Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, April 18, 2016

ARISTOTLE: On Happiness (Jacob and His Fiddle)

In our last reading we met a character who never found the happiness he was looking for.  Toward the end of his long life Jacob thought about all the things he might have done.  He might have become a fisherman and sold fish in the marketplace.  He might have set up a travelling music-boat show.  He might have started a ferry business.  He might have raised geese.  Would any of these things have made Jacob happy?  In this week’s reading Aristotle says probably not.  Why not?  Because Jacob never fulfilled his proper role in life.  According to Aristotle “the proper function of man consists in an activity of the soul in conformity with a rational principle.”  Jacob was very active.  He made coffins, played the fiddle, drank vodka, and beat up on Jews.  But his life wasn’t guided by a rational principle or, for that matter, any guiding principle at all.  The only thing he really cared about was making money.  That seemed to be his only principle.  Aristotle doesn’t think getting rich is a necessarily a bad thing.  Having money is, in fact, one of the ingredients for happiness.  But it’s only one of the ingredients.  Aristotle notes that “some people think happiness is virtue; others that it is practical wisdom; others that it is some kind of theoretical wisdom; others believe it to be pleasure and some also include prosperity in its definition.”  Happiness may include these things.  But having any (or even all) of them is no guarantee that a person will be happy.  For Aristotle being happy reflects “a kind of good life and well-being.”  Jacob didn’t have a good life.  But it wasn’t because he was poor.  It was because he didn’t live well. 

What does Aristotle have in mind when he says we should live well?  Choosing the right things for the right reason and then doing them well is what he calls happiness.  Jacob does some things well.  He makes good coffins.  He’s a good musician.  But he fails to become a better man by participating in those activities.  Jacob doesn’t use his work and leisure time to improve his soul.  “Soul” for Aristotle is that life-giving part of us which makes us alive.  We’re not rocks.  Our “souls” make us capable of thinking and doing.  Aristotle thinks a well-lived life doesn’t just happen.  It’s planned and carried out according to a rational blueprint.  How do we develop this blueprint?  Aristotle responds “perhaps this is best done by first ascertaining the proper function of man.”  First we should determine what we’re here for and only then develop a life plan for ourselves.  Whatever plan we choose, Aristotle adds, we need to set high standards because “the function of the harpist is to play the harp; the function of the harpist who has high standards is to play it well.”  Jacob set high standards for making coffins.  He set high standards for playing the fiddle.  In those areas he did very well.  But he failed to set high standards for being a man.  He failed at being a good neighbor and a good husband.  Making coffins didn’t help him be a better friend to Rothschild and playing his fiddle didn’t help him be a better husband to Martha.  Instead, Jacob focused his life almost entirely on making money.  He thought this would make him happy.  Aristotle warns that “fortune does not determine whether we fare well or ill, but is, as we said, merely an accessory to human life.”  The winds of Fortune can blow against us.  We’ll see that happen when we read Antigone (GB1).  But we can’t blame all our misfortunes on Fortune.  Sometimes it’s our own fault.  We’ll see that when we read Othello (GB1).  Jacob’s fault wasn’t that he loved to play the fiddle.  His fault was using the fiddle as his primary emotional outlet.  He should have shared his feelings with his wife and fellow band members.  Aristotle tells us “the crown at the Olympic Games is not awarded to the most beautiful and the strongest but to the participants in the contest.”  Being a good fiddle player isn’t enough.  To be happy, to be a winner in life, you have to be in the game.  Jacob never got off the bench.  He just daydreamed about what might have been.  That makes for a good song but not a good life. 


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