Durant 1926: Ethics and the Nature of Happiness (Aristotle)

This paper presents Chapter II, Section 7 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


VII. Ethics and the Nature of Happiness

And yet, as Aristotle developed, and young men crowded about him to be taught and formed, more and more his mind turned from the details of science to the larger and vaguer problems of conduct and character. It came to him more clearly that above all questions of the physical world there loomed the question of questions-what is the best life?- what is life’s supreme good?-what is virtue?-how shall we find happiness and fulfillment?

In eastern philosophy, the goal of human life has been the attainment of Static viewpoint, which is detached from all worldly phenomena, and can look at everything with equanimity.

He is realistically simple in his ethics. His scientific training keeps him from the preachment of superhuman ideals and empty counsels of perfection. “In Aristotle,” says Santayana, “the conception of human nature is perfectly sound; every ideal has a natural basis, and everything natural has an ideal development.” Aristotle begins by frankly recognizing that the aim of life is not goodness for its own sake, but happiness. “For we choose happiness for itself, and never with a view to anything further; whereas we choose honor, pleasure, intellect … because we believe that through them we shall be made happy.” But he realizes that to call happiness the supreme good is a mere truism; what is wanted is some clearer account of the nature of happiness, and the way to it. He hopes to find this way by asking wherein man differs from other beings; and by presuming that man’s happiness will lie in the full functioning of this specifically human quality. Now the peculiar excellence of man is his power of thought; it is by this that he surpasses and rules all other forms of life; and as the growth of this faculty has given him his supremacy, so, we may presume, its development will give him fulfillment and happiness. 

In my opinion, Aristotle correctly assumes that the development of the power of thought will give man fulfillment and happiness. 

The chief condition of happiness, then, barring certain physical pre-requisites, is the life of reason—the specific glory and power of man. Virtue, or rather excellence,* will depend on clear judgment, self-control, symmetry of desire, artistry of means; it is not the possession of the simple man, nor the gift of innocent intent, but the achievement of experience in the fully developed man. Yet there is a road to it, a guide to excellence, which may save many detours and delays: it is the middle way, the golden mean. The qualities of character can be arranged in triads, in each of which the first and last qualities will be extremes and vices, and the middle quality a virtue or an excellence. So between cowardice and rashness is courage; between stinginess and extravagance is liberality; between sloth and greed is ambition; between humility and pride is modesty; between secrecy and loquacity, honesty; between moroseness and buffoonery, good humor; between quarrelsomeness and flattery, friendship; between Hamlet’s indecisiveness and Quixote’s impulsiveness is self-control. “Right,” then, in ethics or conduct, is not different from “right” in mathematics or engineering; it means correct, fit, what works best to the best result.

*[The word excellence is probably the fittest translation of the Greek arete, usually mistranslated virtue. The reader will avoid misunderstanding Plato and Aristotle if, where translators write virtue, he will substitute excellence, ability, or capacity. The Greek arete is the Roman virtus; both imply a masculine sort of excellence (Ares, god of war; vir, a male). Classical antiquity conceived virtue in terms of man, just as medieval Christianity conceived it in terms of woman.]

It is true that virtue, or excellence, is the achievement of experience in the fully developed man. Such experience consists of assimilation of all perceptions such that no anomalies are left unresolved.

The golden mean, however, is not, like the mathematical mean, an exact average of two precisely calculable extremes; it fluctuates with the collateral circumstances of each situation, and discovers itself only to mature and flexible reason. Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; “these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions”; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: “the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life; … 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.”

Excellence is learned from the experience that comes from resolving anomalies.

Youth is the age of extremes: “if the young commit a fault it is always on the side of excess and exaggeration.” The great difficulty of youth (and of many of youth’s elders) is to get out of one extreme without falling into its opposite. For one extreme easily passes into the other, whether through “over-correction” or elsewise: insincerity doth protest too much, and humility hovers on the precipice of conceit.* Those who are consciously at one extreme will give the name of virtue not to the mean but to the opposite extreme. Sometimes this is well; for if we are conscious of erring in one extreme “we should aim at the other, and so we may reach the middle position, … as men do in straightening bent timber.” . But unconscious extremists look upon the golden mean as the greatest vice; they “expel towards each other the man in the middle position; the brave man is called rash by the coward, and cowardly by the rash man, and in other cases accordingly”; so in modern politics the “liberal” is called “conservative” and ”radical” by the radical and the conservative.

*[“The vanity of Antisthenes” the Cynic, said Plato, “peeps out through the holes in his cloak.”] 

The golden mean is the best position. Unfortunately, the extreme viewpoint misconstrues the middle position as the other extreme.

It is obvious that this doctrine of the mean is the formulation of a characteristic attitude which appears in almost every system of Greek philosophy. Plato had had it in mind when he called virtue harmonious action; Socrates when he identified virtue with knowledge. The Seven Wise Men had established the tradition by engraving, on the temple of Apollo at Delphi, the motto meden agan,—nothing in excess. Perhaps, as Nietzsche claims all these were attempts of the Greeks to check their own violence and impulsiveness of character; more truly, they reflected the Greek feeling that passions are not of themselves vices, but the raw material of both vice and virtue, according as they function in excess and disproportion, or in measure and harmony.*

*[Cf. a sociological formulation of the same idea: “Values are never absolute, but only relative… A certain quality in human nature is deemed to be less abundant than it ought to be; therefore we place a value upon it, and … encourage and cultivate it. As a result of this valuation we call it a virtue; but if the same quality should become superabundant we should call it a vice and try to repress it.”—Carver, Essays in Social Justice.]

