As early as the fourth century BC it was admitted that the word happiness had two parts. This is so with so many of our words. It is worth attending to both meanings in order to situate ourselves well for what follows.
The Greek translation of Jesus’ “blessed” is makarios (from mak-, “become long, large”). The term “happiness”used by Aristotle much earlier in the fourth century BC, in the Nicomachean Ethics is eudaimonia (eu=good+daimon=spirit, often translated as flourishing). Given the rich history of analysis that Aristotle was privy to and engaged in furthering, it is worth taking note of how he moves forward in analysis of happiness. Here is Aristotle:
“Verbally there is a very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is [eudaimonia], and identify living well and faring well with being happy; but with regard to what [eudaimonia] is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing like pleasure, wealth or honour…” [1095a17]
So, what do I want to take away? In word and sound we all have a term we use to designate what is best and what a human is like in his best state. But, when we move from agreement on there being a best to the question of the content of the best there is much disagreement.
Aristotle goes on to separate three fillers for the content of happiness. These kinds of categorizations are bulky and dull to some degree due to their generality, but they are incredibly useful for initial distinction and guidance.
First, there is happiness to the masses (note, Aristotle is no democratic egalitarian and neither should you be though it is the fad of our time to play like the basest is the best and we are all both basest and best). The masses associate happiness with pleasure. I will extend the concept with the following three “s’s”: shelter, sugar and sex. To top it off we would add that the security of shelter, sugar and sex drives much of human decision-making and so it is what the masses of humans identify with happiness–pleasure. Aristotle calls this sense given to happiness “slavish”. And it is. It is the higher part of the rational animal (intellect) led by the lower part (sensation/feeling/passion). It is the animal part guiding the potential free spirit, and so it amounts to the chaining of that free spirit.
Second, there is the happiness of the more active among us. Aristotle calls this the political life which is the pursuit of honor. I interpret this as the pursuit of social status–the more secure and the higher on the hierarchy of status the better. This pursuit of happiness is more human because more active. You can see the influence in any form of competition: political, business, sports, popularity. Aristotle, while noting that this life is better than the above life analogous to that of brute beasts, says that the political life is still not the complete and best account of happiness. For one, it is not in the control of the man who pursues it, but in control of those who bestow honor. But what is good for a man, intuitively, must be within his control. To reject that intuition is to embrace despair. Second, men tend to honor virtue. If the effect is honor, and effects cannot be greater than their causes, then it is that which is honored, here virtue, which is the good.
Much of the rest of Aristotle’s text is spent in the effort to persuade the reader that happiness is complex and related to the function of the man. I must be brief here. But I would invite you to take seriously what Aristotle says, and to take seriously what I think the sage Jesus provides in his own beatitudes. Jesus of Nazareth provides a series of steps by which progress toward happiness can be measured and what it will look like to pursue it. Aristotle will simply recommend training, practice and the build up of flourishing. And he does well to describe a much more elevated concept of happiness than the life of beasts (masses) or the political life (active competition). What I have appreciated about Jesus’s account is that it says something about the preparation for, the means to, progress toward Aristotle’s elevated conception of happiness.
Aristotle says that since we are rational+animals, our happiness is found in the good performance of our best capacity, the capacity to adapt to logos. Given our tragically duel nature (rational+animal) our adaptation to logos takes two forms: there is the responding well down here to this and that (response to particulars in time and space), and there is the responding well to timelessness (the deep reality that underlies everything). Aristotle calls the latter contemplation. It is, in the deepest sense, unity with the deepest truths. In the Christian tradition it is the beatific vision. Jesus of Nazareth says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”. Is there a deeper reality than the god? For Jesus, unity with the divine deep reality comes through moral cleanliness.
To respond well to spatio-temporal particulars Aristotle says that what is needed is moral virtue. Moral virtue is an achievement of soul, a power of soul, that regulates feeling and action (it is a mistake to see the regulation as a matter of willpower) so that a rational animal feels the right amount, at the right time, toward the right object, with regard to the right other rational animal, etc. It is feeling well. Broadly speaking one can divide earthly spatio-temporal objects into the beneficial and the dangerous. The rational animal needs temperance for the former and courage for the latter. Then, with regard to action the rational animal wants to match reality with equality. This amounts to justice. There is justice in punishment, justice in trade, and it all amounts to the meeting reality with adequate action.
So, this is happiness for Aristotle: contemplation (the intellect’s union with deep reality) and virtue (the soul’s feeling well toward this and that). I have spent some time with Aristotle. The longer I spend the more I think he nailed it. It would be silly to say something like, “Well [insert favorite sage] used different language, and I have to protect that language to make sure [insert favorite sage] gets credit.” That is the political life response–the life of competition for social status. What I want is a picture of the end state toward which I should aspire. To my mind Aristotle rightly asks me to take seriously how important feeling is (pleasure/pain+desire+passion) and to set my feeling in right order in order to live well.
We are now trying to regulate feeling through chemicals called opioids. The disaster that awaits us is that the free spirit inside the individual is not learning to master the animal that it is in union with. Instead of training and the building of virtue we are inviting the rational animal to forgo the hard work of virtue building which culminates in the approaching contemplation or beatific vision, and to accept a kind of slavery in dependency on chemicals. “We” should work out the costs here. And they will not be costs for a single generation.
As we move to the beatitudes of Jesus of Nazareth, let’s approach “blessedness” in the richest and deepest sense. If we do that, we have to admit to some extent, that we do not know what it is. That makes Jesus of Nazareth’s recommendations all the more interesting. He is showing the way toward the “I am not sure what it is”. It is up to each of us to weigh the costs and benefits of “the way”. I will not offer a “proof”. In fact the way of Socrates begins with “poverty of spirit”. At his trial he calls this “knowing that I know nothing”. I see unity in how Socrates effected poverty of spirit in his interlocutors and what Jesus recommends as the first step toward blessedness.