237. Aristotle’s Interdisciplinary Account of Happiness

One of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s (384-322 BC) most enduring contributions is his analysis of eudaimonia, a word that can be variously translated as happiness, fulfillment, flourishing, or well-being. His analysis appears to have lost none of its power to connect with audiences despite being over 2000 years old. There are many reasons for this. But two stand out for me, namely, that his analysis is plausible in many ways and remarkably wide-ranging in scope. In this essay I briefly discuss his account of eudaimonia, his program of how we can achieve it, and how this program connects to a wide range of topics including biology, psychology, economics, politics, science, art, and theology. In doing so, I hope to sketch an historical and conceptual stage for an interdisciplinary investigation into happiness which, I think, is all too often overlooked.

Aristotle’s Teleological Approach 

Any investigation into Aristotle’s account of eudaimonia should begin with a few words about his general view of life. According to Aristotle, each living creature has a soul which is the creature’s nature. This nature sets a range of natural potentials the creature can actualize under the right circumstances. The soul also contains the “final cause” or natural goal for the creature. When the actualization of a creature’s natural potential realizes this goal then the creature can flourish as the type of being it is and be fulfilled. Aristotle’s view of life is thus teleological from the Greek word telos for goal. 

Since every living thing is moving towards its natural goal then our lives must have some natural goal as well. In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle sets himself the task of discovering what this ultimate goal is. This task is important since, as he points out in Book I, Chapter II, if we know the ultimate goal of human life then we can seek and hopefully achieve it: “Surely then, even with reference to actual life and conduct, the knowledge of it [our natural goal] must have great weight; and like archers, with a mark in view, we shall be more likely to hit upon what is right: and if so, we ought to try to describe, in outline at least, what it is.” To not know our target is to risk living a life that pursues goals which bring no deep and lasting fulfillment. 

Now, if this goal is indeed ultimate then it must not be a goal which leads to some other goal. If this was the case we would spend our lives moving from one goal to another and we would never know what the goal of life is. Such a process would lead to despair. But is there a goal which is an end-in-itself and not a mere means to another goal? 

The Ultimate Goal of Life

Aristotle considers various candidates for our ultimate goal and, after careful consideration, claims that eudaimonia is the universal answer. We all want to be happy. Of course, we all want many other things as well. But he argues that these other things are a means to happiness: money, family, career, hobbies, material goods, play, travel, etc. are pursued because we think they will contribute to happiness. In Book I, Chapter IV we read: 

“And of this nature happiness is mostly thought to be, for this we choose always for its own sake, and never with a view to anything further: whereas honor, pleasure, intellect, in fact every excellence we choose for their own sakes, it is true (because we would choose each of these even if no result were to follow), but we choose them also with a view to happiness, conceiving that through their instrumentality we shall be happy: but no man chooses happiness with a view to them, nor in fact with a view to any other thing whatsoever.”

It is crucial to understand Aristotle doesn’t think eudaimonia is a state we finally reach or periodically achieve. It is not like finally receiving a college degree or having a good time on the weekend with our friends. It is not a psychological state that comes and goes. Rather, it is a matter of engaging consistently in some kind of activity which will accompany us throughout our life and bring overall fulfillment.

The Rational Life of Virtue 

But now a problem arises: what kind of life will enable us to engage in such an activity? Aristotle recognizes that there are many answers to this question in Book I, Chapter II: “For some say it is some one of those things which are palpable and apparent, as pleasure or wealth or honor; in fact, some one thing, some another; nay, oftentimes the same man gives a different account of it; for when ill, he calls it health; when poor, wealth: and conscious of their own ignorance, men admire those who talk grandly and above their comprehension.” Given the diverse answers available, in Book I, Chapter V Aristotle proposes a strategy to sort through and evaluate them, namely, investigate what human nature is and see which way of life will help us actualize our nature

“To call happiness the chief good is a mere truism, and what is wanted is some clearer account of its real nature. Now this object may be easily attained, when we have discovered what is the work of humans; for as in the case of flute-player, statuary, or artisan of any kind, or, more generally, all who have any work or course of action, their chief good and excellence is thought to reside in their work, so it would seem to be with humans, if there is any work belonging to them.”

