It may be said that every individual man and all men in common aim at a certain end which determines what they choose and what they avoid. This end, to sum it up briefly, is happiness and its constituents. Let us, then, by way of illustration only, ascertain what is in general the nature of happiness, and what are the elements of its constituent parts. For all advice to do things or not to do them is concerned with happiness and with the things that make for or against it; whatever creates or increases happiness or some part of happiness, we ought to do; whatever destroys or hampers happiness, or gives rise to its opposite, we ought not to do.
We may define happiness as prosperity combined with virtue; or as independence of life; or as the secure enjoyment of the maximum of pleasure; or as a good condition of property and body, together with the power of guarding one's property and body and making use of them. That happiness is one or more of these things, pretty well everybody agrees.
From this definition of happiness it follows that its constituent parts are: -- good birth, plenty of friends, good friends, wealth, good children, plenty of children, a happy old age, also such bodily excellences as health, beauty, strength, large stature, athletic powers, together with fame, honour, good luck, and virtue. A man cannot fail to be completely independent if he possesses these internal and these external goods; for besides these there are no others to have. (Goods of the soul and of the body are internal. Good birth, friends, money, and honour are external.) Further, we think that he should possess resources and luck, in order to make his life really secure.”
Further in the Rhetoric, Aristotle elaborates – for instance, that wealth would consist of having plenty of coin and slaves. This concantenation has served as a useful guide to the limits of conceptual talk about happiness, but not a very good guide to its cause, or as an explanation, really, of the feeling of happiness and the use of happiness to describe these states. In other words, why should we call any of this happiness?
Hume elaborated a critique of Aristotle’s hierarchical notion of happiness and its attachment to certain conventional circumstances, in his essay, the Skeptic, that may well have been what Tolstoy was thinking of when he famously wrote, in Anna Karenin, that all happy families are alike. Hume’s skeptic claims:
“The inference upon the whole is, that it is not from the value or worth of the object, which any person pursues, that we can determine his enjoyment, but merely from the passion with which he pursues it, and the success which he meets with in his pursuit. Objects have absolutely no worth or value in themselves. They derive their worth merely from the passion. If that be strong, and steady, and successful, the person is happy. It cannot reasonably be doubted, but a little miss, dressed in a new gown for a dancing-school ball, receives as compleat enjoyment as the greatest orator, who triumphs in the spendor of his eloquence, while he governs the passions and resolutions of a numerous assembly.”
Hume’s comparison of the little miss and the orator is alive in the debate today about the relationship between wealth and happiness – which is a debate that is not very loud, and is pursued idly, but that does have to do with the very reason we feel we have to keep the treadmill of production going. Although distantly – long ago the governing class decided that the happiness or unhappiness produced by economic growth would have no relevance to the question of economic growth.
Now that we've all read Nietzsche, we may be disposed to give Aristotle points. We might see this view of happiness, which excludes any interior state and depends wholly on exterior circumstances, as consistent with that great, Homeric culture we all get a little nostalgic for, now and then. Hume's skeptic, in this view, is an example of the leveling that comes with the discovery of interiority. After all, one of the things about Aristotle's list is that it is very frankly about a triumphant aristocracy that could well be overwhelmed by slave revolt or exterior enemy, and would then be unhappy. There's no happiness in defeat. Except it turned out that there was - which may be why the Hellenic period, a period when the Greeks were defeated, was the golden age of the Stoics and Epicureans, both of whom held to notions of happiness that weren't tied so explicitly to the warrior ethos.
However, what interests me is that even with Aristotle, these circumstances are labeled with an affective word: happiness. For the Hebrews, for, say Job, those circumstances would be blessed - not happy. And for those Homeric Greeks - wouldn't they have talked of fortune? Of being fortunate?
Already, here, something is going on.