Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Aristotle's Happiness: Blogging to My PhD

As part of my effort to keep myself on track with the reading for my PhD exam, I've made a goal of completing a book a week and writing about it with some sort of pop culture/not specifically academic lens.

This post is a little later than I had intended it to be (I have lots of excuses, but they're the boring I got sick, my husband went out of town kind), but it's here nonetheless. First up was Aristotle's On Rhetoric.

Re-reading it first made me sigh in relief because I actually remember a lot more of it than I thought I did. Reading my notes in the margins from four years ago really brought a lot of details back to my mind. The part that I want to focus on is in Book 1, Chapter 5. Aristotle said "to all people generally there is one goal": happiness. Most interesting to me is Aristotle's definition of happiness, and I wanted to see how it held up to my own. He defines happiness as "success combined with virtue, or as self-sufficiency in life, or as the pleasantest life accompanied with security, or as abundance of possessions and bodies" (1.5.3). He goes on to say that happiness must be made up of necessary parts:
"good birth, numerous friendships, worthy friendships, wealth, good children, numerous children, a good old age, as well as the virtues of the body (such as health, beauty, strength, physical stature, athletic prowess), reputation, honor, good luck, virtue" 
These are the things, according to Aristotle, that people strive for in order to attain happiness.

I have some individual qualms about some of his claims. (I think I can be perfectly happy with my family if my daughter is an only child, for instance, and I know plenty of people who are happy without children. I also think that the "worthy friendships" is much more important than the "numerous friendships," though, I guess both would be great). On the whole, though, I think that these "parts" of happiness still hold true today, millenniums later.

And that got me thinking. People in 300 B.C. were seeking out the same basic things that we're seeking out in 2012. To me, that's a clear reminder that there is an underlying humanity binding us together that transcends the deep divisions we use to segregate ourselves and each other. That means that regardless of gender, race, class, religion, political affiliation, favorite sports team, parenting style, or eating habits, we share more in common than not.

So what role do those labels play? Why do we spend so much time trying to set ourselves apart?

Stand Out from The Crowd Unique Golf Tee Game September 19, 20119

Well, for one, labels help us find a sense of identity, and several of those ultimate goals for happiness that Aristotle mentions depend on a sense of identity. How else do we measure a thing like "reputation" or "honor" than to determine who we are and what we stand for? And finding our own identities in a collective sense certainly makes it easier to acquire "numerous friends."

So, to some extent, we divide ourselves in order to find ourselves. Aristotle claims that much of our happiness is centered in "self-sufficiency," but that means that we must first create a sense of self to be sufficient. Figuring out how we are different from the people around us is a key part in that development.

But labels aren't always applied with such good intentions. The labels that we use to self-identify are likewise applied by external influences, and--when that happens--they become divisive. And there are plenty of people waiting to benefit from that division.

Democrats & Republicans

Perhaps the place we see the benefits of division clearest of all is in politics. Think about it: we're really not that different. I--as a few quick glances through the "politics" label on this blog will attest--am a pretty staunch liberal. I reliably vote Democrat with a few local ballots cast for Green Party members or liberal-leaning Independents. One of my closest friends is extremely conservative and will cancel out my vote every single election cycle. If you drew the lines in just the right way, we would look like we have nothing in common. But that's absurd. We have almost everything in common. We both care about the health and safety of our families. We both like the small pleasures in life like a beautiful sunset or a good, hot bubble bath without a toddler banging on the door. We both appreciate a good meal. We both want stable jobs that we like going to every day. If you asked each of us individually what were the most important things to our individual lives, most of the things on the list are going to match up. 

But politicians can rarely work with a message like that. They have to convince us that we are completely separate species, each vying for the other's total demise. It's how they motivate us to get to the polls. It's how they get us to donate to their campaigns. Dividing the political world into "us" and "them" is a cornerstone to most political messages, regardless of party affiliation. 

Which is why the aftermath of Mitt Romney's recently leaked comments is so very, very interesting to me. By now, you've almost certainly heard about Romney's private fundraising event that someone secretly videotaped. (Full transcript here). Romney was speaking to a room full of very wealthy people, people who had donated $50,000 a piece just to get to the dinner. He clearly made some assumptions (right or wrong) about who his audience would consider the "us" and the "them" and that assumption led him to make the following, much-talked-about statement:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect.

