Friday, January 13, 2012

Happiness: Is Virtue Sufficient

Our good friend Aristotle defines happiness (eudaimonia, the good life, or human flourishing) as "activity in accordance with virtue."  But is virtue sufficient for happiness?

Obviously, we can say, it is not.  In the first place, he considers virtue as the springboard of happiness.  If you want to have a good life, your actions must be done in accordance with virtue.  But virtue is the accumulation of habits and education, not to mention contemplation.  They are the necessary means by which we can build the necessary facility, the aptitude, skills, and attitude necessary to a good life.

Happiness is not just a man living a life of virtue in isolation; it requires what Aristotle calls self-sufficiency.  He means, by this, living not just in solitary virtuous splendor, but in a family, responsible for women, children and slaves, and the community of the city-state, "for man is born for citizenship."

And Aristotle tells us that happiness must extend over the whole of life.  It is not just a moment.  We cannot call a man happy if he has been buried, like Job, in unspeakable miseries and has lost everything: wife, children, camels, goats, and sheep.  But we do not wait to call a man happy until we are sure that his descendants will also be happy.

Aristotle seems determined to confuse us when he suddenly turns from his assertion that the practice of political science in legislation is the highest good.  in NE X 8 he ups and tells us that, "perfect happiness is a contemplative activity.  This seems a rather unworthy descent into special pleading for his own function and profession.  Do not plumbers think that the world begins and ends under the kitchen sink?  Do not economists tell us that the world would be a better place if politicians listened more to economists?  If the best life is a life of contemplation, where then is "activity in accordance with virtue?"  He is getting close to the east Asians who tell us that the best is Nirvana, the absence of all striving and acting.  In this case, of course, happiness as virtue collapses precisely into a trance of philosophy, and activity of life reduces to mere intellectual irritability.

Charles Taylor speaks of the best life in two dimensions: a basic human flourishing, of course, but also an attempt to reach for something higher, something transcendent.  Perhaps Aristotle, in his bios theoretikos, his life of contemplation, is making his own reach for transcendence, for "the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative."

In that case happiness is just virtuousness, dissolved into blissfulness.

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