11 Aristotelian Happiness Philosophical Inquiry 11 September, 1998 Aristotelian Happiness and Then Some… Aristotle presents a conflicting view of what happiness is and how it can be attained. In Nicomachean Ethics, he says that true happiness is the good that all humans seek as an end to itself and that all others goods are encompassed by this most final good. However, Aristotle also leans toward the idea that material and temporary pleasures can contribute to happiness. He does not reconcile these two concepts; rather, he ignores the inconsistency that arises from accepting both. In the first book of his ethics, Aristotle attacks the Platonic idea of goodness as a form. He asks, "Is nothing good other than the Idea of good good in itself? In that case Form will be empty (1096 a 19-21).
' Right away the student of Aristotle can see that these ethics are concerned with a tangible happiness and not an esoteric study. Aristotle believes in looking for good as it is manifest in human life. For him, this good is embodied when each person lives a virtuous life. The pursuit of pleasure does not lead to or provide eudaimonia because eudaimonia is the virtuous life, not its end.
"Let us consider whether happiness is among the things that are praised or rather among the things that are prized; for clearly it is not the be placed among potentialities (1101 b 10-13).' Aristotle is saying that happiness is an actuality, that it is the realization of what it is to be human. It logically follows that eudaimonia should in no way be dependent on worldly things. If it were, then happiness would be based on pleasure and Aristotle has already established that this is not the case. He says, "human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue (1098 a 17-18).' So to Aristotle, happiness is an activity, which means that it is not the possession of goods. It is pleasing to think of eudaimonia as the life of one who lives as a virtuous person rather than as a state in which one has the right number of desired goods or pleasures. Aristotle confirms this by saying "the man who is truly good and wise, we think, bears all the chances of life becomingly and always makes the best of circumstances (1101 a 1-2).' This statement confirms the idea that happiness should be reachable in this life by making the right moral choices and living virtuously.
Aristotle does not provide a satisfactory answer to the question of whether or not worldly goods and attachments are necessary in order to be happy. According to his definition of eudaimonia, they should not be necessary. However, he cannot seem to get beyond the idea that goods are conducive towards happiness. Aristotle says that in addition to the virtuous action of the soul, "some [of the remaining goods] must necessarily pre-exist as conditions of happiness, and others are naturally co-operative and useful as instruments (1099 b 27-29).' If some goods are essential to happiness, fortune enters the picture, and if fortune is in the picture then Aristotle's definition of happiness does not hold true. It would mean that part of happiness is left to chance, yet it is nonsensical to say that fortune dictates happiness but only to a certain extent.
This likewise holds true for goods— it is impossible to say that X amount of goods is enough while Z amount of goods is a little too much. Aristotle himself points out this incongruity when he says "if it [happiness] were so counted it would clearly be made more desirable by the addition of even the least of goods… Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action (1097 b 18-20, 21-22).' Aristotelian happiness clearly does not rely on goods but on the virtuous activity of the soul. However, it may not be so clear, even to Aristotle. He says, "Human life, as we said, needs these [fortunes] as mere additions, while virtuous activities or their opposites are what constitute happiness or the reverse (1100 b 8-10).' This statement seems to say that human life needs fortune but happiness does not depend on fortune. However, it does not follow that one can be happy without something that is necessary. So should the reader throw in the towel after Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics out of frustration with Aristotle? No, rather, the student of Aristotle should come to appreciate the complexities involved in human life and happiness.
Aristotle's avoidance of the issue of goods as opposed to virtue does not necessarily point to a defect in his work. It shows his rejection of a Platonic "Form' of good in favor of attainable eudaimonia that is difficult to pin down as a universal.