The golden mean lies in assuming that position which brings harmony, consistency and continuity to a situation.

But the golden mean, says our matter-of-fact philosopher, is not all of the secret of happiness. We must have, too, a fair degree of worldly goods: poverty makes one stingy and grasping; while possessions give one that freedom from care and greed which is the source of aristocratic ease and charm. The noblest of these external aids to happiness is friendship. Indeed, friendship is more necessary to the happy than to the unhappy; for happiness is multiplied by being shared. It is more important than justice: for “when men are friends, justice is unnecessary; but when men are just, friendship is still a boon.” “A friend is one soul in two bodies.” Yet friendship implies few friends rather than many; “he who has many friends has no friend”; and “to be a friend to many people in the way of perfect friendship is impossible.” Fine friendship requires duration rather than fitful intensity; and this implies stability of character; it is to altered character that we must attribute the dissolving kaleidoscope of friendship. And friendship requires equality; for gratitude gives it at best a slippery basis. “Benefactors are commonly held to have more friendship for the objects of their kindness than these for them. The account of the matter which satisfies most persons is that the one are debtors and the others creditors, … and that the debtors wish their creditors out of the way, while the creditors are anxious that their debtors should be preserved.” Aristotle rejects this interpretation; he prefers to believe that the greater tenderness of the benefactor is to be explained on the analogy of the artist’s affection for his work, or the mother’s for her child. We love that which we have made.

The golden mean lies in the balance, not just in thoughts and character, but also in acquiring the means of living satisfactorily.

And yet, though external goods and relationships are necessary to happiness, its essence remains within us, in rounded knowledge and clarity of soul. Surely sense pleasure is not the way: that road is a circle: as Socrates phrased the coarser Epicurean idea, we scratch that we may itch, and itch that we may scratch. Nor can a political career be the way; for therein we walk subject to the whims of the people; and nothing is so fickle as the crowd. No, happiness must be a pleasure of the mind; and we may trust it only when it comes from the pursuit or the capture of truth. “The operation of the intellect … aims at no end beyond itself, and finds in itself the pleasure which stimulates it to further operation; and since the attributes of self-sufficiency, unweariedness, and capacity for rest, … plainly belong to this occupation, in it must lie perfect happiness.” 

The essence of happiness remains within us, in rounded knowledge and clarity of soul; and, not in the pleasure of senses.

Aristotle’s ideal man, however, is no mere metaphysician. 

He does not expose himself needlessly to danger, since there are few things for which he cares sufficiently; but he is willing, in great crises, to give even his life,—knowing that under certain conditions it is not worth while to live. He is of a disposition to do men service, though he is ashamed to have a service done to him. To confer a kindness is a mark of superiority; to receive one is a mark of subordination… He does not take part in public displays… He is open in his dislikes and preferences; he talks and acts frankly, because of his contempt for men and things… He is never fired with admiration, since there is nothing great in his eyes. He cannot live in complaisance with others, except it be a friend; complaisance is the characteristic of a slave…. He never feels malice, and always forgets and passes over injuries… He is not fond of talking… It is no concern of his that he should be praised, or that others should be blamed. He does not speak evil of others, even of his enemies, unless it be to themselves. His carriage is sedate, his voice deep, his speech measured; he is not given to hurry, for he is concerned about only a few things; he is not prone to vehemence, for he thinks nothing very important. A shrill voice and hasty steps come to a man through care… He bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of his circumstances, like a skillful general who marshals his limited forces with all the strategy of war… He is his own best friend, and takes delight in privacy whereas the man of no virtue or ability is his own worst enemy, and is afraid of solitude.

Such is the Superman of Aristotle. 

Aristotle’s ideal man is quite balanced and measured.


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  • Chris Thompson  On May 29, 2021 at 11:22 AM

    “In my opinion, Aristotle correctly assumes that the development of the power of thought will give man fulfillment and happiness. ”

    This is true enough and the operative pivotal word in the sentence is development.

    Happiness is a process. Hubbard, whether he plagiarized this from somewhere or not, said that happiness is, “The overcoming of not unknown obstacles toward a known goal.” Each little win as one progresses gives him the payoff that he so desperately needs and wants.

    King Solomon, author of Ecclesiastes 3:22 says, ” . . . Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for . . . that is his portion . . .” These chapters 1-3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes are beautifully written, especially for tireless seekers like you and me. They can be read to display a pessimistic slant, but I do not read them in that way. I think that they tell us that life is not a goal but rather a journey. We should enjoy our lives because they are a gift from God (Meaning That Word Which Cannot Be Spoken) Something like any number of wisdoms such as your Hindu neti-neti.

    So having knowledge does not make one happy, but getting knowledge can.
    There is only ever momentary fulfillment and that should be enjoyed for its own sake because
    nothing nothing in our spiritual lives or selves is ever filled.

    I love your quotation from Aristotle. I love it the same way I love Kipling’s poem, IF FOR BOYS. But I take it as ideals of behavior that are just that – ideals.


  • Chris Thompson  On May 29, 2021 at 11:28 AM

    I meant to say that Hubbard quote about Happiness is correct whether or not he incepted that definition or not.


    • vinaire  On May 29, 2021 at 6:52 PM

      I read Hubbard’s statements without using any filter. You have to look at what the statement is all about whether Hubbard said it or somebody else said it.


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