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A Brief Look at Happiness

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A Brief Look at Happiness
If nothing else, one thing can be said about happiness: If individuals are happy and they know they are happy, they should clap their hands. While the intent of this simple statement is merely to amuse children, developing true happiness is thought by many to be very difficult. Also, happiness is often falsely recognized and misinterpreted. Therefore, being truly happy and knowing you are truly happy are very loaded concepts. The object of this paper is to analyze and compare the thoughts of three philosophers’ whose remarks on happiness have been most influential for centuries after their time. They are Aristotle, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas. Although I do not have the perfect understanding of happiness and believe no one does, I believe that each of their approaches to happiness hold a common theme that must be inconsistent with true happiness. They base happiness ultimately on self fulfillment.
One of the earliest to ask the question ‘what is happiness?’ was Aristotle, who, in a manner typical of philosophers, before providing an answer insisted on making a distinction between two different questions. His first question was what was meant by the word ‘happiness’—or rather, its ancient Greek equivalent eudaimonia. His second question was where happiness was to be found, that is to say, what is it that makes us truly happy? Reasonably enough he thought that it was futile to try to answer the second question without having given thought to the first.
The definition that he offers is that happiness is the supreme good that supplies the purpose, and measures the value, of all human activity and striving. “[E]verything else that any of us do” he wrote ”we do for its sake” (Nicomechean Ethics 27). This seems a very sweeping statement: surely it is implausible to suggest that every human action is explicitly aimed at some single goal. Indeed, the suggestion is inconsistent with things that Aristotle says elsewhere. He does not seem to wish to rule out the possibility of impulsive actions done for fun without any reference to one’s long-term happiness. I think what he means rather is that if you plan your life—and any sensible person, he thinks, ought to have a plan of life, at least in the form of a set of priorities—your top priority, your overarching goal, will show what you take to be a worthwhile life, and thus what you mean by ‘happiness’. Indeed, in the light of what Aristotle says, we might offer ‘worthwhile life’ as the most appropriate translation of his word ‘eudaimonia’. But we will continue to use the traditional translation ‘happiness’, where necessary qualifying it as ‘Aristotelian happiness’.
Aristotle was well aware that human beings may have the most varied and bizarre notions of what make them happy. But whatever they present as their ultimate ambition, it must, he thinks, as a matter of logic, pass certain tests if it is genuinely to count as happiness. For there are two features, he maintains, that are built into the very notion of happiness. One is that it must be an end rather than a means. We may do other things for the sake of happiness, but we cannot be happy as a means to some other goal. You may find, perhaps, that being cheerful helps you make money, and for that reason you resolutely adopt a cheerful frame of mind. But that just shows, Aristotle would say, that cheerfulness is something different from happiness, and if your ultimate aim is to make money for its own sake, what that indicates is that you believe (wrongly) that happiness is to be found in riches. Happiness, he insists, is always sought for its own sake and never for the sake of anything else.
The second built-in feature of happiness is that it must be self-sufficient: that is, it must be some good, or set of goods, that in itself makes life worth living. One’s life cannot be truly happy if there is something missing that is an essential ingredient of a worthwhile existence. Moreover, a happy life should, so far as human nature allows, be invulnerable to bad luck; otherwise, the constant fear of losing one’s happiness will diminish that happiness itself. So happiness, Aristotle concludes, must have the properties of independence and stability.
On the basis of these definitional features of the concept of happiness, Aristotle was in a position to move on to his second question: in what does happiness consist? What sort of life is actually the most worthwhile? Some things can be ruled out from the start. There are some occurrences in life, e.g. sickness and pain, which make people want to give up life; clearly these are not what make life worth living. There are the joys and adventures of childhood; these cannot be the most choice worthy things in life since no one in his right mind would choose to be a child once more. In adult life there are things that we do only as means to an end; we go to war, for instance, in order to bring peace. Clearly these cannot, in themselves, be what make life worth living (Eudemian Ethics). If life is to be worth living it must surely be for something that is an end in itself. One such end is pleasure. The pleasures of food and drink and sex Aristotle regards as, on their own, too brutish to be a fitting end for human life. If we combine them with aesthetic and intellectual pleasures then we find a goal that has been seriously pursued by people of significance. Others prefer a life of virtuous public action—the life of a real politician, not like the false politicians, who are only after money or power. Thirdly, there is the life of scientific contemplation, as exemplified by the Athenian philosopher Anaxagoras, who when asked why one should choose to be born rather than not replied “In order to admire the heavens and the order of the universe”.
Having weeded out a number of other candidate lives, Aristotle settled for a short list of three: a life of pleasure, a life of politics, and a life of study. The pursuit of wealth was ruled out briskly at the start of the inquiry. Money is only as good as what it can buy. It is how someone spends his money that shows us where he really thinks happiness lies. Does he spend it on luxury, for instance, or does he use it to gain political power, or give it to those less well off?
