Happiness

Another point about the inadequacy of the English language when understanding what people like Plato and Aristotle are saying.

Aristotle says that the telos (lit. end) of human existence is “happiness.” If you get a good translator when reading Aristotle, you may notice that they never translate the word “eudaimonia.” The reason for it is the etymologies of “happiness” and “eudaimonia.” The “hap” in “happiness” is the same as the “hap” in “perhaps,” literally meaning chance or good luck. In other words, “happiness” roughly translates to “good luck” if you think of the meaning behind its components, “happiness” then is to have lots of good luck in the English sense. Eudaimonia is quite different. “Eu” means good in Greek, whereas “daimon” translates to something like the children of the gods, divine spirits that are somewhere between the gods and humans. Aristotle uses “daimon” to show a good soul, i.e. a soul that has achieved balance and, in that way, is closer to the divine. Eudaimonia, therefore, means a good state of the balanced soul. That is to say, it has nothing to do with luck. In fact, too much good luck makes eudaimonia impossible.

This, perhaps, is the biggest problem with the modern English mind trying to understand someone like Aristotle, because it makes his end not a state of the soul, but a feeling. In fact, the understanding that the end of human life is happiness (in the sense explained above, not Aristotle’s) is easily reachable even when someone does not misunderstand and has never read Aristotle, because of the push of pop-culture. One of the most destructive and sadly one of the most popular thinkers that push for this idea is John Steward Mill. In On Liberty and Utilitarianism, Mill argues that the end of all human life is to draw close to pleasure and move away from pain. Though Aristotle would agree that going through a life with constant pain makes eudaimonia very difficult to attain in most cases, the overwhelming counter-example there being Socrates, some pain is desirable.

The reason for it is that pain teaches wisdom. If a person lives in a perpetual state of self-gratification, if they have never gone through a situation where they have had to say no to something, then they are utterly stupid. In addition, they have never had a chance to develop virtue. If I am afflicted by a short attention span (I am not talking about conditions should as ADD here, but there are some people that naturally have a short attention span) and I have never forced myself to actually pay attention, then how can I ever do anything but have a short attention span? One very common case to see this phenomenon is among the children of the very rich. Very often, the children of actors or other really famous and rich people are rebellious toward them and often end up in different sorts of rehab clinics. In fact, suicide rates increase with wealth, though one would think that it is more logical that they should decrease with it. One cannot help but wonder, why?

The reason for it, at least according to Aristotle, is that too much of a good thing is always a bad thing. Too much courage leads one to become foolhardy, too much desire for physical exercise makes one into a beast (this point is also treated in Book IV of the Republic) and so on and so forth. Well, to much deprivation from pain, is, in itself, a pain, however, whereas the other ones teach you wisdom, this one, by itself, often leads people to dispair.

That being said, I think there is one more thing to be made clear concerning happiness and eudaimonia. That is, the problem that, if we are to believe Aristotle that only a balanced soul can attain happiness, there is countless evidence of really evil people being happy. This is one point that students struggle with a lot when Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics are introduced to them. Once again, we come into a clash concerning the difference between happiness in the English sense and eudaimonia. Aristotle would say that even though many people who do evil deeds can feel happiness (i.e. happiness as a feeling), they are not in the state of the soul called eudaimonia, because though their reason and will has become so maimed that they can take pleasure in harming others, which, in turns, harms their own soul, the soul in itself is still maimed and hurt.

This brings us to a point that very few people understand. In fact, when Socrates in Plato’s Apology (that is, with the same meaning as apologetics, i.e. defense, namely Socrates’ defense before the Boule of Athens) says, “by killing me, you would harm yourselves more than me,” people are utterly perplexed. For a much deeper discussion on what that means, you can look into the Republic. The basic point is that whenever one harms someone else, they harm their own soul with them. The best way I can think of explaining this point is in terms of Harry Potter and Horcruxes. If you have read the series, I hope this will be easy to understand, if you haven’t, well, read the series. In order to form a Horcrux, one must kill. By killing, they fragment their soul and then, simply say some magic words, and you can put the part of your soul that you broke off into some random object. The old rules of black magic say that a wizard should only ever make one Horcrux, but Voldemort is Voldemort, so he makes five, and by the end his soul is so unstable that he inadvertently makes Harry into a Horcrux when he kills his mother.

Now, back to the real world, where there is no Horcruxes and no magic words to put some of your soul in the bank. When a very prominent philosopher was asked, “What does the human soul look like?” he, rather puzzled, responded, “Like a human.” One very problematic issue with modern civilization is that it has espoused a very abstract view on the soul (for more on that theme, look at my second post). In any case, souls don’t fragment. However, they can be harmed. Imagine that whenever you do evil to anyone else, your will and reason break (quite in the literal sense) the spiritual sinews are cut. Though perhaps you have gained something through that evil, you have lost something in your soul, your soul is not wounded. There is a technical term for an action that harms your soul; it is “sin.” There is also a way to fix back a soul; it’s called “redemption.” The principal difference between most ancient civilizations and our own is that they had a very clear understanding of “sin,” which is principally why Christianity thrived throughout them, because it offered a way to put back souls plagued by sin, whereas our own, due to no minor help from pop-psychology, has forgotten the concept of sin itself.

In any case, the reason why an evil person can never achieve eudaimonia is because they would first need to put their soul back together and then seek balance.

P.S. Some of you may wonder why I have named myself “modern Platonist” if I write about Aristotle nearly just as much as I write about Plato. Well, first and foremost, Aristotle was one of Plato’s students and he is very Platonic, though he deviates from Plato’s teachings in a few cases. However, the fact that we only have dialogues and no lecture notes from Plato and lecture notes and no dialogues from Aristotle makes relying only on Plato a little difficult (you can say in two pages in an essay what you may need twenty pages to say in a dialogue). Most philosophers would agree, I hope, that unless there is a definite contradiction between something Aristotle says and something Plato says, that it would be pretty same to assume that that part is common teaching.

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