Ethics By Aristotle Summary and Analysis Book I: Chapter VIII - Confirmation of Our View in Popular Ideas on Happiness

Summary

The first principle we have arrived at (the definition of happiness given above) must be tested logically, as a conclusion drawn from premises, and also in the light of generally held opinions on the nature of happiness, for something that is true will be found to be in harmony with all the evidence. Let us examine these opinions:

  1. Good things are commonly divided into three classes; (a) external or worldly goods, (b) goods of the body, (c) goods of the soul. According to this tripartite division, goods of the soul are goods in the highest and fullest sense, for, while goods of the body and external goods are needed for complete happiness, they are not capable of giving happiness alone. According to our definition, happiness is an activity of the soul, and in this we see that our definition coincides with general belief.
  2. Another view is that the happy man leads a good life, and this is in accordance with our definition of happiness as a good life and state of well-being.
  3. All the characteristics that people look for in happiness — virtue, practical wisdom, theoretical wisdom, prosperity, etc. — are included in our definition of happiness.
  4. Our definition also agrees with those who define happiness as virtue or as a particular virtue, fo we have said that happiness is activity in conformity with virtue and this implies that the happy man possesses virtue. It is important to note that we have said activity in accordance with virtue, for a state of inactivity cannot produce good effects. Actions that conform to virtue are naturally pleasant and are thus pleasant in themselves. The life of men who practice virtue is itself a pleasure and does not require the inducement of added pleasure, in fact, the man who does not enjoy performing virtuous acts is not a good man at all, regardless of the acts he may perform. The sensation of pleasure belongs to the soul, and all men derive pleasure from what they love, in this case, virtue. Thus, the man who is happy according to the terms of our definition fulfills the standards of this generally held belief also.

All these views mentioned above have been held by the masses of men for many years or by a small but select group of extraordinary men. It is likely that they are right in at least a few respects, and for this reason we have compared them to our definition of happiness.

It must be stated at this point that happiness, though the most pleasant and noblest thing in the world, requires external goods to some extent. It is not possible to perform noble acts without the necessary wherewithal. Many actions can only be performed with the help of instruments, as it were — friends, wealth, political influence. The absence of certain external goods, such as good ancestry, good looks, good children, can spoil what might otherwise be supreme happiness. This is why people classify good luck with happiness or virtue, because the last two require a firm basis of external prosperity.

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