Aristotle’s Ethics: Learning to Behave and to Be Happy

This week’s reading is the first book of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. This is an important reading because it can give us some practical guidance on how we should live our lives. In this book, Aristotle begins to look at the question of what is good, how we know it, and how we should behave.  His premise is that there is some good that every art, action, and pursuit aims to achieve. He goes on to say that the end goal of all the things we do is happiness, and we achieve this by living a virtuous life.

Even an author from 2,000 years ago is prepared to admit that this is something of a cliché. ‘Oh, we just all want to be happy.’ But he argues that all the things humans strive for — health, honor, wealth — aim at this one goal of happiness, and that it is the only thing we seek for its own sake. “Happiness, then, is something self-sufficient, and is the end of action.”

“Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is is still desired. This might perhaps be given if we could first ascertain the function of man,” Aristotle says.

The function of man is “an activity of the soul which follows or implies a rational principle,” is how Aristotle defines it. In other words, he is saying we are rational creatures who can define, pursue, and achieve excellence and virtue. Once we do so, then we can live a happy life. 

It is important to note here that Aristotle defines happiness in terms of virtuous activity. Happiness, and virtue, for that matter, are not states of being of Aristotle. You do not achieve these things and have them forever. Instead you act them out throughout your life. Aristotle shows us that we can’t just collect a certain amount of wealth or accolades and call it a day.

“For no function of man has so much permanence as virtuous activities…and of these themselves the most valuable are more durable because those who are happy spend their life most readily and most continuously in these….The attribute in question, then, will belong to the happy man, and he will be happy throughout his life; for always, or by preference to everything else, he will be engaged in virtuous action and contemplation, and he will bear the chances of life most nobly and altogether decorously, if he is ‘truly good’ and ‘foursquare beyond reproach’.”

Aristotle here becomes kind of a self-help guru and says that happy men, who are truly good and wise will make the best of circumstances.

Now, I am taking the book in somewhat reverse order, because in the first part of the book, he lays out how we can know what is good. For Aristotle, people know what is good because they are educated in good habits and by getting a good all around education, they become good all-around judges.

Aristotle says that we all learn by example what is good, rather than deducing what is good by comparing examples to some universal knowledge of an absolute good. This separates him from his teacher, Plato, who argued through Socratic dialogs that we know what things are through understanding universal forms, and we know what is good because we have some idea of the ultimate idea of good.

According to Aristotle, we learn through experience rather than revelation. 

“It is hard, too, to see how a weaver or carpenter will be benefitted in regard to his own craft by knowing this ‘good itself’, or how the man who has viewed the Idea itself will be a better doctor or general thereby. For a doctor seems not even to study health in this way, but the health of a man, or perhaps rather the health of a particular man; it is individuals that he is healing.”

Aristotle is talking about finding virtue through induction, as opposed to the deduction used by Plato. The New York Public Library Desk Reference, third edition, defines the two as follows.

Inductive Reasoning: Any process of reasoning from something particular to something general, or form a part to a whole. Inductive reason can be valid or invalid.

Deductive Reasoning: Reasoning from a general statement to a particular or specific example; for example, “All cats are mortal; William is a cat; therefore William is mortal.”

In addition, Aristotle takes pains to say that we need to set limits on our inquiries into these matters. He says that it is too easy to make the inquiries infinite unless we set limits on what we are trying to find out.

Where does this leave us? To start, Aristotle says we need to exercise our judgment and rational faculties to know what is good.

He also says that to achieve happiness we must behave in a good and virtuous way. Happiness is actions, not a state of being. I think this may be why many people are chronically unhappy even after they have gathered things and created a set piece that they think should make them happy.

Happiness is not having; it is doing.

Next Time – These Books are Big: Some Thoughts on the Set

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One thought on “Aristotle’s Ethics: Learning to Behave and to Be Happy

  1. Your post makes me think about some of the ways the term “happiness” is used and defined. One of these is equating happiness to satisfaction, or contentment which I think are ideas that are more of an achievable endpoint, and not along the same lines of this active idea of happiness that your talking about, that is about doing, and participating in good and virtuous actions. Satisfaction is more goal-orientated, and puts a predetermined limitation or expected outcome for what one expects to achieve, whereas a happiness process, is more like a choice that puts one in line, and aims to connect one to the more virtuous qualities of life, and really has no limitations, but can continue to add quality and fulfillment to life as these good actions are pursued. I think we can often get detoured by confusing somewhat good goals, such as advancing in one’s career, as paths to happiness, because we think this sort of thing will put us in line with the better person we want to become, or allow us to move closer to who we think we are. But then with something like a career goal, for example, no matter how much good work, and improvement you put into yourself to get there, is still just a recognition of a particular status, or endpoint. It can never really complete your happiness, and that it may be the small continuous daily actions, and observances that keep one in the midst of happiness and fulfillment of a more rewarding purpose, and connection to life. I think the point of this discussion is that there are greater possibilities in life for filling out our complete experience of what it is to be human, and you have to look further than that same stretch of sidewalk you take everyday when you leave your front door. Happiness is a blessing, but it can be a struggle too, and sometimes, more rewarding for the effort.

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