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[T]he virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and we are completed through habit.
Aristotle describes how virtue, and therefore happiness, can be effectively attained through purposeful practice. Happiness is not something bestowed naturally upon people, nor is happiness incompatible with humanity. Rather, Aristotle views happiness as an activity, not a state, and considers the ultimate goal of humans to be the constant practice of that activity. This view of happiness requires not only the proper mindset but also vigilance and perseverance: Instead of achieving happiness and then forever possessing that feeling, like some sort of trophy, a virtuous person must put in effort every day to attain happiness.
Happiness, then, is not found in amusement; for it would be absurd if the end were amusement, and our lifelong efforts and sufferings aimed at amusing ourselves.
Aristotle further defines happiness as something deeper than temporary excitement, distraction, or pleasure. Though we may feel happy during these times, we will not be fully practicing happiness because these things have no relation to deeper virtue or the achievement of human ability. Aristotle does acknowledge the occasional necessity of amusement but also cautions against mistaking diversion for true happiness—the endless pursuit of diversion can only come at a great ultimate cost to a person, who would never feel fully satisfied in his or her quest.
[I]t seems correct to amuse ourselves so that we can do something serious, as Anacharsis says; for amusement would seem to be relaxation. Relaxation, then, is not the end; for we pursue it [to prepare for] activity.
Aristotle here elaborates further on his belief that amusement, though not true happiness, remains necessary to human life. Though fleeting diversions can distract from a person’s true purpose, Aristotle does not believe that amusement exists as inherently immoral. Rather, he emphasizes the importance of viewing amusement not as an end but as a means to an end. The relaxation of amusing ourselves helps to prepare us for work—if we were to constantly expend our energy, we would eventually lose our ability to secure happiness, just as surely as if we never pursued happiness at all.
[I]f we are enjoying one thing intensely, we do not do another very much. It is when we are only mildly pleased that we do something else; for instance, people who eat nuts in theatres do this most when the actors are bad. Since, then, the proper pleasure makes an activity more exact, longer, and better, whereas an alien pleasure damages it, clearly the two pleasures differ widely. For an alien pleasure does virtually what a proper pain does.
Aristotle notes that another reason pure pleasure does not stand as the end goal of human life is that pleasure’s benefits change based on context, while the benefits of true happiness never do. This malleability makes incorporating pleasure into one’s life difficult because such incorporation requires more careful judgment than a person might expect. To truly contribute to a person’s happiness, pleasure must be embraced with integrity, moderation, and virtuous intent. Otherwise, we are not moving toward any particular goal or sense of completeness; we are simply wallowing in distraction.
[W]e can do fine actions even if we do not rule earth and sea; for even from moderate resources we can do the actions that accord with virtue.
Here, Aristotle allows that external goods and prosperity can, indeed, enhance a person’s happiness. As with the pursuit of pleasure, though, he encourages the practice of restraint. One must accumulate material prosperity only so far as to ensure their own good health, so as to provide a strong foundation from which to contemplate and pursue virtue in daily life. A person without any wealth or possessions may be occupied only with moment-to-moment survival, which will impede their ability to practice happiness. However, Aristotle emphasizes that personal wealth need only be accumulated as much as is practically useful.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Nicomachean Ethics!