The Happiness of an Aristotelian

To be happy is, arguably, one of the greatest challenges, and greatest adventures, of life. For happiness is the end, the complete end, in which everything else is done for. It is praised as “one of the most divine things,” as “the prize and end of virtue,” as “the best thing in the human world,” making it seem as though it belongs only to the gods (I.9 1099b17, I.9 1099b12-13). But even if happiness was “sent by the gods,” or if mankind attained it “through virtue” or “some sort of learning or training,” it nevertheless remains the one phenomenon mankind, without fail, never ceases to strive for (I.9 1099b15, I.9 1099b16).

The school of thought headed by Aristotle is propelled by the belief that happiness, while being “both divine and blessed,” is attainable through the actions and standards one holds themselves to (I.9 1099b18). For, as Aristotle iterates, “happiness is pretty much a kind of living well and acting well,” which suggests that in order to achieve happiness, there is, indeed, a correct way of living (I.8 1098b23). From there, the advocacy of the Aristotelian definition of happiness continues, with Aristotle stating that “in life it is those who act rightly who will attain what is noble and good,” and “happiness. . . is the best, the noblest. . . thing” (I.8 1099a6-7, I.8 1099a24).  Furthermore, as Aristotle advances his argument, he states that “our account of happiness is in harmony with those who say that happiness is virtue or some particular virtue” (I.8 1098b30-31). Thus, Aristotle draws the conclusion that happiness is virtuous activity, or activity that causes one to act well, and therefore live well.

However, one who abides by Aristotelian thought readily admits that one’s happiness does not solely rely on virtue, or virtuous activity. In this particular account of happiness, there is a place and a role for both external and material goods. Unabashedly, Aristotle admits that “happiness obviously need the presence of external goods as well, since it is impossible, or at least no easy matter, to perform noble actions without resources” (I.8 1099a31-33). Additionally, as Aristotle is quick to identify, “in many actions, we employ, as if they were instruments at our disposal, friends, wealth, and political power,” indicating that we use things, or external goods, to help us carry out and complete certain behaviors (I.8 1099b1). The virtuous activities that we are meant to execute in order to achieve happiness require certain resources, equipment, materials, and opportunities. As Aristotle states, “there seems to be an additional need for some sort of prosperity” (I.8 1099b7). External goods, according to Aristotle, serve as a mean for one to carry out virtuous activities – they enable us, they help us, they are a springboard on which we can catapult ourselves from towards virtuous activity, towards happiness. As Aristotle eloquently states, “for the generous person will need money for doing generous actions. . . and the courageous person will need power, and the temperate person opportunity, if they are to accomplish any of the actions that accord with their virtue” (X.8 1178a29-34). Therefore, Aristotelian happiness can be more thoroughly defined as virtuous activity, which is enhanced and enabled by the presence of external goods.

In tandem with the aforementioned theory, there is another concept, which is interconnected with external goods, that Aristotle asserts as having the ability to impact happiness. Simply put, that concept is fortune, or one’s luck in life. Fortune, and a change in it, encompasses and includes external goods – a stroke of good fortune is often complementary with an increase in external goods, while a stroke of bad fortune is often complementary with a decrease in external goods. However, while fortune does have the capacity to impact happiness, it is not the sole determinant of it, for, according to Aristotle, “to entrust what is greatest and most noble to chance would be quite inappropriate” (I.9 1099b23-24). For how cruel it would be to have happiness, “one of the most divine things” in life, rely on chance, on fortune’s roll of the die (I.9 1099b16).

Aristotle states “many things, however, both large and small, happen by chance,” and that these things have the potential to “affect the balance of life,” presumably either for better or for worse (I.10 1100b23, I.10 1100b24). Additionally, a “many great events, if they are good, will make a life more blessed, since they will themselves naturally embellish it, and the way a person deals with them can be noble and good” (I.10 1100b25-27). Thus, good fortune, if reacted to in a good way, has the ability to embellish, to add to, the happiness in a life. However, given the previously stated truth, it therefore must also be true that many great events, if they are bad, will make a life unblessed, since they will themselves detract from the happiness in one’s life. Thus, if great events “turn out the other way” from good fortune, making it bad fortune, “they will oppress and spoil what is blessed, since they bring distress with them and hinder many activities” (I.10 1100b27-29). For bad fortune to have the power to oppress, spoil, distress, and hinder is to suggest that the mere occurrence of misfortune does have the power to diminish one’s happiness. As Aristotle clarifies, “no one calls someone happy who meets with misfortunes. . . and comes to a wretched end” (I.9 1100a9).

