On occasion I used to listen to a talk radio host named Dennis Praeger. He went over the news of the day and political happenings like everybody else, but he also had a keen interest in the problem of happiness; he devoted an hour of his show to it every week, and wrote a book about it. I was always a little puzzled, and tended to disagree, when he said that happiness is necessary, something we choose, and something like a virtue. The modern English usage of the word “happiness” doesn’t seem to allow for so broad a definition. However, it seems that his view of happiness is very Aristotelian – the beginning of the Ethics is all about happiness as the supreme good, a kind of action of soul in alignment with the virtues. Happiness is also the one activity that isn’t good either for the sake of something else, or both for its own sake and that of something else, but for its own sake alone.
“Is there anything, then, preventing us from defining the happy man as one whose activities are an expression of complete virtue, and who is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not simply at a given moment, but to the end of his life?”
Apparently there isn’t. But I must admit that even after talking about it in class for some two hours, I still find the assertion that happiness is the desired end of the virtues to be perplexing, and not a little off-putting. Just try taking an example. Aristotle uses Priam; certainly at the end of his life he was not supremely happy, or “blessed,” but Aristotle leaves it an open question whether he may be considered happy all the same. What does that mean, to call Priam happy? his sons were dead or going to die shortly, his city ruined, and he was kissing the hand of the man who had killed his favorite son, in tears. If it’s possible for a man in that condition to be happy, then… why use that word? He doesn’t quite mean joyful; he certainly doesn’t mean blessed – he seems to mean good. And if you define the chief good of man to be happiness, then this is where you get. What’s the benefit in this instance of speaking of a good man as also happy, if primarily you mean that he is good? What is gained in the transition? Why not say that there’s something more important than happiness, namely virtue, or goodness. But Aristotle has seen where that can lead as well, as in the Meno, where Socrates is offered only the virtues, and is intent on finding a single unifying heading of Virtue, so as to determine how it is caused. A’m not sure that he gets very far in it. Aristotle is going to substitute happiness, then, as the unifying heading, and all the virtues point toward it, and aid men in its acquisition. I’m not finding it to be particularly helpful as yet.