What was Aristotle’s own choice between the three types of life on his short list? It is hard to say; Aristotle wrote more than one treatise on happiness, and he gave different accounts in different treatises. But in all of them, we are offered a definition of happiness as activity in accordance with virtue, that is to say, doing well what is worth doing and what we are good at. Aristotle’s definition derives from a consideration of the function or characteristic activity (ergon) of human beings. Man must have a function, the Nicomachean Ethics argues, because particular types of men (e.g. sculptors) have a function, and parts and organs of human beings do likewise. What is this function? Not growth and nourishment, for this is shared by plants, nor the life of the senses, for this is shared by animals. It must be a life of reason concerned with action. So, human good will is good human functioning, namely, activity of soul in the exercise of virtue (Nicomachean Ethics 16).
So much is common to all of Aristotle’s ethical treatises. Where they differ is in determining which are the particular virtues whose exercise constitutes happiness. For, as Aristotle explains, there are many different kinds of virtue or excellence; there are the moral virtues displayed in the active life, such as courage and temperance, and there are the intellectual excellences, such as wisdom and understanding that are exercised in a life of scientific inquiry. In the most well known of his moral treatises, the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identified happiness as the enjoyment of philosophical study. The life of the philosopher provided the best fit, he argued, to the definitional features of happiness. On the one hand, it was the most independent and the most stable. To philosophise you need only the bare necessities of life: you do not need a vast staff or expensive equipment. Riches may be stolen, political allies may desert you, and age and sickness may take away your appetite for pleasure. But as long as you live, nothing and no one can take away the enlightenment you achieve by philosophising. On the other hand, philosophy is always an end, and not a means. It cannot be pursued for the sake of some superior goal, since it is totally useless for any other purpose.
Aristotle’s identification of happiness with the pursuit of philosophy strikes some people as engaging, and others as irritating. Few, however, have found it totally credible. Perhaps Aristotle did not do so himself, because in his lesser known but more professional treatise, the Eudemian Ethics, he claims that the happy life must combine the features of all three of the traditional candidates on his short list. The happy person must not be a purely contemplative philosopher, but must possess and exercise the practical virtues that are necessary for the pursuit of worthwhile ambitions. Someone who is really virtuous will find virtuous actions in pursuit of noble goals a pleasure and not a burden. It is wrong to think that the only pleasures are those of the senses, but these too have a role in the happy life when enjoyed in accordance with the virtue of temperance—a virtue which is violated not only by an excess of sensual pleasure but also by a lack of sensual pleasure (Eudemian Ethics).
Aristotle believed this ideal life, which assigns a role to philosophy, to the practical virtues, and to pleasure, could claim to combine the features of the traditional three lives, the life of the philosopher, the life of the politician, and the life of the pleasure-seeker. The happy man will value contemplation above all, but part of his happy life will be the exercise of political virtues and the enjoyment in moderation of natural human pleasures. What view a philosopher takes on the nature of happiness makes a great difference to whether he thinks it easy or difficult to achieve, Aristotle, having defined happiness to his own satisfaction had gone on to ask the question: How is it acquired? He offered a number of candidate answers, derived from the reflections of previous philosophers. Does it come about, he asked, by nature, by training, by learning, by luck, or by divine favor? (Eudemian Ethics) In the course of his treatise he tried to show that each of these elements has a part in the acquisition of happiness. There is no need to follow how he spells this out; because the importance of his list is that each item on it has been seized upon by some later thinker as crucial. Some have claimed that happiness is in our genes, others have written how-to manuals setting out regimes to be followed for its acquisition. Some have believed that there is a secret science whose mastery will bring happiness. Others have thought that happiness is owed above all to a fortunate environment. Finally, for many centuries the dominant account was that supreme happiness was a gift of God, obtainable only through divine grace.
The foremost exponent of this last view was St Augustine. Like everyone in the ancient world, Augustine starts from the premise that everyone wants to be happy, and accepts that it is the task of philosophy to define what this supreme good is and how it is to be achieved. If you ask two people whether they want to join the army, Augustine says in the Confessions, one may say yes and the other no. But if you ask them whether they want to be happy, they will both say yes without any hesitation. The only reason they differ about serving in the army is that one believes, while the other does not, that that will make him happy (Confessions 228).
In another work, Augustine tells the story of a stage player who promised to tell his audience, at his next appearance, what was in each of their minds. When they returned, he told them ‘Each of you wants to buy cheap and sell dear’. This was smart, Augustine says, but not really correct—and he gives a list of possible counterexamples. But if the actor had said ‘Each of you wants to be happy, and none of you wants to be miserable’ then he would have hit the mark perfectly (The Trinity 233).
Again like Aristotle, Augustine defines happiness as the supreme good. This is the good which provides the standard for all our actions; it is sought for its own sake, not as a means to an end, and once we attain it we lack nothing that is necessary for happiness (City of God 310). Then Augustine goes on to take a step beyond Aristotle and all his pagan predecessors. He claims that happiness is truly possible only in an afterlife, in the vision of God.
