The Role of Happiness and Virtue

Human nature, or the relationship between the human soul and physical body, is a topic that has perplexed mankind as a whole. Human nature refers to a set of immanent characteristics which all humans share. Since ancient times, people strived to identify and understand these characteristics. As various beliefs and ideas of human nature emerged, the question of man’s purpose in life followed. Different views developed but all similarly devoted attention to happiness, a feeling of pleasure or contentment in life, and virtue, or what it means to be a good person, in respect to human flourishing, or the efforts to achieve self-actualization.

To understand virtue and happiness, as a conflict of interest that many strain to fully grasp, a few people rose to the challenge to form effective, influential beliefs, for example, Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine. In discussions of happiness and virtue in the context of the components of human nature, one controversial subject has been how to live a flourishing life.

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On the one hand, Plato argues that it is through moral thought and understanding justice and other virtues. On the other hand, Aristotle professes that living a flourishing life is by seeking intellectual virtues plus applying the knowledge to result in the development of character virtues. In comparison to those two views, Augustine’s beliefs are based more on Christianity’s God providing fulfilling happiness in life. My personal belief resonates with Augustine’s in the way that to live a purposeful, flourishing life is dependent on God, but I also recognize a mixture of Plato’s and Aristotle’s beliefs.

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One of the most influential beliefs of happiness and virtue was shaped by Plato, a well-known philosopher from Classical Athens. His main claim is a flourishing life is made possible through the concept of justice applied to the soul. In Plato’s Republic, he explains by providing a foundation of his belief in human nature, specifically focusing on his theory of the soul. He states that the human soul consists of three elements: reason, spirit, and appetite. He implies that the fulfilling of these three needs, with reason managing the spirited and appetitive elements, can satisfy the intricate nature of the human being. It is essential for humans to use reason to reign in their passions to promote the stability of his community. Justice, virtue or excellence for a man means to function in accordance with the three elements composing the soul (435a-445e). He also introduces four virtues that lead to harmony in an ideal civilization that also applies for the individual. These four cardinal virtues are temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice which reflect the nature of the soul. He claims that these four virtues apply complete moral excellence. Plato concludes that a flourishing life is achieved by the pursuit of higher knowledge and the man’s social responsibility to the public good.

Responding to Plato, another influential perspective was formed by Aristotle. Aristotle was a former student of Plato and became another well-known Greek philosopher. His main claim is that everything in this world has a function which gives it purpose. “Every craft and every inquiry, and similarly every action and project, seems to aim at some good; hence the good has been well defined as that at which everything aims” (MacIntyre 57). Thus, for human beings to live a purposeful flourishing life, we have to live according to our essence or what sets humans apart from other classes of living things — which is our abilities to reason and be sociable. So, Aristotle encourages people to achieve intellectual virtues, through gaining knowledge and applying that knowledge. Through habituation, these good actions will result in molding your character. Another aspect he introduces is to live a flourishing life, one must reach a medium between vices of deficiency and excess. The good, virtuous life results in this golden mean. For example, the virtue of courage is a medium between cowardice and being overly rash. Aristotle responds to Plato in his book Nichomachean Ethics that asserts intellectual virtues alone were not enough to achieve happiness, rather the acquisition of the intellectual virtues and the virtues of character. Though I concede with most of what Aristotle claims, I still insist that God plays a part in providing substantial worth and happiness in life.

Another influential belief was molded by Augustine who introduced a theologist viewpoint which differs from Plato and Aristotle. As a Christian, he believed that happiness and virtue are possible only through God as it is revealed through his introspection, “But my sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in him but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error” (Confessions I.20). Although Augustine does not say so directly, he apparently assumes that happiness relies on a divine power. In a search to understand human nature, he presumes that human nature is inherently evil, as the result of the concept of original sin, which is the belief humans inherited Adam’s sin of disobedience (Sciarabba, slide 18). Although I agree with Augustine that we are dependent on God to cleanse us from our sin, I do not agree with his belief of original sin. Even though our human nature is a result of Adam’s sin, everyone did not commit that particular sin thus humans cannot all be guilty of it. He also believes that humans suffer from total depravity. Therefore, they have no power to be good by their own merit and works. Instead, it is through God’s grace that is infused into the soul which enables it to choose him and only then can humans perform good deeds to live a flourishing life.

In conclusion, most humans are concerned for their well-being, searching to find happiness and purpose. Therefore, humans strive to figure out how to live a flourishing life. Through much analysis of Plato’s, Aristotle’s, and Augustine’s beliefs, one could begin to form their own beliefs. For example, my personal belief consists of a mixture of all of them. I agree with Plato that intellectual virtues such as justice and wisdom will lead people to live good lives because these virtues reflect God’s character which is perfect. I also agree with Aristotle that applying our knowledge and capabilities of reason and being sociable is important to be happy and to flourish because God purposely created humans to be more complex comparable to his image. Thirdly, I agree with Augustine that God is essential for human flourishing because, without him, all is vanity. No matter what one’s view is, at least people can agree on the role of happiness and virtue to live a flourishing life.

Works Cited

  • Augustine, and Henry Chadwick. Confessions. Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • MacIntyre, Alasdair C. A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century. University of Notre Dame Press, 2011.
  • Plato, and C. J. Rowe. Republic. Penguin, 2012.
  • Sciarabba, Davide. ‘Augustine’ HONS105: Western Heritage, 12 Oct. 2018, Andrews Univerisity. Microsoft PowerPoint presentation.

Cite this page

The Role of Happiness and Virtue. (2021, Oct 07). Retrieved from

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