Within our constantly progressing society, each of us strives for something different. Yet, at the end of the day, there’s one trait we all hope to die with; happiness.
Though his work is over 2,500 years old, Aristotle remains relevant when it comes to discussion of what it means to live a fulfilled human life.
It’s important to remember, some of the Greek philosopher’s thoughts will appear as though they only pertain to his time. In our fast-paced technological world, Aristotle’s vision might not seem to hold as much of an importance.
But if we take a step back from the screens and acknowledge Aristotle’s philosophy for what is, maybe we can comprehend our own lives a little better.
The Nicomachean Ethics
To begin, we must mention where this philosophy comes from. Aristotle had a series of books known as the Nicomachean Ethics which is considered one of the most important pieces of work throughout the history of philosophy. These ethics represent the sum total of Aristotle’s best-known work.
Within this work, the philosopher brings up much discussion as to happiness and its nature. He questions how we can obtain happiness and why we continue to lose grasp of it.
The purpose of this questioning is to show that Aristotle doesn’t believe happiness is simply a subjective state. In essence, he doesn’t believe we should attempt to understand it while we’re feeling it.
Instead, Aristotle saw happiness as an objective state. Something that’s similar to one’s own well-being.
The Nature of Humanity
In accordance with Aristotle, we can only be happy if we live under the spirit of human nature. Yet, how did Aristotle define human nature?
The answer to this will vary from person to person, depending on their spiritual beliefs. To Aristotle, he felt as though human nature was to reason for no other living creature holds the capability of doing so.
But what reasoning can we commit to in order to gain happiness?
As Aristotle saw it, we wanted to look into and realize two important matters – the theoretical and practical. Through these matters, we’d be able to find the virtue of specific character traits and actions.
To give you an example, the virtue of recklessness and cowardice is bravery.
In Aristotle’s eyes, there are many virtues we should each seek out. And if we’re lucky enough to discover these virtues in ourselves, we’re more likely to live a happy life.
Virtues to Live By
Within the Nicomachean Ethics, you’ll find that Aristotle profiles a number of virtues which he believes leads to one’s happiness.
Some of these are simple. For example, Aristotle finds we should all want to be generous to others and offer a friendship whenever possible. He also discovered that the more we know, the smarter we become, the happier we are.
Still, some of his observations weren’t so simple. For example, Aristotle held the belief that if we restrained to certain activities – typically, those of which we find most pleasurable – then we’d live happier lives. Some may question, wouldn’t pleasurable activities bring us happiness?
To that, Aristotle would discuss the virtue of courage. To act in a way which inevitably achieved something could, but could bring on physical repercussions. In the long run, we’re happy about the courageous actions we take. But in the moment, what makes the action so courageous is how unpleasurable it truly is.
Potentially the most important virtue Aristotle felt we should live by is that of contemplation. As he writes in Book X.7-8, “If happiness is activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable to expect that it is in accordance with the highest virtue… This activity is that of contemplation.”
Obviously, contemplation can get us into some nasty situations. Ones which would certainly leave us unhappy.
However, as Aristotle sees it, the activity of contemplation is one of the most fulfilling. For it always gives us something to do. Allowing us to continue to gain wisdom and knowledge. And offering us the ability to grow as human beings.
As mentioned in the introduction, some of these ideas might not seem as applicable in our modern world. Why should we contemplate when we hold the answer to everything in our pockets?
Furthermore, as many historians understand, since the early 20th century, much of the world has been influenced by consumerism. Many hold the belief that the more you have, the happier you’ll become.
Of course, there remains a great many who would argue this belief. Claiming they know well that material items don’t bring happiness. Yet, you’ll find those same people remain happy when receiving an object they desire.
So, is there potentially happiness to be discovered in material goods?
How Aristotle Values Material Goods
In the words of the Greek philosopher himself, “He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.”
What Aristotle is saying here is happiness comes both with the virtues discussed above and stability in material comfort.
It should be noted, what these material goods are will not be the same from person to person. Though an individual’s necessities remain relevant – food, shelter, water – there’s debate as to how much in material goods one would need.
Inevitably, when it comes to both virtues and material items, there’s great importance placed on controlling each properly. To go too little in one direction is just as dangerous as going too far in the other.
Taking Control of Happiness
As mentioned above, happiness is not about seeking out pleasurable states of mind. For example, some may assume lots of sex would bring a person happiness. Yet, people who seek continually seek sex in hopes of “feeling happy” find themselves in a neverending cycle.
Sex is not a virtue, but it is a product of morality. As Aristotle puts it, “Moral virtue is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on account of the pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of the pain that we abstain from noble ones.”
What Aristotle is saying is various acts of pleasure make us lose control of our true virtues. With control, we can learn to achieve long-lasting happiness. Without control, we lose ourselves to temporarily fill our vices with pleasure.
With that in mind, it can’t be forgotten, that we must devote ourselves to this happiness we seek. Inevitably, this will allow us to gain control. But more so, it’ll allow us to continuously see what we’re aiming for as we go about our day-to-day existences.
What to Take Away
Again, people may feel as though Aristotle’s philosophy no longer holds a place in our modern world. This is a fair opinion.
However, there are many people at a loss as to what to do with their lives. Many of us understand we want happiness, but cannot comprehend how to achieve it. Some of us might have a mental illness that seems all too overwhelming. Others are simply confused.
Regardless of your position, Aristotle has words of wisdom to the world. Though it’s up to you to follow them or not, there’s no harm in at least giving them a shot.