Happiness: the Individual, the City, and the Ideal

February 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

In both Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, happiness is a state of stability and harmony that is present both within the individual and in his relations with other people. Furthermore, both philosophers emphasize that man can reach the highest kind of happiness only under the direction of his reason. However, they disagree about the existence of a definitive ideal of happiness to which all men can aspire. Since Plato has faith in his theory of Forms, he can imagine a unified moral and political system in which every element has a perfect model. Aristotle, however, focuses on the more practical issues of how to make actual men and city-states more virtuous and thus happier.According to Plato, happiness is possible only for the man who has cultivated virtue in his life. Among the four virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice, the first three correspond to the parts of soul, which are the philosophic, the spirited, and the appetitive. The task of the virtuous man is to ensure that the philosophic part of the soul rules its other, lesser parts. The rational mind must control the desires for honor and praise, as well as for physical pleasure. In this light, the remaining quality of justice is the correct ordering of these virtues. This proper balance brings the inner harmony necessary for true happiness. Though Plato mentions a “silly and youthful idea of happiness” (127) whose object is possessions and pleasure, he asserts that wisdom alone can give true, lasting pleasure. In support of his statement, Plato argues that only the just, wise man has compared the desires of each part of the soul, so his choice to give priority to the pursuit of truth must be the correct one.In Plato’s ideal city, the pursuit of truth takes a very particular form. He conceives of an unchanging world of Forms beyond the physical universe that embodies the reality that is normally hidden to us. Though there is a Form for every entity and concept, the most essential Form is that of the Good, which should be the object of any search for knowledge. Only through the discovery of the Form of the Good can men find true happiness, for the eternal Forms are the essence of stability and order. Understanding things as they truly are gives philosophers the ultimate satisfaction.However, the philosopher kings who rule the Republic cannot simply enjoy this knowledge in peace. Since the city-state is the smallest unit that can satisfy people’s needs since “not one of us is self-sufficient” (39), the Guardians must dedicate their lives to ruling the city and sharing their wisdom. Though their knowledge makes them disdain the physical world in which they live, it also makes them best suited to govern it; “the city will never find happiness unless the painters who use the divine model sketch its outline” (156). Perfect happiness is attainable theoretically, but it must be sacrificed for the greater good of the city. The Guardians face the painful responsibility of governing the city, though they would prefer to spend their lives contemplating the perfection of the Forms. Some argue that Plato himself would have liked to spend his entire life as a perpetual participant in the Eleusinian Mysteries, but felt that it was his moral responsibility, as well as his legal obligation, to only participate once. In the Republic, Plato states unequivocally that “it is not the law’s concern to make some one group in the city outstandingly happy, but to contrive to spread happiness throughout the city, by bringing the citizens into harmony with each other…and to make them share with each other the benefits which each group can confer upon the community” (172). Just as every part of the soul must play its proper part, each member of the city must perform his proper task, no more and no less.The Guardians, who represent the fulfillment of wisdom, function in relation to other citizens in much the same way as justice functions in relation to other virtues: they preserve order. They create such a well-ordered, stable city, and promote virtue so effectively, that injustice is nearly impossible. They are using the “divine model” to rule, so they have perfect knowledge of the proper behavior of their subjects. Citizens are bound together in such a tight unit that harming another person is like harming oneself. Ordinary citizens cannot help but be virtuous, thus they are also happy. They do not have the ultimate satisfaction of discovering the Form of the Good, but they also do not have to experience the pain of re-entering the dark cave after seeing what lies beyond it. In Plato’s world, no one has the opportunity to enjoy perfect happiness, but the city ensures a certain level of happiness for everyone by creating a stable, unified environment.In his Ethics and Politics, Aristotle describes first the virtuous individual, then the virtuous city, maintaining, as Plato does, that virtue is an indispensable element of happiness. In his conception of human nature, the happy man has the moral virtues of justice, courage, temperance, and liberality, each of which is the harmonious balance of two extremes. Reason, here in the form of practical wisdom, creates the “right rule” of these virtues, and ensures that they result in virtuous action, which must always be chosen consciously. For an end to be good, both practical wisdom and moral virtue must be present. Furthermore, the happy man must also be equipped with certain external goods, such as adequate wealth and a family. “He is happy who is active in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods…throughout a complete life” (22).This state of happiness is never for the sake of something else; it is desirable in itself in order to be genuine; “the self-sufficient we now define as that which when isolated makes life desirable