On Happiness – A Blog Post Series, Maybe

3 minute read

This is a series on readings on happiness. This is the first post. An index of other posts is below.

I’m currently reading Happiness – Classic and Contemporary Readings in Philosophy which I picked up at the Dickson Used Bookstore in Fayetteville, AR a few weeks ago. I was looking for another book by Cahn that’s been on my Amazon wishlist for quite awhile but this was the only one they had in stock. This book is a collection of writings on searching for happiness. Whether this turns into an actual series of posts, only time will tell but a friend of mine asked for a TL,DR; on it so here we are.

The first reading in the book is from Plato’s The Republic. I read about half of it and decided to move on to Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics. In the past, I’ve found Plato difficult to read and the excerpt here is no different. Aristotle is more straightforward so let’s start small, shall we?

Aristotle’s main theme is that every art, action and inquiry is pointed at some good and that therefore, all things emanate from the good. This portion of The Ethics is looking at what that means, specifically in search for the chief good or the root. My notes here equate this to a graph with a root node, all leaf nodes pointing towards or leading to the chief good. In the 19 page excerpt here, Aristotle comes to the conclusion that reason and a contemplative life focused on truth is the chief good, that the life of philosopher is the ideal focus and that this derives from the gods who, being immortal and without need for bravery, justice or liberality (other goods that humans might partake in), must practice the contemplation of truth as part of what it means to be a god. The contemplative life of man, requiring no actions, must then be as close to divinity as we can be.

The other goods Aristotle mentions are actions, specifically those of bravery or justice or liberality. These are derivative goods that do lead to happiness but not the root happiness. When given a choice of action, we should choose actions that are of these types when possible.

…if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul exhibiting excellence, and if there are more than one excellence, in accordance with the best and most complete. But we must add “in a complete life.” For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy. Book I

The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement. Book X

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle believed that the happy life was a life of exertion, not physical exertion necessarily but exertion of temperance, of choosing reason over amusement. The easy life is defined by easy choices, those closer to our animal desires. I was struck by how much of modern life is the latter, how easy it is to reach for easy amusements today and how much discipline is needed to choose reason instead. Western civilization is based on consumerism and fluff. Is it any wonder we live in an age of anxiety and depression? Happiness according to Aristotle is about the long term and the collection of choices we make aimed at reason and the contemplation of truth.

This idea leads to the derivative idea that mastery is a characteristic of happiness, that we as humans can achieve happiness only through the evolution of our abilities even in our amusements and hobbies. Happiness does not come from consumption because to consume is always the easy choice avoiding exertion. Only production (very generally speaking, not in a specific way of producing things in our work or hobbies) leads to mastery and therefore happiness. Achievements that happen from exertion are always more rewarding and therefore supporters of happiness.

Overall, Aristotle is a good place to start this study. I’ll probably return to Plato at this point because my favorite contemporary philosopher, Iris Murdoch, built a theory of ethics based on Platonism aimed primarily at Simone Weil’s “concept of “attention” to reality, including both other people and a transcendent Good.”