Aristotle ” Nicomachean Ethics” and Epictetus “The Handbook”
It is difficult to underestimate the importance of the philosophical ideas of the Ancient Greece in the further development of the human thought. The ideas about the ultimate reason of human existence can be found in the works of the majority of the Antique philosophers. Aristotle and Epictetus are among the most prominent ones.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides an analysis of how to attain eudaimonia (flourishing, happiness). The Handbook by Epictetus is the set of general recommendations about the way a good person has to live his/her life. In the current essay an attempt to analyze Aristotle’s ideas about happiness, expressed in the Nicomachean Ethics, and to compare them to Epictetus’ ideas on how to live one’s life from The Handbook will be made. Both theories have certain advantages and are worth of studying, because they do not lose their urgency even nowadays and discuss the philosophical problems that are not solved.
The Nicomachean Ethics is the philosophical work where Aristotle tries to answer the question about the purpose of human existence. It is possible to see that people around are trying to gain good reputation, they seek for wealth and pleasures, just like they did in the times of Aristotle. Even though such aims are important in everyday life of people, they can not form the end goal of the human kind. The philosopher thinks about something that will be self-sufficient, something that will be never desired for the sake of something else and will be real to achieve by every person (Nicomachean Ethics, 1097a30-34).
Aristotle suggests that happiness can be described as the ultimate goal of the existence of every human being and so he introduces the notion of eudomania, that can be translated in several ways in contemporary languages. Aristotle defines eudomania as the rational main function of every person to live a descent and good life. Trying to reach the excellence and to live according to the laws of virtue are the main components that make the person happy (Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a13).
Though, eudomania depends much upon the point of view of the particular person with particular cultural and social background. The perception of happiness that is described by Aristotle and the one that a modern person imagines are completely different, especially if the popular image is considered. For example, in the contemporary American culture the notion of happiness can be referred to having fun with the company of friends, or buying a new designer dress that all fashion bloggers have. The contemporary notion of happiness can be described in general as the myriad of easy pleasures that can be achieved by everyone without much effort.
According to the point of view of Aristotle, happiness is not something that can be easily achieved and as the result it can not be lost in a few hors. It also has nothing to do with sensory pleasures, in a contrary to the modern perspective. It is possible to illustrate the notion of eudomania by the example of learning. It might be hard for a person to learn a new language, but he/she wakes up several hours earlier that he/she needs every morning to study. After several months the process of learning does not seem to be that complicated as it was in the beginning, and in several years the foreign language does not seem to be something extremely difficult to understand. Such studying is obviously good for constructing the character, for living a better life in the idealistic sence, and thus to achieve eudomania.
From the theoretial perspective, Eudomania is the result of the person’s life. It is the measure that determines the value of all efforts and actions of the particular person during the lifetime. Happiness can not be achieved in the early years, because it is the result of the long hard work and the conclusion of the human story. That is why it is impossible to call children happy, despite the contemporary idea that innocent kids who have no problems are the happiest people in the world. The philosopher writes about eudomania in the following way: “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” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a18).
Aristotle thought that all human attempts to become happy are the exercising of the highest virtues. The notion of eudomania is closely connected with the good moral character. Virtue is not a passive state of character, without actions a person can not become happy. In addition, a person can not have only several virtues without trying to be absolutely virtuous. The philosopher states that if someone wants to achieve eudomania, he/she needs to live according to all possible virtues, to participate actively in the lives of the others and in his/her own life, and to do it during all his/her lifetime (Nicomachean Ethics, 1101a10). Achievement of virtues and becoming better make people happy and give them a possibility to understand their life in all minor details. Some lessons the life gives people are tempting, because will give pleasure and satisfaction immediately, but the feeling of happiness from them will not last long. The other lessons will require more work and sacrifice from the person, but the feeling of satisfaction and happiness will last longer and will obviously be the more right thing to do than to get easy pleasures.