He claims that our natural proper function will be the function which is unique to, and definitive of, humans. Now, we share the process of growth and sensation with other living things. We grow and plants grow; we enjoy various physical pleasures just as animals do. So what is it that we have that all other creatures do not have? 

  • Reason is our unique good, the good which sets us apart. 

If this is the case, then we should seek out a way of life that will actualize our natural rational potential if we are to be naturally fulfilled as the kind of creatures we essentially are. Once we have reason then other common pursuits, such seeking pleasure, wealth, and honors, can be properly directed so as to be beneficial to us. But what does it mean to live a life of reason? In Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle’s central concern is to answer this question with reference to our practical life of making moral decisions in the contexts of family, work, friendships, politics, and so on. As a result, he focuses on the development of moral virtues which are defined as follows: 

  • Moral virtues are active dispositions (hexeis) of character, formed by habit, which (1) enable us to deliberate and perceive what is appropriate to do in situations (what fits, what works, what is beautiful) and (2) enable us to make good judgments based on this perception so we both feel correctly and choose to act correctly. 

Aristotle tells us that every moral virtue, like courage for example, lies at the mean between two extremes: one deficient, being a coward, and one excessive, being reckless. To have a virtue is to have a character trait that disposes one to act and feel in the right way, towards the right people, at the right time. So courageous people respond to danger in a way that is appropriate, unlike cowards who do too little (or nothing) and unlike reckless people who do too much. Aristotle discusses many virtues, such as temperance (the mean between the vices of excessive self-indulgence and deficient abstaining), generosity (the mean between the vices of excessive vulgarity and deficient stinginess), and self-honesty (the mean between the vices of excessive boastfulness and deficient self-deprecation).   

The principle of the mean serves as a helpful guide for rational inquiry into what needs to be done. And it is a flexible one relative to each of us. We all have unique character flaws and strengths and therefore each of us needs to discern what we need to work on and how to best achieve success. Compare how, when working with a personal trainer, someone is given personalized attention relative to them and their physical needs, limits, health, etc. However, keep in mind that, although the mean is a relative guide, it serves an objective end: to eventually allow our rational nature to discover what all virtuous people would perceive as the appropriate thing to do or feel in any particular situation. 

Aristotle doesn’t tell us much about the application of the mean – perhaps as a result of its customized nature. But at the end of Book II he does suggest that, should we have a vice, it can be helpful to shoot for the other extreme (if cowardly try as hard as possible to do something reckless). Naturally, we will fall far short of our goal! But in doing so we may move a bit closer to the mean: “At all events thus much is plain, that the mean state is in all things praiseworthy, and that practically we must deflect sometimes towards excess sometimes towards defect, because this will be the easiest method of hitting on the mean, that is, on what is right.” 


Moral virtues, in helping us consistently perceive correctly and make good judgments in the mean, enable us to obtain what Aristotle calls phronesis or practical wisdom: the ability to both grasp the appropriate universal ends of action and act correctly on these ends in the context of particular circumstances. With this wisdom we can actualize our rational nature and be happy. Thus Aristotle tersely defines eudaimonia in Book I, Chapter VII as follows:

  • Eudaimonia: an activity of the rational part of the soul in accordance with virtue.

Aristotle’s prescription to lead a life of reason does not tell everyone to be philosophers (although, as we will see below, must be one to be as happy as humanly possible). Rather, it is just to say that, regardless of all our various interests, relationships, tasks, hobbies, goals, and so on, our happiness or flourishing will depend on the activity of consistently and accurately assessing what needs to be done, making good judgments, having correct emotional responses, and choosing to act in ways that are not excessive or deficient. And we can accomplish all these things if we have moral virtues.  

