“Should we not say that he is happy whose acts are virtuous and has adequate external goods for his lifetime?”
Aristotle, born in 384 BCE, was a Greek philosopher and scientist. He studied at Plato’s Academy, then tutored the future Alexander the Great as well as future kings Ptolemy and Cassander. Later, he established his own school, the Lyceum, in Athens.
Aristotle made significant contributions to learning in nearly every subject, including astronomy, geology, physics, ethics, government, philosophy and psychology. His ethical theory of eudaimonia instructs us to live balanced lives of virtue.
He taught that eudaimonia, often translated as “happiness,” is an end in itself. This is misleading to modern readers, because eudaimonia isn’t the kind of happiness you get from going to a party or buying a new car.
Rather, for Aristotle, happiness is an activity, not a temporary state of pleasure. It’s living up to our full potential as human beings. Happiness requires us to exercise our intellectual virtues, such as wisdom and reason, as well as moral virtues, like courage, generosity, justice and friendship.
“[T]he man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible….”
Aristotle is well-known for his idea of the Golden Mean, the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency.
For example, a balanced diet is a mean between gluttony and food deprivation. Courage is a mean between recklessness and cowardice. Interestingly, Aristotle believes the mean will vary for different people, depending on their personalities and circumstances.
Virtue is achieved by maintaining the mean, and the most important factor in attaining happiness is acting in accordance with virtue. We develop virtue through practice, education, and habit.
“Happiness belongs more to those who have cultivated their character and mind to the uttermost, and kept acquisition of external goods within moderate limits, than it does to those who have managed to acquire more external goods than they can possibly use, and are lacking goods of the soul.”
Aristotle describes acquiring external goods (such as food, clothing and shelter) to support one’s household as natural acquisition. We should accumulate external goods only until we have enough for each household member to live a good, moral life, including participating in the life of the polis (city-state).
In other words, money and property are tools that enable us to live well, to focus on the truly important things in life.
Unnatural acquisition, however, is accumulating money for its own sake. People who focus on wealth, Aristotle says, use their abilities for the sole purpose of making money. They’re choosing money over happiness.