The Pursuit of Happiness; a Greek View Versus an English

Nina L. P-3

In many societies, the pursuit of happiness can be seen in many different fashions and forms. Over the centuries, many views have arisen due to this universal quest of attaining this thing that is so called happiness. Even as children, we all seek what makes us most happy in life and brings us the maximum pleasure. We ask for toys to bring us immediate happiness as children, and then as adults, seeking that significant other which makes us happy and will continue to do so. No child or parent of the child allows for actions or objects that bring about unhappiness or a detrimental end. Though there are many opposing views to the actual definition of the word happiness, Greek author Aristotle, who writes Nicomachean Ethics to illustrate his view, and John Stuart Mill, 17th century British author of Utilitarianism, both have coinciding points on the definition and each possess similar views that give one an overall idea of how to attain this desirable feeling we call happiness.
When studying Aristotle’s point of view on the matter, he writes about an absolute good that is the cause of all happiness but for man to know what exactly a common good is, he must possess a good moral training. Without a moral training, Aristotle declares, “the masses who are the least refined suppose it to be a pleasure, which is the reason why they aim at nothing higher than the life of enjoyment,” because there are three kinds of life; a life of slavish, statesman, and a contemplative life (Nicomachean Ethics). The slavish life only brings man superficial happiness, but the latter bring a deeper meaning of happiness because they give man the satisfaction of either a life of honor, or a life of virtue and excellence.
Looking at the other perception that describes happiness, John Stuart Mills describes happiness as, “pleasure and the absence of pain; and unhappiness as pain and being deprived of pleasure,” (Utilitarianism). He further states the Greatest Happiness Principle as actions which promote happiness are right, and those who produce unhappiness as wrong, this notion though on the right track is proven in most cases but also possess a flawed principle. How then can we categorize actions that produce immediate pain but prolonged pleasure? Or on the other hand as small pleasures that create prolonged pain? These two questions need to be taken into account when encountering per say, an athlete’s preparation for a positive performance. During the course of training, many struggles arise such as a lack of sleep or pain caused by large amounts of physical exertion. Though causing immediate suffering, after a prolonged period of preparation, positive results come out of the pain as championships are won, awards are rewarded, and big recognition is given to those who persevere. In a similar view, when Mills states that pleasure only exists in intermittent phases such as hours or days, but not prolonged he is right, it is proven in the question that begs ‘How do small pleasures that create prolonged pain set in?’ This can be witnessed when during a marriage; a man seeks pleasure outside of his promise. Though that pleasure brings about small amounts of happiness, it creates a monumental problem and unhappiness when his wife and family are made aware of this infidelity. That is a clear example of when a small pleasure that outweighs the odds is not favorable.
Though these similarities arise between the two authors, they also contradict each other in certain aspects when describing human life and potential. On one hand, we have Mill who explicitly says that, “Men lose their high aspirations and intellectual tastes because they don’t have time for indulging in them and addicting themselves to inferior pleasures because they are the only ones to which have access or the only ones capable of enjoying,” (Utilitarianism). Though in some cases such as drug addiction and other degrading activities that only maximize a detrimental pleasure Mill’s opinion is proven, his idea is flawed due to the generalization he creates. With this notion, Mills is assuming completely that men, as they get older, degrade themselves in their tastes and pursuits of happiness. Though in some cases true, many men overcome their childish and undeveloped notions of happiness and give them up for pleasures that challenge their minds and satisfy the mind’s pleasures. Another specification that is not made by Mill is that he does not specify exactly what kinds of men addict themselves to inferior pleasures; education, non educated etc. Educated men have contradicted his idea throughout the ages with clear examples of men bettering themselves and becoming wiser with age, not degrading themselves to the lowest point of happiness and seeking bodily pleasures.
Aristotle on the other hand, states that over time, man redefines many opinions and becomes wiser after experiences of certain affairs. The educated individual “can form a judgment about what he knows and is called a ‘good judge’ of that—of any special matter when he has received a special education [and]…when he has received a universal education… Men of this character turn the knowledge they get to no account in practice, as we see with those we call incontinent; but those who direct their desires and actions by reason will gain much profit from the knowledge of these matters,” (Nicomachean Ethics). This fact is usually proven over the course of time due to the learning processes that most people go through. Many mistakes are exhibited during the course of a person’s lifetime, but most learn from those mistakes that caused pain, and overcome them. With this learning process comes a wiser person who can pass on their learning experiences to others.
The two author’s stances on happiness also lead into a path of politics. Aristotle touches on the subject of politics briefly at first when stating that a “student of Politics…lacks experience in the affairs of life,” and later leads into talking about man as a ‘political animal’ and that the political virtue of a man is to exist for the sake of noble actions which then contribute to the good of society as a whole. The good of society is then connected back to the happiness and the greater good of all and that is to live life in accordance with reason. John Stuart Mill also touches on this aspect and the same role that those individuals play in society and in their government. He states that though a small number of people may suffer the greater good looks for that which contributes to the happiness of the greater number of people, although it may sacrifice the happiness of a small number. This ties back to Aristotle’s view of how those who serve the government and the ‘polis’ do it for the good of others and not necessarily for that happiness attained for themselves.
In today’s society, there will be people who coincide with either author’s theories on how to achieve the maximum happiness possible. On one side we have the Aristotelian view which declares that to achieve the maximum happiness, one’s need to live life in accordance with reason and to achieve their maximum potential as human beings. Though all men have their immediate tasks and functions, the final end which takes place above all else is happiness. On the other we have the Utilitarian view which seeks to maximize the most pleasure attainable which promotes happiness and that the freedom from pain is the only desirable thing. And when the two desirable things are attained, the one with the greatest quantity and quality is always chosen so that it promotes pleasure as a prevention of pain. Though the two men differ in small aspects of the attainment of happiness, both coincide that happiness is determined by either maximizing utility or the final end.


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