Aristotle’s Multifaceted Approach to Eudaimonia 

But the key word in the last sentence is if. For obtaining virtues turns out to be quite a multifaceted and difficult undertaking indeed. We do have a natural disposition to develop virtues but, since we can only develop them through action and habit, we can’t simply learn them from a book or develop them in a short period of time. To become courageous we have to act courageously…a lot. But, as we all know from our own experience, the development of habit through action needs to be facilitated by many factors. At the end of Book One, Chapter Six, Aristotle mentions some: 

“Still it is quite plain that the acquisition of virtue requires the addition of external goods, as we have said: because without these additions it is impossible, or at all events not easy, to do noble actions: for friends, money, and political influence are in a manner instruments whereby many things are done…good birth, for instance, or fine offspring, or even personal beauty: for he is not at all capable of Happiness who is very ugly, or is ill-born, or solitary and childless; and still less perhaps supposing him to have very bad children or friends, or to have lost good ones by death. As we have said already, the addition of prosperity of this kind does seem necessary to complete the idea of Happiness.” 

In Book I, Chapter V of his Rhetoric he provides another list which includes good luck:

“If, then, such is the nature of happiness, its component parts must necessarily be: noble birth, numerous friends, good friends, wealth, good children, numerous children, a good old age; further, bodily excellences, such as health, beauty, strength, stature, fitness for athletic contests, a good reputation, honor, good luck, virtue. For a man would be entirely independent, provided he possessed all internal and external goods; for there are no others. Internal goods are those of mind and body; external goods are noble birth, friends, wealth, honor. To these we think should be added certain capacities and good luck; for on these conditions life will be perfectly secure.”

And elsewhere he notes we need a great deal of leisure, security, and opportunities to practice virtue in an uninterrupted manner. In Book 7, Chapter 13 of his Politics he offers a characteristically blunt statement that sums up the key idea here: “Much external assistance is necessary to a happy life.” It is important to keep in mind the principle that guides Aristotle: we need to practice virtue to become virtuous and various forms of practice must be assisted by, and can only be exercised in, a rich web of relationships and dependencies. 

In the interest of organizing and elaborating these forms of virtue assistance a bit, I offer the following enumerations and categories which, taken together, offer a kind of Aristotelian conceptual framework to guide interdisciplinary investigations into happiness. Please note that, although I have discussed them separately, in reality they are closely connected. 

(1) Political Assistance 

I start with the political in order to emphasize Aristotle’s vision of the primacy of the political in our development. Here is a good description of what he has in mind from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry “Aristotle’s Ethics”:

“We should also keep in mind Aristotle’s statement in the Politics that the political community is prior to the individual citizen—just as the whole body is prior to any of its parts (1253a18–29). Aristotle makes use of this claim when he proposes that in the ideal community each child should receive the same education, and that the responsibility for providing such an education should be taken out of the hands of private individuals and made a matter of common concern (1337a21–7). No citizen, he says, belongs to himself; all belong to the city (1337a28–9). What he means is that when it comes to such matters as education, which affect the good of all, each individual should be guided by the collective decisions of the whole community. An individual citizen does not belong to himself, in the sense that it is not up to him alone to determine how he should act; he should subordinate his individual decision-making powers to those of the whole.” 

Aristotle argues that the purpose of a government (note the role of teleology here) is to make its citizens virtuous and virtue is something that is understood and can be inculcated through various institutions, most notably education which would provide instruction in the natural sciences, literature, the arts, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, and politics. This is an illiberal form of government insofar as it sees the government as charged with the task of identifying and distributing the good. Thus we cannot expect many people to be happy without wise political guidance on behalf of citizens. 

This model is, of course, quite different from liberal governments, like ours in the States, which focus on protecting its citizens who are taken to be free agents who can pursue the good on their own in their own way. In any case, for Aristotle political context is inseparable from the development of virtue and influences all other forms of assistance to virtuous practice. We should think hard about how the two relate or do not relate in our own experience and whether or not they should. 

(2) Physical Assistance 

To be happy we will need bodily health and fitness. Without a sound body it is hard to see how we can engage in the many activities necessary to pursue virtue. From this insight we can prescribe various ways to make and keep people healthy and we can easily engage in debates about diet and exercise in families and schools to whether or not people have adequate access to health insurance and health care.  

(3) Psychological Assistance 

As we saw above, eudaimonia is an activity of the soul – the psyche – in accordance with virtue. We will want to have those active dispositions that enable us to think and feel appropriately and not develop vices – especially those deficiencies and excesses that we now refer to as neuroses. Such character flaws make us unhappy by leading to bad judgments which have unfortunate physical, psychological, social, legal, economic, and political consequences. So various forms of psychological assistance will be crucial to our moral development. 

