Sunday, August 29, 2010

Aristotle Rediscovered

It is clear from my previous posts that I am so curious about happiness. I offered lots of posts concerned with this subject. I presented the points of views of many writers and thinkers together with my own points of view. Today, I will write again about the same subject. However, this time I will focus on the ideas offered by one of the oldest philosophers in history, Aristotle, together with the findings of one of the most recent branches of psychology, namely positive psychology. Amazingly, their ideas mach to a very large extent. It has been stated by Christopher Peterson himself, one of the founders of positive psychology, that the ideas of this new branch of science validate to a large extent what has been preached by Aristotle centuries ago. Personally, I think that this account that can be constructed from both Aristotle and positive psychology represent the most convincing account about happiness I have ever encountered.

Aristotle in his search for happiness discovered brilliantly the relationship between the concepts of happiness, good, and actions. Aristotle argued that what is good is what we aim at through any action. I will try to explain Aristotle’s thoughts from my own point of view. I can argue that there are different classes of objects or states of affairs. Those objects or states of affairs have criteria. Those objects or states of affairs which have criteria that moves us to obtain them or bring them on are those which are called good. For example the statement “this knife is good” means that this knife has among its criteria some which would move me to buy it or obtain it in a particular situation such as if I need to buy a knife. Such criteria which would make this knife good include for example being sharp or being of an adequate size and so on. It is those criteria which would move me to obtain this knife and they represent what is good about this knife.

From this account, we can see that judging something as good entails a necessary relation to action. A T-shirt that doesn’t have anything about it that would move me to buy it can never be a good T-shirt. Similarly, this relationship can be applied to even less obvious examples. The statement “honesty is good” entails that honest actions move me to bring them on whether in my behavior or in the behavior of others.

Now, let’s go back to life and the question which keeps occupying me. How can I have a good life? Life consists of actions. A good life is equal to a series of good action. What make those actions good are criteria they must have. Those actions must have criteria which move us to bring them on and to execute such actions. If there is a single criterion which is shared by all those good actions and which can’t be reduced to any further criterion, then this criterion must be what can be called “the supreme good”. The supreme good is the goal which is common among all of our good actions.

Aristotle then considered whether there is such a supreme good shared between all good actions and what it would be. He argued that this supreme good can be called Happiness. He argued that the concept of happiness has the same feature of this supreme good. It is plausible to state that all of our good actions involve us moving to obtain or bring about a state of happiness. Accordingly, happiness seems to be a shared criterion among all good actions. In addition, happiness can’t be further reduced into something else we aim at when we act. I can state that I want to be rich, and when I am asked why, I can answer that being rich makes me happy. However, if I am asked why I do want to be happy, it seems that I wouldn’t be able to give answer in terms of a further goal or aim. If the concept of “supreme good” and “happiness” share the same feature, then they are equivalent to each other.

What is interesting about this argument is that it shows that happiness is closely tied to actions. You can never obtain happiness unless you act to bring it on. Bringing on happiness is mainly a criterion shared by all good actions. Accordingly, you must do a good action to bring up happiness.

Before moving further, I would like to summarize the previous argument in the following terms; what Aristotle did so far is to offer a conceptual analysis of the term “good” which leads us into conceiving that all of our good actions aim at some goal. Happiness is conceptually a common goal among all our good actions. Now we can move to the next question.

What does happiness or this common goal of all of our good action consist of?

Aristotle didn’t answer this question properly, however in his attempt to answer it he focused on making appeal to virtues. Our good actions are those which are virtuous. Our actions might be virtuous or not. However, it is our life which might be happy or not. Aristotle argued that one good action doesn’t make the performer of this action a virtuous one. The performer of this action must develop the habit of acting virtuously. Good actions as we have argued before have the criterion of bringing happiness and accordingly developing the habit of acting virtuously is what would bring a continuously happy life. Aristotle didn’t think of virtues as capacities or tendencies. Instead he though that virtues are obtained by habit.

What the most important about Aristotle line of thought are the following points;

· Happiness is conceptually connected to action. You must move to be happy

· It is virtuous actions which bring happiness

· Happiness is predicated on one’s entire life

Aristotle however, failed in providing an account for virtues, and how virtue would bring up happiness. However, the modern science of positive psychology might have tightened those screws and solved those hanging problems in Aristotle’s philosophy.

Positive psychology is one of the most recent and rapidly growing branches of psychology. The principle underlying positive psychology is that conventional psychology or what Peterson likes to call Business-as-usual-psychology focused mainly on what goes wrong in human life and how to over come psychological distress. Peterson among other pioneers in positive psychology argued that we should focus on the scientific study of what goes well in just as much of what goes wrong in it. In other words, we should scientifically study human happiness and well being.

Positive psychology made great steps forward. However, one of its most important theories is based on the old ideas of Aristotle. Positive psychologists argued that acting virtuously would lead us into happiness. However, instead of treating virtues as learnt repertoire of behavior, they defined virtues as personality traits. Personality trait is a disposition to act, think, and feel in a particular way. Positive psychology theorizes that human beings are born with tendencies to act virtuously and it has proved scientifically that acting virtuously would lead to a happy life.

What was not proven as a matter of necessity by Aristotle was proven as a matter of scientific contingency by positive psychology. I think later on, evolutionary psychologists might be able to show that this biological tendency to act virtuously was selected by nature through evolution to facilitate even stronger progress of human life and therefore greater chances of survival.

Positive psychology offered further amazing findings related to virtues and to other aspects of human life which might bring up happiness. I will present future posts related to the findings of positive psychology.

On the other hand, I am going to modify this blog so that in addition to what it has commonly offered it would reflect my personal attempt to live this life according to the findings and theories of positive psychology. So, expect some changes. I hope you like them.

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