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The Lost Meaning of "The Pursuit of Happiness"

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

An audio version of this post is available on YouTube, Spotify, and


The United States Declaration of Independence mentions three inalienable rights. "Life" and "liberty" seem fairly intuitive, but “the pursuit of happiness” seems a bit more vague and subjective.

In reality, it refers to a specific way of being described by Aristotle around 350 BC and painstakingly developed by many others over the 2,000 years that followed. It gives rise to a particular meaning of “life” and “liberty” and is the end goal behind both the Declaration and the Constitution. It insists on a particular view of morality, government, economics, and society unfamiliar to many Americans. Our departure from that view explains much of the turmoil facing our nation today. Increasingly we are a people with a morality (software) incompatible with the structures (hardware) our nation was founded on.

In this essay, I explore the lost meaning of “the pursuit of happiness.”

A Curious Choice

When Thomas Jefferson penned The Declaration of Independence, he originally wrote “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property” as being among our inalienable rights. The revising committee (Benjamin Franklin, some suspect) then changed the last of these to “the pursuit of happiness”, a curious, nice-sounding, albeit ambiguous choice.

What does it mean? Why does it rank up there alongside life and liberty? How does it relate to property, if at all?

Jefferson and the other founders never offered an explicit explanation and scholars have debated over its origin and meaning for the past two and a half centuries. Today, an inquiring citizen might turn to Google to explore its meaning. When I did so, I got the following “top ten” results, most of which coincide with the notion that everyone gets to individually decide what happiness means for them.

From the Renew Democracy Initiative

  1. A Wikipedia article suggests that the phrase was copied from contemporary authors such as John Locke, George Mason, Adam Ferguson, Richard Cumberland, or William Wollaston.

  2. A YourDictionary entry defines it as the right to “freely pursue joy and live life in a way that makes you happy, as long as you don't do anything illegal or violate the rights of others.”

  3. A entry states that it is “going after the things that make us happy. Whether it's chicken farming, basket weaving, or stamp collecting, Jefferson thinks we should have a chance to chase our dreams.”

  4. An Emory University article lamenting that the modern “thin” understanding that the pursuit of happiness is a hedonistic one and advocates for a “thicker” interpretation that it is instead a state of being, “the good or flourishing life” and “should be a primary concern of government” which should ensure health, safety, food, and medicine as “a few important building blocks of a happy life that governments can address.”

  5. The site argues that Jefferson may have been channeling the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus who spoke of happiness as pleasure in the sense of “the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul, …sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs that lead to the tumult of the soul.”

  6. A How Stuff Works article declared, “If there's one thing that can be said about happiness, it's that it's wholly and utterly subjective. What makes one person happy -- picking flowers on a sunny day, perhaps -- may make another person decidedly unhappy.” It then discussed John Locke’s belief that happiness is the natural state of humanity as a response to the forces of pleasure and pain, to which responses vary by individual. Several paragraphs are then dedicated to the idea that “the accumulation of wealth is a major source of pleasure for Americans” before closing with “when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson avoided defining happiness, choosing to leave it to the individual to determine his or her own meaning of the word.”

  7. A 2011 article in the Atlantic referenced Aristotle saying that “happiness was the goal of human activity. For him, true happiness was something more than simply ‘Eat, drink, and be merry,’ or even the honor of high position. Real satisfaction didn't depend on the pleasures of the senses or what others thought of you. You could find genuine happiness only in a life of virtue and just actions. President Kennedy alluded to Aristotle when he defined happiness as ‘the full use of one's talents along the lines of excellence.’” The article then went on to share that both Washington and Jefferson believed happiness was attained, at least partially, “through the good that you did in public” and further opined that “people were happy when they controlled their destiny when their voice was heard, when they participated in public events when the government did not do things to them, or even for them, but with them.” The author then closed with “only thoughtful discussions of the true meaning of happiness and prosperity will awaken people to what it is that really fulfills them and will give them the words to describe it.”

  8. A brief page on the website simply states that “​​Jefferson never explained his use of the phrase ‘pursuit of happiness'", but that “he was almost certainly influenced by George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights.”