(4) Sociological Assistance 

It is clear from his list, which includes friends, family, reputation, honor, and even a degree of good looks, that happiness is contingent on our social relations. We are essentially rational animals. But in Book I of his Politics, Aristotle observes that humans are, due to their radical lack of self-sufficiency, naturally “political animals” as well who socialize and come together to form bonds using language:

“The gift of speech also evidently proves that man is a more social animal than the bees, or any of the herding cattle: for nature, as we say, does nothing in vain, and man is the only animal who enjoys it. Voice indeed, as being the token of pleasure and pain, is imparted to others also, and thus much their nature is capable of, to perceive pleasure and pain, and to impart these sensations to others; but it is by speech that we are enabled to express what is useful for us, and what is hurtful, and of course what is just and what is unjust: for in this particular man differs from other animals, that he alone has a perception of good and evil, of just and unjust, and it is a participation of these common sentiments which forms a family and a city.” 

Since we are social by nature there is simply no way to disconnect the development of virtue from our social relations. This means, of course, that we can’t expect to succeed in developing virtues if our family, community, media, education, and other institutions are cultivating vices in us. As a result, we will want to think hard about whether or not these social relations thwart or facilitate virtuous practice. We need others to practice virtues like courage, generosity, friendliness, wittiness, righteous indignation, modesty, truthfulness, and patience. And we need moral exemplars to follow in our efforts as well. One area worth investigating here, an area to which Aristotle devotes two chapters (8 and 9) of his Nicomachean Ethics, is friendship since a true friend is “another self” who exemplifies virtue and with whom we can pursue virtue. But if our friends cultivate vices in us then we are likely to fail in our efforts to be happy regardless of more positive influences. 

In any case, a lot rides on the sociological context of virtue and how different dynamics in society change our practices to become virtuous. For example, if the context is one in which peer pressure to be trendy, fashionable, and beautiful is uppermost then we can readily understand Aristotle’s observation that good looks might be required to make friends, get good jobs, make money, find a well-born mate, raise a flourishing family, and so on – all things that contribute to happiness. He himself observed that the masses are typically not virtuous and so we should expect less than ideal social conditions when we seek virtue. But if more and more people value a virtuous soul and the actions that flow from it, then people wouldn’t be so obsessed with appearances and the need for good looks might not be so important to the good life. 

(5) Economic Assistance 

If we are poor and/or “ill-born” (not from a family with means) it can be difficult to do anything but work and struggle to survive. As a result, the long-term agenda of continuously pursuing comprehensive virtuous development and overall flourishing can be impossible. Moreover, to exercise the virtue of generosity we need to give. But we can’t give what we don’t have. Considerations such as these should lead us to think hard about the moral dimensions of economics and naturally open up debates about living wages, taxes, equal opportunities, social justice, racism, sexism, wealth distribution, etc. 

(6) Aesthetic Assistance

In Aristotle’s Athens, tragedy was the blockbuster art form and his book, The Poetics, offers an incredibly influential analysis of it. According to Aristotle, tragedy “is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” This catharsis, or emotional purging and clarification, occurs when the audience experiences the main character’s reversal of fortune. But why would people flock to see tragedies with such reversals and the suffering that flows from them? To learn something. But what? 

First, tragedy offers us universal insights about what a certain type of person will probably do and is thus more philosophical than history which just shows what a certain person actually did

“Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.  By a universal statement I mean one as to what such and such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do—which is the aim of poetry, though it affixes proper names to the characters; by a singular statement, one as to what, say, Alcibiades did or had done to him.” 

Here we can think of many characters from films, plays, and novels who display virtues and vices upon which we can reflect. We can see them as fictional moral exemplars that can offer us guidance. In tragedy, the main character’s reversal of fortune comes about because of a character flaw – a vice. Seeing this vice, we can understand how important it is to become virtuous and aim to make the necessary corrections.  

