As generally defined in today’s society, happiness would be described as an emotion that brings about feelings of pleasure and joy. However, Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, had a different take on happiness and how one achieves it. Aristotle believed happiness is an “activity of the soul in accordance with virtue and excellence” and goes further in his teachings with how he describes this happiness. Therefore, happiness is a difficult concept to explain because how Aristotle defined happiness may differ from how one may define happiness in current society.
In Aristotle’s teachings, Nicomachean Ethics, he explains his opinion on happiness. He believes there is such a thing as the human good and when one reaches this good they have reached their end or their best potential. Or in Aristotle’s words their telos, which is their final cause. In Aristotle’s teachings, he explains there are four causes of anything. These causes include the material, the form, the efficient or making of, and the final cause which is the telos or end.
This telos would be a person’s highest end which could be described as their supreme good and is ultimately defined as the fulfillment, completion, or perfection of something. In today’s society many people associate happiness with sensual pleasure, however, Aristotle argues that is not the case and human life has higher ends. He argues that happiness derives from a certain way one chooses to live their life and it is more of an activity than an emotion. Furthermore, it is an activity the rational human soul, which governs thoughts and reasons, performs in accordance with virtue and excellence and is achieved once one reaches their telos.
Virtue comes in two forms which include moral virtue and intellectual virtue. Moral virtue derives from habit and practice. Therefore, happiness is not entirely based on moral virtue because practicing and forming a habit does not help one achieve happiness. On the other hand, intellectual virtues help people understand what is just and respected. While moral virtues thus help people perform these admirable actions. Excellence aims at a mean between moral and intellectual virtues, so one understands and performs what is just.
Thus happiness is an activity one must achieve with excellence in mind and the right virtues while performing everything to their highest potential. Aristotle argues that happiness is achieved through an activity of one’s rational soul. Rationality is a characteristic Aristotle believed helped differ humans from animals in their ability to have thought and reason and was a unique achievement of humans. Thus Aristotle did not believe animals have the ability to achieve happiness. He believed animals were capable of feeling pleasure and that is how one may mistake that animals can be happy.
However, that is different than achieving happiness through his perception, which is reaching one’s highest potential and being the best possible version of oneself. Aristotle goes further in his teachings to discuss how a life of pleasure can not help one achieve happiness. In addition, Aristotle argues babies and young children are incapable of achieving happiness. This is due to the fact he believes they do not understand their potential and can not live a life of contemplation and intellect, which he argues is the highest way of life.
Thus children and babies are capable of experiencing pleasure but they can not achieve happiness or their telos because they have not developed the rationality yet to understand. As stated previously the highest life for a human being according to Aristotle is a life of contemplation. He argues this way of life is superior to the other two ways of life which include a life of pleasure or a political life. A life of pleasure would be what an animal lives, in his opinion and is strictly centered around sensual happiness.
Thus one can not achieve Aristotle’s perception of happiness through a life of pleasure because they are not challenging themselves in any way. For example, a life of pleasure for a human could be someone who enjoys staying at home and relaxing and watching movies. This person may feel content with this way of living their life, however, Aristotle argues although they feel content, they will never be truly happy. Due to the fact they are not bettering themselves or the world in any way, thus, they are making no useful contributions and are not discovering what their highest potentials could be.
Furthermore, Aristotle argues a political life can not help one achieve true happiness because this way of life is centered off of honor. Thus one may have achieved a high potential for themselves and be performing acts that could be seen in accordance with moral virtue. However, they are performing these actions based off of desiring honor and praise in return. Therefore, this could not truly be happiness because it is an activity that is not in accordance with excellence because they do not have intellectual virtues entwined in their actions.
As a result, they are not able to aim for a mean where they are both performing actions that help them reach this high potential while at the same time understanding why these actions are just. Therefore, Aristotle argues that one reaches their happiness and the highest level of life and excellence when living a life of contemplation. Living this type of life makes it so one is always intellectual and questioning. Therefore, they are constantly challenging themselves and never settling for mediocrity.
Through being contemplative they have the ability to better themselves and question the world around them. Aristotle’s teachings on happiness have a strong foundation and in my opinion, I agree with many of his opinions. However, I disagree with some of his opinions at the same time. I agree that it is immensely important for one to challenge themselves and better themselves no matter what. It is essential for one to strive for excellence and become the best version of themselves in order to be truly happy and content with their life.
However, at the same time, I believe this happiness is different for every individual person and one person’s telos, or highest end, may differ from someone else’s. Furthermore, I do not believe the claim that all animals are incapable of achieving happiness is true. Some animals are more intellectual than others, such as chimpanzees are almost equal to humans in their intellectual abilities. One may argue animals perform their actions based on instinct or reward. However, many apes and other animals are capable of being trained and they understand their actions.
Therefore, they have this reasoning and ability to understand desired actions over undesired. Furthermore, although I agree that reaching one’s highest potential brings about happiness I believe that is not the only way. In Aristotle’s teachings, he believes this happiness does not occur in any single moment, it is manifested over an entire lifetime. However, I would have to disagree with that idea because I believe there are definitely specific moments where one could say they felt joy within themselves and happiness. Aristotle would argue this emotion they felt, however, was a pleasure and not indeed happiness.
However, I do no agree with that idea, being happiness can only be achieved one way. All in all, happiness is s broad term that when contemplated can be difficult to define. Some people may argue happiness is an emotion that brings about feelings of joy and giddiness. On the other hand, Aristotle and other people may argue that happiness is an activity that the soul performs through excellence and happiness is manifested over one’s entire lifetime. However, no matter which way one defines happiness it has always been an important aspect of life that one desires.