A Happy Ending: Happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics and Consolation of Philosophy. Wesley Spears

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1 A Happy Ending: Happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics and Consolation of Philosophy By Wesley Spears For Samford University, UFWT 102, Dr. Jason Wallace, on May 6, 2010

2 A Happy Ending The matters of philosophy are often more transcendental, leaving philosophers frequently criticized for their lack of practicality. To be sure, Aristotle discusses different types of wisdom and virtue, Boethius pens lengthy poems espousing philosophical and theological principles, and these ideas do not seem to be easily applicable to everyday life. However, one issue discussed in Aristotle s Nicomachean Ethics and Boethius The Consolation of Philosophy is of extreme relevance: happiness. Both texts wrestle with this fundamental question: what is happiness? Aristotle begins his investigation with the assertion that happiness is that end which has no other end in mind. Boethius begins his investigation not out of philosophical inquiry in Consolation but out of distress as an exiled prisoner. Aristotle and Boethius both seek to identify that which is certainly not happiness before attempting to identify that which is happiness. In the end, Aristotle determines happiness to be the persistent activity of virtue as it is the participation in the Good. Boethius builds upon many of Aristotle s constructions, assuming that the Good is God and participation in him is true happiness. Therefore, in Consolation Boethius affirms and challenges (or Christianizes) Aristotle s Nicomachean definition of happiness. These two texts approach their search for happiness differently. The Nicomachean Ethics has no running narrative and simply begins the philosophical query into such things as happiness, but there is an obvious narrative in Consolation that leads Boethius to inquire after happiness. Whereas Aristotle begins his search by identifying his objective as discovering that to which all things aim, 1 Boethius is in prison far from any sort of Academy distraught over his circumstance, weeping with the Muses. Lady Philosophy visits Boethius character, declaring him ill (by which she means that he is unhappy) and in need of treatment. What is his 1 Aristotle, Joe Sachs, trans., Nichomachean Ethics (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2002), 1. 1

3 illness? Philosophy says No I know the other cause, or rather the major cause of your illness [read: unhappiness]: you have forgotten your true nature. 2 She says that Boethius has clearly suffered greatly, but there is no cause whatsoever for unhappiness in his downfall. 3 So then discovering his true nature seems to be understanding why he should not be unhappy he needs to arrive at a correct understanding of happiness. The Consolation pair begins to investigate happiness in a similar way to the Nicomachean inquiry, though with different conclusions. In patterning so many assertions in Consolation on Nicomachean Ethics, the origin of Boethius understanding of happiness is, to an extent, in Aristotle. Before defining what they believe happiness to be, both Boethius and Aristotle identify that which is not happiness: namely those things that can be taken away. Aristotle identifies wealth, pleasure, honor, health, and other such temporal obsessions as not being happiness. Wealth, to the Nicomachean Aristotle, deserves a secondary place, and is not true happiness because there are certainly human beings who do without wealth and are happy. 4 Likewise, he says of pleasure that it is not happiness because it is not the name of a particular sort of activity, that one can take pleasure in many things. 5 It follows that there must be a more complete 6 thing in which to take pleasure that must be true happiness. Honor also is lacking, for people seem to pursue honor in order to be convinced that they themselves are good, and they are seeking to be honored by those who are truly good. 7 Honor, then, is only an imitation of 2 Anicius Boethius, Victor Watts, trans., The Consolation of Philosophy (London: Penguin Books, 1999), John Marenbon, Boethius (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), Francis Sparshott, Taking Life Seriously: A Study of the Argument of Nicomachean Ethics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), Ibid., That which Aristotle values the most is that which is complete. This is why he often discusses complete virtue and complete life (Aristotle, Sachs, trans, Ethics, ) among other things. 7 Aristotle, Sachs, trans., Ethics, 5. 2

4 that on account of which honor is sought 8 which is what is happy. Health also is not a source of happiness for that is to be happy by chance, and for what is greatest and most beautiful [read: happiness] to be left to chance would be too discordant. 9 A final thing denied by Aristotle as happiness is the concept of amusement. He calls much of the above amusements and claims that, it is absurd to suppose that the end (of life) is amusement and that we toil all our life long for the sake of amusing ourselves. 10 Therefore, Aristotle can be understood as saying that such temporal things are not true happiness. Boethius also denies these things wealth, position, power, fame, pleasure 11 as true happiness, coming to the same conclusion as Aristotle. One of the assertions that Consolation makes about happiness is that it is something that leaves man free of want and selfsufficient. 12 It is by this criterion that Boethius eliminates certain things as happiness just as Aristotle did previously. Wealth claims to fulfill this requirement for a human being, but it breaks this promise and can thus not be happiness. Money cannot be self-sufficient because it has no inherent property such as to stop it being taken away from those who possess it, against their will. 13 Consolation also condemns the enjoyment of fame and honor as happiness before the present misfortune of Boethius. This sort of worldly fame does not matter in any sense or perspective, for if the whole of a man dies fame is nothing at all and even if the mind stays 8 Thomas Aquinas, C.I. Litzinger, trans., Commentary on Aristotle s Nicomachean Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: Dumb Ox Books, 1993), Aristotle, Sachs, trans., Ethics, Aristotle, Christopher Biffle, trans., Aristotle s Nicomachean Ethics (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1991), Boethius, Watts, trans., Consolation, Ibid., Ibid. 3

