Aristotle on Happiness
Whose meaning is it anyway?
My Online Great Books (OGB) seminar met last week to discuss the first part of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I wrote about this work recently in a brief commentary on courage, but in this post I want to elaborate more fully on the book’s purpose and how to read it (as well as classical works in general). Bonus: Don’t miss the Analytical Reading Guide at the end!
The opening lines of classical texts are often memorable and useful for understanding the work as a whole. This is true of Aristotle’s Ethics: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”1 So right away, we know that this text is:
a theoretical work of philosophy inquiring into universal truths;
specifically, about human actions in pursuit of a common good—or rather, the highest good, as we’ll come to see.
Ideally, most of our OGB seminar discussions would begin by exploring some fundamental aspect of the work. What is Aristotle’s purpose in writing this book? What does he mean by “the good”? How does he structure his inquiry? However, I’ve noticed that the common trend in our seminars lately is to begin with our “impressions” of the work. The seminar host will typically launch the discussion by asking, “So, what did you guys think of ________ .” No doubt this is done to break the proverbial ice and encourage participants to open up. After all, it’s been a month since we’ve last met and there’s always a bit of conversational rust to shake off before our dialogue gears get moving again. (I find that a glass of good wine helps with this!)
If it were up to me, (and alas, it’s not—I’ve yet to be invited to become a seminar host!), I would prefer to follow Mortimer Adler’s advice on suspending judgment of a work until we’ve established our understanding of it: “Do not begin to talk back [to the author or work] until you have listened carefully and are sure you understand.”2 Inviting us to critique the work before we’ve “listened” to it (even if it’s only to offer our general impressions) runs the risk that we’ll measure the text by our own prejudices rather than holding up our prejudices to the text.
I believe this is supposed to be the point of participating in OGB in the first place. Sure it’s fun to share and validate our opinions with other intelligent readers, but we should really be here to stretch our intellects by entering the minds of the great architects of our civilization; and we certainly can’t achieve this by standing outside the work and judging it from what we often assume is the more “objective” perch of our particular station in history, which is, after all, only an accident of birth.
For example, our seminar on the Ethics last week took an early detour from the main discussion to enumerate our reasons for not liking Aristotle’s use of the word “happiness” (Greek: εὐδαιμονία [eu̯dai̯monía]) to describe the aim of all actions (see the “highest good” reference above). To bridge the cultural gap, someone suggested that a phrase like “human flourishing” might get us closer to Aristotle’s meaning. That seemed to garner more approval.
Now, I do understand why some readers would want to make Aristotle’s terminology more accessible to our 21st century vocabularies. After all, almost 2,400 years have elapsed since the Philosopher wrote his Ethics, which could predispose an unwary reader to misunderstanding. But that misses the point! Is it Aristotle who needs to be brought in line with our modern meaning, or is it not rather we who stand to learn by laying aside our modern biases in order to preserve the integrity of the author’s original meaning? After all, we’ve inherited vestiges of Aristotle’s world through the transmission of culture over the ensuing centuries and epochs. It would be nice to have some fluency in it.
So how do we do this as intelligent readers? By “coming to terms” with the author during the early stage of our analytical reading. In other words (no pun intended!), we can’t assume that the author is using a word to mean what we generally mean by that word today. Context is important here, as well as the author’s own stated definitions. And this time we’re in luck because Aristotle gives us his definition of happiness: “…an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue."3 Elsewhere he stipulates that happiness also constitutes the "chief good", i.e. it is desired for its own sake and is the aim of all other pursuits.
This definition may still leave us with questions, but at least we can eliminate certain concepts that could potentially obscure our ability to come to terms with Aristotle’s happiness, such as:
A purely affective state, i.e. a feeling
A material state comprising other goods, such as pleasure, honor, or wealth
A cognitive state that each person determines for himself
As a reader coming to terms with Aristotle, my perspective on happiness should be starting to shift at this point—or perhaps “widen”. I am beginning to understand happiness in terms of a rational activity aimed at the highest good, whose agency resides in my soul. [Nota bene: If I scoff when encountering Aristotle’s reference to the soul, it is a sign that I need to come to terms with him once again by temporarily laying aside my metaphysical prejudices, adopting a posture of humility and good will, and allowing him to teach me his meaning.]