  9. A December 2011 article published by the Williams & Mary Law School expressed agreement with efforts by Charles Maurice Wiltse in 1935 to trace the origins of the “happiness” clause through John Locke, Francis Hutcheson, Joseph Priestly, Cesare Beccaria, Jeremy Bentham, and others. Wilste concluded:

    1. “The happiness principle is undoubtedly the most significant feature of Jefferson’s theory of rights, for it raises government above the mere negative function of securing the individual against the encroachments of others. By recognizing a right to the pursuit of happiness, the state is committed to aid its citizens in the constructive task of obtaining their desires, whatever they may be. It should also be noted that this principle is universal, and therein is distinct from the hedonistic maxim of Bentham. The state is to secure, not merely the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but so far as possible the greatest happiness of all its citizens whatever their condition. It may well mean, therefore, that many will be restrained from achieving the maximum of happiness, that others less fortunate may obtain more than the minimum. No one will get all he wants, perhaps, but so far as the power of the state can go, everyone will get something.” (Charles Maurice Wiltse, The Jeffersonian Tradition in American Democracy 70 (1935).)

    2. Wiltse noted that the “happiness principle” is not only the “most significant feature” of the Declaration but that it also embodies a theory of government.

  10. A 1964 article published in The Williams and Mary Quarterly, authored by Arthur M. Schlesinger distinguished between pursuing happiness and practicing happiness, like one might practice medicine or law, opining that the latter was the more correct, citing:

    1. James Otis in The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (Boston, 1764) wrote that the duty of government is “above all things to provide for the security, the quiet, and happy enjoyment of life, liberty, and property”

    2. Josiah Quincy, Jr. in “Observations on the Act of Parliament Commonly Called the Boston Port-Bill” (Boston, 1774) avowed that the proper object of civil society is “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” [, citing Marquis Beccaria in An Essay on Crimes and Punishment, (Italy, 1767), which was in turn thought to be original to Jeremy Bentham in his explication of “utilitarianism”.

    3. James Wilson in “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament” (Philadelphia, 1774) asserted that “the happiness of the society is the first law of every government.”

    4. John Adams in “Thoughts on Government” (Philadelphia, 1776), “the happiness of society is the end of government”

      1. [“We ought to consider, what is the end of government before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point, all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all Divines and moral Philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle, it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

      2. “All sober enquiries after truth, ancient and modern, Pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity consists in virtue. Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mahomet, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this.”]

As we see, a wide range of ideas exists on the subject. Only two or three of the top ten even get remotely close to the understanding that Jefferson and the founders had of the now-famous phrase.

A Conversation with Aristotle

Several of those “top ten” sources mention in passing that Jefferson never explained his meaning of the famous phrase, “pursuit of happiness.” But is that really true?

In a letter to Henry Lee written in 1825, Thomas Jefferson, who studied Greek from the age of nine, wrote:

“...the object of the Declaration of Independence…was intended to be an expression of the American mind. …All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day; whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”

So, what were the “harmonizing sentiments of the day” regarding “the pursuit of happiness?” What did the authors Jefferson had studied since his youth have to say on the matter?

It turns out that Aristotle, the famed Greek philosopher who lived 2,300 years ago, devoted an entire book to defining the pursuit of happiness called Nicomachean Ethics, or Ethics for short. Nichomachus was the name of Aristotle’s father and the name Aristotle gave to his own son.

If we were to have an interview with Aristotle today about this book, it might go something like this:

Q: Mr. Aristotle, what is happiness?

A: Happiness is the greatest good and the end of human nature. It is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world. It is perfect, prized, and divine. Everything else we do, we do as a means toward happiness.

Q: And how does one attain happiness?

A: One attains happiness through the realization and perfect exercise of virtue.

Q: What is virtue?

A: Virtues are states of character which make a man good and make him do his work well. Each virtue is a choice, a mean, positioned between two vices - an excess on the one hand and a deficiency on the other.

Q: What does that mean?