5 surely it will despise every earthly affair. 14 It is not happiness, then, to be focused on things separate and external but on blessings of your own inside you. 15 Just as Aristotle denies health as happiness because of its inconstancy, Consolation denies such things of chance as being true happiness because Fortune by her very mutability can t hope to lead to happiness. 16 In denying all of these, Boethius also claims that he denies pleasure as happiness, for taking only those [things mentioned above] into consideration, Epicurus with perfect consistency stated that pleasure was the highest good, because all others bring the mind enjoyment, 17 but Boethius attests to a different highest good. In so doing, Boethius also affirms Aristotle s position on amusement. For all of these things can provide amusement, but none provide happiness. Therefore, like Aristotle, Boethius can be understood as saying that these temporary things are not true happiness. At this point, both authors identify a transcending good to be happiness instead of these passing things. Aristotle equates happiness with what he calls the Good. The Good, like happiness, is that at which all things aim. 18 It is what is worthy in itself, not to any other end. Aristotle does acknowledge that there are things apart from the ultimate Good that are good, but he asserts that if there are more than one of them [read: those things which are good], it would be the most complete of these. 19 All the other goods seem to be imitations of the Good (though not necessarily in the Platonic sense). The assertion in Nicomachean Ethics is that completeness 14 Ibid., Ibid., Ibid., Ibid., Aristotle, Sachs, trans., Ethics, Ibid., 10. 4

6 is that which is never chosen on account of anything else. 20 Therefore, it follows that the Good and happiness should be the same, for happiness is that thing on account of which all other things are sought. Indeed, Aristotle makes it clear himself: And happiness seems to be of this sort most of all, since we choose this always on account of itself and never on account of anything else. 21 Therefore, happiness is the Good. Boethius begins his departure with Aristotle here, for he gives a name to the Good. Boethius equates happiness with what he calls God. God, then, is that at which all things aim 22 and is worthy in himself, not to any other end. Like Aristotle, Boethius acknowledges that there are lesser things that resemble goods or happiness. He makes a distinction between two kinds of happiness: felicitas and beatitudo. 23 Boethius allows for the goods of fortune [to] bring some felicity, which is felicitas, but not happiness, which is beatitudo. 24 God is not felicitas, then, but beatitudo, because all things aim at happiness, beatitude, which is a good which once obtained leaves nothing more to be desired. 25 Boethius clearly borrows from Aristotle in his claims at this point in his search, saying, We have already defined the supreme good as happiness 26 and the end of all things is the good. 27 As is asserted above, however, Boethius goes further than Aristotle does. He asserts that it is the universal understanding that God is good, so much so that even basic reason shows that God is so good that we are convinced that His goodness is 20 Ibid. 21 Ibid. 22 Ibid., Marenbon, Boethius, Ibid. 25 Boethius, Watts, trans., Consolation, Ibid., Ibid., 77. 5

7 perfect, or complete, and therefore happiness. 28 Now, we have to agree that God is the essence of happiness. 29 Happiness equated with God is thereby equated with divinity for Boethius, so that he or she who possesses happiness possesses divinity, for each happy individual is divine. 30 Therefore, happiness is God. Happiness must not only be understood as an abstract idea, and it is not for either philosopher; rather, there is a practical element of action with both the Good and God. Marenbon asks of Boethius in light of this assertion, how [does] the individual man [ ] relate to happiness? 31 Aristotle, having happiness and the Good equivalent, claims that the Good is expressed and happiness achieved in the practice of virtue, or goodness. 32 In Nicomachean Ethics, he says that happiness is a certain way of being at work in accordance with complete virtue. 33 This concept is similar to when Aristotle speaks of the human being, referring to his or her work as the being-at-work of the soul in accordance with reason. 34 Indeed, when Aristotle speaks of the human being, he would refer to his or her happiness as the being-at-work of the soul in accordance with virtue. By becoming virtuous, one becomes good and therefore happy. 35 The Nicomachean definition of virtue is one that sees it either as pertaining to 28 Ibid., 69. Emphasis added. 29 Ibid., Ibid., Marenbon, Boethius, 110. Emphasis added. 32 which means how one relates to the Good 33 Aristotle, Sachs, trans., Ethics, Ibid., Robert Bartlett, Aristotle s Introduction to the Problem of Happiness, American Journal of Political Science 52, no. 3 (2008):

8 thinking or to character. 36 Happiness, being concerned with goodness ad thus being-atwork 37 is associated with the latter. Excellence of character, 38 also is the product of habituation, 39 so happiness (and goodness) are one of the active states of one s soul, 40 demonstrated in the practice of virtue. Happiness, then, is participation in the good by acting virtuously. If Boethius has happiness and God being equivalent and continues to follow the Nicomachean pattern, participation in God must be happiness. Now, participation in God takes multiple forms; among them being thought, prayer, and grace. Boethius asserts that the human being s mind is made in the image of God 41 and that Providence is the divine reason itself, 42 so it follows that whenever the human being thinks, he is, in some way, participating in the Christian Creator God. Boethius calls prayer 43 the one and only means of communication between man and God, 44 suggesting that this discipline is the primary, if not sole, means of participation, or communion, with God. The final manner by which the human being participates in the divine is through the divine grace. For prayer is only possible if we do obtain 36 Aristotle, Sachs, trans., Ethics, Ibid., Ibid., Bartlett, Problem of Happiness, Aristotle, Sachs, trans., Ethics, Boethius, Watts, trans., Consolation, Ibid., associated in this section with hope, which is a possible allusion to the Christian idea of hope and prayer suggested in passages such as Romans 12: Boethius, Watts, trans., Consolation,

9 for the price of due humility the inestimable return of divine grace. 45 The Christian God of grace, then, brings about participation in him. 46 Participation in God is thus found in thought, prayer, and in God s grace there is happiness for Boethius if God is said to be the essence of happiness Ibid. 46 Which is why Boethius must spend a significant portion of the final section of Consolation dealing with free-will and this foreknown grace of God. 47 Boethius, Watts, trans., Consolation, 70. 8

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