In this paper, I wish to explore the concept of happiness as well as Aristotle’s take on it. I think for most of us, we rarely stop and think about what happiness is even though we cannot deny its inevitable existence. It is one of my major points that everyone has a different definition of what happiness is or what happiness means to them, and that definition changes along with time, when one’s personal believes or opinions or convictions change as he progresses through life, they change because of a myriad of reasons, no social scientists can pin down exactly what they are but those changes are nevertheless very real and a direct correspondence of the direct interaction between the person and his or her environment.
Aristotle proposes that the single idea of good must establish these three claims:
Idea of Good Claim 1) We have ends which we choose for themselves.
Idea of Good Claim 2) That there is only one such end.
Idea of Good Claim 3) That end is happiness.
He argues for Idea of Good Claim 1) as follows (Irwin 173):
1.1. If we choose everything because of something else, desire will be empty and futile.
1.2. We have a gut feeling that some desires are not empty and futile.
1.3. Therefore, we do not choose everything because of something else.
1.4. Therefore we choose something for its own sake.
1.5. What we choose for its own sake, therefore, must be the best good.
The debatable premise is 2. As this is not conflicting with my own gut feelings, we will allow Aristotle postulate this claim.
Postulate 1: We have a gut feeling that some desires are not empty and futile.
Granting him this postulate, we allow his conclusion 5. that there are some things we choose for their own sake. This satisfies Idea of Good Claim 1).
Aristotle’s criteria for the Idea of Good are self-sufficiency and completeness. Regarding these criteria he says, “not all ends are complete. But the best good is apparently something complete. And so, if only one end is complete, the good we are looking for will be this end; if more ends than one are complete, it will be the most complete of these ends.” (Irwin 7) Aristotle has not given good reason why there must be only one end from which all actions are a means, rather than several such ends. At this point I will not contend with Aristotle if he can posit this singularity and avoid contradiction further into his theory.
Postulate 2: There is only one Idea of Good.
Aristotle explores and finds happiness to be the best fit for these criteria of the Idea of Good. We must pause for a moment to clarify the translation of eudaimonia, translated to “happiness” in the text. In Greek, eudaimonia translates to “living well” or “doing well”, “Happiness is the complete end [one’s] complete happiness depends on himself, and not on external conditions.” (Irwin 333) Regarding happiness as the single Idea of Good Aristotle says, “Now happiness, more than anything else, seems complete without qualification. For we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else. â€¦The same conclusion also appears to follow from self-sufficiency. For the complete good seems to be self-sufficientâ€¦ We hold an end to be self sufficient when all by itself it makes a life choiceworthy and lacking nothing; and that is what we think happiness does.” (Irwin 8) Aristotle makes a good argument here for why happiness is the Idea of Good because he appeals to one’s intuition. My own intuition does not conflict with Aristotle’s proposition that eudaimonia is the most complete and self-sufficient end, to which other human objectives are means to. Aristotle has satisfied Idea of Good in Claim 3) if we allow him to postulate the first two claims. Aristotle has solidified his claim that eudaimonia is the Idea of the Good by satisfying the three claims. With this information, we progress to investigate which of the three types of lives reaches eudaimonia the best. Aristotle claims that the life of activity and reason achieves this goal best, and denies two alternatives: the life of gratification and the life of ambition.
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Aristotle argues that happiness is not a state or possession, but rather an activity that we engage in. Aristotle proposes that someone who is asleep for their entire life could not be eudaimonia. This is consistent with the definition given earlier of eudaimonia. Just as the function of a harpist is to play the harp, and the function of the physician is to care for the body, the function of the human being according to Aristotle is to remain active and employ reason in one’s life. Aristotle contemplates the human function saying, “we take the human function to be a certain kind of life, and take this life to be activity and actions of the soul that involve reason”. (Irwin 9) He denies that the human function is bodily pleasure because those qualities are shared with animals. Aristotle claims our purpose must be a life of active contemplation, saying, “The remaining possibility, then, is some sort of life of action of the part of the soul that has reasonâ€¦ we take the human function to be a certain kind of life, and take this life to be activity and actions of the soul that involve reason.” (Irwin 9) Aristotle’s argument for activity holds for our own time, people who remain active appear to be happier than those who can no longer be, such as the elderly. However, activity involving reason may be too narrow of a definition. One viable alternative is productivity in whatever respect one is capable of. Aristotle is confining his alternatives of what constitutes a good life to his own talents, rather than allowing people with other dispositions to also live eudaimonia.
