Aristotle and happiness – Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle believed that happiness was the supreme good, but that this was no platitude. By happiness he means grasping the function of man. This human good is “activity of soul in conformity with excellence”. Of course our experience of what makes us happy, what gives us pleasure, may be of things which are in conflict with other things – perhaps alcohol and drugs might be examples of such pleasures. These are in conflict with other things such as health because they are not natural pleasures. Natural pleasures and naturally pleasant. Excellent actions must be in themselves pleasant and they must be good and noble.

Aristotle goes on to argue that moral virtue comes as a result of habit. Morality does not rise up out of nature. Nature gives us the capacity to receive moral virtue. Someone who has well formed habits will delight in his or her ability to abstain from bodily pleasures. It is not enough to abstain and feel annoyed by the abstention – that is self-indulgent. The one who faces danger without pain is brave.

Excellence is a state concerned with choice, our choice, lying in the mean along a plane which has two vices, one at each end. At one end there is excess and at the other defect. We can have not enough, and we can have too much. We have the power to choose to practice at being better, at reaching the mean point in a number of virtues which Aristotle defines. By practice we improve. By being virtuous we become more virtuous.

Interestingly Aristotle notes that the point of mean, the perfect position, is relative to us. He is different from the absolutist Plato, who had a universal definition of good beyond the material world. Aristotle is a relativist of a sort. Perfect societies might not all look the same – there could be different ways different societies could live well. There are different expectations that can be placed on people in terms of how they may develop their virtues. The old, young and sick must have differentiated expectations. The possibility of this kind of plurality of excellent societies is one that we might reflect upon in an age where there seems again to be a conflict in cultures.

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