Breaking Down Aristotle’s Teaching on Happiness

Sydney White – Mr. Aparicio – Afternoon Summer School – Honorbound

My goal in life is to attend a college in Washington or Oregon, minor in Spanish and major in some social science, get a job that sends me around the world, make a comfortable amount of money, and spend my days learning as much about the world around me as possible. Why? Because that’s what I believe will make me the happiest. This is the ideal that I strive for, the dream that I will work hard to achieve so that it may become true. But, where does this drive to pursue these dreams come from? Why is the ultimate goal happiness? Greek philosopher Aristotle offers much insight into why we all have this desire for happiness, and how we can achieve it.

To put it simply, Aristotle would say that “happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”[1] Okay, cool, but what does that really mean? What happiness is can be a certain thing to certain people, and how do you know when you’ve fully achieved this ‘happiness,’ if its’s even something that can be worked up to? Or is it a never-ending process of trying to be happy? Aristotle would in turn answer these questions with the question “What is the function of man?”[2] That may seem confusing at first, but to discover the function of something, just look at what is does. The function of humans is all the things that we can do: eat, build, love, create, think, just to name a few. With function in mind, Aristotle claims that therefore the happiness of man “would seem to lie in his function,”[3] or what can make humans truly happy is doing all the things they are able to do.

This doesn’t mean however, that literally anything we can do will make us happy. I could go kill my mom right now, but I am certain that will not make me happy (even if we don’t always see eye to eye). To understand what Aristotle means by our function, we need to look at something called the four levels of happiness. The first and must basic level of happiness is pleasure, and the material objects we can get pleasure from. And while it feels good, it’s short-lived and requires no reflection. The second level is happiness derived from personal achievement. You like it when you accomplish a goal, or when people praise you. The third level is doing good for others, and the fourth and final level is ultimate happiness, which many people seek through things like religion, science, and philosophy. The fourth level stems from people’s desire for transcendence, and connection with the universe.

All together, these four levels make up the what human function is and what we’re capable of doing. We need to allow and push ourselves to experience and explore all the levels to achieve what Aristotle says is the ultimate happiness.


[1] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book I: Chapter 8

[2] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book I: Chapter 8

[3] ibid


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