Aristotle, who lived in the fourth century B.C., was the first philosopher to study ethics as a distinct field. For Aristotle, ethics is about discovering the highest good for an individual and a community, and that requires, first, an understanding of the end toward which all human beings ultimately strive. In the driving argument for the whole of his ethical treatise, Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that the highest good is happiness, and that happiness is achieved when people fulfill their rational soul’s function of living virtuously.
Aristotle argues that the best and highest good is happiness. He starts by arguing that every action “seems to seek some good,” and that the best good is the one sought for its own sake, not for the sake of something else. If we know what this highest good is, then we’re able to determine the best way of life; armed with this knowledge, we’re more likely, “like archers who have a target to aim at, to hit the right mark.” More than anything else, “happiness […] seems complete without qualification. For we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else.” For example, we appear to choose things like honor, pleasure, and understanding for themselves, but ultimately we choose them because we believe they will make us happy.
In order to better understand why happiness is the best and highest good, Aristotle says, we need to understand what the function of a human being is. Aristotle argues that “the human function is activity of the soul in accord with reason.” He first argues that human function has to be something more than what’s found in plants (with whom we share the function of growth) or animals (with whom we share sense perception); what differentiates us from these life forms is the part of our soul that has reason, and not merely the capacity for reason, but the activity of reason. Therefore, the human function is the “activity and actions of the soul that involve reason,” and the function of the excellent person is to live that life of reason “well and finely.” Fulfilling that function well means that it’s “completed in accord with [its] virtue.” So the highest human good—the fulfillment of human function—is “activity of the soul in accord with virtue, and indeed with the best and most complete virtue.” Happiness is found by living virtuously.
So how is the fulfillment of human function—the achievement of happiness—possible? It is necessary to study virtue, Aristotle claims—what it is and how to attain it. Aristotle identifies two types of virtue—virtues of thought, which are associated with the rational part of the soul, and virtues of character, which are associated with the cooperation of the nonrational parts of the soul with reason.
Virtues of thought “[arise] […] mostly from teaching,” and virtues of character from habit. Neither type of virtue arises naturally, but we have the natural capacity to acquire them and complete them through habit. “For we learn a craft by producing the same product that we must produce when we have learned it; we become builders, for instance, by building, and we become harpists by playing the harp. Similarly, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.” So “a state [of character] results from [the repetition of] similar activities.” Aristotle calls this “repetition of similar activities” habituation. Just as someone becomes strong through nutrition and training, and “it is the strong person who is most capable of these very actions,” so also abstinence from pleasures makes one temperate, and the temperate person is, in turn, capable of abstaining. For another example, with regard to bravery, “habituation in disdain for frightening situations and in standing firm against them makes us become brave, and once we have become brave we shall be most capable of standing firm.” So for Aristotle, human happiness is achieved when humans fulfill their function of the virtuous activity of the soul, which is achieved to some extent through study, but especially through a concerted effort to form virtuous habits.
The remainder of Nicomachean Ethics is concerned with filling out Aristotle’s account of the virtues—what they are, how they are practiced, and how they enable individuals and communities to live well. But Aristotle repeatedly comes back to the foundational question of happiness and understanding happiness in terms of how human beings are supposed to function. According to his account, ethics is a profoundly practical discipline, not meant to theorize about abstract happiness, but to equip people to achieve happiness here and now.
The Nature and Pursuit of Happiness ThemeTracker
The Nature and Pursuit of Happiness Quotes in Nicomachean Ethics
Suppose, then, that the things achievable by action have some end that we wish for because of itself, and because of which we wish for the other things, and that we do not choose everything because of something else—for if we do, it will go on without limit, so that desire will prove to be empty and futile. Clearly, this end will be the good, that is to say, the best good.
Then does knowledge of this good carry great weight for [our] way of life, and would it make us better able, like archers who have a target to aim at, to hit the right mark? If so, we should try to grasp, in outline at any rate, what the good is, and which is its proper science or capacity.
And so, since this is our subject and these are our premises, we shall be satisfied to indicate the truth roughly and in outline; since our subject and our premises are things that hold good usually, we shall be satisfied to draw conclusions of the same sort. Each of our claims, then, ought to be accepted in the same way. For the educated person seeks exactness in each area to the extent that the nature of the subject allows; for apparently it is just as mistaken to demand demonstrations from a rhetorician as to accept [merely] persuasive arguments from a mathematician. Further, each person judges rightly what he knows, and is a good judge about that; hence the good judge in a given area is the person educated in that area, and the unqualifiedly good judge is the person educated in every area. This is why a youth is not a suitable student of political science; for he lacks experience of the actions in life, which are the subject and premises of our arguments.