Furthermore, Aristotle states that one “will not be shifted easily from happiness. . . not by ordinary misfortunes, but by many grave ones,” and that one “would not recover from these to become happy again in a short space of time” (I.10 1101a9-11, I.10 1101a11-12). These two statements are concrete support of the idea that one can move in and out of happiness due to a significant change in fortune. Therefore, even if one is wise about the matter of virtuous activity, the chance of circumstance still retains the power to make one unhappy. Consequently, it is possible, according to the definition of Aristotelian happiness, for a wise person to be unhappy. For, as Aristotle concludes, “the happy person is the one who, adequately furnished with external goods, engages in activities in accordance with complete virtue” (I.10 1101a14-16).

However, Aristotle does not condone the idea that one’s happiness should depend entirely on a change in fortune or an amount of external goods – for the things that “really matter for happiness are activities in accordance with virtue” (I.10 1100b9-10). Aristotle is adamant in his conviction that an individual’s happiness arises from committing virtuous activities, and that fortune and external goods are “complementary” goods to a human life (I.10 1100b9). Therefore, in light of the question of whether or not the Aristotelian version of happiness strengthens or weakens one’s commitment to virtue, it can be stated that this account of happiness does not lessen one’s moral resolve. Even if one is presented with the opportunity to better one’s fortune, the individual who abides by an Aristotelian version of life “always does the noblest thing in the circumstances” (I.10 1101a2). Thus, no matter the circumstance faced, whether it be dangerous, tempting, or full of misfortune, an Aristotelian shall do the “noblest thing” (I.10 1101a2). Instead, what is unique about this approach to happiness, and perhaps what causes the question of a lesser moral resolve to even arise, is the notion that this approach acknowledges and accounts for the adversity an individual will face when trying to act with the correct, the appropriate, amount of virtue. “Anyone can get angry, or give and spend money,” Aristotle states, for “these are easy; but doing them in relation to the right person, in the right amount, at the right time, with the right aim in view, and in the right way – that is not something anyone can do, nor is it easy” (II.9 1109a27-30). “This is why it is hard to be good, because in each case it is hard to find the middle point,” Aristotle declares, and that “only the person with knowledge” of how to, is able to do so (II.9 1109a24-26).

However, when one has the liberty to compare the Aristotelian viewpoint to other viewpoints that also allege that happiness is derived from virtue, for instance, the Stoic viewpoint, there arises fundamental differences. Concentrating specifically on the Stoic and Aristotelian perspectives, one finds that while they both believe happiness is congruent with virtue and virtuous activities, the two schools of thought differ in how they interpret virtue, which causes the individuals from each school to come to different conclusions as to what virtuous activity is.

In the case of courage, both a Stoic and an Aristotelian would agree on the proclamation that courage is a virtue, and that to act in a courageous manner is to carry out virtuous activity. However, it is to the extent that one should act with courage, or any other virtue, that the two viewpoints conflict. For instance, in presenting a Stoic and an Aristotelian with the situation of a person trapped inside of a burning building, which is liable to collapse at any moment, an individual who abides by Stoic philosophy would not hesitate to run inside, while an individual who abides by Aristotelian philosophy would have the capability of choosing not to run inside. For a Stoic adamantly believes that happiness is derived solely from virtue, and no matter the change in fortune that may occur from acting virtuously, the virtuous action is what should be done. However, for an Aristotelian, happiness is only partially derived from virtue, since this perspective accounts for the impact of both fortune and external goods on happiness. While an Aristotelian “always does the noblest thing in the circumstances,” they will also do what is “the most strategically appropriate thing,” for themselves and for others (I.10 1101a2-3). Since Aristotelian philosophy emphasizes the idea that fortune, or circumstance, has a part to play in happiness, what is considered virtuous to a Stoic may not be considered virtuous to an Aristotelian in a particular circumstance.

Concerning the case of the burning building and the virtue of courage, it was stated previously that a Stoic would not hesitate to enter the building, while an Aristotelian had the ability to choose not to enter the building. Fundamentally, this difference between the two schools is derived from them putting different amounts of emphasis on the consequences of virtuous activity – a Stoic disregards any consequence, no matter how severe it may be, while an Aristotelian regards the consequence as a factor to be considered in deciding what a virtuous activity is. For an Aristotelian will always consider whether or not “he is losing the greatest goods” when determining the virtuous course of action, while a Stoic will not, which results in the two philosophies having different accounts for what virtue and virtuous activity consist of (III.9 1117b14).

To summarize, as the happiness of an Aristotelian is outlined, there remains the need for an individual to partake in virtuous activity. Nevertheless, no matter how crucial virtue may be in the definition of Aristotelian happiness, Aristotle is keen on making clear that it is not what happiness solely relies on – there are other things, such as fortune and external goods, that act as fundamental components of happiness. However, accounting for those other things does not lessen an individual’s moral resolve, or make them less virtuous – simply, it means that Aristotle’s interpretation of happiness has the capacity to encompass the circumstantial. At its core, what makes the Aristotelian version of happiness unique is its rigidness to accommodate a sense of virtue, yet its pliability to allow for the chance occurrences of life.


Works Cited

Aristotle, and Roger Crisp. Nichomachean Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 2014. Print.

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