The Pursuit of Happiness: What does Aristotle say?

The pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right in the American constitution. One thing I have learnt when working and interacting with very senior, wealthy and influential people throughout the world however, is that success does not necessarily bring happiness. One thing is absolutely certain, the poor do not have a monopoly on suffering. The successful can and do suffer, struggle, and fail to attain a real sense of happiness and well being in their lives.

We are, unfortunately, as a society, not helped by the guidance we get about happiness. Regrettably, happiness is not something we understand very well these days. It is regrettable because happiness is very important. We all understand that, no matter how successful you are, if you are not at all happy, if you are miserable, there is, at the very least, something important you have not gotten right in your life.

This plays out in our work lives. Too many of us experience our work lives as alienating, draining and overwhelming. Work increases our wealth but makes us miserable. It makes us miserable because we are going to work for the wrong reasons. We are going to work for the wrong reasons because we do not really understand what happiness is and what we need to do to achieve it.

The pursuit of happiness and philosophy

Ironically, despite the vast array of technological developments we have amassed as a species; you could argue that we have gone backwards in our general understanding of the deeper truths of our own happiness. I, for one, have benefited greatly from seeking guidance from some of the great thinkers of history who devoted an appropriate amount of energy to the topic.

Historically, happiness was a very important concept. Philosophers devoted a lot time to understanding it. The classical Greek word used by many great thinkers to refer to happiness was the word “eudaimonia”. Eudaimonia is a compound word made up of the prefix eu, meaning something akin to “well” or “having abundance”, plus the noun daimon, the power that controls or governs one’s destiny.[1] The richness of this term lends itself to a rich diversity of interpretive descriptions. Eudaimonia can be described simply as having the things that are good; or more actively as having a life that is directed towards to the good; alternatively, as having a life that is optimally structured in relation to things that are good or are of value; or, a life that is actively maintained in a good condition by a governing power.

The modern pursuit of happiness

These descriptions of happiness are richer than the happiness we have in mind today. Happiness today can broadly be described as a matter of getting and having what you want.

Getting what you want has nothing to do with being a good person

But, if this is what happiness is, then it puts happiness at odds with being a good person. In part, this means that bad people can be happy. Theoretically, you could be a saint and get what you want; you could be a sinner and get what you want; or, you could even be entirely inert and get what you want, by the good graces of someone else. More to the point, there are times when someone getting what they want will mean, for them, being a bad person; or doing something that they themselves recognise is not right or appropriate. In these cases, happiness would actually require them to act inappropriately.

Getting what you want is not important

If this is what happiness is, it also makes happiness unimportant in a human life. At least, it is odd to think of this happiness as the highest possible achievement of a human life. There are surely at least some achievements that are more significant than getting what you want. After all, you might want something that is mundane or perverse. Also, and more significantly, you could get what you want despite your best efforts, not because of your best efforts. Which means to say that, very often, getting what you want is not your own achievement, it is someone else’s achievement.

Getting what you want does not make YOU better

Happiness in this sense is also not particularly helpful. It does not guide us towards becoming better in any significant way. This is an opportunity wasted because the pursuit of happiness in our lives is perhaps the most powerful motivator for a human being. Everyone wants what is good for them, people just disagree about what things are good; and some people unfortunately become very confused about what is good for them.

Happiness is not getting what you want, it is getting what is good

Rather than seeing happiness as getting what you want, Aristotle saw happiness as about getting what is good. This is a more fruitful perspective to take on happiness because it is better to try and understand what is really good, rather than trying to understand what people want. People want all sorts of things and, clearly, not everything that everyone wants is actually good.

Happiness, in an abstract sense, is about having what is good. This is why Aristotle told us that happiness is the highest good that a human being can achieve. For Aristotle, to be happy as a human being is to live the best life a human being can live.

Aristotle’s function argument

This begs the question then of what is truly good for a human being, what life is the best life? Aristotle has some interesting thoughts on this. He offers what is known as the function argument. He argues roughly the following (stick with me on this):

If you want to know what happiness is, then you need to understand the characteristic function (the Greek word for this is ergon) of a human being. As a general principle, Aristotle argues that the good of anything that has a characteristic function consists in fulfilling that function well. For example, a good life, or happiness, for a horse is a life spent doing “horsey things” in the best way.