A: Courage, for example, is a virtue - one of a dozen or so I explore in Ethics. An excess of courage is rashness. The deficiency is cowardice. Perfect virtue means acting in the right way at the right time towards the right people all the time, for your whole life.

Q: Is that even possible?

A: It is difficult in the extreme. Happiness is a journey or pursuit, more than a destination. Actual goodness is rare, laudable, and noble. Our passions lead us astray constantly. And the less virtuously we act, the more difficult it becomes to attempt to return to virtue.

Q: How are we supposed to know what’s right or virtuous?

A: Each of us is born with an internal guide that gets us started. I suspect it is of divine origin. I call it “reason”, “right reason”, or “right rule”. But from there it must be developed - studied, learned, and practiced - made into habit and a way of life.

Q: Isn’t happiness the same as pleasure?

A: No. Well, in the final evaluation, happiness is pleasurable, in a sense. But, the path is often filled with pain and always contains challenges, requiring us to strain every nerve. The precisely virtuous choice is often difficult to discern in the moment, let alone practice. To make matters more difficult, we humans find pleasure in both the good and the bad, so pleasure cannot be our guide. Instead, we must pursue virtue.

Q: So, you define happiness as the pursuit of virtue by listening to this inner voice and practicing over a lifetime, developing virtuous habits that make up our character. And this brings happiness?

A: Yes, and there is a bit more to it. A “complete life” consists of four things. First, living a life of virtue and justice. Second, developing practical judgment; that is, a knowledge of things that change. Third, attaining wisdom; that is, a knowledge of things that don’t change. And fourth, acquiring sufficient property to sustain life and, ideally, allow for generosity and magnanimity.

Q: Wait, happiness is dependent on property?

A: Yes, as mortal beings we are sustained by our labor. The good or happy man is a good steward over his property because he wants to use it to sustain his own life and help others - in the right way, at the right time - an impulse desperately needed in all societies throughout all of history, wouldn’t you agree? That said, a truly good, noble, and happy man will bear with dignity whatever fortune sends him. A virtuous character leads to property, not the other way around. So, property is necessary to a complete life and to the fullest sense of happiness.

Q: So, happiness isn’t subjective? Don’t each of us get to decide what makes us happy?

A: Yes and No. Happiness comes by acting in accordance with an external standard, virtue, as determined through an internal guide given at birth, reason, which we cultivate and practice throughout our life and which all other men are able to rightly judge, more or less, as to the rightness or wrongness of our action. However, we have many choices in who we associate with, who we marry, what career we pursue, what activities bring us pleasure, etc. But our actions in regard to those choices always have a right way, right time, virtuous aspect to them - a duty, if you will. At least, they do if you want to be happy.

Q: So, the pursuit of happiness is really the pursuit of virtue in accordance with right reason?

A: Yes. Right reason is something inside each of us that guides us. It helps us navigate the nuance of acting virtuously in any given situation. Pursued long enough, it builds a virtuous character. This leads to happiness, the best thing in the world. It is the most god-like.

Q: God-like?

A: Yes, the life of the gods is entirely blessed. Happiness is the closest we can approach that state in this life. I suspect happiness itself is god-given. In any case, it appears to be the wish of the Gods that we approach this same state as much as we possibly can in this life. They seem to wish happiness for us.

Q: Wait, are you saying the pursuit of happiness is really the pursuit of godliness?

A: Yes, you could say that. I mean, at least the gods as I know them. As long as your gods, or even your own highest wishes coincide with a desire for the greatest good, our pursuit of happiness should share the same ideals and methods. In any case, it requires a great deal of contemplation - internal reflection on who we are and how we should act.

Q: Is there anything else we should know about the pursuit of happiness?

A: Well, obviously these ideas have broad implications for child-rearing, education, friendship, the arts, community life, citizenship, jurisprudence, helping the poor, the role of the state, etc. Justice, by the way, is the greatest of the virtues, because it is acting with complete virtue, not only towards yourself, but towards all of your neighbors. I believe the state has an important role to play in helping its citizens be virtuous, and ensuring justice. You can read more about that in my next book, entitled Politics.

