Happiness is Thinking…About Things Aristotle Didn’t Say

Ah, on Psychology Today you can learn that Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” It will probably not come as a great surprise that Aristotle did not say this particular thing, even though it is in the range of the kinds of things he might say in a parallel universe.

fake aristotle


While Reddit is probably right that this is a riffing on the Nicomachean Ethics. (Unlike some other fake Aristotle quotes, this one does not have a very storied history: it seems to have started circulating around 10 years ago). The problem is that part of the point of the Nicomachean Ethics is that people don’t agree on what happiness is and therefore it is almost useless to make such anodyne statements as “the meaning of life is the pursuit of happiness”.

And Aristotle says as much when he concedes, after defining haponnes as “the goal of all actions” (πρακτῶν οὖσα τέλος), “perhaps saying that happiness is best seems to be [merely saying] something which is already agreed” (Ἀλλ᾿ ἴσως τὴν μὲν εὐδαιμονίαν τὸ ἄριστον λέγειν ὁμολογούμενόν τι φαίνεται, 1097b 22). So, he continues to explore the definition from the question of what a human being is for (εἰ ληφθείη τὸ ἔργον τοῦ ἀνθρώπου).

If we translate Greek eudaimonia as “happiness”, which many do, Aristotle says some things that are easily alterable for different cultural contexts. For example, “Hence, happiness is the best, most beautiful, and sweetest thing…” (ἄριστον ἄρα καὶ κάλλιστον καὶ ἥδιστον ἡ εὐδαιμονία, 1099a25)

There are many problems with even this translation. What does it mean for thing to be “best”? “Most beautiful” could also be “noblest” and, in close pairing with ariston, it could actually be a gloss on kalos k’agathos, an aristocratic statement of values that may be devoid of any meaningful content for the study of modern happiness.

Near the end of the Nicomachean Ethics (1176b5 vii) Aristotle concludes,

“But if happiness is intentional action in line with virtue, it is a good argument to say that it is so in accordance with the most potent virtue. This would be from the best part. Whether this is from the mind or any other thing which seems to govern and lead us according to our nature, and also to have understanding of beautiful and divine matters and whether that is also divine itself or is the most divine thing we possess, it is intentional activity in line with this nature particular to human beings which is the perfect happiness.

And this is, what we have said before, the process of contemplation. This conclusion would seem to agree both with what we have said previously and the truth. For [the act of contemplation] is the most powerful intentional activity because the mind is also the most powerful thing we possess along with the things which can be known, the matters of the mind.”

Εἰ δ᾿ ἐστὶν ἡ εὐδαιμονία κατ᾿ ἀρετὴν ἐνέργεια, εὔλογον κατὰ τὴν κρατίστην· αὕτη δ᾿ ἂν εἴη τοῦ ἀρίστου. εἴτε δὴ νοῦς τοῦτο εἴτε ἄλλο τι, ὃ δὴ κατὰ φύσιν δοκεῖ ἄρχειν καὶ ἡγεῖσθαι καὶ ἔννοιαν15 ἔχειν περὶ καλῶν καὶ θείων, εἴτε θεῖον ὂν καὶ αὐτὸ εἴτε τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν τὸ θειότατον, ἡ τούτου ἐνέργεια κατὰ τὴν οἰκείαν ἀρετὴν εἴη ἂν ἡ τελεία εὐδαιμονία· 2ὅτι δ᾿ ἐστὶ θεωρητική, εἴρηται. ὁμολογούμενον δὲ τοῦτ᾿ ἂν δόξειεν εἶναι καὶ τοῖς πρότερον καὶ τῷ ἀληθεῖ. κρατίστη τε γὰρ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐνέργεια (καὶ γὰρ ὁ νοῦς τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ τῶν γνωστῶν, περὶ ἃ ὁ νοῦς)·

Let’s be honest: “The meaning of life is happiness, and happiness is thinking real hard” does not make for a great motivational poster.

On the way to this, he argues that pleasure and other things are not the goals of happiness. My translation has issues of course. Based on the arguments of the Nicomachean Ethics, I have translated ἐνέργεια (energeia) as “intentional action”); as with most translations of Aristotle, we also have the challenge of aretê which here is “virtue” but can also be translated as “excellence”.

Even in English the difference between the two can be daunting: one seems innate (especially from a Christian perspective) while the other seems achieved (which would be temporary). In Aristotle, the notion of “intentional activity in accordance with virtue” is, I think, about pursuing a line of action that is guided by an externally extant ideal. For this reason, I have tried to emphasize process over product in this translation, which, I think, is part of the point of the Nicomachean Ethics.

In an earlier post, I created an already problematic rating system for fake quotes. (Yes, most quotes don’t fit easily into one category; the point of the struct categorization is to make us think about the nature of each quotation anew.)

Here it is again. I think this one is a Cylon-Helen.

    1. The Real Deal: A quotation from an ancient text which is extant.
    2. Aegis Real: Like the head of the Gorgon Medusa, these quotations have been decontextualized and passed down embedded in some other ancient author. They have been attributed to the same author for a long time, but who really knows.
    3. Delphian Graffiti: A quote of real antiquity, but whose attribution has been shifted for different valence in modern contexts (e.g., “know thyself” has been attributed to almost everyone)
    4. Rhetorica ad Fictum Fake: (with thanks to Hannah Čulík-Baird) Aristotle and Quintilian think it is just fine to make up quotations for persuasive reasons. This actually undermines many of the attributions we have from antiquity. So, this is the kind of fake that is really old and may just be too good to be true.
    5. Cylon-Helen: Just as Herodotus and Stesichorus report that ‘real’ Helen was replaced with a near-exact copy for the ten years of the Trojan War, so too some quotations are transformed through translation (Latin into Greek, Greek into Latin; or into Modern languages). The intervention of an outside force changes the cultural status of the words.
    6. Peisistratos Fake: A quote that is not misattributed or transformed, but merely just dressed up and falsely claimed as antique for political reasons (the tyrant Peisistratos pulled some pretty crazy stunts to get into power). These quotations have no sources in antiquity and are used to enforce modern points of view.
    7. Racist Fake: Quotations of the Peisistratus type but with the particular intention of enforcing a racist world view.

A new inspirational poster for you.

Cat Philosopher

And if you want to read more fake Aristotle, I have a page for that



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