Aristotle’s Views on Happiness, Virtue, and the Ideal Man

Happiness

Man is born for only one purpose — to be happy. But what is happiness? It is that pleasant state of mind which is brought about by the habitual doing of good deeds. But to be happy, it is not sufficient merely to be good. It is necessary also to be blessed with a sufficiency of goods—that is, good birth, good looks, good fortune and good friends. Above all, a long and healthy life is necessary for the attainment of happiness, “One swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day.” To make a perfect summer of our life we need many days, a sufficiency of sunlight and full measure of a song.

Yet even in a short life, and in the midst of misfortune, it is possible for the noble man to be happy. For the noble soul can cultivate an insensibility to pain, and this in itself is a blessing. In other words, we may sometimes attain happiness by renouncing it. Furthermore, no man can be called unhappy if he acts in accordance with virtue. For such a man, “will never do anything harmful or mean”. And happiness, as we have already observed, consists in the doing of good deeds. “But the only completely happy man is he who is active in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with wealth and health and friendship, not for some chance period, but throughout a complete life.”

Virtue

Happiness is the result of virtue, and ‘virtue’ is a wide term. To the Greeks this word did not mean, as it does to us, moral excellence alone. It meant any kind of excellence. Thus a Greek Casanova might have been called a virtuous lover because he was an efficient lover. A ruthless but competent General would in Athens have been regarded as a virtuous soldier. A virtuous person, in Aristotle’s philosophy, was a person who possessed physical powers,` technical competence and mental virtuosity. To these three qualities Aristotle now added a fourth requisite for happiness—moral nobility. In the Poetics, the word ‘Good’ is used in this sense. This all-round excellence, therefore, was needed for Aristotle’s, “happy warrior”, in the battlefield of life.

The happy man, the virtuous man, is he who preserves the golden mean between the two extremes. He is the man who steers the middle course between the shoals that threaten on either side to wreck his happiness. In every act, in every thought, in every emotion, a man may be overdoing his duty or underdoing it or doing it just right. Thus, in sharing his goods with other people, a man may be extravagant, which is overdoing it, or stingy, which is undergoing it, or liberal, which is doing it just right. In the matter of facing the dangers of life, a man may be rash or cowardly or brave. In the handling of his appetites, he may be gluttonous or abstemious or moderate. In every case, the rational way of life is to do nothing too much or too little but to adopt the middle course. The virtuous man will be neither supernormal nor subnormal, but justly and wisely normal. In The Rhetoric, he tells us that the virtuous man will act, at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive and in the right way.” In short, he will at all times and under all conditions observe the golden mean. For the golden mean is the royal road to happiness. This view is relevant to an understanding of Aristotle’s theory of “catharsis”.

The Ideal Man

Aristotle then goes on to describe the ideal man who is most worthy of being happy. This ideal man, the Aristotelian gentleman, “does not expose himself unnecessarily to danger, but is willing in great crises to give up his life, if necessary. He takes joy in doing favors to other men, but he feels shame in having favors done to him by other men. “For it is a mark of superiority to confer a kindness, but inferiority to receive it.” His unselfishness, however, is but a higher form of selfishness, an enlightened selfishness. The doing of a kind deed is not an act of self-sacrifice but of self-preservation. For a man is not an individual self but a social self. Moreover, every good deed is a profitable investment. It is bound, sooner or later, to be returned with interest. “The ideal man, therefore, is altruistic because he is wise He never feels malice and always forgets injuries — In short, he is a good friend to others, because he is his own best friend.”

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