Happiness by Way of Wisdom

In regard to misfortune, Aristotle is often just as illuminating as scripture.

By Gabriel Richardson Lear

Aristotle, like all the major ancient greek philosophers, believed that the happy—that is to say flourishing, successful, eudaimōn—person is self-sufficient. His point is not that we would be better off—or even that we could make do—living on our own, isolated from our families and friends. Human beings are “political animals,” which is to say that they achieve happiness or flourishing only in community with others. What Aristotle means is that if a person is genuinely happy, then he has secure access to everything required to make his human, social life one he would actively choose. As Aristotle puts it, happiness “all on its own makes life worth choosing and lacking nothing.”1

Self-sufficiency is undeniably attractive, and it is, I believe, integral to an ordinary ideal of happiness. The state of being happy, even in the Greek sense of flourishing, is closely associated with being deeply satisfied. Furthermore, though perhaps this intuition is less widespread, there is a sense that the happy person is untroubled by fears that chance could destroy his well-being. The happy person is self-sufficient, not necessarily in the sense of being free of the need for the help of others, but in the sense that he is aware of and confident in his grasp of the things that make life worth choosing (rather than merely worth enduring). This confidence is part of the happy person’s satisfaction.

Human longing for self-sufficiency is part of the pathos of the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Recall what he tells her: “Those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty. The water I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” It would indeed be marvelous if we had a well within ourselves of all the things we might need. So we can sympathize with the woman’s response: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:15) But this very story drives home how impossibly remote self-sufficiency seems as a practicable goal. Even leaving aside the fact that we must always look outside ourselves for satisfaction, our needs are so many! Our bodies require continual care. Then, since we are sociable animals, we need friends, the respect of others, and some measure of political power. Friendship opens us to yet another level of need, the need for our friends to flourish. At least, if a self-sufficient person really lacks nothing that is important to him, then it seems he will need to be sufficient in some way not only for his own well-being but also for the well-being of those he loves. None of these goods is entirely within our power. We might well wonder whether any human being can achieve self-sufficient happiness.

Hurricane Katrina was shocking in part because it laid bare how severe economic inequality is in this country and how much the political will to protect the poor has faltered. But it was shocking for more personal reasons, too. It showed us how lacking in self-sufficiency we all are. Our society could not rescue people from their rooftops for days and civil order deteriorated with frightening alacrity. And if happiness requires some measure of self-sufficiency, how can we achieve it for our families and ourselves?

Aristotle was aware that our susceptibility to bad luck threatens to make happiness impossible for us, at least in this life. At the beginning of Nicomachean Ethics I.10 he wonders whether perhaps we shouldn’t call anyone happy until they’re safely in the grave, beyond the reach of luck. But Aristotle makes the very good point that the grave is not such a safe place after all. Remember that the sort of happiness Aristotle is talking about is genuine flourishing and success. Given that our children’s well-being is important to us and that we work hard to make them happy, it is a mis-fortune if our children end up badly. This was not what we tried to achieve and so, to that degree, our effort has failed. But this is so even if we are already dead when our children become miserable. It simply is a part of the human condition to be finite and thus susceptible to frustration in even the most important matters. Before we are consumed by anxiety or submit to despair, we ought to consider more carefully what sort of self-sufficiency is involved in the ideal of happiness. So far, we have been conceiving of the self-sufficient person as one who has everything he needs or reasonably desires easily within reach. We could call this ready-to-hand self-sufficiency. But Aristotle thinks it is odd to make the possession of material goods so central to our conception of the flourishing life: “Success or failure in life does not depend on these.” Rather, the quality of our lives is shaped by whether the actions that constitute them are noble and good or the reverse. No human life is desirable without some basic level of the goods of fortune, but whether it is positively admirable and worth choosing depends on how we react to and use our good luck.

This suggests a different model of self-sufficiency. Rather than thinking of the happy person as one who has everything to hand, Aristotle asks that we think of the happy person as being like a skilled crafts-man: “If one’s actions are what determines the quality of one’s life, as we have said, then no one who is blessed can become wretched, for he will never do what is hateful and vile. For we consider that the truly good and wise person bears what fortune brings with good grace, and acts on each occasion in the finest way possible given the circumstances, just as we think a good general uses the army he has to the best strategic advantage, and a shoemaker makes a shoe as beautifully as it can be made out of the hides he has been given.”2

The confidence a craftsman has is born of practical self-sufficiency. To be sure, a cobbler cannot make shoes without leather. But so long as the leather he has meets some minimal standard, his skill enables him to make something beautiful from it. So we might think that what the happy person has is not the assurance that he will always have what he desires but the confidence that, no matter what life may bring, so long as it is not too awful, he will be able to make something of it that is worth choosing.

Practical self-sufficiency is a more modest ideal than ready-to-hand self-sufficiency, but I believe it is an intuitive picture of happiness. It is also a more reasonable goal for the finite, mortal human beings we are. According to Aristotle, virtue and practical wisdom involve precisely this skill of fashioning the circumstances of our lives into something beautiful. Indeed, he believes that “something of fineness shines through, when someone bears repeated misfortunes calmly, not because he is insensitive to them but because he is a person of nobility and greatness of soul.” Aristotle would not want to call such an unfortunate person happy exactly, but neither is he wretched. What this suggests is that if we want to be happy in a human way, and to help our loved ones to be happy, we must set our sights on wisdom. Different traditions, including religious traditions, may differ over whether we can achieve even this more modest goal without the grace of God. Aristotle seems to have been quite optimistic about our ability to achieve the human good fully by human effort alone. But if we cannot, it would be worth praying for.


  1. Nicomachean Ethics, I.7, 1097b14–15.
  2. Nicomachean Ethics, I.10.

Gabriel Richardson Lear is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. Her book Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics was published by Princeton in 2004.

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