How to be happy? Aristotle’s Virtue theory
How can we be happy? No one can answer that for sure. Maybe because each human is unique and we all have different circumstances that we face each day. Even our understanding of happiness is different.
However, what we all agree to is that we want to be happy. Most philosophers say that almost all our actions are in some way or another, are taken with the intention for us to be happy.
Imagine a person who might be happy all the time. You might think of him as someone who always knows the right thing to say. He says it at the right time and in precisely the right way.
It is not only about what he says, but even his actions are also just right. He always knows what the right thing to do is. He knows what the right way to do that thing is.
Such a person you might think has achieved mastery in the art of life and you might be right. Aristotle called such a person as a Virtuous person i.e. someone who performs the art of being a human well.
This art, he said was important to achieve happiness and prosperity i.e. the highest good that all humans aim for.
Why is virtue theory important to be happy
Virtue or Arete as referred to in Greek means moral excellence or excellence of any kind. Aristotle said that everything in nature has a purpose and if those things do not fulfill their purpose, they are not virtuous.
For example, a flower’s role is to grow and be beautiful and smell nice. If a flower fails to achieve this, we would say that the flower lacks virtue.
He argued that nature has built into us this desire to be virtuous and if one fails to be virtuous, they cannot achieve true happiness or Eudaimonia.
“Having virtue just means doing the right thing at the right time in the right amount toward the right people”-Aristotle
What is the highest good, Eudaimonia
The highest good is in the Greek language referred to as a term called Eudemonia/Eudaimonia. The word comes from ‘Eu’, which means good, and ‘daimōn’, which means spirit.
It is the central concept on which Aristotle ethics stands. The Academy where Aristotle studied for 20 years defines it as-
“The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.”
Aristotle realized that there are no pointless actions. Every action taken has a reason or a goal behind it. We take bitter medicine to get better when we are sick.
We study so we can learn a skill and pass a test. All actions thus are an end or are a means to an end. Aristotle said that these actions with ends contribute to the wider end that is the highest good or Eudaimonia.
Thus, Eudaimonia is to live a fulfilling life with happiness and contentment, which as stated above is an end in itself.
What separates a man from everything else in nature is his ability to reason. Thus, a virtuous person would be one who reasons well.
Hence, Aristotle said that a person living in accordance with reason and rationale (A person’s highest function) is living a life of virtue and excellence.
“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”-Aristotle
Eudaimonia thus, in essence, has 3 basic properties. It must be desirable for itself. It must not be desirable for other things. All other things are desirable for their sake.
Hierarchy of human aspects
According to Aristotle, every human has a few aspects to his nature that are tiered in the following way with the last being the most important aspect of our lives.
- Physical- Since we are living beings, unlike things.
- Emotional-Since we possess emotions, unlike plants.
- Social-Since humans exist and function in societies and cannot survive well in Isolation.
- Rational-We possess wisdom, we are creative and can express ourselves. As explained above the highest quality of a human according to Aristotle is his ability to reason
How is Virtue theory different from other philosophies?
Virtue theory is Teleological. The word Teleological comes from ‘Telos’ which means purpose. A teleological theory hence is one that focuses on the purpose.
In this way, it separates itself from Consequential and Deontological philosophies. Consequentialism and Deontological approaches define actions as good or bad and then build ideas of virtue based on them.
Virtue theory instead defines Virtues. It goes on further to explain what it means to possess those virtues.
A Consequential theory would look at the consequences of certain actions. If those actions lead to good consequences then the actions will be good.
A Deontological theory would instead look at duties and rules. For example, it is your duty to follow the ‘Ten Commandments’ in the Bible if you are a Christian.
Virtue theory takes a different approach from both and thus focuses on being rather than the actions you take.
To be happy we need to focus on being
When you practice your virtues every day you become good at them. When you will face a choice, later on, the right thing to do will come to you naturally.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. ”-Aristotle
In this way, Virtue theory lacks any Categorical imperative or principle of utility. It is more concerned about character rather than your actions.
Thus if you mess up a few times it is ok because you are judged on what you keep doing. If you mess up and violate your principles once, it will not define the rest of your life.
If you commit a small crime out of need, e.g. steal something you will not be a thief. However, if you repeatedly steal then you are a thief.
Different type of virtues necessary to be happy
Aristotle stated that there are two types of Virtue. Moral and Intellectual.
If we have one and not the other then we will not be capable of true virtue and so will not be able to achieve Eudaimonia and be happy.
Intellectual Virtues are what we might refer to as scientific knowledge.
They come from a knowledge of first principles and the learnings that come from applying those first principles.
