In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle's view is that happiness consists only of living virtuously. Do you agree? Do most of us just have it wrong about what happiness and the happy life really is?

Expert Answers
pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would argue that the real issue is that most of us do not have a correct understanding of what virtue is.  When we hear the idea that happiness consists only of living virtuously, we have a very different vision than what Aristotle would want us to have.  I do agree with Aristotle that living virtuously (as he defines it) is the path to happiness.

In order to see why this is so, we must understand how Aristotle defines virtue.  Basically, he says that doing everything to the right extent is virtue.  When we do something too much, or when we have too much of some characteristic, we are without virtue and will not be happy.  The same is true if we do not do something enough or if we lack some characteristic.  I think that this is true. 

One reason we have a hard time dealing with Aristotle’s view is that Christianity has strongly influenced our vision of virtue.  We tend to think that virtue involves denying ourselves the “pleasures of the flesh.”  It involves fasting and celibacy.  It involves being meek and turning the other cheek.  We tend to think that being virtuous involves looking to the next world and being miserable in this world.  This is not how Aristotle thinks.

Let us look at things with his vision of virtue in mind.  We might think that we have to be able to drink alcohol and go to parties to be happy.  Aristotle would say that is fine as long as we don’t overdo it.  This makes sense.  Few people would think that alcoholism is fun.  Few would think, in the long term, that drinking until you vomit, pass out, etc. truly makes you happy.  We might also think that we would be happy if we were very attractive to the other sex.  But this could be bad as well, if it is overdone.  If we are too attractive, we might be sad because people would value us only for our looks.  We might be sad because the person we love might get jealous of how many people are attracted to us.  These same problems would also come with being too famous.  

Think about it this way: is there any activity you can think of that would make you happy if you consistently did that activity too much?  Is there any personality trait that you could have that would make you happy if you totally indulged it?  Aristotle says there is not.  I agree with him.

Thus, if we understand virtue the way Aristotle does, we should be able to accept the idea that happiness consists of living virtuously.

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As the previous answer suggests, Aristotle's definition of virtue is somewhat different from how many people may view it today. Aristotle thought that virtue consisted of avoiding excesses and extremes. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he described a number of virtuous traits in exactly these terms. Courage, for example, was the mean between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness. One should strive for temperance, which was somewhere in the middle of overindulgence and what he called "insensibility." Aristotle, in short, believed in balance, which, on the face of it, seems a sensible way to live one's life. There is no doubt that some modern faiths, Christianity in particular, emphasize asceticism, or self-denial, to one degree or another. However, it is also true that modern capitalism, with its emphasis on consumerism and self-gratification as a means to happiness, is an even more pervasive aspect of modern life. Neither of these extremes—it seems to me—are likely to make the average person happy, and each could be said to be self-destructive because they force us to interact with society in very dangerous ways. As a result, I think Aristotle's notion of virtue is still very relevant and useful. 

Read the study guide:
Nicomachean Ethics

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question