But in tragedy this intellectual perception is accompanied by an emotional response. We come to pity the hero and, as result, can also pity others who have tragic reversals due to flaws in their characters. We can also see that there are plenty of causes beyond the control of the hero which make us aware that people’s fates are not reducible to their decisions alone. This can make us more compassionate and open to mitigating punishments. And the fear we experience when we realize that we, too, might have a reversal can be a strong motivator to the intellectual self-examination we saw above. So tragedy can be conducive to the growth of emotional, as well as intellectual, intelligence.

I bring these points about tragedy up so we can see that Aristotle’s view of art is an instrumental one: art can be a means to something and, in this case, a means to moral and intellectual understanding that can make us better people. Now, in light of this we can ask: what is the role of art in our lives? Is it primarily superficial, escapist entertainment? Is it full of images of bad people doing vicious actions that have a negative effect on us and especially children? What does our art imitate and to what end does it imitate it? Does our art assist the development of virtue or undermine it? And what art is effective for moral development? 

(7) Theological Assistance 

Recall my earlier remark that to be as happy as humanly possible we need to be philosophers. For Aristotle, our rational nature can only be fully actualized by exercising the intellectual virtue of theoretical wisdom which combines a scientific demonstration of things which can’t be any other way – eternal truths of nature – with intuition or an immediate intellectual grasp of the first principles of such demonstrations. Philosophy, as the activity that asks and provides well-argued answers to general and fundamental questions, is thus the path to full human actualization. To do philosophy, however, one needs a great deal of leisure and the various above forms of assistance as well. But if one can dedicate the majority of one’s time to philosophy then one can have the greatest pleasure available to us: the contemplation of general truths that takes us from our world of moral and political concerns to the eternal realm of the divine. God, for Aristotle, is the unmoved mover of all development in the world who is immaterial, eternal, non-spatial, and is engaged in one activity: thinking its own perfect thoughts. And our contemplation of truth is only possible because we participate imperfectly in the perfect thoughts of the unmoved mover. So there would be no truth to contemplate, and no purpose to achieve such an end, without God. That is some theological assistance for sure. Once we see this, we can see why Aristotle, despite his concern and respect for the moral and political life, argues in Book X of Nicomachean Ethics that our ultimate flourishing in the process by which our reason becomes divine by participating in the divine. 

(8) Luck

Finally, let us keep in mind the importance Aristotle places on luck. Given all these various forms of assistance needed for happiness, we should be acutely aware of just how lucky we are to have any share in them. Aristotle argues, as we have seen, that virtuous responses are chosen and we can therefore be held responsible for them. However, this doesn’t mean we are completely responsible for all our success and, indeed, for all our failures. His comprehensive and profoundly contextual approach to the good life makes us aware of this and, we would hope, makes us all more grateful, sympathetic to others, and sensitive to the complex nature of moral conflicts. Moral inquiry is not, according to Aristotle, mindlessly following some decision making procedure: it is all about making good judgments in situations as they come. This task is fraught with all kinds of contingencies over which we have no control. But the virtuous person is bound to respond as intelligently as possible to such contingencies. And so we do everything we can to live virtuously to reduce the costs of bad luck when it comes.


We have seen that Aristotle’s teleological view of reality leads him to ask about the natural goal for human life. This goal must be, if we are to avoid the despair of an infinite regress with no goal in view, a self-sufficient one that is not a means to anything else. This goal is, in accordance with popular belief, happiness. However, the nature of happiness is disputed. And so Aristotle suggests focusing on what humans, by nature, have as their distinctive good, their distinctive natural capacity that sets them apart from all other creatures. This unique natural capacity is reason and so the rational life will be the way to happiness. This life is not, however, about finding happiness in some kind of state we reach at some point of another; rather, it locates happiness in an ongoing activity that will accompany us throughout our life. We are rational when we perceive the appropriate thing to do in situations, make good judgments based on this perception, and feel and act correctly in ways that lead to good results which, over time, contribute to a flourishing, happy life. But to actualize this rational capacity in our practical lives we need moral virtues. After all, if we have various vices in our character our judgments, emotions, and actions will be inappropriate leading to bad results and, over time, unhappiness. Moral virtues are, however, difficult to achieve and Aristotle makes it clear just how many forms of assistance are needed for their development. In doing so, he offers us a helpful conceptual framework for how we might think about happiness in light of our contemporary society and its concerns.

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