Greek, Roman, and Christian Influences on Liberty

So, dear reader, according to Aristotle, the pursuit of happiness is why we are all here. It is the greatest good. The path consists of the lifelong pursuit of virtue and the character it eventually builds. It requires listening to the internal voice given to all men at birth that tells us what is right and what is wrong. It leads to the accumulation and disposition of property to support oneself and benefit others. It leads to friendships of virtue, the highest kind of friendship, and a source of great pleasure. Those friendships are often crucial to healthy societies. It leads to justice - acting in the right way to all people at all times in the right amount.

That is my attempt at summarizing Aristotle’s words in our modern vernacular. In a moment, for those interested, we’ll take a look at his actual words.

Before that, it’s important to note the impact that Aristotle’s writing had on other writers and philosophers up through the American founding.

Jefferson and his contemporaries were familiar with Aristotle, studying his writings in the original Greek. Jefferson specifically references Aristotle as one of four writers from whom he derived his ideas for the Declaration.

Aristotle wrote a companion book to Ethics called Politics, where he discussed ideas on how to implement his vision for the pursuit of happiness at the family and government levels. Cicero built on Aristotle’s idea of reason in his concept of “true law”.

As time progressed, these Greek and Roman ideas found a powerful ally in Christianity. Thinkers like Aquinas, Hooker, Locke, and Sidney made the case that individuals are free to combine into societies as equals, not subjects. They delegate their right of self-defense that flows from being the creation and property of God. They came to believe that the government’s only legitimate purpose was the protection of life, liberty, and property as that is the only right we can delegate without unjustly imposing on others, impairing our pursuit of virtue, and thereby undermining our own pursuit of happiness.

Divine will and the pursuit of happiness dictated that they must be maximally free so they can pursue virtue, including being the means of generously responding to the needs of their fellow man. All other social goods were to be brought about by men and women collaborating together voluntarily to solve society’s problems as they sought to act rightly towards everyone within their community.

Freedom of conscience, speech, assembly, the press, etc. are derived not only from man's individual sovereignty but also from the idea that the ideal society or Utopia was unachievable by man on earth. It was reserved for heaven or a government led by God himself. As such, mankind should only hope to achieve compromise rather than consensus on conflicting opinions, which requires the skills of critical thinking, reason, and debate.

The pursuit of happiness is not, therefore, as some have come to believe, an open-ended, everyone-decides-for-themselves philosophy. This idea of America expects something very specific from its citizens and intends for them to be maximally free in order to achieve that end. In other words, maximum freedom requires maximum responsibility to act in a certain way - a virtuous way. This understanding of happiness and the liberty or open society necessary to pursue it sheds light on why founder and second president John Adams said, "our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

Liberal. To Be or Not To Be

These ideas form the basis of Classic Liberalism and roughly characterized American political theory for the first one hundred years of the nation's history.

The nation's second century was dominated by Progressive Liberalism which expands the role of government to do coercively what classical liberalism and virtue ethics would have citizens do cooperatively. Well-intentioned, this perspective inadvertently impedes a citizen's pursuit of happiness. Instead of placing the full weight of societal improvement on individual action aimed at collective collaboration, it largely delegates that responsibility to the administrative state.

Under the founding model, society’s problems are solved by “we the people”. Under progressivism, they are solved by “they the government”. Citizens feel virtuous by advocating that government solve problems, but need develop little of the character, skills, and relationships that come from the hard work of cooperating with their neighbors to resolve issues at the local level. At worst, they become siloed and indifferent to the plight of the people actually living around them, focused only on their own interests, wellbeing, and prosperity.

For the first two hundred or more years of America’s history, these two ideas formed the basis of our nation’s political parties. In the last fifty years or so, the progressive perspective has increasingly characterized the policy positions of both parties - large government programs that siphon enormous amounts of money to citizens and corporations, resulting in tremendous debts and future liabilities now totaling $200 trillion dollars, or over $600,000 for each man, woman, and child alive in America today.