and lacking in nothing; and such we think happiness to be” (12). In Ethics, Aristotle suggests that, since our rational element is what distinguishes us as humans and forms our most essential part, the happiest and most fulfilling life is that of contemplation. Certainly, contemplation is a self-sufficient activity; it does not seek physical pleasure or praise from others. Furthermore, since “reason is divine,” this life is closest to that of the gods, who are “above all other beings blessed and happy” (267). However, stating vaguely that this purely contemplative life is “too high for man” and that he must content himself with striving towards it, Aristotle leaves the question and moves to the life of a virtuous man within a city.In Politics, Aristotle moves away from his discussion of inner activity to state that “a human being is by nature a political animal” whose fulfillment (end) can only be realized in a city-state, because only in a city-state can men form a self-sufficient community. This city is formed of a “multitude of individuals,” whose virtue determines the virtue of the city as a whole. Like a virtuous man who is controlled by his rational part, the most virtuous city is one that is ruled by a king who is the city’s wisest citizen. Similarly, just as the most miserable man is one who lets his extreme appetites create havoc in his life, the least virtuous city is one that is ruled by a cruel, selfish tyrant. Aristotle also clarifies with concrete examples his emphasis on the importance of choice in moral virtue. In the best cities, citizens have private land, so that they can choose to be generous, and they have their own wives, so that they can choose to be temperate. Only when the opportunity to act selfishly or excessively is present does virtue have real value.Upon comparison of Ethics and Politics, it may seem that Aristotle is contradicting himself by stating that man is a political animal after claiming that a life of contemplation is the most desirable. If man can find happiness alone, through contemplation, why should he participate in the affairs of the city? However, Aristotle does not see personal life and political life as thoroughly separate as we do today. He intends for politics to teach virtue, so the political life must foster, through education, the most virtuous activity, which is contemplation. In fact, a life of contemplation is impossible without the city, which satisfies external needs and creates time for leisure.It is for this reason that being a good man involves more than being a good citizen; good citizens form a good city, which in turn allows some of them to mature into contemplative men who are truly virtuous, and deserving of the label good men.From Ethics to Politics Aristotle seems to be moving abruptly from the individual to the city, but in fact the two are inter-dependent. They continuously perfect one another and strive towards the divine, which they can never completely reach. Aristotle describes the best city, the one with more virtue and happiness than the others, but not the perfect one.In both Plato and Aristotle, there is a marked tension between the interests of the individual and those of the city. Plato, quite aware of this tension, states in clear terms that the city must take precedence to preserve stability for all. The Guardians do attain perfect wisdom and happiness, but they must sacrifice it and return to the cave for the instruction of the unenlightened. Aristotle, however, creates a more ambiguous relationship between the individual and the city as he tries to transform the tension between them into one harmonious goal. From a modern perspective, the interests of individuals and cities usually conflict, but Aristotle wants them to work together at all times towards the happiness of everyone, from the wisest to the most slavish. His attempt to synthesize them is not always convincing, but the idea is an optimistic one.From an American perspective, the role of choice makes the Aristotelian system seem less foreign and thus more appealing than the Platonic one. Aristotle gives his citizens, excluding slaves who are apparently incapable of reason, the responsibility to pursue virtue and happiness and allows them to experience the rewards of their own virtuous actions. In his ethical system, virtue is relative to the individual; it is “a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us” (39). Each man must find the mean between excess and deficiency. In the Platonic city, however, the Guardians copy the Forms, and the other citizens copy the Guardians, but no one faces the task of finding the balance of virtue appropriate to him individually.In Plato’s Republic, virtue is inseparable from happiness; the closer man gets to the Form of the Good, the happier he becomes. Happiness comes from beyond, not from the physical world of human affairs. The city-state is simply a springboard to the real, invisible world of Forms. According to Aristotle, however, virtue is only one of the qualities necessary for happiness. Man must also have the practical wisdom and the inclination to act virtuously, as well as the external goods that make a happy life possible. These elements come from the human world, though there is something of the divine in human reason. This absence of Platonic Forms explains the greater presence of ambiguity in Aristotle, for the human world is full of variations and change. In the Platonic system, all things decay from their model of perfection, whereas in the Aristotelian world people must create a just society themselves by making virtuous choices and treating one another fairly. In Plato’s Republic, men are always falling away from the ideal, whereas in the Aristotelian city, men can progress towards it indefinitely. True happiness may be unattainable in both systems, but Aristotle gives value to the human efforts to achieve it.

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