Presumably, though, we had better examine the universal good, and puzzle out what is meant in speaking of it. This sort of inquiry is, to be sure, unwelcome to us, because those who introduced the Forms were friends of ours; still, it presumably seems better, indeed only right, to destroy even what is close to us if that is the way to preserve truth. We must especially do this as philosophers, for though we love both the truth and our friends, reverence is due to the truth first.
The remaining possibility, then, is some sort of life of action of the [part of the soul] that has reason. One [part] of it has reason as obeying reason; the other has it as itself having reason and thinking. Moreover, life is also spoken of in two ways [as capacity and as activity], and we must take [a human being's special function to be] life as activity, since this seems to be called life more fully. We have found, then, that the human function is activity of the soul in accord with reason or requiring reason. Now we say that the function of a [kind of thing]—of a harpist, for instance—is the same in kind as the function of an excellent individual of the kind—of an excellent harpist for instance. […] Moreover, we take the human function to be a certain kind of life, and take this life to be activity and actions of the soul that involve reason; hence the function of the excellent man is to do this well and finely.
And so, if the same is true for bravery, the brave person will find death and wounds painful, and suffer them unwillingly, but he will endure them because that is fine or because failure is shameful. Indeed, the truer it is that he has every virtue and the happier he is, the more pain he will feel at the prospect of death. For this sort of person, more than anyone, finds it worthwhile to be alive, and knows he is being deprived of the greatest goods, and this is painful. But he is no less brave for all that; presumably, indeed, he is all the braver, because he chooses what is fine in war at the cost of all these goods. It is not true, then, in the case of every virtue that its active exercise is pleasant; it is pleasant only insofar as we attain the end.
Moreover, friendship would seem to hold cities together, and legislators would seem to be more concerned about it than about justice. For concord would seem to be similar to friendship, and they aim at concord among all, while they try above all to expel civil conflict, which is enmity. Further, if people are friends, they have no need of justice, but if they are just they need friendship in addition; and the justice that is most just seems to belong to friendship.
But complete friendship is the friendship of good people similar in virtue; for they wish goods in the same way to each other insofar as they are good, and they are good in their own right. Now those who wish goods to their friend for the friend’s own sake are friends most of all; for they have this attitude because of the friend himself, not coincidentally. Hence these people’s friendship lasts as long as they are good; and virtue is enduring.
[…] [W]hat friends find most choiceworthy is living together. For friendship is community, and we are related to our friend as we are related to ourselves. […] Whatever someone [regards as] his being, or the end for which he chooses to be alive, that is the activity he wishes to pursue in his friend’s company. Hence some friends drink together, others play dice, while others do gymnastics and go hunting, or do philosophy. They spend their days together on whichever pursuit in life they like most; for since they want to live with their friends, they share the actions in which they find their common life.
Such a life would be superior to the human level. For someone will live it not insofar as he is a human being, but insofar as he has some divine element in him. And the activity of this divine element is as much superior to the activity in accord with the rest of virtue as this element is superior to the compound. Hence if understanding is something divine in comparison with a human being, so also will the life in accord with understanding be divine in comparison with human life. We ought not to follow the makers of proverbs and “Think human, since you are human,” or “Think mortal, since you are mortal.” Rather, as far as we can, we ought to be pro-immortal, and go to all lengths to live a life in accord with our supreme element; for however much this element may lack in bulk, by much more it surpasses everything in power and value.
Since, then, our predecessors have left the area of legislation uncharted, it is presumably better to examine it ourselves instead, and indeed to examine political systems in general, and so to complete the philosophy of human affairs, as far as we are able. First, then, let us try to review any sound remarks our predecessors have made on particular topics. Then let us study the collected political systems, to see from them what sorts of things preserve and destroy cities, and political systems of different types; and what causes some cities to conduct politics well, and some badly. For when we have studied these questions, we will perhaps grasp better what sort of political system is best; how each political system should be organized so as to be best and what habits and laws it should follow. Let us discuss this, then, starting from the beginning.