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Happiness and the Good Life: An Introduction to Aristotle

As we exit the cave, we find ourselves asking the questions of life.

Who am I? What was I meant to do?

In the journey of our education, we might be fortunate enough to meet, become friends with, or perhaps a scholar of Aristotle. We have been students in search of a mentor and Aristotle is a perfect choice.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C) is considered to have been one of the greatest philosophers to have ever lived. His contributions to human understanding extended to science, logic and relationships as well. Aristotle was a pupil of Plato at the Academy and was said to have called him the intellect of the school. He was teacher and tutor to Alexander the Great and eventually established a school called the Lyceum. He is arguably the greatest written voice on Happiness and The Good Life.

In the world outside the cave, Aristotle is a worthy mentor indeed. One of the most powerful concepts he can teach us comes from his book Nicomachean Ethics. Here Aristotle asks, What is happiness or the good life? How will I know when I am happy? How do I define happiness or goodness?

Happiness comes from the Greek word eudaimonia which means having a good spirit or soul. Another way to describe this is to be in a state of flourishing or psychological well-being. Aristotle’s work led him to the conclusion that an excellent life (which would be akin to a virtuous life) is one that is lived well and beautifully. He taught that virtuous character is what makes happiness possible.

Often people will ask me, “What is the goal of education at your academy?” It is Aristotelean and I would summarize it as producing good citizens and great souls. We desire to inspire scholars to moral character and virtue. And what is virtue? “Moral goodness; the practice of moral duties and the abstaining from vice or a conformity of life and conversation to the moral law.” (Websters 1828 Dictionary)

Such an education produces people of virtue, thinkers, heroes, and statesmen/women. Regarding virtue, my son Joseph once said to me, “I just sharpened this knife. It now has virtue. Because it is sharp it can cut things well, and has virtue, which is what it was created for and meant to do.” So, what were you meant to do? Let’s allow Aristotle to guide us.

In his 1828 dictionary Noah Webster defined happiness this way, “The agreeable sensations which spring from the enjoyment of good.” And from the same source, the definition of good is “Having moral qualities best adapted to its design and use or the qualities which God’s law requires;……conformable to the moral law; virtuous as applied to actions.”

Aristotle says, the primary goal of life is “to aim as some good; and the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” (Nicomachean Ethics Book I, Chapter I)

So what is that good and happiest life? Aristotle reviews some primary contenders for this definition which include pleasure, wealth, and honor. While these can be desirable and good, many are fleeting or temporary. He suggests these may contribute to happiness, but such conditions must be connected to moral virtue, character, and doing the good to bring a full measure and complete happiness.

And what are these virtues that can bring us the right outcome and lasting joy? These are known as “cardinal” virtues, or put another way, “kardinálios” which is the Greek word for “hinge.” These are the four primary virtues on which happiness may pivot: couragetemperancejustice, and prudence.

I have always enjoyed the insight by C.S. Lewis that all virtues begin with courage. “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” Or as Winston Churchill said, “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all the others.”

Aristotle encourages us to find the “golden mean” of our virtues, meaning the middle way. Too much courage can make us reckless, too little can make us cowards. Too much justice can make us unmerciful, too little can bring rampant disregard for law. Too little temperance produces a glutton, too much may produce callousness. And with prudence using too much or too little deliberation may affect the timeliness, fidelity and best outcome of an action. The “golden mean” is about balance in using all four virtues to make decisions and develop our character. The golden mean applies to each virtue. It teaches us that any virtue taken to extreme may become a vice. As we cultivate these gifts into habits and character we are deemed to possess them as virtues.

“Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”

―Ralph Waldo Emerson

Benjamin Franklin loved the acquisition of virtues so much he even made a chart to mark and track his progress. Each day of the week was on the horizontal axis and on the vertical axis were his desired thirteen virtues. He noted the difficulty of improvement and change with this story.

A man buying an ax wanted the speckled surface to be as bright as the edge. The smith consented to grind it bright if he would turn the wheel of the grinding stone. The grinding was grueling. Fatigue set in, and the man suggested he would keep the ax as it was. “No,” said the smith, “turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by-and-by; as yet, it is only speckled.” Franklin observed, “this may have been the case with many, who having, for want of some such means as I employed, found the difficulty of obtaining good and breaking bad habits in other points of vice and virtue, have given up the struggle, and concluded a speckled ax was best.” (Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Harvard Classics pg. 78-82)

It is in the observation of others as mentors and heroes that we can desire to acquire the four cardinal or other moral virtues Franklin suggested.

Having left the cave and having met Aristotle you are ready for the wisdom of the ages. Consider reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics with 13 chapters (it is less than 20 pages). Another worthy text is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American SlaveWatch for virtues and themes that liberate and bring happiness in these books.

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

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