Aristotle says that if happiness is not god-sent, ‘then it comes as the result of a goodness, along with a learning process, and effort’. Every human being can practise a way of life that will make him happier. Aristotle is not offering a magic wand to erase all threats to happiness. There are indeed some qualifications to the universal capacity for pursuing happiness. He accepts that there are certain kinds of advantage that you either have or you don’t. If you have the bad luck to have been born very low down the socio-economic ladder, or have no children or other family or loved ones, or are extremely ugly, your circumstances, which you can’t avoid, as he puts it, ‘taint’ delight. It is harder to achieve happiness. But not impossible. You do not need material possessions or physical strength or beauty to start exercising your mind in company with Aristotle, since the way of life he advocates concerns a moral and psychological excellence rather than one that lies in material possessions or bodily splendour. There are, he acknowledges, even more difficult obstacles: having children or friends who are completely depraved is one such obstacle. Another – which Aristotle saves until last and elsewhere implies is the most difficult problem any human can ever face – is the loss of fine friends in whom you have invested effort, or especially the loss of children, through death.

Yet, potentially, even people poorly endowed by nature or who have experienced terrible bereavements can live a good life. It is possible to undergo even apparently unendurable disasters and still live well: ‘even in adversity goodness shines through, when someone endures repeated and severe misfortune with patience; this is not owing to insensibility but from generosity and greatness of soul.’ In this sense, Aristotle’s is a deeply optimistic moral system. And it has practical relevance to ‘everyone’, implied by Aristotle’s inclusive use of the first personal plural: ‘This sort of philosophy is different from most other types of philosophy, since we are not asking what goodness is for the sake of knowing what it is, but with the aim of becoming good, without which our enquiry would be useless.’ In fact, the only way to be a good person is to do good things and treat people with fairness recurrently.

Excerpt from Why Read Aristotle Today, by Edith Hall. Read the full article here.
Made on