Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Pursuit of Happiness: Aristotle and the Declaration of Independence

ARISTOTLE IS NOT GENERALLY ACCORDED HIS DUE ROLE in the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, and yet he is the first author of books of public right that Jefferson referred to in his letter to Richard Henry Lee of May 8, 1825. In this regard, even Jefferson's long-time political opponent, John Adams, echoed Jefferson. John Adams wrote that the principles of the American Revolution were the principles of "Aristotle and Plato, Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke." It was from these that "the principles of nature and eternal reason; the principles on which the whole government over us now stands."* Aristotle was not only influential directly--through his Politics and Nicomachean Ethics, but also through some of his other works (e.g., his Rhetoric and indirectly through those other popular authors who constantly referred to him as authoritative (e.g., Grotius, Sidney). Though we will focus on Aristotle's notion of happiness, his important in other areas--mixed constitutions, the rule of law, etc.--is also important to keep in mind.


For Aristotle, as for Plato, there was an intimate relationship between the art of politics and the art of living well. It was apparent to Aristotle that government was made for man, and not man made for government. Man was by nature a social animal and he required life in common. But the life in common was intimately and inextricably intertwined with the life of man individual. The city was nothing less than man writ large. It was for this reason that when asking himself whether the definition of happiness for the state is the same as that for an individual man, Aristotle easily answered that they were the same. “There remains to be discussed the question," Aristotle says in his Politics, "Whether the happiness of the individual is the same as that of the state (πόλις), or different? Here again there can be no doubt—no one denies that they are the same.” Politics, 1324a. Knowledge of what makes man happy, then, was essential, as it was the end of government to make men happy. It is for this reason that the form of government was determined by reference to the happiness of the citizen. “Now it is evident that the form of government is best in which every man, whoever he is, can act best and live happily (ἄριστα πράττοι καὶ ζῴη μακαρίως).” Politics, 1324a.

Now for Aristotle, the happiness of man was intimately tied to living well, and this required both reference to the virtues (excellences) which, in turn, required reference to man's nature and to moral absolutes.

The life of blessedness and living well, then, is the focal point of politics and the art of making laws and living in common. Politics for Aristotle was thus the “master art,” as it “legislates (νομοθετούσης) as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from . . . So that this end must be the good for man (τἀνθρώπινον ἀγαθόν).” Nicomachean Ethics, 1094a-b. Indeed, political science aims at a good, the good for man in life in common, and it is this life in common which is happiness (εὐδαιμονία). Nicomachean Ethics, 1095a.

In saying that the end of both man and the state is happiness, however, Aristotle has a particular view of happiness. He does not view happiness as a "feel-good" hedonistic notion in the manner that is popularly attributed to Epicurus and which is so common in contemporary America. For Aristotle, happiness (eudaimonia or εὐδαιμονία) was "living well" or flourishing, and it necessarily referred--not to increase in pleasure or avoidance of pain--but a reference to some sort of objective norm to which man adapted and acted in accord with. In particular, it elicited a final end for man, an ultimate goal to which man tended. It was man's final end which defined whether man was happy or was not:

Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else . . . . [and] we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else. Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be.

Nicomachean Ethics, 1097a.

Since happiness was something that indicated a final end, such things as pleasure, wealth, honor, even virtue--all of which were means to this final end--were not to be accorded ultimate value. Man, both individually and in common, ought not to confuse means and end. It is an unhappy life which chooses means as ends, which replaces or switches means and ends and makes means ends.
Happiness (εὐδαιμονία), the good life (εὖ ζῆν), or doing well (εὖ πράττειν), is neither pleasure (ἡδονή) nor wealth (πλοῦτος), nor honor (τιμή), nor even virtue (ἀρετή), for these are chosen for the sake of happiness.
Nicomachean Ethics, 1095b, 1097b. It follows that the end of the state was not assuring the practice of pleasure or the acquisition of wealth or honor. The end of the state was to allow its citizens to live well, to pursue happiness. And this was happiness in conformity with virtue (excellence) and in conformity with a life that recognized moral absolutes.

