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The Hierarchical View of Nature
In order to explain human happiness, Aristotle draws on a view of nature he derived from his biological investigations. If we look at nature, we notice that there are four different kinds of things that exist in the world, each one defined by a different purpose:
Mineral: rocks, metals and other lifeless things. The only goal which these things seek is to come to a rest. They are “beyond stupid” since they are inanimate objects with no soul
Vegetative: plants and other wildlife. Here we see a new kind of thing emerge,something which is alive. Because plants seek nourishment and growth, they have souls and can be even said to be satisfied when they attain these goals
Animal: all the creatures we study as belonging to the animal kingdom. Here we see a higher level of life emerge: animals seek pleasure and reproduction, and we can talk about a happy or sad dog, for example, to the extent that they are healthy and lead a pleasant life
Human: what is it that makes human beings different from the rest of the animal kingdom? Aristotle answers: Reason. Only humans are capable of acting according to principles, and in so doing taking responsibility for their choices. We can blame Johnny for stealing the candy since he knows it is wrong, but we wouldn’t blame an animal since it doesn’t know any better.
It seems that our unique function is to reason: by reasoning things out we attain our ends, solve our problems, and hence live a life that is qualitatively different in kind from plants or animals. The good for a human is different from the good for an animal because we have different capacities or potentialities. We have a rational capacity and the exercising of this capacity is thus the perfecting of our natures as human beings. For this reason, pleasure alone cannot constitute human happiness, for pleasure is what animals seek and human beings have higher capacities than animals. The goal is not to annihilate our physical urges, however, but rather to channel them in ways that are appropriate to our natures as rational animals.
Thus Aristotle gives us his definition of happiness:
The Pursuit of Happiness as the Exercise of Virtue
…the function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. (Nicomachean Ethics
In this last quote we can see another important feature of Aristotle’s theory: the link between the concepts of happiness and virtue. Aristotle tells us that the most important factor in the effort to achieve happiness is to have a good moral character — what he calls “complete virtue.” But being virtuous is not a passive state: one must act in accordance with virtue. Nor is it enough to have a few virtues; rather one must strive to possess all of them. As Aristotle writes,
He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life. (Nicomachean Ethics, 1101a10)According to Aristotle, happiness consists in achieving, through the course of a whole lifetime, all the goods — health, wealth, knowledge, friends, etc. — that lead to the perfection of human nature and to the enrichment of human life. This requires us to make choices, some of which may be very difficult. Often the lesser good promises immediate pleasure and is more tempting, while the greater good is painful and requires some sort of sacrifice. For example, it may be easier and more enjoyable to spend the night watching television, but you know that you will be better off if you spend it researching for your term paper. Developing a good character requires a strong effort of will to do the right thing, even in difficult situations.
Another example is the taking of drugs, which is becoming more and more of a problem in our society today. For a fairly small price, one can immediately take one’s mind off of one’s troubles and experience deep euphoria by popping an oxycontin pill or snorting some cocaine. Yet, inevitably, this short-term pleasure will lead to longer term pain. A few hours later you may feel miserable and so need to take the drug again, which leads to a never-ending spiral of need and relief. Addiction inevitably drains your funds and provides a burden to your friends and family. All of those virtues — generosity, temperance, friendship, courage, etc. — that make up the good life appear to be conspicuously absent in a life of drug use.
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