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Saturday, August 13, 2011

ARISTOTLE: On Happiness, Introduction 2011

Aristotle would have made a good lawyer. He believes that everyone wants to be happy. Who wants to be sad? It’s hard to argue with him on that point. Therefore Aristotle comes to the reasonable conclusion that whatever creates or increases happiness…we ought to do. And the other half of the equation is also reasonable: whatever destroys or hampers happiness…we ought not to do. Simple. But these conclusions only seem simple. They are not. To begin with, what does Aristotle mean by the word “happiness?” He goes on to tell us what most people mean when they talk about happiness: (1) prosperity combined with virtue, (2) independence of life, (3) secure enjoyment of the maximum of pleasure, (4) a good condition of property and body. (5) Happiness is one or more of these things. Fair enough. These all sound suspiciously like the American ideal of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But different people still come to different conclusions about what happiness is. Americans do, in fact, come to different conclusions about what happiness is. Why? Aristotle’s answer: confused and sloppy thinking. As rational people we need to come to logical conclusions about what happiness means. It won’t do to take somebody else’s word for it because happiness is not a personal preference. It’s a rational decision. So what are we talking about when we talk about happiness? Aristotle thinks we must at least have a vague notion. Otherwise, we simply wouldn’t understand one another. But we do understand this much: we both agree that happiness is a good thing. Why do we think that? And what do we really want when we say we want to be happy? Here again Aristotle goes into great detail: 1. good birth 2. plenty of friends 3. good friends 4. wealth 5. good children 6. plenty of children 7. a happy old age 8. body excellence (health, beauty, strength, large stature, athletic powers) 9. fame 10. honor 11. good luck 12. virtue. This is a good list; twelve things that make people happy. And the list seems about right because it sounds so reasonable. Anything can be abused if it’s used in the wrong way or we get too much of it. But Aristotle has given us a list of inherently good things. Who wouldn’t want friends and good health and a happy old age? Modern Americans may quibble over the details: Good birth? I may not be a blue blood but I’ve got common sense and pulled myself up by my own boot strings. Wealth? I don’t need to be rich to be happy. Large stature? Let’s not go there. Americans like their food. Leave it at that. Fame? Who wants paparazzi around all the time anyway? So in some areas ancient Greek aristocrats and modern middle-class Americans simply disagree about what happiness is. We don’t have the same vision of what a happy life consists of. What Aristotle wants to do is find the common ground. So he frames the question this way: what is our ultimate purpose? He answers his own question: The proper function of man is an active life of the rational element. This is a good definition. It’s reasonable. It sounds right. But is it true? Other answers are possible. Marcus Aurelius might say that the proper function of man is to do our duty. St. Augustine might say that the proper function of man is to know, love and serve God. Thomas Jefferson might say that the proper function of man is to become a good neighbor and fellow citizen. We disagree about what happiness is because we ultimately disagree about what’s important in life. Or, to use an age-old question: what’s the meaning of life? Aristotle believes that we can only find the answer if we follow our reason and not our emotions. Emotions can too easily lead us astray. We have to follow the rational element in ourselves if we want to make sense out of life in this world. The brain should be in charge, not the heart. This conclusion may not give us the final answer to the meaning of life; it may not solve all of life’s problems. But Aristotle thinks it’s a good place to start. If our goal in life is to be happy we’re much more likely to get there if we have a road map, a good plan for a good life, and then follow it. Aristotle the attorney presents the evidence and rests his case. The verdict is up to the reader.


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