Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, January 16, 2016

ARISTOTLE: On Happiness

In Gogol’s short story The Overcoat we read about a man named Akaky who “lived for his job… He worked with love.  There, in his copying, he found an interesting, pleasant world for himself.”  Here’s a simple question.  Was he happy?  Is finding an “interesting, pleasant world” for ourselves the same thing as being happy?  This week we turn to Aristotle and his thoughts On Happiness.  Aristotle believes Nature gives everything a natural function or purpose.  Let’s take Akaky as our example.  Aristotle says the proper function of Man is to live “an active life of the rational element.”  An “active life” is one where we actually do things.  But it has to be more than that.  To live a good life we need clear goals and not just be engaged in random activities.  Akaky gets up and goes to work making copies.  Then he comes home and has supper.  Then he practices making copies at home.  Then he goes to bed.  The next day he gets up and does the same thing, year in and year out.  Akaky has clear goals but the bar is set very low.  Is he happy?

Aristotle would say, no.  It’s true that happiness involves activity and Akaky is active in the workplace.  But for Aristotle happiness means more than that.  It’s “an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue.”  We could make the argument that Akaky is pursuing excellence in his own chosen craft, copying letters.  Akaky is, in fact, an excellent craftsman of letters.  Aristotle would respond that’s not a sufficient foundation on which to build a happy life.  There’s more to life than work.  In Aristotle’s view Akaky is lacking many of the things necessary for true happiness: “good birth, plenty of friends, good friends, wealth, good children, plenty of children, a happy old age… health, beauty, strength…” and maybe even “fame, honor, good luck and virtue.”  That’s a pretty comprehensive list.  And totally idealistic.  Under those terms no one could ever be called truly happy.  Certainly Akaky could not.  Here’s the point.  Aristotle is presenting an ideal life of happiness, not the normal life.  We’ll fall well short of acquiring all those things listed as the building blocks of happiness.  But Aristotle thinks we’ll be happier in direct proportion to the extent that we do acquire and hold on to the things on that list.  Pursuing happiness, even if we don’t achieve it perfectly, is what we were born for.  That is the driving ambition of human beings according to Aristotle.  He says “all men aim at a certain end which determines what they choose and what they avoid.  This end, to sum it up briefly, is happiness.”  So in order to be happy we should habitually choose the right things and avoid the wrong things.  Akaky seemed happy for a while.  What went wrong? 

Aristotle would say that Akaky’s kind of happiness was built on a shaky foundation to begin with.  He had a job he enjoyed.  That was about all.  He had no family or friends.  He was reasonably healthy but he wasn’t handsome or physically fit.  He wasn’t famous, he won no honors and once his old overcoat wore out his luck ran out too.  In short, Akaky’s “happiness” relied on one thing and one thing only: his daily routine.  Once that daily routine was disrupted his happiness evaporated.  But we may ask what else could Akaky have done?  His old coat wore out.  He had to buy a new one.  We may argue that it was just bad luck that Akaky got mugged and his new coat was stolen.  Aristotle would respond that it wasn’t “just bad luck” that Akaky was out after midnight, drunk, in a strange part of town.  This was certainly not an example of “an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue.”  It was an example of Akaky choosing to do the wrong thing; an activity of his soul, his rational being, in conformity with foolishness.  Aristotle admits that being happy isn’t easy.  But it’s much harder if we make bad decisions.  In theory anyone can fulfill the “proper function” of a human being and become happy.  In practice very few people can live up to Aristotle’s high standards.


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