We discuss First principles in much more detail in our blog post here.
These intellectual virtues consist of
- Theoretical Virtues- Wisdom (Sophia), Scientific knowledge (Episteme) and Rational intuition of first principles (Nous).
- Practical Virtue(Phronesis)- Practical wisdom or prudence
- Productive Virtue(Techne)- Knowledge of craft or skill
However, just contemplation and understanding is not enough to have a virtuous life. It is equally important to act rightly and develop a good moral character.
“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”-Aristotle
Moral Virtues unlike Intellectual virtues are not acquired by learning but instead are a result of our habits and the moral character that we build based on our life experiences.
These moral virtues consist of
- Courage- Being brave
- Temperance- Having Self-control
- Liberality-Being charitable
- Magnificence- Being radiant and charismatic
- Pride/Magnanimity-Being generous
- Proper Ambition/Honor-earnest desire
- Good temper/patience- Being calm and patient
- Truthfulness- Being honest and having integrity
- Wittiness- Being good at conversation and having a sense of humor
- Friendliness-Being social and friendly
- Modesty- Being humble
- Righteous Indignation/Justice– Being impartial and fair
The Golden Mean
Aristotle said that you can definitely have too much of a good thing. Thus being virtuous is more an art than science. To be virtuous you need to know what is just right.
Aristotle said that there are two types of Vice. Vice of deficiency and Vice of excess.
Being Virtuous is the art of balancing between those two Vices. Hence, Virtue is like a golden mean between vices of excess and deficiency.
The following table is from books of Nicomachean ethics-
Sphere of action or feeling
Fear and confidence
Pleasure and pain
Getting and spending(minor)
Getting and spending(major)
Honor and dishonor(major)
Honor and dishonor(minor)
Irascibility>Patience>Lack of spirit
Envy>Righteous indignation>Malicious enjoyment
Thus, a virtuous person would not fall to either side of the spectrum, as both sides are vicious.
A virtuous person would take stock of the situation and decide based on his character and principles as to what is the right course of action in his situation.
For example, if you see someone trying to rob a store a person with cowardice would just run away. A rash person might try to enter the store and fight the robber.
However, a person with courage will take the stock of the situation; look at how many robbers there are and what weapons they possess. Then call the local police.
Moral Exemplars according to Aristotle people who already possess Virtue. We need to recognize those moral exemplars and emulate them.
We all have the ability to use our independent will to choose our actions instead of just reacting to a situation.
You can read more about it in our blog that goes into detail about freedom of choice here.
It is hard to do and will even feel phony and fake when we begin to do it however, by doing it repeatedly we will develop it as a habit.
“Excellence is never an accident. It is the result of high intention, sincere effort,and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives- choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”-Aristotle
Habituation of these virtues will be the foundation of our moral character that will lead us to be happy and have a fulfilling life.
4 states of a person’s character
Aristotle said that there are 4 states of the character of a person
- Vicious- A person who gets happiness from acting badly. i.e. satisfied by Vices
- Incontinent- A person who acts badly out of his weakness. Dissatisfied by his actions.
- Continent- A person who acts right despite his inclination to act badly. Dissatisfied because he couldn’t fulfill his inclinations
- Virtuous-A person who is inclined to act rightly and does. This way he is satisfied by his actions and also because he could fulfill his inclinations.
This can also be understood by the four stages of competence discussed in skill development psychology.
The aim of a person is to go from the stages of unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence to unconscious competence.
In the beginning, we are not aware of our skill and knowledge gap however, over time we become aware and need practice.
With time and practice, we become competent in the task but it still requires our focus and effort. When we practice a lot, however, we become so competent in the task that we do it unconsciously.
This unconscious competence is required in moral and intellectual virtues to be happy.
Just like, there is a skill of acting, a skill of cutting wood, etc. Aristotle said that living life could also be seen as a skill.
By understanding what makes humans different from everyone else he realized what makes us special.
That is why he called for living life based on rationale. This week try to introspect the actions that you take and the choices you make.
Where do you stand on the spectrum will show you what you need to work on.
When your intentions and aims will be good, the actions that follow will automatically align with those aims.
Being virtuous is a process that never stops. Being virtuous is to continuously work on your flaws and mastering your strengths.
Eudaimonia is not a state where you reach a place of comfort and convenience.
Instead, it is a way of life where you keep growing as you face difficult challenges and at the end of the day find yourself exhausted but filled with satisfaction.
We urge you to find your true callings and passions. We provide a Free eBook that will help you in finding your passions. You can claim it here.
That’s all for this week. I hope you have a good day and a good life.