Aristotle’s starting point of his discussion of happiness can be found in Book One, Chapters 1-10 of Nicomachean Ethics, where he discusses the relation between the good of an action/decision, for instance, and its goal or purpose. Aristotle argues that all human activity aims or attains at least some good associated with it. It is not so difficult, therefore, to connect happiness with what most people consider it is good. This point is central because it constitutes one of the supporting arguments for Aristotle’s discussion that the goal or purpose of human life is reaching happiness. Although people can observe that there are many purposes and goods and that those purposes can even be subordinated to other aims or can be an end in themselves, Aristoteles thinks there must exist an ultimate supreme good which does not have a sake for something else. In this respect this supreme good must be final or ultimate and self-sufficient. If the supreme good is ultimate, and most human actions aim to reach happiness or living well, then happiness seems to represent this supreme good or at least forms an integral part of it.
One observes here how Aristotle connects the notion of happiness and connects it with the idea of how to live well and acting well. In this respect two approaches emerge: the first has to do with identifying what kind of life is worthy to live. Is it a life full of pleasure and gratification, or a life of contemplation and reflection? What about a busy and active life? The second approach is to identify any possible connection between happiness and virtue.
When he tries to identify the kinds of life that leads to happiness. Aristotle considers that most average people would choose the gratification life as the best kind of life that might lead to happiness. The problem is that the gratification life is shared with the rest of living creatures such as the animals. This lack of uniqueness makes Aristotle to consider other kinds of life that could bring happiness to people. For instance, a life of wealth or money-making will be relative to what kinds of things people can buy, so this relative aspect seems to be also problematic in some regards. The honor life seems to be better in comparison of the previous kinds of life but sometimes it might exist some discrepancy between the honor of the people who grant it and the people who receives it. Since there are different kinds of life, people should have different desires. In this respect Aristotle differentiates between acquired desires that are those desires that people want and they seem to be good in appearance, and natural desires which do not depend on our desire to be good. Thus, natural desires are universal. Therefore, the best kind of life must be one which can be good for everyone and can be sufficient for all people. After some discussion we see Aristotle considers best the political/active life and the contemplative life. I’ll discuss this with more detail later.
After Aristotle connects happiness with the supreme purpose of humanity, he also develops further his discussion connecting happiness to the activity of the rational soul guided by virtue, grounded in the idea that people must always be guided according to reason even during difficult and painful situations they might face in life. For Aristotle, basic human needs must be met in order to reach the end-goal happiness. In addition, material goods, for example, are also necessary in a person’s development of virtues because they allow them to act according or not to the virtues. For Aristotle, unlike other superfluous kinds of life that are guided by acquired desires, the happy life is guided by reasoning and it involves the relationship with other people within the society. Not a surprise he connects happiness and politics, something we can observe in Aristotle’s emphasis on the law, political studies, and the learning and training of the people.
A question which arises from the second approach is regarding the function of the human being or the ultimate purpose in life. In the same way one can say that the function of a musician is making good music, or the function of a teacher is imparting his knowledge to others, the function of humans in general terms is living and acting well-that is, living a political or active life that allows people to continuously develop virtues and act according to reason in company with the rest of people in society. By this Aristotle means that the exercising of virtues through time is needed in order people can live well in society and live according to that expectation. This is so because the fact that someone or something might function, this does not mean such a function is performed well. In other words, although the human being has a function and this function is related to live a certain kind of life, living this life according to practical reason and completed with moral virtues is another issue. In this respect people need to function well in order to reach perfection or excellence. For Aristotle this excellence is related to his understanding of virtue: Any human action became virtuous when it is performed excellent according to its nature. This functional aspect would be also part of the happy life – a life of good habits. The active life well lived is one of learning and habits.
I have presented some of the elements Aristotle considered in his discussion of happiness and the kinds of life. Another aspect we observe since the beginning is Aristotle’s emphasis on the political or active kind of life. Political science, for him, has a high prominent place because he associated it with what it must be studied in the society, a study that goes from administration to rhetoric. Political science deals with other areas of human endeavor, and with the preservation of the good in both the individual and the society as a whole. This two-fold purpose of politics gets Aristotle’s attention to defend a kind of life associated with it. In other words, it seems Aristotle is favoring the political or active life over the rest. As we observed earlier each kind of life is related to a particular good wealth, gratification, honor, and so on. In this respect the political life deals with the exercise of virtues at an individual level and at a societal level. Living well the political life is about helping others through service in the society and promoting justice between all members who live in that society. Although the political or active life, for Aristotle, allows people to reach excellence and perfection, this kind of life lacks reflection. In other words, the political life still is a way to obtain some degree of happiness. Aristotle suggest this when he connects the best action with reflection associating with a total happiness. This seems to contradict his previous assertions. However, what Aristotle is arguing is that the contemplative life and the political life both lead to happiness (but the degree of happiness varies). In this sense, the contemplative seems to be better because it includes the task of the philosopher of studying and reflecting about life affairs.
Regarding some concluding remarks, it is important to note that despite Aristotle’s openness to consider the benefits of the political or active life in a society, he still chose the contemplative life to be better by arguing this kind of life has the highest possible degree of happiness and self-sufficiency. While people can still pursuit other kinds of life such as one of wealth or gratification, Aristotle remains reluctant to present them as equal alternatives to the contemplative life. One should note, however, that the political life includes some inquiry and reflection, but not in the same degree as the contemplative life.
In this respect, the happy life for Aristotle can be found in a middle way between the honor/virtue life and the contemplative life. This, however, should not be understood as if Aristotle viewed the political or active life only in negative terms. In fact, he does not dismiss the active life at all. The happy life is at the end a life lived out in a community where people will have the opportunity to improve their virtues and act rationally (practical reason or common-sense). Therefore, from the practical reason, the active life which focuses on interrelationships with other people in a society and virtue cultivation constitutes a good life that leads some degree of happiness as well, yet it leaves some areas to improve. By giving the political or active life a second position after the contemplative life, Aristotle does not reject the idea that there are some goodness of the body and material affairs. Unlike Plato who view the body as the prison of the soul, Aristotle presents a more positive perspective, yet his proposal is hierarchical where the philosophers (contemplative people) had the highest status in society followed by politicians and public workers of the city (political/active people) and followed by women and slaves.
Overall, in Aristotle’s thought the body and its organs cooperate with the soul in order to produce knowledge. Although Aristotle connects the capacity to reason with his notion of happiness, this reason emerges from the cooperation between the soul and the body. Therefore, Aristotle sees the body as an integral element of the human nature that cooperates with the rational soul for each person can flourish in life and reach the ultimate goal of human existence: happiness.