Arising as it were out of man's final end, happiness was at the apex of man's life. It was supported by other goods, goods that were instrumental and which provided a foundation of happiness. “Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action . . . . [but that] seems a platitude, and a clear account of what it is is still desired.” Nicomachean Ethics, 1097b. How could should clearer account of happiness be obtained? For Aristotle, a clearer account of happiness could be obtained by ascertaining “the function of man (τὸ ἔργον τοῦ ἀνθρώπου).” Nicomachean Ethics, 1097b. While happiness was a self-sufficient excellence, it had to account for goods of the body and goods for the soul, man as he was: flesh-and-blood and rational. And it had to last the man's entire life, spanning beyond the lusts of youth to the waning days of old age. Happiness was not something once acquired--like gold--and which could then be stored in a warehouse. It was something that was acquired internally and which lasted. It was the result of a state of character, an ordering that allowed a man, as it allowed a society, to live well.

Now if the function of many is an activity of the soul (ψυχῆς ἐνέργεια) . . . . Human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue (κατ᾽ ἀρετήν), and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete . . . . in a complete life . . . [f]or one swallow does not make a summer . . . .

Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a. Man's internal compass of virtue, then, was an analogue to the ordering of virtue which governed the body politic and which was law.

For Aristotle, living well, then, required a life in accordance with virtue. “With those who identify happiness with virtue or some one virtue," noted Aristotle, "our account is in harmony.” Nicomachean Ethics, 1098b. This happy life required a minimum of bodily sustenance, although it certainly was not limited to mere satisfaction of bodily needs. “[H]e is happy who is active in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods . . . .” Nicomachean Ethics, 1101a.

Bread was necessary, but man did not live on bread alone. What was most important after the minimal needs of the body were supplied was life in accordance with virtue, and so virtue was essential for self-governance and for governance of the body politic:
Since happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue, we must consider the nature of virtue; for perhaps we shall thus see better the nature of happiness . . . The true student of politics, too, is thought to have studied virtue above all things.
Nicomachean Ethics, 1102a.

For Aristotle, virtue came in two kinds: intellectual (ἀρετή διανοητική) and moral (ἀρετή ἠθική); both, however, were the result of “habit” (ἔθος). Nicomachean Ethics, 1103a. These habits, however, were a sort of secondary nature through which man had to clothe himself. These habits, though natural in the sense that they fully completed man's nature, did not arise automatically as if they were some involuntary bodily function. Though these virtues were constructed, built as it were through habits, they were not contrary to nature. These were natural acquisitions, sort of perhaps like a tortoise's shell was natural to the turtle.

Neither by nature (ἄρα φύσει), then, nor contrary to nature (παρὰ φύσιν) do the virtues arise in us; rather, we are adapted by nature to receive them, and they are made perfect by habit (τοῦ ἔθους).

Nicomachean Ethics, 1103a.

The purpose of the state, the reason behind its laws, the end which ought to be guiding the acts of the state's legislators is virtue. And indeed, the quality of a government may be assessed with reference to whether it inculcates or encourages its citizens to live a life in accordance with virtue, that is, to live a happy, well-ordered life. A law which fails to encourage virtue, in fact, sins, falls short of the mark.
This is confirmed by what happens in states; for legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them (νομοθέται τοὺς πολίτας ἐθίζοντες ποιοῦσιν ἀγαθούς), and this is the wish of every legislator, and those who do not effect it miss their mark (ἁμαρτάνουσιν), and it is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one.
Nicomachean Ethics, 1103b.

For Aristotle, moral virtue is something different from mere passion or emotion or power. The genus (γένος) of moral virtue is neither passion or emotion (πάθη) or faculty (δυνάμεις), but rather is a “state of character” (ἕξεις). Nicomachean Ethics, 1105b, 1106a. Moral virtue is the “state of character” (ἕξεις) which “makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.” Nicomachean Ethics, 1106a.