First, he argues that anyone who wants to be happy must want to be immortal. How can we hold that a happy life is to come to an end at death? If a man is unwilling to lose his life, how can he be happy with this prospect before him? On the other hand, if his life is something he is willing to part with, how can it have been truly happy? But if immortality is necessary for happiness, it is not sufficient. Pagan philosophers who have claimed to prove that the soul is immortal have also held out the prospect of a miserable cycle of reincarnation. Only the Christian faith promises everlasting happiness for the entire human being, soul and body alike (Augustine, 1963, 13, 8, 11–9, 12).
The supreme good of the City of God is eternal and perfect peace, not our mortal transit from birth to death, but in our immortal freedom from all adversity. This is the happiest life—who can deny it?—and in comparison with it our life on earth, however blessed with external prosperity or goods of soul and body, is utterly miserable. None the less, whoever accepts it and makes use of it as a means to that other life that he longs for and hopes for, may not unreasonably be called happy even now—happy in hope rather than in reality (City of God 881).
Virtue in the present life, Augustine says, is not equivalent to happiness: it is merely a necessary means to an end that is ultimately other-worldly. Moreover, however hard we try, we are unable to avoid vice without grace, which is to say without special divine assistance that is given only to those selected for salvation through Christ. The virtues of the great heroes of Roman history were really only splendid vices. They received their reward in Rome’s imperial glory, but did not qualify for the one true happiness of heaven.
The treatment of happiness by Thomas Aquinas, like his treatment of many topics, combines elements from Aristotle and Augustine. He agrees with both of them that everyone necessarily desires happiness, and he agrees with Augustine that happiness is truly to be found only in the beatific vision of God after death. But he raises a different question with a new urgency. How can the necessary desire for happiness, he asks, be reconciled with that freedom of the will that is an essential attribute of human beings? If I cannot help but desire happiness, and if happiness is only to be found in God, how can I ever turn away from God and commit sin? He gives his answer:
There are some particular goods that have no connection with happiness because a human being can be happy without them; nothing necessitates the will to want these. There are other things which do have a necessary connection with happiness, the things that unite men to God in whom alone true happiness is to be found. But until the necessity of this link is established by a vision of God, the will is not necessitated either to want God or the things of God (Aquinas).
Aquinas’ attempt to reconcile a belief in freedom with the locution that humans cannot help but pursue happiness, though neat and clear, is not really satisfactory. On the one hand, the mere fact that a particular good is not necessarily connected with happiness is not sufficient to establish my freedom not to choose it. If I am a chain-smoker who gets through 200 cigarettes a day, am I free at any moment to stop smoking? To establish that I am, something more is needed than the observation that human beings can be happy without smoking. On the other hand, there seems to be something wrong with the fundamental premise that Aquinas shares with both Aristotle and Augustine, namely, that one cannot help but pursue whatever one regards as necessary for one’s happiness. A wife may be convinced that she will never be happy unless she leaves her husband, and yet stay with him for the sake of the children.
This example brings out the fundamental weakness of the eudaimonism that is common to the ethical systems of all the thinkers we have considered: namely, that they place morality on a basis that is ultimately self-centered. Compared with this feature common to both the pagan and the Christian forms of eudaimonism, it is less important whether the ultimate satisfaction that is held out is envisaged as being realized in this world or in the next. To be sure, Aristotle admitted that a happy man would need friends, and that even a philosopher could philosophize better in company. Again, Augustine and Aquinas taught that we must love our neighbor, as we are commanded to do by the God whose vision we seek. But in each case the concern for the welfare of others is presented as a means to an ultimate goal of self fulfillment.
What must be added to any concept of happiness are interpersonal relationships of love. Joseph Smith Jr. once said, “[God] never will institute an ordinance or give a commandment to His people that is not calculated in its nature to promote that happiness which He has designed...” (History of the Church, 5:135). Some of the most important commandments God has given are the commandments to marry, create families, and teach his commandments to them. These commandments are central to God’s overall plan and what brings true happiness into individuals’ lives is the continued fulfillment of that plan, which is rightly named The Plan of Happiness.

Works Cited
Aquinas, Thomas. Aquinas: Selected Philosophical Writings. Translated by Timothy Mcdermott. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993
Aristotle. The Politics. Harmondsworth: penguin Books, 1962
--. Eudemian Ethics: Books 1, 2 and 8. Translated by Michael Woods. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992
--. The Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by J. A K. Thomson. London: Penguin Books, 2004
Augustine, St. The Trinity. Translated by Stephen McKenna. Boston: The Daughters of St. Paul, 1965
--. The City of God Translated by Henry Bettenson. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972
--. The Confessions. Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. London: Penguin Books, 1961
Smith, Joseph. History of the Church. Vol. 5, 135. Shadow Mountain, 1991…...

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