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Concept of Happiness in Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle: Critical Analysis

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Aristotle was one of the great thinkers of the ancient world, so much so, that he has influenced the way people think throughout time. One of the fields in which he wrote extensively about was that of ethics. His book the “Nicomachean Ethics” outlines that happiness is the ultimate goal a human being should strive for and that it is the main purpose of one’s life. In his lectures, he states that happiness can be achieved with the cultivation of virtues. He argued that the fulfilment of these virtues, both mental and physical ones, ultimately lead to one’s living of a happy life. With this argument Aristotle somewhat introduced into discussion a new field of knowledge. In this essay, I will be outlining how Aristotle argues that happiness in the ultimate goal for a human beings life, and how one should go about achieving that. He

Aristotle has many connotations linked to his name; however one that is particularly famous is “Eudaimonia”. We find why it is such a prominent link by reading his work the “Nicomachean Ethics”. In this work, the main focus of his writing centres on the question of what the ultimate purpose of human existence is. He argues that many people live and seek superficial things such as wealth or a good reputation, however, even though these have some sort of superficial values, they should not be the goals one’s entire life aims to reach. Instead, they are second to what human beings should ultimately strive to acquire, which is goodness. He believes that one only chases after money or honour, because they believe that its attainment would lead them to happiness, however they fail to realise that all these ends would not lead to happiness as it is an end in itself, and humans should therefore strive to reach the goal of being happy rather than, for example, being rich to be happy.

The original word Aristotle used for happiness is Eudaimonia. Happiness is only a translation from ancient Greek to modern English, and therefore, as is with many dead languages, it is not a completely accurate interpretation and might be distorted. In today’s society, the idea of happiness is one where someone is enjoying themselves during an activity of some sort. However, for Aristotle, happiness is what one’s life should strive to reach. It is a goal a person should aim to achieve. It would not be ephemeral in its being such as carnal pleasures or eating cake, but rather it would be a compliment of many acts one has pursued in their life giving it a value by which it can be measured with how well one has lived up to their full potential. Due to this, one would not be able to make an accurate judgement on whether one has lived a happy life or not as it would need to be evaluated after one’s existence has ceased due to the fact that only way to fully measure a life is once it has stopped being filled. Aristotle states, ‘for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.’ (Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a18). This summarises the cusp of happiness.

To explain his idea of Eudaimonia, Aristotle uses his ideas on the nature of souls to composite a reason for the existence of the kinds of life, and their respective aims. He believes that there exists a natural form of hierarchy between these kinds of life and that human beings sit at the top. The first and most basic class is that of plants. They strive to grow and sustain themselves, but that that would be the summary of their entire lives, and that such goals would ultimately satisfy them. The next and second class would be that of animals. With this class one is able to note that its creature seek more than just nourishment and growth, but also carnal pleasures and such. Therefore one is able to deduce whether their pet is content or not through its own actions. The third and final class is that of humans. Aristotle believes that what sets humans apart from animals is their capability to reason. Therefore humans would have a different end goal and due to their nature should seek intellectual pleasures as they would enrich ones soul. Reason would also distinguish humans apart in the functionality of society, where they would be able to value kind acts over cruel ones and the responsibility one has over their respective actions. Humans are therefore set apart from the other two classes by means of reason. Therefore one is able to understand that what is good for a plant, might not be good for an animal, and what is good for an animal, might not be good for a human due to the different purposes of their respective souls, their abilities as well as their potentialities. Humans have a rational compartment in their soul and are therefore able to seek higher pleasures rather than succumb to their physical needs, and therefore, it would satisfy the goal to fulfil one’s self with higher satisfactions so as to be able to flourish

Further on, Aristotle defines happiness as;

“…the function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”(Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a13)

This quote outlines the importance of virtue in Aristotle’s argument. For him, virtue is what leads human being to achieving the goal of happiness by developing a good and moral character. However it does not mean that the possession of one virtue, or just a few would lead a human to being to be happy in life, but rather when one has acquired all of the virtues, only then would one be able to call themselves virtuous. He argues that these can be achieved throughout one’s life time and that the accumulation of them leads one to perfect their nature and fulfil their life. However to be able to call one’s self virtuous, one might need to make choices so as to be able to continue on living, and thus must decide between options which seek to please immediately and those with delayed gratification. The most instinctual would be those that please human beings immediately; however this would not necessarily use the function of reason humans have and would therefore not be as virtuous and good as one would hope. Therefore one must use their rationality to think about the repercussions of their decisions and to choose wisely what would enrich their character and make their life more fulfilling.

