An Interpretation for Modern Day Philosophy

October 14, 2018

The following dialogue takes place between philosophers at a dinner when the conversation moves to the topic of happiness, and the role that pleasure, desires and virtue play in achieving it:

Aristotle: For me, I believe happiness is the ultimate end and the complete reason for our existence. It is the exercise of virtue. Happiness cannot be achieved until the end of one’s life and therefore it is a goal and not a temporary state.

Hobbes: Yes, I agree. Happiness is not a constant rest in the enjoyment of what we desire but instead is made up of all the small desires and unrests that make up a “continual and uninterrupted progress towards greater goods” (New Essays, II, xxi, 36, p. 84). A human’s insatiability is “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth onely in death” (Leviathan I, 11, p. 150).

Epicurus: Although we all have desires, they can be both necessary and unnecessary desires, some which lead to unhappiness, like the desire for a bigger and better car. But I would define happiness as pleasure. All things are done with the intent of having pleasure and the absence of pain. One achieves happiness when they are free from worry and reach a state of inner tranquility.

Aristotle: Yes, pleasure is essential to life but to me, pleasure is not definition of happiness. A person will choose what ethics to follow based on the pleasure they desire. Moreover, pleasure is not one thing and is not all good. For instance, when you eat and drink too much these activities are not pleasurable.

Epicurus: I agree that some pleasures lead to greater pain, like drinking too much, but a wise person will turn themselves away from these temptations. However, pains such as sadness lead to compassion and appreciation for life, which are pleasurable states. We should not get rid of all negative emotions but instead only those that lead to unnecessary pains. "When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and the aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, that produces a pleasant life. It is rather sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs that lead to the tumult of the soul" (Letter to Menoeceus). Philosophical pursuit of wisdom with close friends is the greatest of pleasures.

Plato: The highest good is happiness and this cannot be achieved with just pleasure. Pleasure is a process of generation for something else and not itself. Contrary to some of you here, I believe happiness is a state of being. Pleasure and knowledge make up happiness and virtues are necessary attain it.

Aristotle: Life conforms to a person’s virtues and as a result, pleasure is influenced. Virtues can be intellectual or moral – intellectual being the result of instruction and moral being the result of habit. Virtue is achieved when someone meets the right balance between the deficiency and excess vices. According to the Table of Virtues and Vices, someone has reached the mean when they are courageous, have ambition, are patient, truthful, witty, friendly, and modest. When one displays these characteristics, they can reach happiness. Happiness also requires rational contemplation, as knowledge is important to the wise man.

Plato: I would compare virtues to technical skills, like being a doctor or pilot. Virtues also involve emotional attitudes, desires, and preferences. “For among animals the principle is the same as with us, and mortal nature seeks so far as possible to live forever and be immortal. And this is possible in one way only: by reproduction, because it leaves behind a new young one in place of the old.” There is, then, a constant need for self-restoration and self-improvement by procreation in the quest for earthly immortality. In the case of human beings this need expresses itself in different ways. The search for ‘self-eternalization’ may result in, or even be fulfilled by, the production of biological children or of so-called ‘children of the mind’ (e.g. works of the arts), or even by the creation of order in cities that are then guided by the virtues of justice and moderation (209a–e).

Aristotle: The function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. (Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a13).

Epicurus: Plato and Aristotle, I see your points and believe what we differ on is that the fact that you believe pleasure could not be the highest good.

Plato: Pleasure is always a process of generation for something else and not for itself. Every process of generation always takes places for a sake of a being or for something. The greatest good is a state of being, therefore pleasure cannot be the greatest good. Pleasure is unlimited, has no measure, balance, or limits.

St. Teresa: For me, I have found my happiness through God. All the things of God gave me great pleasure and I have learned that our soul has an intense desire for God. We have no choice but to trust him because he has suffered for us and provided us so many gifts without merit. The thought of our blessedness brings us virtuous joy. God will always help. Poverty is good; the less there is, the more carefree I become. He who feels good with nothing has dominion over all. We should work to strengthen our virtues so that we do not offend God. Furthermore, to achieve happiness and perfection, one must practice a prayer filled life. This consists of love for each other, detachment from all material things, and most importantly, true humility. “Oh, if we were utterly detached, --if we never placed our happiness in anything of this world, --how the pain, caused by living always away from God, would temper the fear of death with the desire of enjoying the true life!” One must envision God coming through their soul to achieve true happiness.

Hobbes: St. Teresa, I agree with you that happiness is with God and you cannot achieve that until you reach the afterlife. Speaking of the afterlife, we should not worry about death because it has not happened yet.

Epicurus: I too believe that it is foolish to fear death and also punishment by the gods for our bad actions. These beliefs produce fear and anxiety and are completely unnecessary since they are based on fictions. 

Hobbes: Finally, our wants are infinite. Even when we fulfill a need, we’ll always want something else. Happiness is the achievement of desire. Society is in place because people recognize the pleasure of being in a system that feeds their appetite. Plato, happiness is not just a state of being, because life is a race to achieving our goal of more and more. 




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