What is Aristotle’s reason for thinking that the highest good is happiness?
Answer by Caterina Pangallo
Aristotle examined the behaviour of many people in everyday life. He noticed that some people had good lives and others had bad lives. Then he noticed that all these many people do different things to make themselves happy. But whatever they do, the end result they wish to achieve is always the same: namely happiness.
Whereas those people who are dissatisfied all have in common the characteristic of being unhappy. Therefore in answer to the question “What is the good life for man?’ it is “a life of happiness’. So Aristotle makes the point that e.g. collecting butterflies, or climbing mountains, or reading lots of books is always done for the sake of making that person happy. Therefore happiness is the common denominator of all these varied activities.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle gives a definition of the word ‘happiness’ which has since become famous. Happiness, he says, is an activity of the soul in accord with virtue. What Aristotle is stressing here is the fact that happiness is not something which is static, but is an activity. Happiness is related to our lives and engaging in various activities of life in a certain way. Not the least importance is given to what he calls “the Golden Mean’. Happiness is not achieved by exaggeration. For example, it is silly for person to overeat and get fat or sick in the process, because that will make them unhappy. This is important because the “golden mean’ is not an objective principle, but applied to people and their circumstances. So a professional wrestler will, on the contrary, have to overeat so that their body has enough fuel to burn in the contest.
Aristotle says that every-one who is not totally corrupt can learn the way to happiness: indeed it is innate even in animals. But it does not come for free. We have to work for it. This is inescapable: there are many changes and chances throughout life and therefore we should ensure that we develop our character so that the pursuit of excellence is habitual. The good and bad do not consist in the many chances of life. They are the ‘extras’ which control our ability, but they do not control our happiness.
As long as we insist on excellence and improvement of our soul, we can even in time of great disaster, suffering or captivity, retain a little of happiness in one small corner of the soul. He disagrees with the famous quote from Solon that no-one can call themselves happy until they are on their death bed. He says that to be blessed in life is enough, because no-one can know the future and to look back on one’s life is, after all, to look back on happiness and misery changing sometimes from week to week. But when you are dead you know nothing.
Happiness is the greatest good, because it is at the bottom of every pursuit in which we engage.
No-one goes out looking for unhappiness. But this does not mean that we can be always and constantly happy. The pursuit of happiness may be accompanied sometimes by pain and disappointment, but we accept those mishaps for the greater good we strive for. So the true nature of a human being is not to be happy permanently, but to strive for it. It is the striving itself, that is usually the greatest happiness.