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06.22.2018: One Chapter of Nonfiction

Today’s soundtrack is Vermin Womb: Decline.

This afternoon, I’m reading the tenth chapter of the first book of Aristotle’s Ethics.

Aristotle here returns to the discussion of determining man’s happiness by looking at the end of his life. Aristotle questions the logical conclusion of this line of reasoning - that a man can only be happy when he is dead, since happiness is “a form of activity” (p. 45). But even if we don’t take the thought all the way to this point, even if we stay within the bounds of the original idea: namely, that only in death is man “beyond the arrows of outrageous fortune” (p. 45), we have to question whether this is the best measure of a man’s happiness. After all, scandals can be revealed after a man’s death! If a man died in apparent happiness, but was revealed after his death to be a murderer, we would not consider him to be a happy man. So this is not a good measure. What about his legacy? Can we determine a man’s happiness by the successes of his descendants? No, because then a man’s happiness would vary with every good or bad generation.

So we must return to the question of whether a man can considered happy during life. For calling a man happy after he is dead (and thus no longer happy) is silly. It makes much more sense to call a man happy during his happiness. But what of the happy man who falls on hard times? Is he happy one day, and miserable the next, and happy two days later again? No. Instead, we must look at the man himself, not at his circumstances. As Aristotle says, “It is the direction of the soul’s energies on sound moral principles that makes us happy, their direction towards evil that makes us unhappy” (p. 46).

We come full circle now, for this realization is further proof of Aristotle’s assertion that “virtuous activities have a pernanence denied to the rest” (p. 46), for those who do truly virtuous works and enjoy them “are most deeply and continuously engaged” (p. 46). Thus we can say that “the happy man will [...] be happy throughout his whole existence[, f]or to do and to ‘contemplate’ what is in conformity with goodness is the chief or the only business of his life” (p. 47). As for calamities befalling this happy man, he will take what comes in stride, but he will not stop pursuing virtue and goodness.

The man who has much good fortune will be more happy, for good fortune gives the virtuous man more opportunities to be good; however, the man who is struck with many ills will have more difficulty, for misfortunes “[inflict] pain and [put] a check on many of [his] activities” (p. 47). But the man of virtue withstands all this: because happiness is determined by a man’s activities, not by his circumstances, it is “impossible for the entirely happy man to become miserable” (p. 47), for “even in [his] calamities, the beauty of the soul shines out when a man bears with composure one heavy mischance after another, not because he does not feel them, but because he is a man of high and heroic temper” (p. 47), and he “invariably takes the most honourable line of conduct that is open to him in the circumstances” (p. 47).

Aristotle concludes that the happy man is “‘one who realizes in action a goodness that is complete and that is adequately furnished with external goods, and that not for some limited period but throughout a fully rounded life spend in that way’” (p. 48); he is “‘one who shall live life in this way and whose death shall be consistent with his life’” (p. 48).

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