What is the point of life? Happiness? Virtue? Power? All of these? The ancient Greek philosophers would have pushed us gently in the direction of virtue, although they would also have argued that both happiness and power derive from virtue and so the quest for a fulfilled life does not have to be seen in terms of a trade-off between doing good and doing well. This paper examines the perspective that Aristotle brings to bear on the (for Greeks) twinned concepts of happiness and virtue.
Aristotle's contributions to modern philosophy are substantial: He along with Plato was one of the two greatest intellectuals of ancient Greece, a civilization that produced hundreds of important intellectuals. Perhaps more even than Plato, the other most important Greek philosopher, helped to guide the course of Western philosophy (as well as science) as well as in many ways Islamic thought. Through the beginnings of modernism in the 17th century it is little if any exaggeration to say that Western philosophical thought about such important epistemological issues such as virtue were a reflection of Aristotle's original writings. If the Western world has in a number of ways diverted from Aristotle's model of virtue and its links to happiness since then, his original ideas still serve as the underpinnings of much of what we believe. Aristotelian ideas are so fundamentally integrated into our ideas about the good life and the worthy life that we may not even consciously be aware of them One of the most important of all questions for the classical Greek philosophers was how to define virtue: This is true not only of Aristotle but of many of his contemporaries. However, when we read Aristotle, we see this idea is almost a consuming passion of his. While we should not assume that Aristotle was not in fact a man very much concerned with doing the right thing and being a good person, we must also bear in mind that for a philosopher like Aristotle the concept of virtue was a much broader area of concern - as well as action in the world - than the term is for us today. Virtue today tends to be rather narrowly defined and often carries with it the connotation of zealotry: William Bennett's books on "virtues" for example have about them an air of intolerance and lack of concern for humanity that Aristotle would not have recognized as the kind of virtue the pursuit of which he believed to be the essential central task of a well-lived human life.
To the classical philosophers like Aristotle, a life dedicated to virtue was similar to what is currently meant by being a humanist: Aristotle was concerned with the development of human virtue, in all its forms, to its fullest extent. The term "virtue" for Aristotle did encompass some of the virtues suggested in the contemporary term "humanism." In other words, for Aristotle, the idea of virtue encompassed those attributes that are today associated with the words "humaneness" and "humanity" and that include goodness, tolerance, mercy, and compassion, mercy.
For the classical Greeks like Aristotle, the subject of virtue was synonymous with life (Engstrom and Whiting 105-8). "Virtue" for the Greeks is something like "ethics" for us in the modern West. Virtue for Aristotle was the whole breadth of life - the path that one must take to live a fulfilled life. He argued (In Poetics as well as in Nichomachean Ethics) that the best definition of virtue is excellence achieved in the pursuit by an individual of a particular goal while happiness can be defined as the sense of well-being that an individual derives from achieving excellence as one fulfills one's mission in life. We can see that the two concepts were for Aristotle not quite synonymous but clearly fundamentally integrated with each other.
This view of the relationship between virtue and happiness may seem peculiar to us: We are in general today more likely to be concerned with whether or not we are happy than whether we are virtuous, but this does not mean that that - by Aristotle's standards - we are living unvirtuous lives. Most of us are happy when we are treated fairly by others - and most of us understand that we cannot expect such treatment from others unless we are also fair to them.