Happiness the Most Important Purpose in Life?
Happiness – a word marred by ubiquitous colloquial misusage.
The true meaning of happiness has somewhat progressively gone astray in the
rapid commercialisation of society, introducing newfound materialistic
obsessions leading to confused interpretation of this enigmatic word with the
mere transient feeling of pleasure. The Greek word Eudaimonia sheds light to the case, defining happiness with its
ancient purity 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’1.
Aristotle states that this form of philosophical happiness Eudaimonia is the highest good for
human beings, and differs from the notion of happiness being a subjective state
of mind, noting otherwise of happiness being the most important ultimate
objective goal that encompasses one’s totality in life. This essay seeks to demonstrate
that happiness is the most important purpose in life by analysing, scrutinising
and supporting Aristotle’s argument presented in his influential series of
Aristotle fundamentally believes that
happiness is the most important purpose in life.
In his works of Nichmachean Ethics,
Aristotle pursues the answer to the question, ‘what is the ultimate goal and
purpose of human life?’ Pleasure derived from wealth, love and fame are seen
often as ultimate goals, howbeit none of these sufficiently satisfy the demands
and requirements of Aristotle’s seemingly simple yet abstruse philosophical
inquiry. Indeed, these qualities possess some value, however none of them
compete worthily for the title of chief purpose to humanity. To be an ultimate
purpose, an act must be clear in its finality and something ‘which is always
desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else’2.
At first, these ideas that wealth and love are the ultimate purpose of life
appear reasonable, though upon detailed analysis, these qualities are proven
invalid as they are simply denoted as means or tools to achieve and obtain the ultimate
goal of human life – happiness. Aristotle argues that happiness is the answer
that suffices to all requirements and thus is the highest good and purpose in
life. Happiness is always desirable in itself and is never for the sake of
something else. All other properties, qualities and goals are purely conduits
to the irrevocable ultimateness of happiness.
Aristotle made a clear distinction
between happiness and the aforementioned pleasure. For Aristotle, happiness
compromised the entirety of one’s life. Unlike pleasure, happiness cannot be
lost within a matter of minutes, but is an ultimate end and a purpose that
determines the value of one’s life. For Aristotle, being happy as a whole in
purpose represents humans’ achievement in realising their relative potential
ergo life’s happiness and the satisfaction (of their purpose) in being happy
can really only be correctly judged at the end of one’s life and thus humans’
purpose is not an evanescent state leading the great philosopher to remark, ‘for as it is not
one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a
short time that makes a man blessed and happy’3.
Aristotle explored ideas in nature, observing our
differences as human beings to other species of animals and plants. He
discerned that what made the human species so unique was the ability to reason.
This moral capability and rational capacity of the highest order belonging to
humans accommodates intellectual contemplation which leads to the fulfilment of
a happy life. Since happiness is the excellence of human nature and it is in
mankind’s nature to reason, happiness is contingent on the application of humans’
rational capacity which is facilitated by intellectual contemplation. Thus
Aristotle believed that the act of intellectual contemplation or ‘philosophical
wisdom’ was a necessity in attaining happiness.
Yet Aristotle didn’t simply deem contemplation
alone the key to unlocking happiness. Alongside the sagacious reflection of
intellectual contemplation, he highly considered virtue as a fundamental basis
to achieving happiness. Aristotle hence stated ‘that happiness turns out to be
an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue’4and
that ‘happiness does not consist in pastimes or amusements, but in activities
in accordance with virtue’5.
What Aristotle essentially conveys within these quotations is that the pursuit
of happiness (our purpose) is the exercise of virtue. Aristotle teaches that
having ‘complete virtue’ is the most important factor in attaining happiness.
Aristotle believes that in being a good, righteous human that exemplifies the
highest moral standards one can achieve happiness. With an abundance of short
lived sources of instantaneous indulgences that satiate mankind, nowadays it
has becomes simple to slip blindly into more tempting lesser choices. Aristotle
in his philosophically critical manner, views the achievement of complete
virtue via good choices which often require sacrifices and an undeterred vision
of the long term rather than the myopic view of enjoying pleasures of the
In Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, Aristotle
emphasises the importance of the ‘golden mean’ in exercising virtue.
Aristotle’s doctrine of virtue is a ‘golden mean’ between the vices of
extremity and deficiency. The golden mean revolves around three key components.
Take the extreme response of epicaricacy,
when one takes pleasure in another’s ill fortune and the opposing deficient
vice of phthonos, where one takes
pain in others’ good fortune; Aristotle would support the virtuous action of Nemesis, in taking pain in others’
undeserved good fortune, which is the mean of the two lesser vices6. Leading
a happy life quintessentially entails the cogent notion of the golden mean, an
equilibrium and harmonisation of opposites, relative to individuals, like
courageousness from rashness and cowardice, or friendliness from
cantankerousness and obsequiousness.7
I strongly believe that Aristotle’s argument
proving why happiness is the most important purpose in life is plausible and
convincing. The argument presented is sound with true premises. For instance,
Aristotle is entirely just and scrupulous in his reasoning that an ultimate
purpose in life must be clear in its finality and never for the sake of
anything else, happiness is clear in its finality and never for the sake of
anything else ergo happiness is the most important purpose in life. In
addition, Aristotle has provided relevant evidence to support his argument.
This is apparent when Aristotle compares humans to other species of animals and
plants to emphasise the importance of our rational capacity and its
significance in procuring happiness.
On the other hand, one may argue and object to
Aristotle’s argument that happiness is the most important purpose in life.
Richard Dawkins, an ethologist and firm atheist,
believes that ‘life has no higher purpose than to perpetuate the survival of
viewpoint is constituted from the biological ideology that human reproduction
is the ultimate purpose of life. This is after all how we came to be, after billions
of years of unguided evolution fuelled by reproduction. It is an integral part
of life and is the reason why we live, to ensure our human species thrives,
otherwise evolution would have been ineffectual and ultimately inutile in its
operation spanning billions of years.
On the contrary, there are fundamental flaws in
this counter argument to Aristotle. Firstly, this argument primarily overlooks
the rational capacity that is inherent to the human species. By dismissing our
rational capacity and ability to reason, we simply reduce our purpose to those
of plants and animals, whose ultimate goal is to reproduce. Moreover, what
makes the human species unique is our rational capacity which enables us to be
happy and principally live a life that is qualitatively different from those of
plants and animals. Under Dawkins’ notion, we are in effect degraded and
dehumanised to cats and dogs that can’t achieve happiness as we dismiss our
intrinsic rational characteristics. Humans have a higher capacity than plants
and animals, thus we must act in accordance and appropriately to nature as
rational animals seeking the ultimate good in life-happiness. While human reproduction and the preservation
of human DNA is essential to human life, it can only be attributed as a human
function and not at ultimate purpose of life.
In conclusion, I strongly believe that happiness
is the most important purpose in life. Aristotle’s Eudaimonia argument and
virtue ethics support and prove this. Happiness is the ultimate purpose of
human existence which can only be judged and fully achieved at the end of one’s
life. Happiness differs from pleasure, it is not a fleeting feeling but an ultimate
purpose. Happiness can be described as the exercise of virtue. To be happy, one
must make moral, virtuous choices and undertake intellectual contemplation
which utilises our unique rational capacity. Happiness is clear in its finality
and is the highest good to human beings thus happiness is the most important
purpose in life.
“Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life,
the whole aim and end of human existence”