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The Nichomachean Conception Of Happiness Essay, Research Paper

Happiness, to Aristotle, is a term for which much exactitude must be made. He understands that, “Happiness both the refined and the few call it, but about the nature of this Happiness, men dispute.” As such, he goes to great lengths to attain a fairly accurate accounting of what he sees as Happiness. He begins by illustrating that Happiness is an End, establishes what he finds the work of Man to be, sets conditions on being happy, and then explains where in Man the cultivation of Happiness is to be sought. The result of all these ideas is his fully developed sense of Happiness, an understanding vital to his conception of Ethics.

Happiness, for Aristotle, is an End in and of itself. “For (Happiness) we choose always for its own sake, and never with a view to anything further.” This conception of Happiness is vital, as Aristotle seeks to establish Happiness as the Highest Human Good. For Aristotle, it seems obvious, as even when choosing honor, pleasure, or intellect, we choose them not only for themselves, but also for the Happiness that is derived from them. As an End, Happiness becomes more than a pleasure-state, but a complete notion of fulfillment, and the Good to which all humans strive.

For Aristotle the Chief Good of any being is in the exercise of their purpose. For Aristotle, it seems that life cannot be the work of man, as any number of plants possess simple life; nor can sensation be his calling, as all manner of animal possess sensation. Rather, says Aristotle, we must look to reason as the foundation of Man’s work, as Man possesses reason where others do not. And, he continues, as work may be of a good or bad nature, it can be assumed that, “the Good of Man comes to be ‘a working of the Soul (reason) in the way of excellence.’” As such, we have the Chief Good of man being his exercise of reason, and the End of this action is Happiness.

Aristotle sets many limits on attaining Happiness, due do his understanding of what Happiness is derived from. He sees participation in life as crucial, as, “at the Olympic games it is not the finest and strongest men that are crowned, but those that enter the lists,” i.e., one must be a part of life in order to be judged by the standards of living. Aristotle also finds various external goods to be of absolute necessity, including friends, money, and political influence, as they are “instruments by which many things are done.” In the same case and kind he lists fortunate birth, valued children, and personal appearance. These, too, he thinks are necessary to a complete realization of Happiness. Even the stability of these things—and a person’s reputation—after death is considered part of Happiness. Important, I think, is the understanding that these things are not Happiness, but as we see later, the excess or deficiency of these things hinders the fulfillment of Happiness. The last two limitations on Happiness have to do with reason itself. Aristotle finds that it is inconceivable that either animals or children might know Happiness, as their limited faculties prevent them from knowing Happiness fully. Likewise, a balanced personality is necessary to realizing Happiness since, “this stability which is sought will be in the happy man, and he will be such through life, since always…he will be doing and contemplating the things which are of virtue: and the various chances of life he will bear most nobly, … since he is the truly good man.”

Finally—with regard to Happiness—Aristotle sets to explain where, exactly, the cultivation of Happiness is to begin. Since he has already stated that the base pleasures do not separate Man from beast, Happiness is obviously not going to be found there. Instead, the rational part of Man is to be studied. Aristotle divides rationality into two parts, Intellectual and Moral. The Intellectual has to do with the functions of knowledge regarding intelligence and science. Moral rationality, however, considers those things regarding self-control and liberality (with concern to money). To Aristotle, it seems as if an investigation of Moral Virtue is the path to exercising reason correctly, and thus, Happiness.

As Moral Virtue is the avenue by which Happiness is to be sought, Aristotle also gives much wind to the explication of its foundations. He begins by explaining Virtue’s connection to nature. He then describes several features that Virtue must contain, distinguishing it from other attributes and conditions found in Man. He then outlines—most fully—his conception of the path to Moral Virtue, and the ways in which it can be brought into being. Aristotle delivers a very complete picture of what Moral Virtue is, and how it relates to his conception of Happiness.