Wow. So, usually, the trick to political divisiveness is to speak in veiled enough language that you let people always think they're an "us." You see, regardless of who is sitting in the room in front of you and regardless of who you'd like to imagine yourself interacting with, the job of a politician is to represent the people of the United States--and we're a diverse bunch. While divisive rhetoric is part of the game, the tricky part of it is making sure that you leave the "us" permeable enough to not alienate large sections of the electorate. Despite Romney's declaration that his "his job is not to worry about those people," his job--or at least the one he's campaigning for as President--is, in fact by definition, to worry about those people. All of them. 

Romney opened a floodgate with this comment in a way that some of his previous campaign gaffes--however out of touch they may have made him appear--did not. With this statement Romney very specifically and mathematically declared half of the population below his concern. The rub? A lot of that 47% vote Republican. A lot of that 47% thought they were an "us." 

And that decision has allowed the Obama campaign to capitalize on a message of unity that's rare to see in a political race. Since Mitt Romney has so specifically isolated so many voters, Obama's message is that he won't draw those lines. With the launch of a new website and hashtag, the FOR ALL campaign is in full swing. 

Of course Obama is capitalizing on an opportunity here, but he'd be crazy not to. Romney pulled the curtain away from the wizard of political rhetoric. While everyone is supposed to feel like there's a "them" out there, that "them" is never supposed to be so fixed and rigid that they can't reach across it. When Mitt Romney defined his "us" in such stark terms, he reminded many of us (the real, complete us, not the rhetorical tool "us") of our humanity. See, even if we're not in the 47%, chances are we know someone who is. Even if we don't get an income tax return each year, chances are we know someone who does. 

And do you know what else we know? Most of those people are just striving for those same things that Aristotle says we all want: friendships, families, and health. When Romney cut those people out of his equation, he cut too deep. 

Next up on Blogging to My PhD: Isocrates' Against the Sophists

Photo: stevendepolo,, The Message


  1. I found your blog through Ms. Magazine this morning due to the awesome article about feminist teachers that blog. I first want to say, your blog is FANTASTIC! Second, you seem like an amazing woman who's doing amazing work. THANK YOU! And lastly, I want to address this particular blog post.

    I, too, am an extremely proud feminist and throughout my academic journey have done a fair amount of reading on Aristotle, most notedly Metaphysics. I've found myself very interested in essentialism and its effects on people, as well as labels/groups and the identities we attach to them or derive from them for ourselves. Ultimately I find these labels a very particular place where people drive wedges between each other (as you said "us" vs. "them")and become a source of serious oppression that's really hard to shake.

    The commonality you're talking about between people is very powerful and really important to think about. Too often we try to separate ourselves from others, for various reasons, rather than seeing the abundant similarities. This similarity is what can really bind people and crush stereotypes and systems of oppression. And once we see these similarities, we're more apt to celebrate our differences, rather than accost them.

    1. Thank you for reading!

      I agree with your comment, and I do think that commonality is such an important place that we tend to overlook. It's so much easier to point out the differences we see in the world than it is to really examine those places where our experiences overlap. I think we start to lose a sense of ourselves when we look at the commonalities and we're very attached to our identities. But the beauty of individuality is that it's made up of so many layers of identities that can be shared in endless ways. I truly think we can keep our individuality while still seeing the connections that bind us all together.

  2. Do you understand what Aristotle means by " good birth".

  3. Aristotle says that good birth in a collective sense (so for a whole nation of people, for instance) "means that its members are indigenous or ancient: that its earliest leaders were distinguished men."

    For an individual, which he is careful to note can be a man or a woman, good birth "implies that both parents are free citizens, and that, as in the case of the state, the founders of the line have been notable for virtue or wealth or something else which is highly prized, and that many distinguished persons belong to the family, men and women, young and old."

    I think we could probably equate his contemporary understanding of good birth with the privilege of being well connected and coming from an affluent family in our modern social settings. As far as this post, I think that the concept of "good birth" probably plays into why so many people didn't recognize themselves as part of the 47%. They wanted to see themselves as an "us" (one of the affluent people) rather than a "them," even when that didn't really fit into the group that Romney was talking about.

  4. Hey.. I have read on happines by Aristotle.. Do you belive that to be happy you need to be have honour ?

  5. That's an interesting question. I haven't put as much thought into honor as I have into happiness. Aristotle certainly seems to think that honor (and that's a lot of where the "good birth" thing came in) was important to achieving happiness. What do you think?