For Aristotle, the characteristic function of a human being is “activities that accord with reason”. It is our reason, or more specifically, our rational activities, that really makes us what we are as human beings. This means then that a good life, or happiness, for a human being is a life that puts our reason to use in the best way; in other words, in accordance with the excellence appropriate to our rational activities.

As a general principle, a virtue is the excellence that is appropriate to a thing. Virtue for a horse is concerned with excellence in being a horse. Virtue for a human being is excellence in being human. Given the above, we see that virtue for a human being is excellence in rational activities. But happiness is also excellence in our rational activities. This means that happiness is a virtuous life.

The function argument and the pursuit of happiness

I love this argument because it throws up a really counter-intuitive but very interesting idea; if you want to be happy, then become virtuous. If you want to have a good life, then be a good person. The pursuit of happiness is a matter of becoming good.  This happiness, I mean real happiness, is not about getting what you want, it is more noble than that. It is about having a life that is good because you have allowed your unique human potential to flourish.

And I do believe, fundamentally, every human being wants to be good. No matter how far we go astray, there is always a part of us that calls us back to goodness; even if we can’t muster the courage to answer the call. We are just confused because we don’t realise that the call to goodness is also a call to happiness. We are too distracted by everything else we want.

Understanding human virtue

Now, if this is what the pursuit of happiness is, pursuing “excellence in rational activities”, then it is important to understand what this looks like. I find what my father, Etsko Schuitema, has to say about Transactional Correctness particularly helpful on this topic.

The first question is, what is human rationality? At first glance, I suppose, human reason is that in us that thinks things through. At a deeper level though, it is what we use to apprehend the world. Human apprehension of the world is structurally similar in all human beings. We all apprehend the world using our reason. This is what makes us rational. Human consciousness, attention, perception, and action are all expressions of our rationality. Some people are more exceptional in these activities than others because they have become more virtuous. But all human beings, insofar as they are rational, have the potentiality for virtue.

Broadly speaking, all rational activities are of two sorts. Firstly, there are inner activities concerned, broadly, with the way in which we see things and what we think about them. Our beliefs, intentions, perceptions, etc. are all part of this. Secondly, there are our actions in the world. Our actions are best seen as the outward manifestation of the rational activities going on inside us.

Transactional correctness

Virtue starts with the way you see the world. So, in the first instance, excellence in rational activity is about seeing things as they are. All virtue flows from this. This is also what it means to be wise. The wise person is able to see things as they are. This is why Socrates told us that wisdom is the unifier of all the virtues. All virtuous action can be seen as an enactment of wisdom because all virtuous action starts from the clarity of seeing things as they are.

Clearly, seeing things as they are enables us to give each situation its due. This is the truth of all virtuous action. All virtues of action are concerned with giving the situation its due. Courage, as a virtue, is about putting yourself on the line when it is appropriate (or required of you). Generosity, as a virtue, is about giving stuff away when it is appropriate. Both courage and generosity, and all other virtues of action, are premised upon, or rooted in, seeing things as they are. In other words, all virtues of action are rooted in wisdom.

So, to be good, and to do good in the world, you first have to see things as they are. All bad actions and wickedness are the product of a person failing to see things as they are. Out of this failure, well intentioned people cause untold harm trying to do good, simply because they don’t actually understand the situation they are dealing with.

Transactional correctness and the pursuit of happiness

Together, seeing things as they are (wisdom) and giving each situation its due (virtuous action) are the heart of transactional correctness. This is not the precise answer Aristotle gives, but it is very helpful to translate what he meant into our modern context. Human virtue is about being transactionally correct. It is firstly concerned with seeing things as they are, and secondly with giving the situation its due. This is what it means to achieve excellence in our rational activity as a human being. This is also, then, what it means to be happy and have a good life. If you want to be happy and have a good life, be transactionally correct.

There is a lot more to be said on why transactional correctness gives us the best life, but I have to leave that for another discussion. For now, if you want to read more on the topic, I recommend reading The Two Sandals.

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