To understand the concept of happiness according to Aristotle, we must remember, first of all, that he defended the thesis that every being has a purpose, an aim of its own. This thesis became known as finalism or teleology (telos in Greek means end, purpose).
The purpose of an orange tree, for example, is to produce oranges; the purpose of the human eye is to see; the purpose of a hammer is to nail, etc.
Now, when a being acts according to its end, it achieves its own good. This is evident, since the end of a being could not culminate in something that would do it harm. Therefore, the end of a being is its own good. He says in Book I of the Ethics:
It is generally admitted that every art and every investigation, as well as every action and every choice, have some good in view; and therefore it has been very rightly said that the good is that to which all things tend.
The Ultimate End of Human Life
Following this reasoning, Aristotle investigates, in his Nicomachaean Ethics, what would be man’s ultimate end, that is, his supreme good.
Aristotle is direct on this point: the supreme good of human life is happiness (eudaimonia, in Greek).
What is happiness according to Aristotle?
According to Aristotle, happiness consists in the improvement of what is essential to human beings, that is, their reason. Only the human being is endowed with a rational soul, which makes him essentially different from plants (which have a vegetative soul) and animals (which have a sensitive soul).
A person who wants to live well and happily must live according to reason. The argument is simple: if we have a soul that is superior to the others, nothing more just than to cultivate it always and be guided by it.
What is not happiness?
All human actions are aimed at achieving happiness. Aristotle says that everyone agrees on this, but they don’t agree on what exactly happiness consists of:
Almost all are in agreement, for both the vulgar and men of higher culture say that this end is happiness, and identify the good living and the good acting as being happy. But they differ, however, as to what happiness is […]. The former think it is something simple and obvious, like pleasure, wealth, or honors.
Aristotle refutes these 3 opinions, for happiness is not:
- Pleasure: Those who believe that pleasure is the supreme happiness live like animals who act on uncontrollable impulses, always in search of physical satisfaction, they are like slaves.
- Wealth: Happiness does not consist in wealth. It is useful, says Aristotle, but it is only a means to achieve other things, so it cannot be considered man’s ultimate end.
- Honor: It cannot be, since honor depends more on the one who confers it than on the one who receives it. And he who gives honor can also take it away. Now, something that can be taken away from a man cannot be considered his highest good, therefore honor is not the supreme happiness.
What is the relationship between virtue and happiness according to Aristotle?
As we have already seen, when a being reaches its end, it also reaches its excellence, that is, its virtue.
According to Aristotle, for a person to reach happiness, the Highest Good, he must reach the excellence of his rational faculty, that is, he must reach the intellectual virtues, also called dianoetic.
See: The Virtue of Aristotle’s Ethics
The intellectual (dianoetic) virtue is divided into two:
Wisdom (sophia) is the knowledge of things that are above the human being; it is the contemplation of things that are immutable and eternal, found by theoretical science or, more specifically, metaphysics.
Happiness, therefore, consists in the theoretical life, the contemplative life; it is in the possession of this virtue that man achieves his supreme happiness.
Aristotle states in his Nicomachaean Ethics:
None of the other animals are happy, since they do not participate in contemplation in any way. Happiness therefore has the same boundaries as contemplation, and those who are in the fullest possession of the latter are the most genuinely happy, not as a mere concomitant but by virtue of contemplation itself, since contemplation is precious in itself. And so happiness must be some form of contemplation.
Unlike pleasure, riches and honor, the virtue of wisdom cannot be taken from man. The contemplative life is not a means to something else, it is an end in itself.
Moreover, God’s own activity is also contemplative, so it is of higher value. Aristotle says:
God’s activity, which surpasses all others by blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, that which has the greatest affinity with this is the one that must participate most in happiness.
Cite This Work
Vieira, S. (2021, August 14). Happiness according to Aristotle. Filosofia do Início. Retrieved from https://filosofiadoinicio.com/en/happiness-aristotle/.
Vieira, Sadoque. “Happiness according to Aristotle.” Filosofia do Início, August 14, 2021. https://filosofiadoinicio.com/en/happiness-aristotle/.
Vieira, Sadoque. “Happiness according to Aristotle.” Filosofia do Início, 14 Aug. 2021, https://filosofiadoinicio.com/en/happiness-aristotle/.