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Aristotle argues that these decisions need to be made with the idea of ones future in mind, and that one should make a decision on what the presumed outcome of the choice would be. He disagrees with the idea of instant gratification, even though that is what most of the population of human beings seem to choose, comparing it with the actions an animal would do;

‘the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts’ – (Nicomachean Ethics, 1095b 20)

He introduces the concept of Akrasia and the tendency of human nature to choose what would seem to be more pleasurable. He differentiates between two types of Akrasia; that of impulsiveness (propeteia) and another of weakness (astheneia). Both end up doing an act out of the want of instant gratification, however propeteia is impulsive and does not think before performing the action, whereas astheneia thinks of what consequences their action could lead to and whether choosing instant or later gratification would be better, but is weak-willed and chooses the option which is more appealing, which would be quick pleasure. However he states that through the training of the soul, one would be able to curb such impulsive decisions and start to choose the better choices for themselves. Aristotle therefore states that one would never be able to achieve happiness by only enjoying immediate pleasures and that human beings need to control themselves and use the rational part of their soul so as to be able to reach the goal of happiness and properly fulfil their lives.

However, Aristotle also states that there is another component which would help make one achieve happiness in their life, and that would be intellectual contemplation. He argues that since the soul of a human being has a rational part, then that rationality, which sets them apart from other soul forms, is what one should focus and reflect on. This would mean that for Aristotle, a human being should not only strive to be virtuous by being only a morally good person, but by enhancing their being and reflecting on what it means to be so. This therefore would lead people to increasing their curiosity about knowledge and therefore start to think properly and develop their mind fuller. In other words; develop into a philosopher, whereby one would be able to assess and critically think about the aspects of life and their meaning.

One should note that Aristotle’s Ethics does not focus on the morality one has behind obligations or duties, but rather on the fulfilment of one’s life by becoming their best self through intellectual and physical endeavours (virtues). However Aristotle is well-known also for the term “golden-mean”. This relates to his theory of ethics due to the idea that one can have an excess and a deficiency of virtues. The golden mean is a theory where the best course of action is between two extremes, choosing the most balanced option. Therefore, each of Aristotle’s 12 virtues are the golden mean between an excess and a deficiency of the virtue. Therefore if one is to act virtuously in social conduct, the virtue is of Friendliness comes into play. It is a mean between Obsequiousness, where one becomes obnoxious and pest-like, and Cantankerousness, where one is generally avoided due to their displeasing manner. However, the golden mean is found between two vices for a virtue and not between the actions one has taken and/or will take, for example; if one ate only lettuce and tomatoes today, then they will eat a whole cake tonight. Gluttony does not make up for starvation in this example. Another factor in the theory of the golden mean is that its application is different for every person. What might be good for one is not necessarily good for another. It is according to the person in question’s character and their needs. A quote to summarise this is

“a settled condition of the soul which wills or chooses the mean relatively to ourselves, this mean being determined by a rule or whatever we like to call that by which the wise man determines it.”- (Nicomachean Ethics, 1006b36

This is a prime example of Aristotle taking into account the differences between people and the variation of temperaments between them. Therefore Aristotle states people with a very passionate nature have a different mean than those with a more sullen one and should be regarded as different.

To conclude, Aristotle writes in his lectures about happiness. He believes that happiness is the ultimate goal a human being should strive to achieve and that the purpose of existence is to do this. It is a goal one can only measure once their life is finished as it is not a temporary state of being and needs to be evaluated once it is certain that one cannot become more or less virtuous. To continue, he states that to achieve happiness one must be find a balance between vices so as to be able to lead the best possible life. This is dependent on reason, which is what sets human souls apart from those of animals or plants, and it is this reason that leads humans to happiness. He also states that happiness requires both physical and mental training and education, where by controlling ones decisions is not enough, but one must also capacitate the rational part of the human soul by contemplation and reflection on intellectual matters, thereby training one’s mind.

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Concept of Happiness in Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle: Critical Analysis. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/concept-of-happiness-in-nicomachean-ethics-by-aristotle-critical-analysis/
“Concept of Happiness in Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle: Critical Analysis.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/concept-of-happiness-in-nicomachean-ethics-by-aristotle-critical-analysis/
Concept of Happiness in Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle: Critical Analysis. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/concept-of-happiness-in-nicomachean-ethics-by-aristotle-critical-analysis/> [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].
Concept of Happiness in Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle: Critical Analysis [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/concept-of-happiness-in-nicomachean-ethics-by-aristotle-critical-analysis/
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