Aristotle And Concept Of Happiness Essay Example


“All humans by nature desire to know” (Metaphysics, 980b). Throughout Aristotle’s works, happiness was an elusive idea of an end goal for life. Ideas around the hierarchy of knowledge and parts of humans that transcend nature are all starting points to the question of happiness. Aristotle finally answers the question and deems the contemplative life to be that of true happiness as ideas of self-sufficiency, leisure, and political life are used to explain why. Furthermore, Aristotle’s ideas around nature are a key component to understanding happiness and why contemplative knowledge is the highest form of knowledge there is.

To start, Aristotle first approaches the question of what happiness is by explaining what it is not. Aristotle states, “happiness is not a characteristic, for in that case it could be present even to someone asleep throughout life, living the life of plants, and to someone undergoing the greatest misfortunes” (Ethics 1176a). With this, Aristotle argues that happiness has to be related to some activity, specifically, choice worthy activities. However, these activities also have to meet a second requirement of not being for the sake of something else, but just for the sake of themselves. The idea of doing for the sake of itself can be found in many activities such as the noble or serious things, but also in the pleasures of play since these activities can come to harm bodies or properties (Ethics 1176b). This is where the idea of leisure is introduced. The leaders in our society are seen to dedicate their leisure time to the pleasures of play, so would it be safe to assume that the pleasures of play are happiness? Aristotle disagrees with this notion, reasoning that leaders of our society do not partake in careers that require virtue or intellect. To further this point, play is very similar to relaxation, but relaxation only exists because humans are incapable of constantly working, so it is for the sake of something else which, as was mentioned earlier, goes against what happiness should constitute (Ethics 1177a). Happiness is an activity that requires virtue and Aristotle takes into account that virtues change between humans and therefore, “the most choiceworthy activity is the one that accords with the characteristic proper to him, and… that activity is the one that accords with virtue” (Ethics 1176b). Aristotle’s idea of happiness is outlined with four points: self-sufficiency, for the sake of itself, seriousness, and changing characteristics.

Here is when Aristotle introduces the contemplative life. The contemplative life is what constitutes complete happiness because it is an activity that deals with the highest of virtues and “possesses intelligence concerning what is noble and divine, whether it itself is in fact divine or the most diving of the things in us” (Ethics 117a). Aristotle reasons that since happiness is the most excellent activity, intelligence, the thing that is most excellent within humans and deals with those excellent things, must be included. Furthermore, happiness must constitute both pleasure and activity following those highest virtues. Therefore, the contemplative life that deals with wisdom is what constitutes complete happiness. (Ethics 1177a).

The point that was made earlier about self-sufficiency ties directly to the contemplative life. Virtues such as just, courage, moderate, and others all require some other person so that they can be just, courageous, or moderate towards. However, this is not the case with wisdom (1177a). Wisdom allows a person to be self-sufficient in that they are contemplating on their own. Anyone who is supplied with the bare necessities of life can lead a contemplative life. Aristotle even goes as far as to say, “the wise person… is capable of contemplating even when by himself, and the wiser he is, the more capable of doing so he will be” (Ethics 1177a). Contemplating with someone can have its benefits, but it can be done on its own and it cannot be done for the sake of something else. Contemplation can only ever produce more contemplation (1177b).

Happiness is something that happens within leisure. The idea is that people go to war to later be at peace, or work to relax (Ethics 1177b). However, political life does not involve leisure. Political life contains activity so that a person rises to positions of authority and this will always have some activity involved. However, Aristotle states, “to gain the happiness of the politician himself… is something other than the political activity” (1177b). This means that if a politician were to go out and seek happiness, those activities would not fall under political life. Moreover, the work a politician partakes in, is not done for the sake of itself, since their work is always going to be for some other motive (1177b). Finally, political life is involved with moral virtue, not intellectual virtue. Although happiness requires both intellectual virtue that is found in the contemplative life and moral virtue, Aristotle argues, “the political [activities] are preeminent in nobility and greatness…aim at some end… whereas the activity of the intellect, because it is contemplative seems to be superior” (Ethics, 1177b). Overall, the contemplative life encompasses intellect and choices for the sake of itself which is needed in happiness.

Now that it is established what happiness is, Aristotle explains further how the contemplative life brings humans closer to the divine. Of a contemplative life, Aristotle states, “a life of this sort would exceed what is human. For it is not insofar as he is a human being that a person will live in this way, but insofar as there is something divine present in him” (Ethics 1177b). Across Aristotle’s works, divinity and eternity are tied closely together. Immortal beings, the divine, never come into being or pass away. Aristotle states, “the activity of the god, because it is superior in blessedness, would be contemplative” (Ethics 1178b). This means that what constitutes complete happiness for humans, the contemplative life, is what the divine also partake in. To further this point, Aristotle makes clear that intellect is what interacts most with the divine if not divine itself (Ethics 1177a). In Metaphysics, Aristotle states, “the most ruling of the sciences… is the one that knows that for the sake of which each this is to be done” which again, goes back to the contemplative life being for the sake of itself since that is what is required for happiness.

The hierarchy of knowledge that places wisdom and philosophy at the top is found throughout nature, sense perception, techne, and pleasure knowledge falling underneath. In Metaphysics, Aristotle argues that animals with memory are able to be more practically wise and animals that possess memory, as well as a perceptual capacity, are capable of being taught (Metaphysics, 980b). From here, Aristotle makes a clear hierarchy of animals based on the knowledge they are able to hold with the abilities they possess. Moreover, pertaining to nature, Aristotle ranks the form higher than the matter. In Physics, Aristotle states, “the form is more nature than the matter is. For each thing is said to be when it actually is more than when it potentially is” meaning that the form is the reason for objects seen in nature and is the actual, while matter is the potential to be (Physics, 193b1). Now, within different forms, there is again a hierarchy where Aristotle puts the living beings at the top and this hierarchy is taken even further with ranking the living beings. In some way, all hierarchies mentioned are based on knowledge, intellect, and it is known that happiness constitutes intellect since it “is the most excellent of the things in us” (Ethics 1177a).

Aristotle’s idea of happiness is a concept that is derived from ideas across books and understandings. Aristotle starts by explaining that happiness has to be a choiceworthy activity and not a characteristic so that some intellectual virtue and activity can be used. Furthermore, Aristotle mentions that happiness needs to have both leisure and seriousness, moral and intellectual virtue. Overall, the basis of what happiness is lies in the hierarchies that Aristotle finds throughout nature. Wisdom being the most perfect form of knowledge and intellect allows humans to reach the most divine versions of themselves and forms of living beings are placed within the hierarchy based on the knowledge and intellect they are capable of. Even with nature as a whole, there is a hierarchy between form and soul in that form is superior since objects in nature are only objects once there is a form that is understood, made with the matter. Happiness constitutes the contemplative life because contemplation is what encompasses everything. It allows for leisure, while also involving intellect, it falls within the wisdom that is the pinnacle of knowledge, and it is all done for the sake of itself.

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