Happiness Is Perhaps the Most Illusive but Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Happiness is perhaps the most illusive, but most sought after mental state in life. Like all human experiences, happiness is also a very subjective state; different things make different people happy. This is why it is so difficult to say what happiness is, and why there has been so much disagreement among philosophers, who have nonetheless not been deterred from attempting to describe this elusive emotion. Both Plato and Aristotle have attempted to describe happiness in exact terms. They have broken down into steps the way to true happiness, and described the nature of happiness as they viewed it. It should be kept in mind however that, as mentioned above, any human emotion is highly subjective. Plato and Aristotle were just two men, and they lived centuries in the past. Doubtlessly their judgement would have been influenced by the time and society in which they lived. To demonstrate this, Plato and Aristotle's theories regarding the subject will be examined, concluding with a consideration of what happiness means to people in society today.


According to Plato, reason was the highest ideal that human beings could strive for. Happiness for him therefore wasn't an emotion in itself, but rather the result of following one's reason. Furthermore, all of Plato's theories of the soul originated in his political philosophies, or his theory of the state. If a person followed the rules put in place by the state in a reasonable manner, such a person was just, ruled by reason, and happy.

As a basis for this theory, Plato divided the human soul into three basic energies: reason, emotion and appetite. As seen above, reason has the greatest value and the greatest potential to provide happiness. The other two are lower passions, and while they may provide fleeting satisfaction, this is not comparable with the lasting happiness provided by being just.

This is in contrast to the hedonist view to enjoy as much of the physical world as possible before one dies. The Sophists of Plato's time also argued against the need for morality. Plato's response is found in The Republic, where he fully explains the workings of the soul according to his view. If a person were to be happy, according to Plato, the lower passions must be ruled by the higher force of reason. And the consequence of this is that morality is driven by the desire to be happy.

Plato furthermore substantiates his point by using the example of a tyrant following unjust principles. Tyrants, according to Plato, may seem happy when they reach their goals through their unjust actions. Yet, they cannot be truly happy as a result of the consequences of their actions, and the consequences of being ruled by their violent emotions and insatiable appetites. They could for example be subject to the fear of being assassinated or an insatiable desire for wealth. This in effect then makes them unhappy and blemishes whatever happiness might be derived from material things.

What Plato is saying with this argument then is that true happiness comes from within, and not from external circumstances. This is also how he explains the happiness of saintly persons who choose to suffer and find their happiness in that. The premise is that reason rules everything else, and happiness thus comes from reason, which brings inner harmony, rather than physical or emotional well-being.

Plato goes on to define four virtues that spring from the three harmonized energies of reason, emotion and appetite. Related to reason then is wisdom, or what Plato calls "prudence." The happy person whose reason rules the other two elements therefore is wise. The second virtue is courage, which relates to emotion, and thirdly the happy person has the virtue of temperance, which is related to controlling one's physical appetites. The fourth virtue is what Plato calls justice, which manifests itself in kind acts towards others in terms of for example charity. And this is then also the virtue that incorporates morality.

The truly just person is then happy within the virtues described by Plato. The philosopher went even further by saying that a person possessing all these qualities lives a meaningful life, and is therefore beyond tragedy and beyond harm. This seems to be disproved by circumstances in which many find themselves today. One might be just and happy, as well as in possession of all the virtues, but still tragedy strikes anyone at random.

Plato furthermore extended his theory of happiness to politics, explicating what in his view was the "perfect" government. This is directly connected with the happiness attained by being ruled by reason, as shown above. The perfect government then would be ruled by just kings or rulers, who are in their turn ruled by reason in all things. If this is applied to governments today it becomes clear that no happiness is to be found in a political career. Politicians are more often than not corrupt and self-serving, ruled mostly by what Plato would refer to as appetite, and secondarily by emotion.


Whereas Plato attempts to understand the characteristics of happiness as his basis, Aristotle focuses on the path that a human being may take to acquire happiness. To this end, he returns to the very basics of happiness, attempting to define these rather than happiness itself. Like Plato, Aristotle also focuses on the purpose of life, and thus the purpose of human actions. This purpose then is what the latter philosopher refers to as "good." Every person strives for what is good in his or her mind. Like happiness, this is defined as a variety of things, according to the individual involved. Good may therefore be pleasure, honor, wealth, knowledge, wisdom, or any combination of a nearly infinite list.

From this, Aristotle arrives at the question of whether the above list of ideas might be combined to find one single idea of "good," or whether the various ideas work independently to determine the moral quality of an action. Some see the idea of good as synonymous with happiness. When an action is then performed to bring honor, benevolence, justice or such virtues, these bring happiness, and the action is judged good for the sake of its purpose.

Aristotle then goes on to focus on the actions that might lead to happiness. Virtuous persons act virtuously because it is their nature to do so. They do virtuous things because these things make them happy, and it is in their nature. This implies a disagreement with Plato's view that the only thing that can lead to happiness is virtue, and that people who wish for true happiness naturally choose reason and thus virtue. Aristotle on the other hand holds that all human actions are the result of habit development. Virtuous actions therefore have to be developed by repetition.

There are two kinds of virtue as distinguished by Aristotle: moral and intellectual virtue. Morally virtuous habits are acquired by exercising them. These include qualities such as truthfulness, unselfishness, tactfulness and so on. When people have acquired these habits, they are easy to adhere to and persons exercising these virtues find pleasure in them, and therefore happiness. On the other hand a person not exercising moral virtue by habit, finds it difficult to change, and therefore does not find pleasure or happiness in acting virtuously. As said above then, this steers away from Plato's argument that virtuous actions naturally lead to happiness. On the other hand, both Plato and Aristotle hold that virtuous actions are a choice. The difference is only to which degree these lead to happiness.

Aristotle furthermore takes a more deliberately dualistic view of the moral virtues, and provides moral "vices" to serve as the opposites of these. The distinction of moral virtues then includes: courage, temperance, self-discipline, moderation, modesty, humility, generosity, friendliness, truthfulness, honesty, and justice. The moral vices are the opposite of these: cowardice, self-indulgence, recklessness, wastefulness, greed, vanity, untruthfulness, dishonesty, and injustice.

It has been seen above that Aristotle's view is that virtue, if not practiced by habit, brings no intrinsic pleasure to the person acting virtuously. However, virtue leads to the associated good of honor, which would lead to happiness, rather than the dishonor that is associated with the consequences of crime.

Justice is further divided into parts by Aristotle, and might be compared with Plato's view of the same phenomenon. For Plato justice manifests itself in human kindness and charity. Aristotle once again takes a more complicated view of justice, including lawfulness, or universal justice, and fairness, or particular justice. Further types of justice include distributive justice and rectificatory justice.

Intellectual virtues are also numerous, as determined by Aristotle. These include scientific and artistic knowledge, intuitive reason, practical wisdom, and philosophic wisdom. The moral and intellectual virtues may also combine in a person's actions. Thus Aristotle's system of virtue and its functions are more complicated than Plato's, and his determination of what it is that leads to happiness. Virtue might or might not lead to happiness, and it does neither directly.…

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