Now, a third illiberal worldview seeks to displace the other two liberal views. Known by several names, Wokeism, radical individualism, identity politics, and Identity Marxism, among others, it replaces the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of social justice, which is a very different kind of justice than the one spoken of by Aristotle and creates a very different kind of citizen, culture, and form of government.

Understanding the differences between these three worldviews may be aided by noting how each views the role of government related to equality.

Under Classical Liberalism, the purpose of government is equality under the law.

Under Progressive Liberalism, the purpose of government is equality of opportunity.

Under Identity Marxism, the purpose of government is equality of outcome.

I intend to treat those subjects in greater depth in future essays.

This concludes this essay. For those interested, I've provided below a few key quotes from Aristotle's Ethics and Politics related to the points summarized above. I encourage everyone to read both books in their entirety. They are lengthy and difficult, but well worth the effort.


Aristotle, in His Own Words


Happiness: The Greatest Good and End of Human Nature

“Happiness is the realization and perfect exercise of virtue” (Politics VII:13\1332a:7)

"Now such a thing [the chief good\final ends] happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy." (Ethics I:7\1097b:1)

"Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action. ... happiness is the chief good..." (Ethics I:7\1098a:20)

"...virtuous activities or their opposites are what constitute happiness or the reverse." (Ethics I:10\1100b:5)

"...he is happy who is active in accordance with complete virtue...throughout a complete life." (Ethics I:10\1101a:15)

"...happiness is...prized and perfect[ and] a first principle; for it is for the sake of this that we do all that we do, and the first principle and cause of goods is, we claim, something prized and divine." (Ethics I:12\1101b:35)

"happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue" (Ethics I:13\1102a:5)

"By human virtue we mean not that of the body but that of the soul; and happiness also we call an activity of the soul." (Ethics I:13\1102a:14)

“...happiness…is…the end of human nature…” (Ethics X:6\1176a:30)

“The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement.” (Ethics X:6\1177a:1)

"Happiness then is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world..." (Ethics I:8\1099a\20)

Virtue: The Path to Happiness

A State of Character

“Virtues…are states of character” (Ethics II:5\1106a:10)

“The virtue of man…will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.” (Ethics II:6\1106a:20)

“Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean…between two vices,...the excess…and the defect.” (Ethics II:6\1107a:35)

“For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with arms, meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he have not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony.” (Politics I:2\1253a:35)

Virtue: Mean, Deficiency, and Excess

These are the virtues Aristotle discusses in Ethics, along with their

Aristotle's Virtues, Deficiencies, and Excesses. From Ethics.
Aristotle's Virtues, Deficiencies, and Excesses. From Ethics. Table by the author.

On the Difficulty of Virtue

“Moral virtue is a mean…between two vices, the one involving excess, and the other deficiency. …Hence also it is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle…Wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.” (Ethics II:9\1109a:20)

“To hit the mean is hard in the extreme… [W]e must incline sometimes towards the excess, sometimes towards the deficiency; for so shall we most easily hit the mean and what is right.” (Ethics II:9\1109a:30 & 1110a:25)

“We must consider the things towards which we ourselves also are easily carried away; for some of us tend to one thing, some to another.” (Ethics II:9\1109b:1)

“Perhaps the good man differs from others most by seeing the truth in each class of things… In most things the error seems to be due to pleasure; for it appears good when it is not. We therefore choose the pleasant as a good, and avoid pain as an evil.” (Ethics III:4\1113a:30)

Regarding knowing about virtue vs. acting in a virtuous way, Aristotle claims that three things are necessary:

  1. We “must have knowledge” of the virtues

  2. We “must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes” (i.e. that of being the right thing to do.)

  3. Our actions “must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character”

Of the three, he observes, “knowledge has little or no weight, while the other conditions count not a little but for everything.”

