Would Aristotle Approve of Our Happiness

Sabrina Miranda – Period 8

Modern American pop-culture has an obsession with happiness. What to do to be happy and how to stay happy are topics that are frequently discussed on the news, in books, songs, and social media. Phrases such as, “choose to be happy,” “do what makes you happy,” and “happiness is the biggest beauty secret” are all see on a daily basis, spread like propaganda over the news and social media sites. This view of happiness seems to be purely emotional, seeing happiness as just a feeling, and based around pleasure. This view of happiness is accepted amongst the people of today and not argued with; however, some philosophers might beg to differ. Like the people of modern day America, Aristotle and John Stuart Mill wanted to achieve happiness and wrote about achieving it. Although they both wrote a few similar ideas about happiness, their theories about happiness differed from each other and even differ with the modern American view of happiness.

The great philosopher Aristotle wrote about what it means to be happy and how to achieve this happiness. Aristotle would disagree with modern American views of happiness for several reasons. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that when people look at happiness, they “hold that to ‘live well’ or to ‘do well’ is the same as to be ‘happy’.” What Aristotle is saying is that happiness goes beyond materials and emotions. He disagrees with the idea that living and doing well can be seen as happiness and continues on in Nicomachean Ethics to give his definition of happiness. He even makes the point that people will change their idea of happiness depending on their situation. For example, if someone is poor, they see happiness as no longer being poor; however, if someone is moderately wealthy, their idea of happiness would be to be extremely wealthy. For Aristotle, happiness is an end that is reached, something that all people strive for and aim to achieve. To achieve happiness, a person must fulfill his or her function to the best of their ability. In describing what a human’s function is, Aristotle states that the function of man is what sets him apart from animals – the ability to rationalize and make decisions based on reason. Aristotle claims that living in accordance to reason will help a man fulfill his function and reach the end which is absolute happiness. Along with the rationalization, Aristotle also explains that every action is done in order to reach the greater good which leads to the end. In order to reach the greater good, the actions taken must be morally just, guided by virtues, and good.  To Aristotle, a man who wishes to reach the end of true happiness must use his morality and virtues to make rational decisions which will contribute to the greater good and eventually lead to the end, being happiness. Happiness comes after one acts with reason and virtues, unlike Mill who views happiness as mainly emotional. Aristotle gives us a very exact and concrete idea of happiness that will not change based just on a person’s situation. John Stuart Mill, a philosopher that came long after Aristotle also defined happiness, but in a different way.

John Stuart Mill writes about happiness from a Utilitarian standpoint in Utilitarianism. His definition of happiness is much simpler than Aristotle’s and explains happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain. Mill’s idea of happiness rests more on emotions than anything else.  Mill writes about happiness as the “ultimate end,” defined as pleasure and freedom from pain. He also states that “…the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded – namely, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.” His idea in the quote would be that the reason a person wants something is either for pleasure or to promote pleasure. He explains that there are different types and qualities of pleasure. The decisions someone makes are based on happiness and achieving it. Mill explains that all good things will lead to happiness and that happiness is a necessity for a good life. However, for Mill, “good things” focus more on things that will bring a person pleasure rather than things with moral backing. He looks at emotions and how they are vital to the human life. He explains that it is true that we are like pigs, except we have the ability to have feelings. Mill forms the idea that these emotions and feelings are what separate humans from animals. With this belief, it is easy to see why he would have the idea that happiness comes from a more emotional place, a place of pleasure.

There are a few main differences between Aristotle and Mill that can be pointed out. The first difference would be that Aristotle sees happiness as an end to fulfilling ones function while Mill sees it as pleasure and freedom from pain. The second difference would be that Aristotle focuses on living in accordance with reason and virtue. Although Mill mentions rationality, he does not mention morality and acting in a virtuous way.

After comparing Aristotle’s view of happiness to Mill’s, it seems that Modern America has more of a Utilitarian view of happiness in the sense that it focuses more on the emotional aspect than the lifestyle and reasonable decision aspect. The modern idea of happiness does not necessarily seem concerned with being virtuous and making rational decisions as Aristotle suggests. It seems like the modern happiness is more concerned with immediate pleasures and avoidance of pain to the point of being almost selfish. By looking at the differences, one can see why many people today fail to find happiness. They think that weighing less, getting the guy, and wearing designer clothes can make them happy. If people today used their reasoning to make decisions that were virtuous, they would have better luck finding happiness. If they used the idea that good things will lead to happiness, they could be more successful.

Although Aristotle and John Stuart Mill differ in their views of happiness, there are a few things that they do agree on. Both Aristotle and Mill would agree that in order to gain happiness, one must focus on the greater good. They also agree that people aim to achieve happiness, and this aim for happiness drives most of their decisions. Aristotle even states that “…happiness is the best thing in the world,” something that Mill would surely agree with. Both share the idea of a “good life.” In this idea of a good life, they include living as a human and both refer to being “distinctively human.” To be distinctively human would be to use reason and to think, making decisions and acting upon thoughts. Mill and Aristotle both share the idea that happiness is an end, something to be reached after other achievements. The most important point made by them is that happiness is not just given to someone; the person must do something to achieve their happiness, whether it is experiencing pleasure or making good and rational decisions.

Throughout the centuries, many people have strived to achieve happiness. People write books and songs about it, news stations talk about it, and philosophers share their ideas about it. Aristotle and John Stuart Mill illustrate their views of happiness and how to achieve them. Although they differ on a few points, the most important points seem to match up. Their differences in view could have to do with the vast differences in the times they were alive and the way that the culture around them was functioning at the time. People today could learn a lot about happiness from the philosophers of the past. 


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