Every single individual has surely wanted to obtain full happiness at some point in time. But what exactly is true happiness? Thousands of people have answered that question however no definitions are exactly the same. Individuals, even intellectual philosophers, have different opinions when it comes to defining happiness. Two philosophers in particular who explored the topic of true happiness were Aristotle and John Start Mill. They shared a common idea that consisted of human beings living the good life by participating in activities that are uniquely human. Nonetheless, while the ideas of the two philosophers do have similarities, they also have differences. The Aristotelian view is that happiness is an activity that comes from virtue while John Stuart Mill’s view in Utilitarianism expresses that pleasure and freedom from pain are what make up an individual’s happiness.
According to the majority of individuals who inhabit this planet, happiness is a feeling that can be immediately achieved by simply doing things they enjoy even if they are not virtuous. Some people who are involved in sin and do things that are not in accordance with the law believe that they are happy when in actuality they are the opposite. These people are not living how they were intended to, and are living divergent to their own nature. This directs these individuals to not be able to fulfill their capacities. In Aristotle’s, The Nicomachean Ethics, he states that the highest human good is happiness, and that happiness is “something final and self-sufficient”. While Aristotle does agree that a life of happiness is one that is pleasant, he would not agree that this feelings of are true happiness because they are short-lived and are by no means in accordance with good worth. Everyone strives to be happy but this happiness is either ephemeral or something much deeper. As previously stated, Aristotle had the belief that human beings live the good life by partaking in activities that are distinctively human and using reason and live in accordance with motive and virtue. Virtue is righteous to the extent that anything that we do helps us reach the end to live in accordance with virtue. Aristotle says that virtue is the habit of choosing the mean. The function of man is to use the abilities that we have that are unique from plants and animals and to live life in contemplation. This is how we accomplish our final end, and that final end is happiness. With that being said, he believed that every single activity is done with a means to achieve a higher end. Happiness is desired for itself and not for anything else. The whole Aristotelian view on happiness revolves around virtues because we are not commended or blamed for the way we feel but for the way we are virtuous. Aristotle goes on to finish The Nicomachean Ethics with the statement that happiness is a way of life and must be done in accord with virtue.
Aristotle also discusses happiness in another one of his works titled The Politics. This work revolves around how man is “a political animal”, and how the state must aim at achieving the highest good (which was discussed in the previous paragraph). The purpose of the state is to work for the people and the standard is always going to be what will lead people to live in accordance with their function. The state allows the citizens to be happy and that is what is important. The state is natural because we are not self-sufficient and we are not able to fulfill nature unless we have the state. As citizens, we also have the responsibility to have an active role in the state and this is also how the good life will be attained. Nature of a human is when they use their fullest potential, and that could not be done without the state because everyone would be too focused on the bare necessities of life. With that being said we would not be able to achieve true happiness without the state. We are the type of living being that cannot reach our full potential without a polis or state. The state should benefit everyone in the entire community and not just the ones who have leadership positions. A government that is virtuous is one that is not self-centered or greedy because their main focus is on the happiness of the citizens. Aristotle also states that true riches represent a life of contemplation and happiness, and not a life filled with money or material belongings. Material things are not what lead to happiness, they are necessary but are merely just there to help individuals fulfill their function.
John Stuart Mill’s stance on happiness in Utilitarianism on the other hand is quite different from Aristotle’s stance in his two previous works mentioned. Mill defined happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain. Pleasure, according to Mill, is what will lead to happiness. Mill writes in his work that “ the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good r that of other people), is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality.” However, not all pleasures have equal value in his eyes; higher pleasures of the mind are better than lower pleasures of the body. He expressed that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” He believed the idea that the correct action is the one that gives the greatest number of people the greatest amount of good. This seems like a highly debatable statement because everyone has different things that make them happy. He is inferring that individuals can basically do whatever they want as long as it leads to a positive result for everyone as a whole. He also states that individuals never desire anything other than happiness, because everything desired is either a means to happiness or is included in the definition of happiness.
After analyzing the works of these two insightful philosophers, I have clearly seen the differences among them. Both of these men clearly believe that the ultimate purpose in a human’s life is to achieve happiness, but their ideas differentiate on how to reach this state of happiness. To reiterate what was said before, Aristotle defines happiness in the first book of The Nicomachean Ethics as “virtuous activity in accordance with reason” and that this is the highest good for human beings. He thinks that happiness can be interpreted into a “human life that is flourishing” because it occurs throughout a person’s entire life. This lifelong happiness is complete and sufficient in itself, meaning that a person lives for the end in itself and not for anything else past it. John Stuart Mill on the other hand believes utilitarianism which is defined as an ethical principle in which the happiness of the greatest number of people in the society is considered the greatest good. I feel like neither of these philosophers views on happiness would necessarily work in our day and age. While Aristotle’s view of happiness is tremendously appealing, a world in which all individuals are virtuous and living according to reason is not currently possible in our society today. Mill’s idea of happiness would also never technically work because a society where individuals can do whatever they please in order to obtain happiness would not always have a positive outcome. Just because an action might lead to the greatest good for the greatest amount of people, it does not mean that the action is correct and will lead to happiness. Like I stated before, happiness is different when it comes to different people and I think it is hard to come up with a definition of that satisfies a population as a whole.
“Notes on Aristotle.” Notes on Aristotle. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 May 2013.