The ethical theory of happiness proposed by Aristotle does not focus on obligations and duties, but it concentrates on the development of the virtuous character. Such virtue ethics suppose that the person tries to be just, courageous, benevolent and well-tempered all his/her life, and this makes hi,her happy. Another important issue in understanding what makes a person happy is the notion of the golden mean, that supposes that it is not virtuous to go to extremes in all aspects of life.
Being moderate is the key to eudomania, and in fact it is an attempt to keep balance and live in harmony. This doctrine corresponds to the ancient ideas about the balance in the universe, that are present in all cultures. The equilibrium helps to keep the opposing forces in the human soul in the state that will not bother the person and in the end will make her/her happy. Aristotle describes it a the means of making a good character, which is a settled state of the soul when the person choses a middle pass that corresponds both to the moral rules, to the laws of the society, and to the personal perception of what is right to do (Nicomachean Ethics, 1006b36).
Another philosopher that is worth to be mentioned in the discourse about living the right life and becoming happy is Epictetus. He focuses on systematic work on cultivation of the virtuous behavior and good character with the help of gradual work on oneself. To him, the philosophy was not just a set of theoretical ideas, but the rules he lived by. He thought that fate is the power that determines only the external events, but every person must be responsible for his/her own life and actions. It is impossible to achieve something good without self-discipline and control.
The first thing that Epictetus considers to be important in living the right life is the ability to think critically and rationally. He proposes to find the personal way in life, because the traditional set of values and perceptions are often not the best ones (The Handbook, 29). Conventional thinking makes the intellectual life of the person not interesting and deprives him/her of the possibility to develop his/her character in the optimal way. Though, Epictetus does not think that every new idea is better than the old one. There are basic principles that should be guarded in life like helping the others, being just and working for the community. The philosopher calls it the basic principles that measure the reason (The Handbook, p. 11, 1).
The main issue that helps the person to live the happy life is self-discipline. Epictetus compares keeping the thoughts in order with the regular cleaning of the house. The thoughts need to be organized, and without it the spiritual and intellectual life of the person will be a mess. He pays attention to the importance of working on minor things before trying to proceed to something greater (The Handbook, p.19, 29). In fact, such recommendations concerning the way of organizing one’s life are not revolutionary nowadays and it is possible to find such ideas in every popular psychological magazine. Though, Epictetus was the first man to formulate them many centuries ago and to live according to them. Their simplicity and universal character help them be urgent for modern people just like they were to the contemporaries of Epictetus.
There are some thoughts that are quite unusual for the Christian world view in the work of Epictetus. For example, he describes the position of women older than fourteen years in his society and writes that if they are treated only as the body for the pleasure of men, their behavior, thoughts and desires become perverted. It is essential to change their behavior to the more modest and decent one (The Handbook, p. 25, 40). Another thought that can be called entirely Christian is the discourse about fate and death. Epictetus writes that the person who wants to control everything is stupid, just like the one that wants to avoid death (The Handbook, p. 15, 14). He writes that if the man’s wife or child are dead, it is not right to say that he lost them. The philosopher thinks that it is more right to say that he has returned them (The Handbook, p. 14, 11).
Both Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics and Epictetus in The Handbook propose a well-thought theory about the way to live a happy life. In fact, the philosophers write about the same ideas, that only the person who constantly works on him/herself can become happy, and self-discipline is the key to the happy life. There are some minor differences in the ideas proposed by Aristotle and Epictetus. Aristotle makes more emphasis on the concepts of balance and the importance of virtue in achieving eudomania. Epictetus is more practical and pays more attention to the minor problems that happen in life. He is also more fatalistic in the questions of life and death, but still pays more precise attention than Aristotle to the fact that every person has to do maximum for his/her development despite the existence of fate. It is possible to say that I find the point of view of Epictetus more compelling than the one of Aristotle, because it has a more practical application. His ideas about self-discipline and work are easier to find in life than more theoretical ideas of Aristotle about the balance of virtues.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Web. 26 May 2015. <http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html>
Epictetus. The Handbook. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983. Print.