Happiness has been a chief concern among people throughout the ages. We all have ideas about what makes us happy. Oftentimes, these do not lead to happiness. In unfortunate circumstances, they can lead to a great deal of unhappiness. Given the many complexities and quandaries related to happiness and how to achieve it, philosophers have found it to be an interesting and useful topic to address. Aristotle addressed happiness and what leads to a happy life in his Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle’s ethical views are significant, in part, because they are linked to his political views. The politician (or statesman) is concerned with the happiness of the community and must take that in mind when voicing his perspective and shaping legislation. In order to better understand happiness in the society, one must understand happiness in the individual. This way of thinking, delineated in Aristotle’s Ethics, is strikingly different from that of Plato. In his Republic, Plato has his characters, seeking a definition for virtue, look for it in the society in order to better understand it in the individual. In finding an essential characteristic of happiness, Aristotle says that it has to be an end in itself, not merely a means to something else. For example, Riches cannot make someone truly happy because wealth is a means to an end, not an end in itself. In dispelling the notion that happiness is subjective by declaring that it has to be an end in itself, Aristotle is establishing the foundation for further inquiry into what constitutes a happy life, what are the associated virtues, and how does all of this fit together with the concept of the soul.
What constitutes a happy life? Given that many people have a flawed understanding of what makes a happy life, Aristotle briefly addresses disputed views held by the many (as opposed to the wise). The disputes arise not out of the superiority of happiness as something toward which one should aim. Rather, the disputes center around the nature of happiness and what truly makes one happy. Aristotle already established that happiness has to be an end in itself. The examples he sues here to reject the views of the multitude is one based in deficiency. He brings up that an impoverished man would view wealth as an essential component to happiness. Is wealth really an essential component or is this merely idealistic thinking on the part of someone suffering from a severe deficiency in wealth? This example supports Aristotle’s position because the deprivations suffered by the man in this example distort his perception to heavily bias that which he is missing. A happy life, According to Aristotle lies in the studies related to statesmanship. In employing the term statesmanship, Aristotle is not merely talking about a life of politics but rather a public life in which one’s political nature necessarily plays an important role.
Aristotle’s view of happiness is linked with his views of the good. The good must constitute the end of an action. Aristotle asserts that goods are ends of actions. Aristotle’s reasoning is based on the rational assumption that the end is of more value than the activity itself. If this were not the case, then what would be the point of pursuing such ends? In closer analysis, the good does not merely constitute the end of an action it is the ends of action. We desire the good for its own sake and it is desired above all other ends. Aristotle’s strong emphasis regarding knowledge of the good is not entirely unlike that of Plato. While the two see the good from two distinct perspectives, they both see it, not only as the highest end (for Aristotle) or form (for Plato), they link it with knowledge. The link between Aristotle’s understanding of the good and his view of happiness is better elucidated with a look at his views regarding the soul.
Key to an understanding of Aristotle’s view of the happy life relates to an understanding of the parts of a soul. In analyzing the parts of the soul, one must also understand the role of virtue and how virtues correspond to parts of the soul. Just possessing virtue, as stated above, does not constitute the good. However, it is an essential component of the good. Aristotle defines the human good as a complete life of rational activity in accordance with virtue. The soul is composed of three basic parts, according to Aristotle. These are the nutritive part, the perceptual part, and the rational part. The nutritive part of the soul exists in all living things from plants to humans. This most basic part of the soul is actually too basic to have any virtues associated with it. The perceptual part of the soul exists in animals and humans and correlates with virtues of character. The rational part of the soul, peculiar to humans, correlates with theoretical virtues and can be subdivided even further. The productive, calculative subset of the rational soul correlates with the arts. The practical, calculative subset of the rational soul correlates with prudence. The theoretical subset of the rational soul correlates with episteme (science, knowledge). Aristotle’s analysis of the parts of the soul is strikingly similar to the modern understanding of the parts of the brain. The human brain contains elements from previous stages of evolution going back to reptiles. Aristotle’s view of the soul is that it is the form or actuality of a living thing. In defining the soul in such a way, Aristotle is staying away from the deep metaphysical speculation which can be seen more clearly in Plato’s philosophy. This major difference between Aristotle and Plato can be seen in Raphael’s School of Athens, with Aristotle’s hand gesturing down toward the world while Plato points to the heavens. An understanding of this key difference is also very much relevant for an analysis of Aristotle’s view of a happy life: it is one which is clearly linked to this world. Happiness is related to the virtues which one can strive toward in life and not related to the kind of speculation of later Scholastic Theologians of the Middle Ages. This is one of the strongest aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy when one contrasts him with Plato. Plato’s view of the forms and the analogies used to support them are very much different from the more empirically-minded Aristotle.
