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Classical Ethics, Lesson 10. Book I, Chapter 10

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Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (bust)
Aristotle (384-322 BC)

Shall we say, therefore, that no other man is to be proclaimed happy as long as he lives, but that according to Solon it is requisite to look to the end of life? If, however, we admit this, is a man, therefore, then happy when he dies? Or is this perfectly absurd, especially to those who say as we do, that happiness is a certain energy? But if neither we call him who is dead happy, nor this was the intention of Solon, but his meaning is, that a man may then be securely proclaimed blessed, as being now out of the reach of evils and misfortunes;—even this also is attended with a certain doubt. For there appears to be a certain good and evil to him who is dead, if there is also to him who is alive, but without sensation, such as honour and ignominy, and in short, the prosperity and adversity of his descendants. This, however, also presents us with a difficulty. For it is possible that to the offspring of him who has lived to old age blessedly, and has died rationally, many mutations may happen, and that some of them may be good, and may obtain a life according to their desert, but that the contrary may take place with others. It is likewise evident that there may be an allvarious apostacy in them from the manners of their parents. It would, therefore, be absurd, if he who is dead should also be changed together with them, and should at one time become happy, and again be miserable. It is likewise absurd, that the affairs of descendants should not for a certain time be of any consequence whatever to parents.

Let us, however, return to the former subject of doubt; for perhaps that which is now investigated may be surveyed from it. If, therefore, it is necessary to look to the end of life, and then to proclaim each man blessed, not as being now blessed, but because he was so before; is it not absurd when he is happy (i.e., while he is living,) that what is present with him (i.e., happiness) should not be asserted of him with truth, because we are unwilling to proclaim the living happy, on account of the mutations of life, and because we apprehend happiness to be something stable, and by no means easily to be changed; but fortunes frequently circulate about the same persons. For it is evident if we should follow fortune, we must frequently call the same man happy and again miserable, thus evincing the happy man to be like the chamaeleon and possessing an infirm stability. Or shall we say that it is indeed by no means right to follow fortune? For living well or ill is not among the gifts of fortune, but human life, as we have said, requires the goods of fortune. The energies, however, according to virtue, are the mistresses of happiness, but the contrary energies are the mistresses of the contrary. That also which is now the subject of doubt, bears testimony to our assertion. For in no human affairs is there so much stability, as in the energies according to virtue; since they appear to be more stable than even the sciences themselves, and of these very energies those that are most honourable, are also most stable, because blessed men principally and most assiduously live in these. For this appears to be the cause that oblivion does not happen concerning them. The object of investigation, therefore, is present with the happy man, and he will be such through life. For always, or the most of all men, he will perform and contemplate things pertaining to virtue, will bear the changes of fortune most beautifully, and in the most perfectly elegant manner, as being truly good, and a square1 without blame. Since, however, many things happen from fortune, and which differ in magnitude and parvitude, it is evident that prosperous, and in a similar manner, adverse circumstances when they are small, are of no consequence to the life of man; but but that such as are great and numerous, if they are indeed prosperous, render life more blessed; for they are also naturally adapted to adorn life, and the use of them is beautiful and good; and that, on the contrary, if they are adverse, they oppress and injure beatitude. For they bring with them molestation and are an impediment to many energies. At the same time, however, even in these the beauty of good conduct shines forth, when a man bears many and great misfortunes easily, not through an insensibility of pain, but in consequence of being generous and magnanimous. But if energies are the mistresses of life, as we have said, no one who is blessed will become miserable; since he will never do any thing that is odious and base. For we are of opinion, that the man who is truly good and wise, will bear all fortunes in a manner, and from existing circumstances will always perform the most beautiful deeds; just as a good general will use the army under his command in the most warlike manner, and a shoemaker from the leather with which he is supplied will make the most beautiful shoe; and the same thing will take place with all other artists. If this, however, be the case, the happy man will never become miserable; nor yet if he should fall into the calamities of Priam, will he be blessed. Nor again, is he various and easily changed; for he is not easily moved from happiness, nor by any casual misfortunes, but by such as are great and numerous. And after such calamities. as these, he will not again become happy in a short time, but if he does recover his happiness, it will be in a certain long and perfect time, in which he will become a partaker of things of a great and beautiful nature. What then prevents us from calling the man happy who energizes according to perfect virtue, and who is sufficiently supplied with external goods, not for any casual time, but through a perfect life? Or ought we to add, that he must also thus live and die conformably to nature? Since the future is unapparent to us, and we admit that happiness is an end, and entirely and in every respect perfect. But if this be the case, we must call those among the living blessed to whom the particulars we have mentioned are and have been present; but we must denominate them blessed as men. And thus much concerning these things.


Classical Ethics Recitation