It’s that most elusive of goals for humans: being happy, defined by many as not a destination but a way of travel, a journey, but it all goes back to Aristotle, who, in his inimitable way, defined it rather simply as an internal state of mind, finding contentment by living life the best way possible, without purely material goals.
It seems so much at odds in today’s laser-fast world of swirling social media, Instagram fame that lives for seconds, a blitzkrieg pace with a banzai mindset of rushing, doing, running, chasing, all of it coming full circle and leaving most people weary and empty.
Of course, he lived in the 4th Century B.C. when there weren’t the electronic distractions so prevalent today that people even bring their computers and cell phones to bed like wired security blankets that bring them blue light blazes of unease.
Edith Hall, a British scholar of classics, specializing in ancient Greek literature and cultural history, and Professor in the Department of Classics and Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College, London, wrote in The Wall Street Journal about Aristotle’s model for happiness and its relevance today.
“Happiness has always been something distinctively coveted by Americans. The inalienable right to pursue it, along with life and liberty, was enshrined by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence,” she wrote.
“If we are to pursue it, however, we need to define it. And to understand what Jefferson really meant by happiness, we must turn to a thinker who influenced him,” she added – Aristotle.
He wrote of happiness that, “This we choose always for its own sake, and never with a view to anything further: whereas honor, pleasure, intellect – in fact every excellence – we choose for their own sakes, it is true, but we choose them also with a view to happiness, conceiving that through their instrumentality we shall be happy: but no man chooses happiness with a view to them, nor in fact with a view to any other thing whatsoever.” Classic.
Hall, among the world’s foremost experts on ancient Greek philosophy and thinking, said happiness seems like one of the rarest commodities today in a mean-spirited world where clashes are more common than civility, manners, good behavior, and decency – all in short supply.
Aristotle’s ethical system – as described in his major treatises, the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics – revolves around the idea that the goal of human life is happiness, which he called eudaimonia, wrote Hall, knowing that in Greek, the root eu means “well” or “good,” and daimonian suggests a guardian spirit or one’s lot in life.
Aristotle didn’t equate happiness with wealth, pleasure, or fame, the Holy Trinity for today’s business billionaires and Internet nouveau riche and celebrities who believe a Maserati is the Holy Grail of Happiness before the gas tank runs dry.
Aristotle spent years with the Macedonian royal family of King Philip II, Alexander the Great’s despotic father, who she said was ruthless, acquisitive, and addicted to conspicuous consumption, much like people today who think a gold-plated toilet shows they’ve made it.
Hall said Aristotle saw the results of Philip’s plotting and putting lieutenants, wives, concubines and children against each other, the result being endlessly plotting bouts of reciprocal murder providing the script for Game of Thrones and all theater.
Hall said Aristotle saw that lifestyle brought people misery and worry as the King and his court thought possessions or hedonism and sensory gratification and pleasures of the flesh made them happy even though they likely knew otherwise in their hearts.
Real happiness, Aristotle believed, comes from reaching your potential and becoming the best version of yourself, said Hall, with the philosopher believing in the wisdom inscribed over the Oracle of Delphi: Know Thyself.
Aristotle studied the soul as well as the heart and mind and analyzed character traits – in Greek, ethos, from which the word ethics is derived. He knew how libido, courage, anger, how we treat other people, and how money is regarded by people, and he said happiness comes from cultivating each one in the correct amount, so that it is a virtue (arete) rather than a vice, she added.
This is the “mean” that sets Aristotelian ethics apart from other ancient moral systems as he didn’t preach anger as a vice and patience a virtue, believing each commodity in the right measure is healthy and virtuous in and of itself and not exclusive of each other. Without knowing or feeling anger, a person wouldn’t understand or appreciate patience because there would be none and there would be no fighting for principle. Failing to feel anger when wronged may be a vice, he said, but so is undue anger.
That applies to other qualities, including knowing not to spend recklessly or without purpose, especially among the rich, who did not know the value of money because they had so much and didn’t understand the sufferings of those who didn’t, and to their being cheap, which he despised.
Hall said faithful followers of Aristotle’s way acknowledge their best and their worst moral characteristics and work continuously at self-improvement and try to develop habits of generosity, honesty, responsibility, integrity, fairness, kindness and good humor.
That brings its own reward, moral self-sufficiency that even misfortune can’t fully erase whether it’s bereavement, bankruptcy, or sheer bad luck that everyone experiences because no one goes through life without loss.
His prescription for happiness then isn’t an elixir but the dose of self-knowledge and fulfilled potential, without hunting for the tangible which fades and disappears like a vapor. Aristotle knew, and appreciated the intrinsic fecundity of breeding virtues in measure to ourselves, friends, neighbors and citizens, wrote Hall, his wisdom resonating today, happily for those who know it.