By Christine Norvell
Humanity of every age and culture has sought a sense of purpose, often in semantics—perhaps fulfillment, contentment, joy, pleasure, satisfaction, or happiness add meaning to our life on earth. However, some of these words appear interconnected or lend to a dichotomy, either relating to the physical senses or to intuitive ones. Aristotle saw how these separate terms could intertwine to define happiness: “If we know them [the virtues], then we shall attain them“ (1.1097a). And though a number of Aristotle’s ideas about happiness are paralleled in the Bible, the purpose of happiness, or even the purpose of life, differs between the two.
For Aristotle happiness involves many facets, the first of which is choice. We choose happiness for itself because it is a final desirable good (1.1097a). In that choice, we can then share in its fruits: “honor, pleasure, wisdom, and every virtue” (Ibid). In the same way, Christianity espouses choice in the way we live: “Walk as children of light, for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Eph. 5:8-9 [ESV]). We choose to walk as children of light. Yet as Christians, we seek more than just the good or the virtues associated with happiness. Christ spoke of a choice concerning who or what we serve, not just for gain of a “chief end” like happiness, for you can’t serve two masters, whether money or anything else (Matt. 6:24). Christians seek and serve God first and foremost—that is our choice—but even more so God “chose us in him before the creation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).
Secondly, in the true Greek form of the word, happiness is derived from a sense of fulfillment or success from a task or job. This connotation implies action or effort on our part. Aristotle clarifies that “the happy man lives well and does well . . . a sort of good life and good action” (1.1098b). He later terms it an “activity” (10.1177a; 10.1176b). Biblical belief also speaks of action and effort, specifically how we treat others, when James says that a life of faith without action is a dead one (2:14-17). Christ said, “as you wish others to do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31). Paul encourages Timothy to teach others “to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be willing and generous to share” (I Tim. 6:18). Again, Paul exhorts the Galatians not to become weary in doing good and to do good to all people (6:9-10). This also lends to the idea, according to Aristotle, that a happy man is both good and noble, clearly a man of character and virtue (1.1099a), who is capable of good. Aristotle implies that man can be both good and happy by choice, by his own will. In the Bible, however, it is clear that man cannot do good or live happily on his own volition. As a Christ-follower, man is given spiritual help through the Holy Spirit and the gift of grace (Gal. 5:18,25; Eph. 4:7). By relying on the Spirit, man is enabled to do and choose well without relying wholly on himself; and this way of living can produce happiness.
Choice and action alone, though, cannot determine happiness. It does appear to be dependent on external prosperity or circumstance, for if a man is ill-born, ugly, solitary, or childless (1.1099b), Aristotle concedes that it is not likely that that man can know happiness fully. He makes clear that a measure of man’s life does require a degree of the physical comforts to maintain a sense of happiness. The Bible, on the other hand, clarifies that regardless of circumstance, man can withstand hardship of any kind when relying on God (2 Cor. 6:4-10). Paul maintains, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). This concept of an external grace as a gift from God though does not exist in Aristotle’s premises.
Finally, though virtue of character, wisdom, and moral virtue add to man’s state of happiness, Aristotle insists that a life of happiness is a life of reason (10.1178a). “For man, therefore, the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man. This life therefore is also the happiest” (Ibid). This is the life Aristotle chose, the one he lived. This is true to a limited extent because man is separate from beast as Aristotle delineates, and there is a satisfaction in knowing why you believe what you do. Yet this view of life relies again on man’s will alone, and according to the truth of God’s word, man is dependent on God to live a life of virtue and purpose (Psalm 138:8).
So much of Aristotle’s perspective on happiness contains truth. Choosing to live a moral and virtuous life can produce happiness or contentment. It is a desirable and even righteous way to live. Being a man of understanding and reason is biblical as well (Prov. 10:23,14:23). Aristotle even believes that happiness is also god-given or at the least “to be among the most godlike things” (1.1099b). He describes it as a state of blessedness (1.1101a), like a gift. In that way, we, too, can agree that God can gift any of us with happiness. Still, understanding why we would choose a life of happiness is most important. Any man of any belief can choose this. As a Christian, however, the choice is greater because we no longer live for ourselves.
Christine Norvell is an author, speaker, and longtime educator. She graduated from Faulkner University’s Great Books program with a Masters in Humanities and teaches high school literature and humanities at a classical Christian school. She is the author of Till We Have Faces: A Reading Companion (2017) and writes weekly at her website christinenorvell.com. This piece first-run article on The Classical Thistle.