The Pursuit of Happiness and the Union of Aristotle and Genesis

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The Pursuit of Happiness and the Union of Aristotle and Genesis

Two major schools of thought broadly influenced the development of the moral code of Western Civilization. The Judeo-Christian tradition gave us faith and God through the text of the Bible. The ancient Greeks gave us philosophical inquiry and "the Good" through the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle proposes that "the Good" is the highest end of man’s actions. Happiness is "the Good" because it is the only end man pursues with no other end in mind. A man obtains this highest end by living his life in a virtuous manner. In marked contrast, a careful reading of Genesis shows that, in the world of the Hebrews, the highest end of a man’s actions is faith in and communication with God himself. Oneness with God is the highest end because no other god exists. A man obtains this highest end by obeying God’s commands and fulfilling God’s plan for him. On first examination, the differences between these two constructs seem negligible. But when we look closely at the ways in which the men of Genesis obtain their highest ends, we find that their means are less than virtuous in the eyes of Aristotle. To reach God, the ends seem to justify the means, while to reach "the Good", the virtuous path is crucial. Although this inherent difference in the two systems of morality seems to oppose them to one another, the difference between them has actually helped meld them together to form our modern view of happiness. We need both views: that wicked means will corrupt even the best ends, and that good ends can justify any means. In fact, there are stories in each text that describe a man who finds happiness through God, or "the Good," ...

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...e which cannot be taken away; second, according to Genesis, because we have been given happiness by communion with a God who is ever present. Although not everyone considered to be a member of Western society holds these views on happiness, one can see these two roots in our construct of happiness. In our very American constitution, we acknowledge our inalienable right to the "pursuit of happiness." This phrase represents nothing other than the ultimate union of Aristotle and Genesis: we are guaranteed as humans, as a God-given right, the ability to strive for happiness through the Aristotelian process.


1. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. Martin Ostwald (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1999).

2. Genesis, trans. Robert Alter (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996).

3. The Holy Bible, King James Version (New York: American Bible Society).
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