Aristotle’s Prescription for Happiness

Aristotle, who inherited deep intellectual discourse from Plato (his teacher) and Socrates (his teacher’s teacher), wrote Nicomachean Ethics for his son as a guide for a happy and fulfilled life. In my view, the book could be considered the first scientific book on human life. It follows a very systematic and analytical method in defining a path for happiness. As discussed in 3D of Happiness, this book sets the foundation for eudemonic happiness. I invite the readers of Nicomachean Ethics to discuss Aristotle's view of happiness. Is he right that true happiness is possible through accomplished (eudemonic) life? If you want to know my answer, please read the article below:

Who is happy? For the ancient Greeks, it is hard to know the answer. They put meaning at the center of happiness by saying, “Call no man happy until he is dead.” In other words, your happiness shall not be measured by what pleasure you receive. Instead, it shall be measured by your accomplishment. Since you have a certain potential, like a seed, you shall be happy only if you unleash your potential and bear fruit.

Means and Ends

Aristotle attempted to provide a practical answer on how to live a happy life. He was one of the first people who tried to answer the happiness question systematically. Not counting the Divine scripts, his book Nicomachean Ethics was the first written attempt to find an answer to this age-old question. Even though it was the first ethics book teaching how to live a good life, it is still an essential one in its field. Aristotle also examined ‘oikonomia,’ which literally means the management of the household, in his book, Politica. He used an analogy to understand the mission or function of our life on this planet. He began with an example of a craftsman who works for an end: “Every craft [technē] and every line of inquiry [methodos], and likewise every action [praxis] and decision [proairesis], seems to seek some good; that is why some people were right to describe the good as what everything seeks” (Aristotle, 1999, p.1094a 1-5).

According to Aristotle, we all aim for an end (some good things) in our actions and thoughts. Particularly as a rational being, we deliberately choose the means for an end in our lives: “Deliberation is about the actions he can do, and actions are for the sake of other things; hence we deliberate about things that promote an end, not about the end (Aristotle, 1999, p.1112b 32-35). However, there are two types of end outcomes we are aiming for. One is intermediate, and the other is final. We value intermediate ends because of their contribution to the final ends. In other words, anything is good if it serves the final end, which is also called the “final good” or “highest good”. Aristotle agreed that there could be multiple goods; however, they could be ordered hierarchically. In other words, some goods are sought not for their own sake, but for something else. For instance, health is good by itself and also because of its role in reaching happiness.

Highest Good: Happiness

For Aristotle, the final or highest good is the end for the sake of which everything else is done. Even though he accepted multiple goods, he argued that there is one final good that everyone seeks. This is happiness (eudaimonia). Aristotle provided two reasons for his argument of the final good/end: completeness (final) and self-sufficiency. In other words, everything but happiness is desired for some other reason while happiness is desired for itself. It is complete and sufficient requiring nothing else. The happy person needs nothing more because happiness is self-sufficient: “The ‘self-sufficient’ we posit as being what in isolation makes life desirable and lacking in nothing, and we think that happiness is like this and moreover most desirable of all things, it not being counted with other goods: clearly, if it were so counted in with the least of other goods, we would think it more desirable, for what is added becomes an extra quantity of goods, and the larger amount of goods is always more desirable” (Aristotle, 1999p, 1097b14-21).

If the highest good is happiness, then, we still need to know what happiness is: “But presumably the remark that the best good is happiness is apparently something [generally] agreed, and we still need a clearer statement of what the best good is. Perhaps, then, we shall find this if we first grasp the function of human beings. For just as the good, i.e. [doing] well, for a flutist, a sculptor, and every craftsman, and, in general, for whatever has a function and [characteristic] action, seems to depend on its function, the same seems to be true for a human being, if a human being has some function” (Aristotle, 1999, p.1097b 23-29). He then raised the question about the kind of life we are supposed to live to reach the highest good. He responded that we should live according to our nature. As a rational being, he argued, the function of our life is “the activity of the soul in accordance with reason, or not apart from reason”(Aristotle, 1999, p.1098a 8). “Each function is completed well by being completed in a way in accord with the virtue (arête) proper to that kind of thing” (Aristotle, 1999, p.1098a 16-18).

Happiness and virtue

Aristotle attempted to define happiness by distinguishing three different traits of the soul: affections, capacities, and dispositions (Aristotle, 1999, p.1105b 20). He argued that happiness is not a pleasure even though it comes with pleasure. Happiness is a virtue. In other words, happiness is to live a virtuous life. For that matter, happiness is not a knowledge of what is virtuous. It is living by virtue. Therefore, it is not thought, it is action. Nor is it merely affection and capacity: “We are neither called good nor called bad nor are we praised or blamed, insofar as we are simply capable of feelings. Further, while we have capacities by nature, we do not become good or bad by nature” (Aristotle, 1999, p.1106a 8-12). In Aristotle’s terms, happiness “is activity in accord with virtue” (Aristotle, 1999, p.1098b 31).

