One thing that unites all humansâ€”despite culture or time periodâ€”is the desire to be happy. Since the beginning of Western philosophy, philosophers have been asking the question, â€œHow can I find happiness?â€
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asserts that all things have their own primary purpose, or end. He says that the good, or happiness, can be achieved by reaching that primary purpose. For example, an acornâ€™s primary purpose or end is to grow into an oak tree. An airplaneâ€™s primary purpose is to fly. And according to Aristotle, a humanâ€™s primary purpose is to develop reason and intellectâ€”and to develop this intellect to its fullest potential. If this can be done, he says that happiness will be found, and the individual will be living the good life. And yet, Aristotle says, the â€œcommon run of peopleâ€ (i.e., the Average Joe) look for happiness through pleasure, wealth, or honor. Consider the following passage from Nichomachean Ethics (Baird & Kaufmann, 2000):
Since all knowledge and every choice is directed toward some good, let us discuss what isâ€¦ the highest good attainable by action. As far as its name is concerned, most people would probably agree: for both the common run of people and cultivated men call it happiness, and understand by â€œbeing happyâ€ the same as â€œliving wellâ€ and â€œdoing well.â€ But when it comes to defining what happiness is, they disagree, and the account given by the common run differs from that of the philosophers. The former say it is some clear and obvious good, such as pleasure, wealth, or honor; some say it is one thing and other another, and often the very same person identifies it with different things at different times: when he is sick he thinks it is health, and when he is poor he says it is wealth: and when people are conscious of their own ignorance, they admire those who talk above their heads in access of greatness. Some thinkers used to believe that there exists over and above these many good another good, good in itself and by itself, which also is the cause of good in all these things. (1)
Take a moment to reflect on this passage, and then write 2â€“3 paragraphs in response to the following questions:
- What do you think of Aristotleâ€™s conclusion that the good life is a life of intellectual contemplation? Are there other ways of life that could bring happiness?
- Aristotle says that the common personâ€™s definition of happiness is different than the philosopherâ€™s. In what ways do you imagine it would be different, and why?
- Which branch of philosophy do you think this discussion of the good life, or happiness, would fall under? Please be sure to explain your reasoning.