Happiness as the Ultimate End
Should happiness be sought as the ultimate end? Before we can answer this question, it must be defined. Aristotle defines happiness as an “activity of the soul in accordance with virtue . . . in a complete life’ (Book 1, Ch. 7). Aristotle’s definition of happiness is different from the popular conception of happiness. The hedonistic view of happiness is the indulgence of the flesh. Aristotle says that “every action” aims at “some good” (Book 1, Ch. 1). The ultimate end is the goal for all our activities. Aristotle teaches that the ultimate end is happiness. Others might say it is pleasure, honor, or wealth. Can Aristotle’s idea be defended? This is what this paper will try to achieve.
Aristotle thinks that the ultimate end is the goal for all our activities. This ultimate end is happiness. The reason is that happiness is not a means to another end. It is an end in itself. We do not want happiness to be wise. We want wisdom so we can be happy. We do all our activities to be happy. Wealth, honor, and pleasure are means to another end. For example, we want wealth to live well. We want honor because we are good. We want pleasure because it makes us happy. Aristotle makes some interesting comments about pleasure. He notes that pleasure is “a good,” but not “the good” (Book 10). He asserts that it part of human nature “to choose what is pleasant and avoid what is painful” (Book 10, Ch.1). He criticizes those who say that pleasure is not a good. He states that some pleasures are good in themselves, like the “pleasures of learning” (Book 10, Ch.1). Aristotle observes that that pleasure can enhance an activity: “Because those who work with pleasure show better judgment and greater precision in dealing with each class of object” (Book 10, Ch. 5). Aristotle’s view of pleasure is both compelling and wise.
The second part of the definition says happiness is an “activity of the soul.” Happiness is something we do. It is an activity. It is not only an activity, but an activity of the soul. By the soul, Aristotle means activity by the most important part of us. This most important part of us is the rational principle within us (Book 1, Ch.7).
The next part of the definition addresses the moral virtues. Aristotle asserts there is both a rational and irrational part of the soul. A good example of this is the continent and incontinent man.The soul of the continent man does not fight against what reason tells him is the right thing to do. This concerns the habits one has formed in life. The continent man can see the truth where the incontinent man cannot. The moral virtues make it possible to live according to what is best in us or according to the rational principle.
The last part of the definition is in a “complete life.” Why does happiness involve a complete life? The simple answer is that someone can begin well, but then end badly. Aristotle asserts that “one swallow does not make a summer; neither does one day. Similarly neither can one day, or a brief space of time, make a man blessed and happy” (Book 1, Ch.7). He adds in another section that “happiness demands not only complete goodness but a complete life” (Book 1, Ch.10). In live our lives, we experience both good and bad fortune. Before the Trojan War, Priam of Troy was happy. During the Trojan War, Priam saw his beloved son, Hector, killed by Achilles and the fall of his beloved Troy. Does this mean we can be happy only when we are dead? Aristotle says we can be happy in this life and this happiness is permanent. Except in certain circumstances, we can experience such tragedy that we are not happy anymore. However, Aristotle thinks we can recover from great tragedies.
Aristotle teaches that we need a minimum of external goods to be happy. Aristotle says that “wealth is obviously not the good that we are seeking, because it serves only as a means for getting something else” (Book 1, Ch.5). In another place, Aristotle says that “happiness needs the addition of external goods” (Book 1, Ch.9). Because without a minimum of external goods, we cannot do the good things that are necessary for happiness. People who are hungry cannot think about the pleasures of the mind. In another section, Aristotle notes that “the body must be healthy, and food and other amenities must be available” to cultivate the intellectual virtues (Book x, Ch.8).
Aristotle also thinks that friends are important to the achieving of happiness. He states that friendship is a “kind of virtue, or implies virtue, and it is also most necessary for living” (Book 8, Ch.1). Aristotle adds, “Nobody would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other good things” (Book 8, Ch.1). Friendships are important to living the good life. Humans are neither angels or beasts. Men and women are rational so they have the ability to make choices and plan their lives. Unlike the gods, they are not self-sufficient. Aristotle notes that human beings are social by nature. He also states that “friendships also seems to be the bond that holds communities together” (Book 8, Ch.1). People gather together to achieve the common good. Aristotle adds, “Political associations too are believed to have been originally formed and to continue in being for the sake of advantage . . . “ (Book 10, Ch. 9).
Aristotle believes that both the intellectual virtues and the moral virtues are necessary for happiness. He ranks the intellectual virtues as higher than the moral virtues. The reason he does this is because he thinks the intellectual virtues are divine and the moral virtues are human. This seems to contradict some of the comments made earlier about friendship. The ultimate end of contemplation is a solitary thinker contemplating thought. It seems that happiness needs to others to be complete. Happiness as an ultimate end should include others. Aristotle has already said that we are social and political animals. What causes this misconception? Maybe, it is Aristotle’s picture of god. The gods are self-sufficient and do not need others. Aristotle seems to over-emphasize the rational. A more complete view will contain the moral, intellectual, and theological virtues. The Orthodox Christian teaching of the trinity supports the idea that God is a community within himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ proclaims that both the body and soul are good. Jesus Christ left a community to carry on his work. It is called the church, or the body of Christ. Jesus said the two greatest commandments is to love God, and the neighbor. True happiness includes relationship with others, both God and man.
Should Christians accept Aristotle’s teaching on happiness? Aristotle’s teaching on happiness is compatible with the Christian faith. Happiness can also be considered human flourishing or Shalom: human wholeness. It is developing all the gifts we have received and developing them to the fullest. There is both an earthly and an eternal happiness. Even Aristotle thinks that intellectual activity is divine, most like the gods; and that human activity in accordance with the moral virtues is a “secondary happiness.” Aristotle’s view of happiness can be supplement by the theological virtues of Christianity: Faith, hope, and love. When Aristotle’s view of happiness is combined with the teachings of Christianity it is a more complete view of happiness.
The major source for this essay is based on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.