He then warns:

“But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course in philosophy.” (Ethics, Book II:4\1105a:30;1105b:10)

On the Danger of Vice

“The man who has been ruined by pleasure or pain forthwith fails to see any such originating cause…for vice is destructive of the originating cause of action.” (Ethics VI:5\1140b:15)

“The incontinent man acts with appetite, but not with choice.” (Ethics III:2\1111b:10)

“Evil destroys even itself and if it is complete becomes unbearable.” (Ethics IV:5\1126a:10)

“For virtue and vice respectively preserve and destroy the first principle [happiness]. …virtue either natural or produced by habitation is what teaches right opinion about the first principle.” (Ethics VII:8\1151a:15)

“Most people…are slaves of their pleasures.”

The question we must ask, then, is how do we determine whether or not an act is virtuous. Aristotle argues that something exists within each of us that acts as a guide. He calls this guide “reason”, sometimes translated as “right rule” or “right reason”.

Reason: The Path to Virtue

“ must be born with an eye, as it were, by which to judge rightly and choose what is truly good and he is well endowed by nature who is well endowed with this. For it is what is greatest and most noble, and what we cannot get or learn from another, but must have just such as it was when given us at birth…” (Ethics III:5\1114b:6)

“Happiness is activity 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 ruler 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 is in accordance with its proper virtue will be perfect happiness. That this activity is contemplative we have already said.

“...reason [is] the best thing in us, [and] the objects of reason are the best of knowable objects.” (Ethics X:7\1177a:11)

Regarding “the complete happiness of man”, Aristotle said:

“such a life would be too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him… If reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life.

“But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more it does in power and worth surpass everything.

“...for man, therefore, the life according to reason is best and pleasantest since reason more than anything else is man. This life, therefore, is also the happiest.” (Ethics X:7\1177b:20)

The Good

"Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has been rightly declared to be that at which all things aim." (Ethics I:\1094a:1)

The State and Political Science

“If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this),...clearly this must be the good and the chief good…the most authoritative art…most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state…so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worthwhile to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a man or for city-states. …[This] is political science, in one sense of that term.” (Ethics I:2\1094a:25-1094b:10)

“Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness…” (Ethics I:4\1095a:14)

“Political science spends most of its pains on making the citizens to be of a certain character, viz. Good and capable of noble acts.” (Ethics I:9\1099b:30)

"The student of politics, then, must study the soul, and must study it with these objects [virtue and happiness] in view." (Ethics I:13\1102a:20)

"Neither by nature, then, more contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit. ...This is confirmed by what happens in states; for legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them, and this is the wish of every legislator, and those who do not effect it miss their mark, and it is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one." (Ethics II:1\1103a:20; 1103b:1)

“The majority of the acts commanded by the law are those which are prescribed from the point of view of virtue taken as a whole; for the law bids us practice every virtue and forbids us to practice any vice. And the things that tend to produce virtue taken as a whole are those of the acts prescribed by the law which have been prescribed with a view to education for the common good.” (Ethics V:2\1130b:30)

“Bad men…aim at getting more than their share of advantages, while in labor and public service they fall short of their share; and each man wishing for advantage to himself criticizes his neighbor and stands in his way; for if people do not watch it carefully the common weal is soon destroyed. The result is that they are in a state of faction, putting compulsion on each other but unwilling to do what is just.” (Ethics IX:6\1167b:10)

“The end of the state is the good life, and these are the means towards it. And the state is the union of families and villages in a perfect and self-sufficing life, by which we mean a happy and honorable life.” (Politics 1280b 40)

Other References

Man must choose and construct the form of government to which he will “commit his happiness”. Hamilton, Federalist 15

The Soul

"...the function of man is an activity of soul..." (Ethics I:7\1098b:5)

"...the function of man [is] a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these[.] ...human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue." (Ethics I:7\1098a:15)

Property & The Complete Life

“Property is a part of the household, and the art of acquiring property is a part of the art of managing the household; for no man can live well, or indeed live at all, unless he be provided with necessaries.” (Politics I:4\1253b:20)

“Wealth is desirable, but not as the reward of betrayal.” (Ethics X:3\1173b:25)