The reward of this work of analytical reading is twofold: 1) I experience the challenge and satisfaction of trying to see the world with Aristotle’s eyes; 2) I’m better equipped to engage in the Great Conversation on the nature of happiness, since it is this word/translation (and not some other, like “human flourishing”) that is generally used by those great thinkers who have wrestled with the idea throughout the centuries. To wit, consider the opening paragraph of the article on “Happiness” in Adler’s index of great ideas, the Syntopicon:
The great questions about happiness are concerned with its definition and its attainability. In what does happiness consist? Is it the same for all men, or do different men seek different things in the name of happiness? Can happiness be achieved on earth, or only hereafter? And if the pursuit of happiness is not a futile quest, by what means or steps should it be undertaken?4
By what means, indeed! Hopefully, that will be answered in next month’s installment of the Nicomachean Ethics! Until then, here is an analytical reading guide following Adler’s method to help you explore the first part. Happy reading!
Suggested Reading Guide for Nicomachean Ethics, Books I-V:
First Stage of Analytical Reading: Discovering What a Book is About
Classify Nicomachean Ethics by kind and subject matter. (Hint: see opening paragraph of this post!)
Summarize what the whole book is about briefly.
Outline the major parts of Books I-V. Suggested headings:
Book I: Happiness
Book II: Intellectual and Moral Excellence
Book III: Courage and Temperance
Book IV: Other Virtues and Vices
Book V: Justice
Identify Aristotle’s purpose for writing this book.
Second Stage of Analytical Reading: Interpreting the Contents
Define the following terms according to Aristotle:
Book I: happiness, first principles, universal good, self-sufficient, complete
Book II: habit, excellence, intellectual excellence, moral excellence, proportionate, intermediate, the mean, pleasure, pain, passion, faculty, state
Book III: voluntary, involuntary, moving principle, choice, wish, courage, temperance, deliberate (v.)
Book IV: liberality, prodigality, magnificence, pride
Book V: justice, injustice, equality, equity, rectificatory
Review the reading again, paying attention to your highlights, notes, and/or marginalia. See if you can reconstruct Aristotle’s main arguments from these.
Answer the following interpretive questions:
What does Aristotle mean by “that which is good in itself”? What does it mean for something to be complete and self-sufficient? (1096b15)5
How does Aristotle answer the question of “whether happiness is to be acquired by learning or by habituation or some other sort of training?” (1099b10)
What does Aristotle mean when he says that happiness is an “activity of the soul?” What does he believe about the human soul? (1102a5)
Aristotle wrote, “It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.” What does Aristotle believe about how and when virtue is learned? (1103b20)
Explain Aristotle’s claim that virtue (i.e. excellence) is the “mean” or “intermediate” between excess or deficiency. What do we call the excess or deficiency? (1104a10)
Explain the role of choice or voluntary action as it relates to Aristotle’s concept of virtue and of one’s state of character.
Choose one of Aristotle’s virtues and explain it in your own words.
Why does Aristotle call justice the “complete excellence”? (1129b25)
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Aristotle, The Works of Aristotle, ed. Mortimer J. Adler and Philip W. Goetz, trans. W. D. Ross, Second Edition., vol. 8, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago; Auckland; Geneva; London; Madrid; Manila; Paris; Rome; Seoul; Sydney; Tokyo; Toronto: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.; Robert P. Gwinn, 1990), 339.
Adler, Mortimer J., and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. Touchstone edition. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014, 140.
Mortimer J. Adler, ed., The Syntopicon: An Index to the Great Ideas, Second Edition., vol. 1, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago; London; New Delhi; Paris; Seoul; Sydney; Taipei; Tokyo: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 527.