As Aristotle defined the human good to be a complete life of rational activity in accordance with virtue, this analysis must turn to the question of virtue in Aristotelian philosophy. In analyzing the soul, Aristotle identified two distinct types of virtues: virtues of character and virtues of thought. Virtues of character relate to emotive states such as “appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, love, hatred, longing, jealousy, pity, and in general whatever feelings are accompanied by pleasure or pain.” Desiring and acting can accord with reason or not. The virtues of character, acquired by habituation, involve the influence of reason. Key to understanding the virtues of character, and one of the most famous aspects of the Nicomachean Ethics, is the doctrine of the mean. Each virtue is the mean between an excess and a deficiency. The excess and deficiency are vices which indicate a lack of prudence. Being able to desire actions consistent with prudence is essential for virtues of character. For example, anger is an appropriate response to an injustice. Too much anger (irascibility) is a vice. Too little anger (spiritlessness) is as well. One should be temperate in one’s reaction to situations. If anger is the rational response, one must understand what degree of anger is appropriate.
What about cases involving some type of internal conflict? It is one thing to understand virtues of character but quite another to constantly act in accordance with them. Thinking and feeling are separable and one must master both intellect and emotion. Aristotle addresses this problem in Book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics with his analysis of incontinence and continence. Incontinence is weakness of will and continence is strength of will. These two concepts are central to understanding cases which involve conflicts between desires and knowledge of the right thing. Aristotle differs sharply from Socrates who held that there was no such thing as incontinence. Aristotle strongly criticizes this view by going to his more empirical perspective and stating outright that Socrates’ view “plainly contradicts the observed facts.” Internal conflict is key in distinguishing a “bad” person from a “good” person. A “bad” person will not have any internal conflict if he or she knows the virtues of character but does not act in accordance with them. Internal conflict will be present in a “good” person when he or she is acting in such a way that is counter to the virtues of character.
The above analysis involves the virtues of character. Virtues of character are only one of the two types of virtue distinguished by Aristotle. The virtues of thought are higher up in his hierarchy, being present in the rational part of the soul. The calculative part of the rational soul is concerned with virtues relating to art and prudence (phronesis). This subset of the rational part of soul focuses on things which are changeable. This is in contrast to the scientific subset of the rational part of the soul which focuses on those things which are unchanging. In this respect, one can see a correlation with elements of Platonic philosophy as illustrated by the Allegory of the Cave (and Plato’s influences Heraclitus and Parmenides). In Aristotle’s analysis, he is concerned with the question: what is ultimate happiness? Where does it lie? After examining art, a virtue associated with the calculative, rational soul, Aristotle discards it. While it is important for production, art cannot be the ultimate good. Producing something is a means to an end but not an ultimate end. Aristotle gives significant value to the other part of the calculative, rational soul: prudence. It is here that we think about what to do and it plays a prominent role in relation to the virtues of character. However, its association with the lower virtues, as well as its ability to enable a higher type of knowledge, renders it implausible for being the ultimate good. Prudence (Phronesis) is important in understanding how virtues of character and virtues of thought are related. Phronesis involves grasping the truth and necessarily involves reason. In utilizing phronesis, one is applying elements of what is necessary for the higher virtues (abstract thinking) for moderating desires and action to be in greater accordance with reason through contemplation of what course of action would be best for a given situation. This contemplation is not unlike that which is employed in the life of contemplation and aiming at ultimate happiness. The key difference is that the life of contemplation is centered on what does not change and the virtues (and the way they are utilized) below this are involved, at some level, with the practical and changeable concerns related to the desires and actions. There is, thus, an inverse correlation in Aristotelian philosophy between usefulness and value.
This higher type of knowledge is related to the life of contemplation, which according to Aristotle, is the best life. This correlates with the scientific, rational part of the soul. With a life of contemplation, one is able to think much more abstractly and gain a deeper understanding of causes. We are able to know, not just how something happens, but why it happens. This kind of thinking can lead one to being able to grasp first principles and ultimately understanding their consequences. This type of knowledge corresponds to the three subsets of the scientific, rational part of the soul: scientific-knowledge, intellect, and wisdom. Aristotle’s argument that the life of contemplation constitutes the ultimate human good is far more consistent with human nature given his analysis of the parts of the soul and how they interact and operate. Aristotle goes farther than Socrates and acknowledges the problem of incontinence and internal conflict. Knowledge is still central, as part of the life of contemplation, but the emotive aspects of human nature are not depicted merely as things that must be controlled by reason (in contrast to Plato’s chariot analogy). Reason must necessarily impose certain boundaries to allow for the development of virtues of character but the perspective is not nearly as pessimistic toward desires and actions as that of Plato.
 Nicomachean Ethics. I.4.
 Nicomachean Ethics. I.1.
 Ibid., II.5.
 Ibid., IV.5.
 Ibid., VII.2.