Since 2016, the self-help industry’s worth surpassed $10 billion. In 2014, Americans spent $1.24 billion dollars on self-help books and audiobooks. What kind of “help” are Americans seeking with that kind of cash? According to Aristotle, humans simply want to know how to be happy, and how to be good.
In Dr. Larry Arnn’s free online course at Hillsdale College, he proposes that it was Aristotle who wrote the original self-help book. In Aristotle’s book, “Nicomachean Ethics,” the famous Greek philosopher explores what is “good” and how humans can be “good.”
In asking the question, “What is the good?” Aristotle rejects Plato’s idea that to be truly virtuous, one must study and be trained in math, science, philosophy, and an understanding of what goodness is. For Aristotle, the good for humans involves the entire proper function of human life as a whole, and this must be an activity of the soul, not just the mind.
In other words, he was one of the first philosophers to question the idea that happiness is synonymous with a single, momentary pleasure such as knowledge, health, sex, and freedom from poverty or destitution. Instead, he wondered whether happiness is an internal state that cannot be measured empirically. As many self-help authors after him have reasoned, Aristotle theorized that true happiness comes from a person’s life as a whole, not just brief moments of it.
In Book I, Chapter I, he begins, “Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and choice, seems to aim at some good, and hence it has been beautifully said that the good is that at which all things aim.”
Here Aristotle is describing every voluntary action. Every time we make something, or “art,” every time we seek some knowledge, or an “inquiry,” and with every “choice” and “action,” we aim at some good.
Scholars will debate the definition of “good.” How can that be? How can criminals, robbers, murders, and the like aim at “some good” with their voluntary actions? Excluding cases of insanity, criminals can justify “good” reasons for their crimes. Maybe they see what they stole as obtaining property, or the person they murdered as a form of justice for themselves or someone else.
But what Aristotle, and any good self-help guru, focuses is the later part of that sentence, that we “aim at some good.” In other words, a thing (or a person) is best understood by looking at its end, purpose, or goal. The purpose of a glass is to hold liquid. The purpose of a knife is too cut. These objects reach their “highest good” when they fulfill their purposes within themselves.
So what is the ideal, or supreme goal for humans? What brings us happiness? To lead a life that enables us to use and develop our reason. To make choices that fulfill our highest good. Unlike pleasure or entertainment, which can be obtained even by animals, happiness is not a state but an activity. It is not fleeting like so many other “good” states we chase. It is profound and enduring.
Yet, more than 2,000 years later, humans are still asking the same questions about how to become good and happy. It seems humans will continue to seek authors, influencers, modern philosophers, and the like to tell them what state of living will fulfill them. Perhaps they should pick up Aristotle instead, and consider that happiness may not be a fad, a diet, a business plan, or even a state of mind, but that happiness must be an end in itself.