Aristotle begins his Nicomachean Ethics by observing that all men aim so as to achieve the good. Shortly thereafter, he states as a widely-accepted fact that happiness is the highest good that all men achieve for it is something desired for its own sake and not for some further purpose. Thus, we want to be happy not because it will get us more money or more things for example, but simply because we want to be happy. No rational human being would argue against such positions. The problem comes in when we try to be more precise about our definitions. Since, however, Aristotle’s wisdom has stood the test of time as something true, not only in his day, AND because I generally think Aristotle was smarter than most other philosophers (PERIOD) AND because I’m the one writing, we’ll be assuming his line of thinking is generally true.
He then asks the necessary question: in what does happiness lie? Using a commonly held division of society, Aristotle identifies four general categories of objects (see Nicomachean Ethics I, 5) in which people seek happiness: a life of pleasure, a life of money-making, a life of politics, and a life of contemplation. Before continuing, it is important to note that, for Aristotle, the type of happiness characterized by these four divisions in society is one that orders the rest of one’s life. It is the thing which we think most important and thus spend our time, energy, and resources to obtain. The happiness desired by one who lives a life of pleasure is fairly obvious: happiness in food, drink, and sexual pleasure. That happiness desired by a life of money-making is wealth; one in a life of politics ultimately seeks honors, and the contemplative desires simply to “gaze on the highest things.”
What I find quite illustrative and valuable for the current reflection is Aristotle’s blunt dismissal of “lesser” pursuits of true and ultimate happiness. He says that one who seeks a life of pleasure is like an irrational beast. Animals have as their final goal individual survival (food and drink) and survival of the species (sexual “pleasure”). The one who seeks happiness in wealth is also a fool because he is setting his happiness on something that is a tool to attain something else. It would be like one who seeks his most profound happiness in having a collection of screwdrivers. Then there’s the one seeking happiness in political life which ends with honors. While it is hopefully noble men who honor you, says Aristotle, honor cannot be the cause of our most profound happiness because it depends on other people noticing your goodness and that’s not guaranteed ground on which to base something so important. Lastly, Aristotle, will (eventually) conclude that human happiness is most authentically found in the functions of the contemplative life which involves leisurely reflection on the highest (divine) truths as well as a life virtue and the sharing of that truth with one’s friends who are also presumably contemplative and virtuous.
While some might skeptically scoff that Aristotle has conveniently pinned happiness to his own profession, I would argue rather that he has discovered the true source of happiness and seeks to obtain it. He had a conviction that he was right and he lived accordingly; in short, he put his money where his mouth was! Also, others might readily agree with Aristotle’s assessment and put themselves in the category of the “contemplatives” because we’re convinced we’re “doing things right”, but I think it would be foolish to be so hasty. As stated above, the type of happiness characterized by these four divisions is the one that orders the rest of one’s life. It is the thing which we think most important and thus spend our time, energy, and resources to obtain. I may think I’m aiming for the highest things, but my bank statement, my monthly budget, and my calendar all disagree with that assessment.
Admittedly, Aristotle was a pagan, but when St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, began his discussion on Christian moral theology, he did not need to change very much of Aristotle’s thought to fit a Christian worldview. This is not to argue, therefore, that we all ought to quit our day jobs and go back to school; rather, it is merely about making sure that our daily lives are lived in such a way that it helps us achieve true happiness. In a Christmas homily, St. Leo the Great said:
Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom.
As Catholic Christians, we need to remember that we have been created for eternal union with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and anything less is a waste of our time. Further, the way we spend our lives on this earth is the strongest testimony we give to what it is we truly believe and where we’re depositing our treasures. With all that in mind, it doesn’t take much digging to discover where the contemporary culture is seeking happiness; just scan through the newspaper ads, read the lyrics of the Billboard top 100, check out the programming on mainstream television, or catch up on the current top-grossing movies.
If we’re going to live according to our dignity as true Christians in this world, it’s going to require very intentional structuring of our lives so that we don’t get swept away by the beastly pursuit of pleasures, the narrow-sighted pursuit of money, or the shallow pursuit of the fading praises of men. Our dignity as Christians is to pursue intimate union with God in this life and in the next and to use all the goods of this world, those material and those immaterial, to obtain that supreme goal. As St. Theresa of Avila so beautifully and simply put it: God alone satisfies.