On the Virtue of Classical Happiness

The recent article “Why Happiness is Not a Choice” here at Conciliar Post sparked guest author, Andrew Shustov, to pen a rebuttal in hopes of clarifying the meaning of happiness and its place in our lives.
—CP Editors


“The earth teaches us…because it resists us. Man discovers himself when he measures himself against the obstacle.”1

“Something, I know not what, lent this night a savor of Christmas. We told stories, we joked, we sang songs. In the air there was that slight fever that reigns over a gaily prepared feast. And yet we were infinitely poor. Wind, sand, and stars. The austerity of Trappists. But on this badly lighted cloth, a handful of men who possessed nothing in the world but their memories were sharing invisible riches.” 2

—Antoine de Saint-Exupery


“Happiness” is a multifaceted word with a rich history. The challenge comes in that it has different meanings in various contexts when used by different people (sometimes it even has multiple meanings when used by the same people within different situations). Thus, it is important to note that the history and nuances of the word “happiness” ranges from the writings of Aristotle to its more slipshod modern usage.

I have long witnessed that the initial choice of words and definitions a person uses will shift the destination toward which an argument will likely lead its reader. One author who explained the concept quite concisely, wrote that:

Many of the words of our everyday vocabulary are terms implicit with approval of modern tendencies. To describe these tendencies in the language that is used most widely is to endorse them . . . [because the words provide] a set of “prejudices” in the mind of the majority.3

Perhaps it is not a surprise, then, that using a utilitarian definition of happiness from the outset (as does “Why Happiness is not a Choice”) will lead to utilitarian prejudices about how happiness is to be attained. Since people were in fact happy long before the ideas of utilitarianism were popularized by the Benthamites of the 18th and 19th centuries, it would be prudent to examine the classical view of happiness, as explained by Aristotle and other philosophers in the Western tradition.

The main dividing line between these two traditions (classicism and utilitarianism) in regard to happiness, is that utilitarians generally use the word “pleasure” for their base definition of happiness, whereas, classicists frequently use the concept of “contentment” as their foundation for the definition of happiness. In a very basic outline of Aristotle’s position on the subject, classicists believe that true happiness is attained through striving toward fulfilling one’s purpose in life, and through the human need of virtue. Virtue and fulfilling a purpose produce a happiness founded upon character, which leads to contentment in a variety of circumstances. Contentment and virtue, then, are the byproducts of choices and habits (which remain a person’s faithful traveling companions throughout life), rather than being at the fleeting mercy of fair-weather circumstance (as the ”happiness=pleasure” utilitarian group believes).

It is here that classical beliefs become misunderstood by modern people because of the shifting sands of language. “Happiness is a choice” is a classical belief, in that Aristotle and his tradition believed that a person without virtue would not be truly happy; and that while external circumstances are beyond one’s control, “life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well.” The classical belief about happiness being a choice is thus very character oriented, and endures beyond the whims of circumstance. What has changed (because of the shift of language) is simply what a modern listener potentially hears, rather than what is meant by any thoughtful person who uses the expression about happiness being a “choice.”

We can put the idea to the test instantly: if various people who claim that happiness is a choice truly believed that experiencing “pleasure” were merely an internal choice, (one which didn’t cost a person any emotional energy or personal perspective adjustment), they would be fully comfortable expressing themselves in those terms (i.e. that “feeling pleasure is a choice”). Look around as we might, I doubt we would find many people who would believe a position that feeling pleasure is simply an internal choice (and if we did find such people, they would certainly be an anomaly, not a cultural normative ). This is because when thoughtful, non-utilitarian, people use the word happiness, even if they are not well versed in the Greek traditions, they still know full well that they mean something which is rooted much more deeply than in a passing pleasure.

“Stone walls do not a prison make,
Or iron bars a cage;
A free and quiet mind can take
These for a hermitage.”4

If a person’s understanding of happiness is the concept of utilitarian pleasure, of course they are going to become frustrated (and feel betrayed) when told by thoughtful people that “happiness” is a choice; because he or she sees happiness as a motley-capped state of perpetual jolliness. In the non-utilitarian conception of happiness (i.e. contentment), however, it is a feeling with much more depth. Being such, happiness is trained and tempered by a person’s internal discipline, choices, and developed habits. Classicists believe in a “serene control of the emotions by Reason”,5 thus believing that a person’s emotional responses to things are conditioned by the habits a person forms within oneself. For example, “If you do an injury to someone you do not like, you will dislike him still more; if you do a favor to someone you do not like, you will love him more.”6 A person’s choices, actions, and developed habits change his or her attitude—and a person’s attitude changes his or her sense of contentment (or sense of “happiness”) within trying circumstances. To focus upon God’s love threaded into the world by the life of Christ—rather than to be overawed by the magnitude of tragic circumstances—is a choice which people must make afresh each day (and sometimes even each moment).

Yes, happiness may indeed be a functional response to external things (such as the reality of God’s love, or the miracle of human life). After all, no choice anywhere in the world is ever made in a vacuum. Yet the very idea of a response to something is the requirement of an internal choice made by the one doing the responding. A person who says that completing a 21K race is a “choice,” means essentially the same thing as the person who says that “happiness” is a choice. A thoughtful person never means the statement to be taken as a flippant remark that a 21K race can be finished without any struggle, self-conditioning, or physical strain and pains (i.e. without any personal effort). Rather, any thoughtful person who would make the claim, believes that it is a choice which must lead to an active effort and the conditioning of health-giving habits appropriate to the goal. Also, the goal must be real—analogous to Aristotle’s view of a life having purpose—because to tell a person that completing a 21K race is a choice would make no sense if 21K races didn’t even exist. Telling a person who never exercises and eats garbage foods all day that a 21K race is a “choice” also does not mean to imply that the person can complete the 21K race while never exercising and continuing to live a life of no effort toward discipline and training. However, the decision to develop the habits appropriate to completing the 21K race still fully remains a choice dependent on the will of the individual.

Peoples’ inner choices are (generally speaking) more important than their external circumstances, and (if we grant the ideas of the classicists) we are able to train our emotions by the guide of reason and building healthy habits. Crying my eyes out over sorrow or loss, I can still remain at peace if I make the choice to look at the world from the light of God’s love; it doesn’t lessen the volume of tears nor the depth of hurt—but it changes the way a person understands an event, and gives peace (i.e. the classicist’s “happiness”) outside of circumstances. Circumstances can be overwhelming, but it is a person’s choices within those circumstances that matter most.

“This I beheld, or dreamed it in a dream:
There spread a cloud of dust along a plain;
And underneath the cloud, or in it, raged
A furious battle, and men yelled, and swords
Shocked upon swords and shields. A prince’s banner
Wavered, then staggered backward, hemmed by foes.
A craven hung along the battle’s edge
And thought, “Had I a sword of keener steel-
That blue blade that the king’s son bears,-but this
Blunt thing-!” he snapt and flung it from his hand,
And lowering crept away and left the field.
Then came the king’s son, wounded, sore bestead,
And weaponless, and saw the broken sword,
Hilt-buried in the dry and trodden sand,
And ran and snatched it, and with battle-shout
Lifted afresh he hewed his enemy down,
And saved a great cause that heroic day.”7


Andrew Shustov resides in verdant Washington state, where he enjoys good coffee, the outdoors, reading, and writing. He is especially interested in the study and history of communication and its influence upon the daily life and thoughts of others.


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