“Some think that a very moderate amount of virtue is enough, but set no limit to their desires of wealth, property, power, reputation, and the like. To whom we reply by an appeal to facts, which easily prove that mankind do not acquire or preserve virtue by the help of external goods, but external goods by the help of virtue, and that happiness, whether consisting in pleasure or virtue, or both, is more often found with those who are most highly cultivated in their mind and in their character and have only a moderate share of external goods, than among those who possess external goods to a useless extent but are deficient in higher qualities.” (Politics VII:1\1323a:35)

“Let us acknowledge then that each one has just so much of happiness as he has of virtue and wisdom, and of virtuous and wise action. God is a witness to us of this truth, for he is happy and blessed, not by reason of any external good, but in himself and by reason of his own nature. And herein of necessity lies the difference between good fortune and happiness; for external goods come of themselves, and chance is the author of them, but no one is just or temperate by or through chance. In like manner, and by a similar train of argument, the happy state may be shown to be that which is best and which acts rightly; and rightly it cannot act without doing right actions, and neither individual nor state can do right actions without virtue and wisdom. Thus the courage, justice, and wisdom of a state have the same form and nature as the qualities which give the individual who possesses them the name of just, wise, or temperate.

“...Let us assume then that the best life, both for individuals and states, is the life of virtue, when virtue has external goods [property] enough for the performance of good actions.” (Politics VII:1\1323b:40)

“It is clearly better that property should be private, but the use of it common; and the special business of the legislator is to create in men this benevolent disposition. …And further, there is the greatest pleasure in doing a kindness or service to friends or guests or companions, which can only be rendered when a man has private property. …No one, when men have all things in common, will any longer set an example of liberality or do any liberal action; for liberality exists in the use which is made of property.” (Politics II:5\1263a:35)

“In the general course of human nature, a power over man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.” (Hamilton, Federalist 79)


"It makes no small difference then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference." (Ethics II:1\1103b:24)

“In educating the young we steer them by the rudders of pleasure and pain.” (Ethics X:1\1172a:20)

“It is hard, if not impossible to remove by argument the traits that have long since been incorporated in the character.” (Ethics X:9\1179b:15)

“The soul of the student must first have been cultivated by means of habits for noble joy and noble hatred, like earth which is to nourish the seed. For he who lives as passion directs will not hear argument that dissuades him, nor understand it if he does; and how can we persuade one in such a state to change his ways? And in general passion seems to yield not to argument but to force. The character, then, must somehow be there already with a kinship to virtue, loving what is noble and hating what is base.

“But it is difficult to get from youth up a right training for virtue if one has not been brought up under right laws; for to live temperately and hardily is not pleasant to most people, especially when they are young. For this reason their nurture and occupations should be fixed by law; for they will not be painful when they have become customary.

“But it is surely not enough that when they are young they should get the right nurture and attention; since they must, even when they are grown up, practice and be habituated to them, we shall need laws for this as well, and generally speaking to cover the whole of life; for most people obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than the sense of what is noble.” (Ethics X:9\1179b:20)

“Private education has an advantage over public, as…a boxer presumably does not prescribe the same style of fighting to all his pupils. It would seem, then, that the detail is worked out with more precision if the control is private; for each person is more likely to get what suits his case.” (Ethics X:9\1180b:10)


“...that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed.” (Ethics I:9\1099b:15)

“Therefore, the activity of God, 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.” (Ethics X:8\1178b:20)

“We assume the gods to be above all other beings blessed and happy.” (Ethics X:8\1178b:5)

Happiness is an activity of the soul that is excellent in all of the ways a human thinks or acts.

“Now he who exercises his reason and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state of mind and most dear to the gods. For if the gods have any care for human affairs, as they are thought to have, it would be reasonable both that they should delight in that which was best and most akin to them (i.e. reason) and that they should reward those who love and honour this most, as caring for the things that are dear to them and acting both rightly and nobly. And that all these attributes belong most of all to the philosopher is manifest. He, therefore, is the dearest to the gods. And he who is that will presumably be also the happiest; so that in this way too the philosopher will more than any other be happy.” (Ethics X:8\1179b:20)

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