“That the fortunes of descendants and of all a man’s friends should not affect his happiness at all seems an unfriendly doctrine, and one opposed to the opinions men hold.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
Aristotle has just argued for one of the cornerstones of his worldview: human happiness most of all consists in living virtuously. Living virtuously does not yield happiness as some sort of reward; to live virtuously is to be happy.
And while his understanding of happiness places great emphasis on a person’s responsibility to choose well and to be intentional about forming good habits, Aristotle remains deeply aware of a truth that can be somewhat alarming.
Our happiness is also dependent on the actions of others.
Aristotle argues for instance that while happiness consists in something that a person does—again, virtuous actions performed voluntarily—nonetheless happiness should also be seen as a gift of God.
But the fact that Aristotle suggests that our happiness, or at least some degree of our happiness, is somehow connected to the fortunes of our friends and family—even those who come after we are gone!—is especially provocative. This raises a cluster of theological questions I am not competent to address. But one thing especially strikes me in Aristotle’s suggestion.
While I feel a strong desire to control my own destiny, at the same time something strikes me as fitting that my own happiness is not simply my own affair. Perhaps I go too far, but I am inclined to say that if my family and friends are not happy with me, then I don’t want to be happy.
I hold by faith that a human person could theoretically be happy in heaven were there no on else but that person and God. This is a profound truth. Yet in the concrete, has not God woven my life so deeply with the lives of others that in some sense it cannot be unwoven without tearing the fabric?
We learn as we move through life that the more we live and love the more we make ourselves vulnerable–deeply vulnerable–to the sufferings and joys of others. When I think of how vulnerable I am, in and through those that I love, my knees can grow weak.
Yet among other things, in those moments I might recall that even Aristotle had confidence that it is all for the good. Indeed, would I trade my vulnerability for anything else in the world?
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.
Image: by Ludwig Knaus (1829-1910)