Capacities and knowledge are not sufficient to be virtues and happiness if they are not translated into actions. A great person who spends all of his time asleep will not be considered virtuous even if he knows and embraces every kind of virtue. “Presumably, though, it matters quite a bit whether we suppose that the best good consists in possessing or in using virtue, that is to say, in a state or in an activity [that actualizes that state]. For someone may be in a state that achieves no good if, for instance, he is asleep or inactive in some other way, but this cannot be true of the activity. For it will necessarily act and act well. And just as Olympic prizes are not for the finest and the strongest, but for the contestants since it is only those who win, the same is true in life; among the fine and good people, only those who act correctly win the prize” (Aristotle, 1999, pp.1098b 32- 1099a 6).

Virtuous life

If happiness is the highest good that can be achieved through virtuous actions, then one needs to know what is virtue and how to be virtuous: “Since happiness is a certain sort of activity in accord with complete virtue, we must examine virtue; for that will perhaps also be a way to study happiness better (Aristotle, 1999, p.1102a 5-8). According to Aristotle, virtue is excellence in life. Excellence is moderation. Excellence can be known through “practical intelligence” or what is called prudence (rationally acquired knowledge about what is good) and wisdom (theoretical knowledge of necessary truths). That is why Aristotle said that “one has all the virtues if and only if one has prudence”(Aristotle, 1999, p.1145a 2). Whoever employs his mind in a proper way will understand that living well is living in moderation. He will assign the appropriate weight to each virtue considering its contribution to the final good: happiness. If the person fails to do so, he will not be considered wise or prudent. In other words, living well is to act wisely in terms of making a choice for the final good. It is to stay away from excessiveness and deficiency. It is striking the mean. It is a balance point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait. For example, courage is the mean between fearfulness and foolhardiness, confidence is the mean between self-deprecation and arrogance, and generosity is the mean between stinginess and wastefulness.

Happiness = Virtuous life = Excellence/moderation

Knowing what is good is not sufficient to be good or to have a good life. In Aristotle’s view, actions in line with virtue are necessary for a happy life. Then, the question is whether one needs to have external means to accomplish a happy life. Even though according to Aristotle, happiness is a merit for the human soul, rather than the body, it is still important to have the means to be happy: “It is impossible or not easy to perform fine actions if one is without resources” (Aristotle, 1999, p.1099a 33). He did not necessarily mean wealth or consumer goods. He meant education and moral training to learn about virtue and moderation as a way to a happy life. For that matter, eudemonia means human flourishing more than a pleasant experience that is associated with happiness. In Aristotle’s writings, human excellence is embedded with a pleasant feeling. They are not separable.

Three types of pleasure

Aristotle did not value a life pursuit of sensual or egotistic pleasures. In his view, people generally pursue three kinds of pleasures in their lives: sensual, egoistic (or pleasure of honor) and intellectual (contemplative) pleasures. The first type is unique to the animal while the second one is common among politicians. However, the third one, which is the highest and most worthy one, is unique to human beings. Even though Aristotle considered the highest pleasure to come from a contemplative/virtuous life, he did not think that pleasure was the highest goal. In other words, his happiness model is not hedonic; it is eudemonic. Indeed, he argued that bad pleasures could even lead to an unhappy life: “Most people are deceived, and the deception seems to come about because of pleasure; for it appears a good thing when it is not. So, they choose what is pleasant as something good, and they avoid pain as something bad” (Aristotle, 1999, p.1113a 35-b2). Aristotle is not against good pleasure: “The pleasure belonging to a worthwhile activity is good, while that related to a worthless one is bad; for appetites, too, are praiseworthy when they are for fine things, and worthy of censure when they are for shameful things” (Aristotle, 1999, p.1175b 25). Therefore, it is important to use practical wisdom to identify “bad/misleading pleasures.” It is essential to pursue pleasure in virtuous actions, not in vice.


For Aristotle, happiness is the highest good because it is complete and self-sufficient. In his understanding, practical reason clearly indicates that the ultimate purpose of human life is to act in a rational manner. That rationality would lead us to moderation in living a good life. There are two crucial problems with such reasoning. First, Aristotle perceived the human mind as the sole source of virtue. In reality, the human mind could fail to determine virtue. In other words, what society thinks of as virtue might not be real virtue. Second, if life is limited to this world, it would be hard to justify lasting virtuous actions. Since everything will eventually be annihilated, the ultimate result of human endeavors will be nothing as confessed by Bernard Russell: “all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system.” The human mind does not see any goodness in making an effort for nothing. Gaining excellence to decay in the grave is not satisfactory.

In short, in the eudemonic model, happiness is the byproduct of an accomplished life. You are happy when you are fully immersed in certain activities that unleash your potential. In Taylor’s terms, “Somewhere, in some activity, or condition, lies a fullness, a richness; that is, in that place (activity or condition), life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worthwhile, more admirable, more what it should be.” (Taylor, 2007, introduction, section 2).

(The article above is from Chapter 7 of 3D of Happiness)

22 views0 comments