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle presents a theory about what it means to truly be happy that is still very relevant in modern day.
The critical question he tries to answer is “What is the ultimate purpose of human existence?” What is the goal of being alive and where should people put their effort in life. Everywhere people seek pleasure, reputation and wealth, but while many of these have value on their own, none can replace that ultimate good Aristotle argues for. For something to be an ultimate end, it has to be final and also self-sufficient and people must want it for its own sake–”that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1096d), and has to be within the reach of man. He says that most everyone would agree that happiness meets those requirements. It is easy to recognize that people have desires for pleasure, money and reputation, because many people think these things will actually make them happier than without. It seems like every good a person can strive for is just a means to happiness, the ultimate end.
Eudaemonia is an ancient Greek word that is often translated to happiness, but that can be very misleading. In modern day, happiness is most often defined as a temporary state of mind that is brought on by a single action or short period of time. Especially in America, someone might say they’re happy enjoying a day at the pool or going to a baseball game with their friends. In Aristotle’s view, happiness is an end that will ultimately encompass the entirety of one’s life and is not something that can ever be gained in a few hours. Those are just pleasurable sensations that people mistake for true happiness.
Happiness is more akin to your entire life up to now, and a measurement of how well you have fulfilled your potential as a person. This is why we can’t really make a determination of whether or not someone is truly happy at any point other than the end of their life. It wouldn’t be any more correct to say that a young child is happy any more than it would be to say that a seed is also a tree. It takes an extraordinary amount of time for an oak tree to grow, and the potential for life and happiness in a child hasn’t been realized.
Aristotle said that “for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a). Aristotle draws on his own first hand views of nature to explain happiness in humans, and he is able to categorize everything that exists in nature into certain categories. It seems that in respect to humans we have been given a unique ability to reason. Through reason we can solve our own complex problems and achieve ends, and live a life that is innately different from an animal or a plant.
The very fact that humans can read the thoughts of others and write and can contemplate our own mental ability is amazing. The human brain can ponder the meaning of infinity and even question itself. It is this ability for meta thought that drastically increases human potential as a whole. What a human would define as good is greatly different from what an animal would as we have different potential.
Humans have the ability to be rational. Because of this pleasure alone can’t ever constitute true happiness, as pleasure is sought by humans and animals alike. Destroying physical urges isn’t the goal, but rather to conduct ourselves in a way that is appropriate to our potential. Aristotle eventually gives a concrete definition os 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, 1098b). Here Aristotle links the concepts of virtue and happiness together. He says the most important consideration in being truly happy is centered around good moral character.
He calls this complete virtue; however being virtuous cannot be achieved passively. A person has to at all times act accordingly to be virtuous. According to Aristotle, happiness mainly consists of attaining throughout one’s life everything that leads to the enrichment of your own life and nature as a human. “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, 1101a).
This implies that while happiness isn’t necessarily tangible it does still reply on physical goods and pleasures to attain. Often difficult choices have to be made between different pleasures which will result in a better or worse long term outcome. There may be an easily available pleasure which is more tempting, but the long term better good is probably less easily accessible and may require you to sacrifice immediate gratification. For example, there is a big difference between playing video games all night which may provide instant satisfaction, and instead spending the evening writing a paper which will result in the near future a good grade an addition to time to relax and play video games. Aristotle would likely be incredibly critical of the abundance of instant gratification in today’s society.
In order to be virtuous, a person has to constantly be mindful of the future and what choices will lead them to their own desired outcome. Particularly in modern day America, people lead lives