Aristotle writes, “The Virtues then come to be in us neither by nature, nor in despite of it, but we are furnished by nature with a capacity for receiving them, and are perfected in them through custom.” This is a very important point to Aristotle, in which he establishes the natural origins for Virtue, but allows for the multiplicity of ideas (and incorrect interpretations) concerning Virtue. He feels that in acting we come to understand things. To wit: acting justly leads to being just. So Aristotle sees Virtue as a combination of nature’s faculties and the customs that shape them. As such, Virtue is a learned trait, shaped by the myriad of experiences all human beings are subject to. This explains more fully why secondary traits like appearance have such bearing on Happiness. The experiences surrounding an unfortunate individual prevent the full realization of participating fully in a culture, which is the avenue by which people learn to act correctly.

Habits, as far as Aristotle is concerned, are best determined by Man’s reaction to events. That is, a person with true Moral Virtue will not only act correctly, but will not be unnerved or bothered by acting with Virtue. This is an important conception, as Happiness cannot be derived from a life consisting of acts contrary to the will. Thus, Aristotle feels it is very important that people understand their actions, and the motives behind them. Actions conducted with Virtue, therefore, should be acceptable to the reason, and bring happiness.

The next point Aristotle considers more or less obvious, that Virtue should lie within the mean. Not just the absolute mean, either, but the relative mean with regard to the individual. He states that for each instance and every decision, the mean will vary. The only guide to us is that it should be obvious to a “man of practical wisdom,” or one who is wise. His point seems well established, though, as he brings out the examples of self-control, anger, truthfulness, and wealth. Certainly each of these has extremes in both degrees, and it seems reasonable to assume that either extreme of any of the cases is not to be a desired state. This leads to his summation of Virtue as “a state apt to exercise deliberate choice, being in the relative mean, determined by reason, and as the man of practical reason would determine.” All of these elements work together—each necessarily—to bring about the condition Aristotle calls Happiness.

Taking a specific case in point, it might be asked whether a man like Thomas Jefferson could be considered both Happy and Virtuous in light of his owning slaves. The issue can be taken from several views: Did Jefferson act in moderation with regard to slavery? Did Jefferson act according to custom? (Which may or may not be a valid defense in light of Aristotle’s conception of who would fall under the sphere of moral theory) Did the slaves even have the ability to be Happy, given their position in society? Any arguments can be dismissed, however, with one quote from Aristotle.

“…taking refuge in talk, they flatter themselves they are philosophizing, and that they will so be good men: acting in truth very like those sick people who listen to their doctor with great attention but do nothing that he tells them: just as these cannot be well bodily under such a course of treatment, so neither can those be mentally by such philosophizing.”

This seems a very scathing condemnation of Jefferson, and puts him wholly out of the Aristotelian realm of happiness. Because of Jefferson’s views regarding slavery—and he was very much opposed to the institution—his deliberate acceptance of the lifestyle broke in his person the ability to achieve Happiness. His duality of consciousness—knowing the inhumanity of slavery, yet keeping slaves for himself—caused much harm to his mental state, in an Aristotelian view. Because of this break with what he knew to be true, he acted contrary to reason. Acting contrary to reason, he disallowed himself from fully experiencing Happiness.

Not only did the single act undermine his position, but his acceptance of an illogical lifestyle would harm his ability to correctly judge other situations. Just as poor birth or financial worry cause problems, this hypocrisy would permeate his life, and continually undermine his ability to be happy. What seems like the great irony is his dependence on slaves for economy; he was trying to prevent worry and trouble in his finances and caused worry and trouble to his psyche.

Aristotle would have never even have thought of the troubles plaguing Jefferson, and it seems his ultimate trouble lay at the unfortunate time of his birth. Far enough into Enlightenment to know slavery was wrong, but not far enough along to see the actuation of his dreams, Jefferson was caught. Aristotle would have probably had pity on the man, but he would have thought him incapable of Happiness nonetheless. Jefferson was caught between too many worlds to find the mean effectively, bound by too many traditions and expectations to live as he wished. Jefferson is condemned by an Aristotelian view, but is saved by his position in American history; which might, strangely, be a sort of vindication in Aristotle’s eyes.


Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, trans. D.P. Chase, Dover Publications, 1998.

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