HOW TO BE HAPPY:
A CRITICAL EVALUATION OF ARISTOTLE’S “GOLDEN MEAN”
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
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.
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
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.
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
…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.
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
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
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.
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
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
d. The Eudemian ethics
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:
The Logical works
The prior analysis and posterior Analysis
Works on natural
philosophy, Natural science, psychology etc
The Histories of Animals
The Parva Naturalia (dealing with subjects like perception,
memory, sleep and waking etc.)
Works on Ethics and
The Nicomachean Ethics
The Politics (collection of constitution of 158 states)
Works on Aesthetics,
History, and Literature
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.
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.
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
‘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.
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.
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.
 E. Craig(ed), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol.II (London: TJ International Ltd., 1998), p.415.
 W. Lillie, Introduction To Ethics (London: T.J. International Ltd., 1990),