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How to be happy: a critical evaluation of aristotle’s “golden mean”

HOW TO BE HAPPY:  A CRITICAL EVALUATION OF ARISTOTLE’S “GOLDEN MEAN”

CHAPTER ONE

 1.0     ARISTOTLE

For the purpose of this long essay, it would be a big jump not to begin with a clear knowledge of the philosopher we are examining his philosophy. Consequently, it is pertinent first and foremost to look at the life of Aristotle, the influences that motivated him and finally, the product of his philosophical life.

1.1     HIS BIOGRAPHY

Aristotle was born in the summer of 384 B.C in the small town of Stagira on the north east coast of Thrace. His father, Nichomachus, was a court physician to Amyntas III king of Macedonia, father of Philip II and grandfather of Alexander the Great. His parents were both Ionians in origin. Aristotle was thus not an Athenian by birth although he lived a greater part of his life and did all his writings in and around Athens

Being a son of a doctor, he was heir to scientific tradition. He was thus introduced to Greek medicine and biology at an early age. It was the custom according to Galen, for families in the guild of Asclepiadae to train their sons in the art of dissection. While Aristotle was still a youth, he lost his father. Under the auspices of Proxenus, probably a relative of his father he studied in the platonic academy for twenty years. He was said to have been called by Plato, “the intellect of the school.” He was greatly influenced by Plato’s thought and personality though he was eventually to break away from Plato’s philosophy in order to formulate his own version of certain philosophical problems. The years Aristotle spent in Plato’s academy formed the three main periods comprising his intellectual development.

On Plato’s death in 348/47 B.C, Aristotle left the academy and accepted the invitation of Hermeias to come to Assos. He gathered a small group of thinkers into his court, and here Aristotle was able for the next three years to write, teach and carry on research. While at Hermeias’ court, Aristotle gave a sentimental collaboration to their tie by marrying Hermeias’ niece and adopted daughter, Pythias, who bore him a daughter. Later when he had returned to Athens, his wife died and Aristotle entered into a relationship with Herpyllis who bore him a son, Nicomachus, after whom the Nicomachean Ethics was named.

In 343/42 B.C, Philip of Macedon invited Aristotle to become the tutor of his son Alexander who was then thirteen years old. As a tutor to a future ruler, Aristotle’s interests included politics. He was to prepare Alexander for his future role as the military leader of the now United Greek World. Upon Philip’s death, Aristotle’s duty as tutor came to an end as Alexander now ascended the throne. A brief stay in his hometown of Stagira saw him once more in Athens.

Upon his return in 335/34 B.C in Athens, Aristotle founded his own school, the Lyceum. The school was so organized that it included philosophical discussions, lectures and technicals, for small audiences and others of a more poplar nature for a larger audience. For twelve of thirteen years, Aristotle remained as head of the Lyceum teaching and lecturing and above all, formulating his ideas about the classification of the sciences, fashioning a bold new science of logic and writing his advanced idea in every major area of philosophy.

When Alexander died in 323 B.C, a wave of anti-Macedonian feeling arose making Aristotle’s position in Athens very precarious because of his close connection with Macedonia. Aristotle was charged with impiety for the elegy he wrote to Hermas twenty years before. Recalling the fate of Socrates, he fled to his mother’s property in Chalcis declaring, “I will not let the Athenians offend twice against philosophy.” He lived in Chalcis for some months and died in 322 B.C of a digestive disease of long standing. His will discloses the care with which he puts his affairs in order. He provided for his wife as she wished.

Aristotle’s thought was of such decisive power that it was to influence philosophy for centuries to come. Having gone so far, let us examine certain elements in Aristotle’s eventful life, which might have left their influences on his thought.

1.2     MAJOR INFLUENCES

The development of Aristotle’s philosophy was motivated and influenced by a number of individuals and conditions. A look at a few of these influences will help us situate our study in Aristotle.

Firstly, Aristotle’s father was a doctor and a physician to the king of Macedonia. Little wonder why he so expertly handled his treatise on Biology. It could be said that his interest in Biology and science in general was nurtured in his early childhood. This can be linked to a custom in those days that made it possible for children from certain families to be taught and trained in the art of dissection. Furthermore, the influences on his biological works may have come from other influences:

Some of the observations used in Aristotle’s biological works probably came from the Easter Aegean …we might trace his biological interests to the      academy.[1]

Secondly, the shadows of Socrates and especially Plato lie across his thought. Aristotle accepted in general the ethical positions of Socrates and Plato though his philosophical outlook proved some marked differences. Aristotle was more interested in something else:

…he was more interested in the concrete details of the moral life than in the abstract underlying principles, and we have in his Ethics not a description of an ideal community as we have in the Republic of the moral life as it was found in the Greek city states of his own day.[2]

Again, the long stay at the academy of Plato had a huge influence in Aristotle’s thought. This is most evident in several passages of his work that explicitly reject or defend a platonic thesis. A close look at some of Aristotle’s work shows that he drank deeply from the platonic springs.

