March 28, 2006


It's really not fair, but some of the coolest things ever thought or written were done so long ago by the ancient Greeks. This is also a good place to start when considering the question of happiness in public and private life, including economic life.

On the temple of Apollo at Delphi were inscribed the words gnothi sauton and meden agan, usually translated as "know thyself" and "nothing in excess." The first of these did not mean know yourself personally but rather realize the limits and possibilities of the human condition, i.e. that while we have great capabilities other animals don't we are not not gods and shouldn't pretend to be. According to writer and critic Erich Fromm, "'Know thyself' is one of the fundamental commands that aim at human strength and happiness."

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher whose writings embody this tradition in a way that still sheds light today. He argued that happiness (eudaimonia) was the chief goal for humanity because "we always choose it for itself and never for any other reason." By contrast, we tend to want other things, like health, respect, a decent living, etc. in order to be happy, whereas we want happiness for its own sake.

Happiness, however was not the same as simple pleasure or passing emotions; it involved the active and full development of human potentiality over the course of a lifetime: "the good for man is an activity of soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind." By virtue, Aristotle means excellence or well roundedness. This takes work and requires the formation of good habits.

A virtuous person in this sense would pursue an active physical, social, emotional, political, intellectual, and spiritual life. Humans have basic needs like plants and animals which must be satisfied, but a life that consisted only of meeting those needs would not be fully human.

A basic idea here is that of telos, which means completeness, potentiality, or the goal or end of things. An acorn is a potential oak; a human being is potentially a well rounded person who actively engages in all aspects of human life over the course of a lifetime. Similarly, each person has his or her own unique potential.

Happiness in this sense is social and political. Aristotle coined the phrase that humans are political animals, arguing that to live alone "one must be either a beast or a god." And happiness is the main goal of politics or community life: "a state exists for the sake of a good life, and not for the sake of life only..." And economics, as a minor aspect of political life, exists for the same purpose.

There are a lot of things about Aristotle that we find offensive today, such as his acceptance of slavery and belief in the inferiority of women. But one would imagine that the things we say today might look bad 2,400 years from now, if there are any people left. Meanwhile, there are a lot of things to keep here. Some are pretty revolutionary.

If happiness in the sense of the full development of the potential of each person is the goal of political life, it provides a pretty strong standard by which to measure policies and institutions and should lead us to challenge anything that thwarts people from developing their human and unique potential.

(Next time: what did Jefferson et al mean by "the pursuit of happiness" anyway?)


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