Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, December 12, 2011

ARISTOTLE: On Happiness 2011

Any discussion of society should begin with simpler components: the people who make it up. Who are these people? What do they want? Aristotle can help us but he starts in a sideways fashion: Every art or applied science and every systematic investigation, and similarly every action and choice, seem to aim at some good… Before we begin we need to take a step back and look at the methods we’re going to use to guide our research. The important point for Aristotle is that everything we do will “aim at some good.” We don’t just wander around aimlessly. We have certain things we want to accomplish. So what is this “good” we all aim for? Since the title of this selection is “On Happiness” we’ve already given away the answer: everyone wants to be happy. That’s really what we’re all after. But what exactly is this goal we call “happiness?” Is it the same for everyone? Again Aristotle can help us. But again we have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Man is a social creature. Therefore happiness must be connected in some way with society. And societies are governed by politics. Therefore (as Aristotle sees it) Politics determines which sciences ought to exist in society, what kind of sciences each group of citizens must learn, and what degree of proficiency each must attain… Thus it follows that the end of politics is the good for man. This sounds like Aristotle is recommending that government should decide what we should learn, who should learn it and which people should go on for graduate degrees. That idea will never fly in America. But maybe Aristotle is merely suggesting that we need to think about the good of the whole community. If everyone goes off doing their own thing then what kind of community will we have left? The whole point of politics is to advance our best interests. Our best interests are served when the whole community thrives. Stated in simple terms, Aristotle asks: What is the aim of politics? His answer: Both the common man and the cultivated man call it happiness. Well, ok. So what is “happiness” in political terms? Aristotle explains that they understand happiness to be the same thing as “living well” and “doing well.” But when it comes to defining what happiness is, they disagree, and the answer given by ordinary people is different from the answer given by philosophers. We all agree that we want to be happy. The disagreement comes when we go about trying to describe what it is that makes us happy. We think what makes us happy should make other people happy too. Not so, says Aristotle. He says there are basically three kinds of lifestyles: (1) a life of enjoyment, (2) the political life, (3) the contemplative life. What makes #1 happy won’t make #2 happy; what makes #3 happy won’t make #1 happy, and so on. That’s because the goal of happiness is different in each of these cases. It should be noted that these are not political parties. They’re just three different approaches to life. We’ll find all three lifestyles mixed in with Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike. An interesting side-note is Aristotle’s observation that a young man is not equipped to be a student of politics… This will not be a popular idea with college students. How can Aristotle say such a thing? For Aristotle it’s not prejudice against college students, it’s just common sense. A college student has no experience in the actions which life demands of him, and these actions form the basis and subject matter of the discussion. In other words, the whole point of politics is to answer questions like how do I pay my mortgage? How can I get the best education for my children? Should we get braces to straighten little Sally’s teeth? Is my Senator doing a good job? College students simply don’t have the real-life experience to adequately answer these questions. And these are the kinds of things that ultimately lead to happiness. Aristotle admits happiness is a tough topic. He says Precision cannot be expected in the treatment of all subjects… Politics is not mathematics. It’s harder. There’s not a clear, correct answer. Happiness is kind of like that. Everyone’s not the same but Aristotle has laid out a firm foundation for us to pursue happiness in a logical way.


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