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Aristotle's Ethics

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The Humanities represent man's concern with man and with the human world.

In that concern there is no more important problem than the age-old one which was first discussed systematically here, in Greece, more than two thousand years ago.

The problem I refer to, which the ancient Greek philosophers thought deeply about, is this one: What makes a human life good -- what makes it worth living and what must we do, not just merely to live, but to live well?

In the whole tradition of Western literature and learning, one book more than any other defines this problem for us and helps us to think about it. That book of course is Aristotle's Ethics, written in the fourth century before Christ. Aristotle was a student of Plato. Plato had founded the Academy of Athens, which was the great university of ancient Greece. Aristotle studied and worked there for about twenty years. He was called by Plato "the intellect of the school."

Unlike Socrates, Aristotle was interested in the study of nature. He was unlike Socrates in another respect. When he, too, was accused of un-Athenian activities, he decided to flee, saying "I will not let the Athenians offend twice against philosophy."

The subject treated in this book is called "ethics" because ethos is the Greek word for character, and the problems with which this book deals are the problems of character and the conduct of life. The Ethics is divided into ten parts. I am going to deal only with the first part, in which Aristotle discusses happiness. But before we begin, let me remind you of a famous statement about happiness that occurs in the opening paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights: that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."

Have you ever thought what it means to say that it is every man's natural right -- not to be happy -- but to engage in the pursuit of happiness? What do we mean when we say that one of the main objectives of good government is to see that no man is interfered with -- more than that, that every man must be helped by the state in his effort to lead a good life, a worthwhile life, a humanly satisfying life?

That fact that every man has a right to pursue happiness suggests that happiness is attainable -- in some degree -- by all men. But is this happiness the same for all men? Is each of us pursuing the same goal when we try to live in such a way that our lives will be happy ones? To answer these questions it is necessary to understand the meaning of happiness -- what constitutes a happy life.

And to do that, we must, first of all, clear our minds of certain misconceptions about the meaning of the word happy -- Every day of our lives, we use the word "happy" in a sense which means "feeling good," "having fun," having a good time, or somehow experiencing a lively pleasure of joy. We say to our friends when they seem despondent or out of sorts, "I hope you will feel happier tomorrow."

We say "Happy New Year" or "Happy Birthday" or "Happy Anniversary." Now all of these expressions refer to the pleasant feelings -- the joys or satisfactions which we may have at one moment and not at another. In this meaning of the word, it is quite possible for us to feel happy at one moment and not at the next. This is not Aristotle's meaning of the word. Nor, when you think about it for a moment, can it be the meaning of the word in the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson and other signers of the Declaration had read Aristotle and Plato. This was part of their education.

Both Aristotle and the Declaration use the word happiness in a sense which refers to the quality of a whole human life -- what makes it good as a whole, in spite of the fact that we are not having fun or a good time every minute of it.

A human life may involve many pleasures, joys, and successes. On the other hand, it may also involve many pains, griefs and troubles and still be a good life -- a happy life. Happiness, in other words, is not made by the pleasures we have; nor, for that matter, is happiness marred by the pains we suffer: Aristotle helps us to see this by two things he says about happiness.

The first will shock you, perhaps. It shocked me the first time I read it many years ago. Aristotle tells us first that children cannot be happy. Young people, he says, precisely because they are young are not happy, nor, for that matter, unhappy. Here is what he says:

A boy is not happy owing to his age; boys who are called happy are being congratulated by reason of the hopes we have for them. For there is required not only complete virtue, but also a complete life, since many changes occur in life, and all manner of chances, and the most prosperous may fall into great misfortunes in old age.

In other words, what Aristotle is saying is that what is required for happiness is "a complete life" which obviously no young person has while he is still young. He makes the same point in another way. He refers to the story of Croesus and Solon, as told by the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus. Croesus was King of Lydia, and one of the richest and most powerful rulers of his day. Solon was one of the wisest men of Greece. Here is the story of their conversation.

Solon set out upon his travels, in the course of which he came on a visit to Croesus at Sardis. Croesus received him as his guest, and lodged him in the royal palace, and had his servants conduct him over his treasures, and show him all their greatness and magnificence. And when Solon had



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