“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” – Aristotle
Aristotle (384-322) is among the most influential philosophers in human history, often considered with Plato to be the “father of Western Philosophy.” Aristotle was interested in moral and ethical philosophy concerning the good life. He taught and practiced a life of moderation or the “Golden Mean” in Eudemian Ethics. At the start of his text, Ethics, Aristotle argues that all questions of human activity involve a conception of the good. Humans are aware of themselves as acting or engaging in the Greek word praxis or practice. This action or practice is distinctly human. Accordingly, praxis involves choosing to do a certain thing in light of our sense that action will achieve a good end. This end does not need to be independent of that action itself or even something the action brings about. In some cases the action is the end itself.
Aristotle argues that there must be some mode of acting that is desired for itself only and not for the purpose of something that it might bring about. If that were not the case, humans would be involved in an infinite regress of actions. Thus the question is raised: what is the highest good at which human action should aim? Aristotle answers that question quite simply: happiness.
Happiness for Aristotle is a mode of being not just a state of feeling good. Aristotle says happiness is “the same as living well and doing well.” Thus happiness is not about feeling good but about leading a good and virtuous life. Much like Plato, Aristotle understood the good and happiness as a question of function of human beings. Happiness, in this sense is the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.
In Book Two of Ethics, Aristotle takes on the subject of virtue. To Aristotle, virtues are not natural. Humans are not born with virtues but they are not contrary to nature. They are “second nature” and formed by habit. Aristotle states it this way: “A virtue is a characteristic involving choice, consisting in observing the mean relative to us, a mean defined by a rational principle, such as a person of practical wisdom would use to determine.” Thus to Aristotle, virtue is the capacity that an individual has to know not merely how to behave or act appropriately but also how to properly allow oneself to be affected by the world around oneself. Virtues involve both the recognition of proper action relative to desire and the cultivation of proper desire itself. Aristotle, like Plato connects virtue and justice with justice being the actions of good morality.
In another book, Organan, Aristotle explored how humans learned through deductive and inductive reasoning. Aristotle thought that people have to individually decide which type of reasoning best suited them to ensure a good education. In the volume, Politics, Aristotle described a good government as one that should serve all citizens, very similar to Athenian democracy. In addition to being a philosopher, Aristotle was a scientist who investigated a diverse array of topics largely through the view that all concepts and knowledge are ultimately based on observation. The topics covered in Aristotle’s other writings include physics, psychology, biology, language, rhetoric, political science, literature, the performing arts, and metaphysics producing over 200 volumes of writings.
Aristotle’s Essential Works
- Nicomachean Ethics
- Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy – Mortimer Adler (I highly recommend this text. Adler has been essential in bringing the classics to modern sensibilities.)