Aristotle on Happiness


With the first two posts in this series, we discussed that we become virtuous by exercising virtue, and that the virtues of character are a mean between the vices of excess and deficiency. Now we set our sights on what Aristotle called “the end of human [aims]”– happiness.

“Happiness is a certain sort of activity of the soul in accord with complete virtue.”

Aristotle believed that we become by being. A just man is only just when he acts justly, as a brave man is only brave because he acts bravely. If happiness is the state we experience when we live in accordance with these virtues, then it becomes clear that rather than pursuing happiness itself, if we simply pursue the virtues that create happiness, happiness will follow.

In our series on Thoreau, we learned that being a philosopher is not simply having higher thoughts but living according to wisdom. Aristotle shares this call to action, as the goal of Nicomachean Ethics is to come to an understanding of what it means to live well, not theoretically, but practically.

He describes happiness as the principle aim of all our actions and shares Schopenhauer’s belief that our happiness depends upon who we become.

“..for anyone who is not deformed [in his capacity] for virtue will be able to achieve happiness through some sort of learning and attention.”

Schopenhauer believed man’s greatest folly was the assumption that life was supposed to make us happy. Aristotle stresses that happiness is an achievement which comes from “learning and attention” and massive effort in the cultivation of our virtues.

Aristotle goes on to say that since happiness is contingent upon our actions, the external world can have little effect on our well-being as we are always free to choose our own way. Since it is activities which control virtue, and virtue which causes happiness, no magnanimous man can ever become miserable since he will never perform the hateful actions which would make him so. Happiness, in turns out, is a choice.

“For a truly good and prudent person, we suppose, will bear strokes of fortune suitably, and from his resources at any time will do the finest actions, just as a good general will make the best use of his forces in war, and a good shoemaker will make the finest shoe from the hides given to him.”

Our happiness is found in making the most of what we have using the abilities we have been given. Like any skill, happiness must be practiced. The more consistently we act in accordance with virtue, regardless of the cards we are dealt, the more happiness we will create through our actions.

I find great comfort in knowing that that which will most determine the quality of my life happens to be that over which I have the most control.

With our next post, Aristotle discusses one of the pillars of such a joy-filled life, friendship.

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