Thirdly, Aristotle’s life was largely devoted to the acquisition and dissemination of scientific knowledge. This may explain his classification of state from the study of a hundred and fifty-eight constitutions. The age in which Aristotle lived was politically unstable and his own life was constantly interrupted by external events. This is surely connected to the stand he maintained and the answers he proffered in his Ethics. A brief look at his Ethics would help us focus more on the aim of our study.

 1.3     HIS WORKS

Aristotle’s writings fall into three main periods, the period of his intercourse with Plato, the years of his activity at Assos and Mitylene, and the time of his leadership of the Lyceum.

By the end of his life, the Lyceum had become a well-established school. Some of Aristotle’s frequent critical discussions of Plato and other Academics may have been written during Aristotle’s years in the Academy. The topics reflect the character of dialectical debates in the Academy.

There is no specific chronological order of Aristotle’s work .The order in which his works appear in the Greek manuscripts goes back to early editors and commentators. It reflects their view not about the order in which the works were written but the order in which they should be studied.

In his first period of literary writings, he adhered closely to Plato, his teacher. To this period belongs:

a.     The dialogues of Eudemus, or on the soul, in which he shares Plato’s doctrine of recollection and apprehension of ideas in a state of pre-existence.

b.     The Protrepticus (an epistle to Themison) Here he maintains the Platonic doctrine of forms.

c.       The Physics

d.      De Anima

In the second period, Aristotle began to diverge from his former Platonic position to adopt a more critical attitude towards the teaching of the Academy. It is the period of criticism or of the growing criticism in regard to Platonism. The works include:

a.     The dialogue “On philosophy”: a criticism of some of Plato’s most characteristic theories. For instance the theory of Forms or ideas,

b.      The Timaeus

c.      The Metaphysics

d.      The Eudemian ethics

e.       The Politics: deals with the ideal state and criticisms of platonic Republic.

The third period carries more of his activities in the Lyceum. Here, he appears as the empirical observer and scientist, who is concerned to raise a sure philosophical foundation. Most lectures here represent his published works. The works of this period include:

a.     The Logical works

i.                  The categories

ii.                  De Interpretatione

iii.                  The prior analysis and posterior Analysis

iv.                  The Topics

b.    Works on natural philosophy, Natural science, psychology etc

i.                          The Physics

ii.                 De Caelo

iii.              The Materology

iv.              The Histories of Animals

v.                 The Problemata

vi.              The Parva Naturalia (dealing with subjects like perception, memory, sleep and waking etc.)

c.      Works on Ethics and Politics

i.                           The magna Moralia

ii.                 The Nicomachean Ethics

iii.              The Politics (collection of constitution of 158 states)

d.    Works on Aesthetics, History, and Literature

i.                          The Rhetoric

ii.                 The Poetics

All these works may not have been written by Aristotle himself as F. Copleston make us believe, but they may have been initiated by him and done under his supervision.

Having listed Aristotle’s works, in this long essay, we hope to focus more on his Ethics. Let us briefly see his Ethics.

1.4     ARISTOTLE’S ETHICS

Ethics as defined by William Lillie is,

a normative science of the conduct of human beings living in societies- a science which judges this conduct to be right or wrong, to be good or bad, or in some similar way.[3]

This explains why Aristotle started his ethics by giving an account of rational agents, choice, deliberation and action. Ethics is concerned with the praiseworthy and blameworthy actions and states of character of rational agents; that is why virtues (praiseworthy states) and vices (blameworthy states), come in.

Aristotle’s ethical theory is said to be mostly contained in three treatises: The Magna Moralia, the Eudemian Ethics and the Nicomachean Ethics. The name Eudemian Ethics was coined from the name Eudemus (a member of the Lyceum) and the name Nicomachean Ethics was coined from Nicomachus (son of Aristotle and Herpyllis).

Aristotle conceives ‘ethics’ as a part of political science; he treats the Nicomachean Ethics and the politics as parts of a single inquiry .His ethical thought is teleological. No wonder he begins his Nicomachean Ethics with the statement:

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and choice is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that which all things aim.[4]

His ethics in particular seeks to discover the good both for the individual and the community. We see this in his Nicomachean Ethics:

For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater…for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for a city –state.[5]

In order to discover this good, he begins with an examination of Happiness. Aristotle chooses to start his ethical theory with happiness because in his view, rational agents necessarily choose and deliberate with a view to their ultimate good, which is happiness; it is the end we want for its own sake, and the sake for which we want other things. In what follows, Aristotle tries to find a more definite account of the nature of this ultimate goal of man.

This study hopes to give a good account of how Aristotle described this ultimate goal and complete end of man. Thus, our next chapter will do justice to “HAPPINESS” carefully parading the views of different philosophers on what happiness is all about. We shall end it with what Aristotle, who is the main concern of this study, has to say about happiness and how it can be attained.

[1] E. Craig(ed), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol.II  (London: TJ International Ltd., 1998), p.415.

[2] W. Lillie, Introduction To Ethics (London: T.J. International Ltd., 1990), p.104

[3] Ibid, p.2

[4] J. Barnes (ed.), The Complete Works Of Aristotle, Vol. 2 (U.S.A: Princeton University Press, 1985) p.1729

[5] Ibid, p.1730

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