For Lesson #6 on how to be happy, we’re back with the ancient Greeks, and this time a really, really big one: Aristotle. When he was not thinking about being happy, Ari was busy pondering and writing about logic, metaphysics, mathematics, physics, biology, ethics, politics, agriculture, medicine, dance, and theater. What, no time for doing the limbo or fox tossing or octopus wrestling or throwing oranges at naked men? Slouch!
Anyway, let’s ignore Ari’s gazillion other brilliant accomplishments and focus on his role as a happadvocate. To be brief, Aristotle believed in happiness as the ultimate purpose of human existence. As the Pursuit of Happiness website folks tell us, Ari came to this conclusion while writing his Nicomachean Ethics (ten books—yikes!). Put simply (by POH), “It is easy to see that we desire money, pleasure, and honor [not in all cases, obviously] only because we believe that these goods will make us happy. It seems that all other goods are a means toward obtaining happiness, while happiness is an end in itself.”
The fly in the ointment of our happiness, it seems, is that we humans in general and Americans in particular have the wrong idea about what happiness is. We think it’s a subjective state of mind, as for example when a conference speaker says something like “I’m happy to be here” or, more likely, “I’m happy to beer here.” But for Aristotle, “happiness is a final end or goal that encompasses the totality of one’s life. It is not something that can be gained or lost in a few hours, like pleasurable sensations.” In short, Ari believed it impossible to pronounce someone as happy at any moment before his or her final one.
Ari also had a dim view of instant gratification. “The mass of mankind,” he says, “are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts.” Ouch. The POH article on Aristotle goes into loving detail about all the aspects of his view of happiness, but as soon as my brain began to ache (not long, believe me), I did what most of us do when confronted with a thorny intellectual discussion: cut to the chase, otherwise known as skimming.
And now for the chase. What is happiness according to Ari and POH?
- Happiness is the ultimate end and purpose of human existence.
- Happiness is not pleasure, nor is it virtue. It is the exercise of virtue.
- Happiness cannot be achieved until the end of one’s life. Hence it is the goal and not a temporary state.
- Happiness is the perfection of human nature. Since man is a rational animal, human happiness depends on the exercise of his/her reason.
- Happiness depends on acquiring a moral character [uh oh], where one displays the virtues of courage, generosity, justice, friendship, and citizenship in one’s life. These virtues involve striking a balance or “mean” between an excess and a deficiency.
- Happiness requires intellectual contemplation, for this is the ultimate realization of our rational capacities.
While typing these things, this thought crossed my mind: “Would Aristotle still believe that happiness cannot be gained from fleeting pleasurable sensations if he had access to lemon cupcakes?” Speaking from very recent experience, I think not.
So, what is the how-to-be-happy lesson here? It seems, in this context, we have two options. One, spend a lifetime trying to apply Aristotle’s instructions for achieving happiness and then die and not even have the satisfaction of knowing if you were pronounced happy or not. Two, eat lemon cupcakes. If you choose Option Two, be sure to save the containers. Put instructions in your will that when you move beyond the pale (or is it pail? I never remember), your lifelong collection of cupcake containers must be stacked up in the viewing room or chapel or pub or wherever people gather to remember you somewhere near your remains, ashes, or photographic likeness. When people take in this overwhelming evidence of how well you lived up to your full potential as a human being, how could they doubt that you had achieved true happiness? Even Aristotle would agree. After all, didn’t he say, “A small cake with the bottom wrapped in wax paper and the top frosted is more than the sum of its parts”? I’m sure he did.