The life of gratification focuses on sensory pleasures as the means to happiness. Aristotle denies that pleasure is necessarily a good, and pain is necessarily an evil. He separates goods into two types, conditional and unconditional. He argues that pleasure is conditionally good for us because we have the pain corresponding to it. For example, hunger is a pain that is satisfied by eating food. Aristotle argues that bodily pleasures are only good under the condition that the corresponding pain is present. Any further pursuit of bodily pleasures to Aristotle is a pursuit of the excess and such pleasure is no longer a good. Reciprocally, the existence of pain in small amounts can be enjoyable as well as it gives us an occasion to satisfy it. Thus, those who live for bodily pleasure, the life of gratification, are not pursuing the most complete good but rather pursue an excess of bodily sensation. Aristotle admits that we all enjoy and are just in enjoying a degree of sensory gratification, but he renders base those who overindulge.
The ambitious life is one focused on attaining honor and acknowledgement from others. Aristotle denies this as a viable means to attain eudaimonia because it focuses on the opinions of others. Eudaimonia is a state which should not be so fickle and easily lost as public opinion, and thus Aristotle discards this option, saying, “This, however, appears too superficial to be [eudaimonia]; for it seems to depend more on those who honor than on the one honored, whereas we intuitively believe that the good is something of our own and hard to take from us. Further, it would seem, they pursue honor to convince themselves they are good”. (Irwin 4) This is a convincing denial of pursuing a life of ambition. I accept an assumption Aristotle makes that ‘living well’ is not constituted by the opinions of others, but rather by the virtue of oneself.
So far we have accepted Aristotle’s premise that activity is needed to reach eudaimonia, but we have questioned the necessity for study. We have accepted Aristotle’s denial of the two alternative lives, as they focus on either overindulgence or public opinion. Due to space constraints we will not discuss the possibility of other lives, though there are plenty worthy of mention. One means that Aristotle proposes to remain active is having loving friendships. Aristotle offers loving friendships with good people as the most complete friendship, saying, “complete friendship is the friendship of good people similar in virtue; for they wish goods in the same way to each other insofar as they are good, and they are good in their own right…These kinds of friendships are likely to be rare, since such people are few.” (Irwin 122-123) Complete friendships cannot be based on utility or erotic pleasure, but rather love. Aristotle says, “Those who are friends for utility dissolve the friendship as soon as the advantage is removed; for they were never friends of each other, but of what was expedient for them.” (Irwin 123) Aristotle proposes that a life of friendship facilitates activity, because we are social creatures by nature. A life involving study and contemplation, for example, serves as a medium to foster a respect and exchange of ideas, which is inherent in a loving friendship. In addition, we can expand Aristotle’s conclusions to apply to other means of remaining active, such as a life of military service, the life of a physician, or the life of an artist. In addition, friends help regulate our behavior in making virtuous decisions, as virtue is also a vital component of reaching eudaimonia. Aristotle says, “no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all other goods. Indeed rich people and holders of powerful positions need friends, how else would one benefit from such prosperity if one had no opportunity for beneficenceâ€¦ But in poverty also and in other misfortunes, people think friends are the only refugeâ€¦The young need friends to keep them from error. The old need friends to care for them and support the actions that fail because of weakness.” (Irwin 119)
Aristotle is correct in finding that activity is a vital element in achieving eudaimonia, and that friendship plays an important role in helping us remain active and virtuous. We can apply a broader application of this search for happiness by allowing lives other than that of study and contemplation to be pursued, as long as virtue and loving friendships are present. To arrive at this conclusion we postulated two of Aristotle’s premises (see Postulate 1 and Postulate 2); allowing these lead us to a worthwhile map of how one may reach eudaimonia, the Idea of Good which follows from the postulates. Overlaying a life of productivity for Aristotle’s requirement of study, we have achieved a valid argument, assuming the postulates, for a means of human flourishing. One should live one’s life with virtue, activity, and productivity.
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