Famously, Aristotle required a balance, a golden mean, in the exercise of virtue since either extreme resulted in vice. As Aristotle expressed it, moral virtue “is the state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle (ὡρισμένῃ λόγῳ), and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom (ὁ φρόνιμος) would determine it.” Nicomachean Ethics, 1106a-1107a.

It would be wrong, however, to suppose that Aristotle thought that everything was subject to balance or calculation, and that there were no such things as absolutes. Aristotle was not a consequentialist or utilitarian in his understanding of right and of wrong and of what makes men happy. There were, in Aristotle, some moral absolutes--boundaries across which men ought never step, where averages or means did not reign, but where black and white defined the barrier.

But not every action nor every passion admits of a mean; for some have names that already imply badness, e.g., sprite, shamelessness, envy, and in the case of actions adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things imply by their names that they are themselves bad, and not the excesses or deficiencies of them. It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to them; one must always be wrong.

Nicomachean Ethics, 1107a.

Ultimately, however, all virtues ought to be ordered under one supreme virtue. There was therefore a hierarchy of virtues, the highest virtue being tied to man's rational nature and related to contemplation of man's greatest good, God, the Uncaused Cause:
If happiness is activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be that of the best thing in us. Whether it be reason or something else that is this element which is thought to be our natural rule and guide and to take thought of things noble and divine, whether it be itself also divine or only the most divine element in us, the activity of this in accordance with its proper virtue will be perfect happiness. That this activity is contemplative (θεωρητική,), we have already said.
Nicomachean Ethics, 1177a.

Indeed, ultimately, man's happiness depended upon God: “[T]he activity of God (τοῦ θεοῦ ἐνέργεια), which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness.” Nicomachean Ethics, 1178b.

Virtue, moral law, and God. For Aristotle, happiness in man was always in reference to this trinity of concepts. And just as man ought to develop virtue, with reference to the moral law, and in view of his highest good--contemplation of God as Uncaused Cause, so likewise should the state develop its laws and its governing institutions. For Aristotle as for the Declaration of Independence, "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of" the people's "pursuit of happiness," the people have a right "alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their . . . Happiness."

*John Adams, Novanglus et Massachusettensis (Boston: Bews & Goss, 1819), 12.


  1. WLindsayWheelerMay 9, 2011 at 1:11 PM

    Thomas Jefferson responding to a letter, wrote, "the introduction of the new principle of representative democracy has rendered useless almost everything written before on the structure of government; and, in a great measure, relieves our regret, if the political writings of Aristotle or of any other ancient, have been lost, or are unfaithfully rendered or explained to us." (Rahe, Paul A.)

    Sidney, Harrington, and Locke were Atheists and/or Spinozist materialists.

    America has NOTHING to do with the Laws of Nature, or the Natural Law. Nothing. America is purposely a "commercial republic" where Montesquieu states that commercialism destroys religion. How can you have "happiness" when most of the people developing America were materialists and hated religion and esp. Soul. Where religion feeds the soul, this country is divorced from religion.

    Next, the Natural Law, or Laws of Nature is that, as Aristotle said, "Man is a social animal", yet America is not built on blood, or kinsmanship but on ideology. The Natural Law is "Sense of Belonging" and "Volkenhass" which preserves Social cohesion natural to all insect and animal groups.

    It is in use of the faculty of reason and thinking, yet America with its Protestant heritage and foundation is extremely unintellectual.

    Americanism is a heresy. It is the product of the Atheist revolution called the Enlightenment. The Declaration of Independence is a Masonic document. It has nothing to do with the Laws of Nature. The "God" in the declaration is the Spinozist conception of god. Not the Christian. Locke and Jeffereson were not Trinitarians. The Trifunctional concept is a Law of Nature. Yet, they did not recognize that. Furthermore, Life is war. Life is survival. What good is it to have "happiness" when one can't defend himself from conquering neighborss.

  2. Well now that's a rather bizarre statement. And one wholly ignorant of our colonial history.

  3. Well now that's a rather bizarre statement. And one wholly ignorant of our colonial history.