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The late Thomas Jefferson once said, “our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.” There are various argument as to what embodies genuine happiness and what it may or may not involve. In very basic terms, happiness is a set of beliefs, ideas, and theories. But, with this comes different misconceptions. Aristotle and David Foster Wallace, fortunately, have two similar attitudes towards the concept of genuine happiness.
To put simply, it is determined by logical reasoning and other related principles, and through reasoning that we will then determine it. Happiness epitomizes the end to humanity because everything we do is done in order to accomplish it, which is gained through the fulfillment of complete excellence of the soul. Happiness is the greatest of all good because, as an end, it is an end within itself, meaning that we, as humans, do not use it as a method to another end.
It is believed by Aristotle and David Foster Wallace that a life that does not utilize the ability to reason, will end up in some way being incomplete and imperfect. Thus, reason important and needed for us to reach a complete existence.
David Foster Wallace, in his speech to Kenyon College about living a compassionate life, explains to the graduating class that, “the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over…” Wallace does not directly speak on ways that bring genuine happiness, but the speech surrounds itself around two main principles, recognition and action, which help us to ultimately live a happy life.
Wallace reminds his audience to recognize that they are not the center of the universe and how to further advance our thinking and actions in a mindful and compassionate way that is directed towards everybody. The way a person thinks can make the biggest difference in their lives, and by having a choice what constitutes a meaningful and happy life can change a person’s approach on others around them. We are, too often, fixated to the idea that our thoughts and actions are superior, and fail to allow room for the idea that there might be additional ways around thinking about things. By being cautious to what Wallace calls your, “default setting” is something that can bring a person genuine happiness. In more simpler terms—being cautious to our everyday thinking and actions. Of course, it is easy after a long day of work or school to get easily frustrated and let our emotions show but, if we are aware and sympathetic to others then we can help those around us. It is mandatory for us to control our actions and what we think to achieve the greatest good—happiness.
I believe that David Foster Wallace’s beliefs on genuine happiness derive from learning how to step away from our default setting. As mentioned previously, Wallace does not openly express what brings a person happiness, but instead speaks about changing our attitudes. This explanation of what brings genuine happiness is so important because it is one of the most modern-day approaches to this philosophical argument. A further example of how Wallace’s illustration of happiness epitomizes the greatest of all good can come from an excerpt from his speech. He speaks on how people who desire money, beauty, power, and materialistic things, and how they never will achieve true happiness. Take for example a student who has aspirations for a 4.0 GPA but wind up distraught after receiving a 3.8. According to Wallace, this student will never be “smart” in terms of consciousness because they fail to realize the incredible success that they have achieved. If we live our lives always wishing for the excessive and unreasonable, then we will not find authentic happiness because our needs will never fully be satisfied. Though this may be a differing approach to what Aristotle would say how genuine happiness is achieved, the two men have similar stances on what constitutes happiness.
In Nicomachean Ethics, happiness is described as an important aspect of Aristotle’s thinking because it is an activity of the soul which is completed at a high level of excellence that is later refined over the span of an absolute life in accordance with virtue. According to Aristotle, human virtue solely encompasses the soul and similarly, genuine happiness involves only the soul’s happiness. Virtue can be defined as the state of character concerned with choice, present in a mean relative to what dictates a good person. This mean is, once again, determined by logical and reasoning and principles. Aristotle likes to believe that a wise person will then define it for themselves. He explains that happiness is not found in living for pleasure because this would lead to living a restricted life. Likewise, it is not found in seeking honor because this is solely dependent on what others think of the person, rather than the individual. As previously mentioned by Wallace, Aristotle also believes that these inclinations of honor, power, and wealth are good but, they do not lead to genuine happiness because they are exterior. Aristotle enlightens us that authentic happiness is not chosen or searched for because it is a good in itself. Genuine happiness can only be attained if a person leads, what he calls, “a good life”. The expression may be understood in individual different ways, but ultimately must involve righteousness and integrity. This is genuine happiness.
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