The relationship between wealth and human happiness is a popular discussion topic starting from the good old days. Although the subject is often revealed in popular debates, there are also philosophical discussions on this topic. For instance, Plato and Aristotle’s different approaches to this relation show that this topic was revealed in a philosophical way in ancient Greece thousands years ago. This assignment aims to compare and contrast Plato and Aristotle’s approaches to the relationship between wealth and human happiness. It will be shown that although wealth may not be a direct factor for human happiness, it creates many advantages to humans especially in modern capitalist societies.
Plato (427 BC-377 BC) was one of the earlier and most Important philosophers of the world and is also known as the founder of “The Academy”. The son of wealthy and influential Athenian parents, Plato began his philosophical career as a disciple of famous Socrates. Socrates was both the tutor and the hero of Plato and he played a great role in Plato’s formation of ideas. Plato used Socrates as the main figure in his works and expressed his views from the mouth of Socrates. Plato’s most famous work is “The Republic” in which he tries to draw the qualities of a just individual and a just state by explaining the sublime nature of justice. In “The Republic”, Plato’s views on the relationship between wealth and happiness can be derived from his ideal society and his views on the tyrants.
First off all, in Plato’s just state that will create happiness for its people there are three main classes: the first class is the class of Guardians (Rulers, Auxiliaries), the second class consists of artisans, workers, farmers, businessman and the third class refers to slaves who are not accepted as citizens. Guardians are the golden class of Plato’s ideal society. According to Plato, Guardians must have been selected from the most talented children of the society and should have a special education and a kind of ascetic life, away from mundane pleasures. In his idea, Rulers should exercise the supreme authority and deal with the philosophical aspect of political life whereas Auxiliaries should deal with military, police and executive duties. The second class consists of artisans, workers, farmers and businessman and they are the major actors in economic life. Plato states that every man can achieve happiness by dealing with the best job he can do. He explains this idea with the term “function” which means the usage of a thing, which only this thing does or does best. Plato also claims that specialization is very necessary for the development of a society and thinks that every man should be specialized in his job. We see that his ideology is based on the harmonious functioning of different actors and parts of the society but the superiority of reason (Guardians) over other parts. Likewise, in his ideal individual we see again the importance of harmonious functioning. He claims that there are three important parts in our minds: reason, spirit and the desire and appetite. Plato believes that we have to use these three parts in harmony while making decisions. His ideal justice requires always the use of reason before spirit and desire. Each part of our mind has a function and the right time to use this function but they should not trespass on each other’s area. Of course, reason should be the dominant element. A person would be just and happy if he could carefully balance these three parts of his mind. Again, we can claim that Plato thinks that happiness could be achieved through the use of reason and the harmony between different parts of society or of our minds.
Plato’s ideas on the relationship between wealth and happiness can be best understood from his ideas on the tyrants. Plato by using Socrates as the protagonist defines tyranny in the Book IX as “complete slavery” (Plato, p. 338). He asserts that tyrants are the most wretched people on the world because they are slaves of their desires and passions and are not able to use their reason. “Will not the same be true of the corresponding individual under the mad tyranny of his desires and passions?” (Plato, p. 339). We know in Platonic thought the use of reason is the most important characteristic for reaching just and happy individual and state. So, we can easily see that tyrants who have enormous power and wealth would not be accepted as happy people but rather wretched people in Plato’s idea. Plato thinks that the use of reason is the sine qua non condition of a just individual and a just state that is why tyrants can never be just and thus, happy because they are slaves of their desires. Moreover, tyrants are also “prey to fears and passions of every sort” and they could not have a regular life and fun like other citizens of the state (Plato, p. 340). So, Plato asserts that “… the truth is that the real tyrant is really a slave of the most abject kind dependent on scoundrels” (Plato, p. 341). Tyrants can never really satisfy their needs since they are not just and happy. Tyrants may satisfy their emotions and animalistic appetites but the real pleasure belongs to the reasoning according to Plato. Other things are “illusory” in Plato’s idea. Plato even resembles tyrants to drunken people. “Then a precise definition of a tyrannical man is one who, either by birth or habit or both, combines the characteristics of drunkenness, lust and, madness” (Plato, p. 333). The characteristic they have in common is the unconsciousness of both sides.
Plato’s ideas seem very strong especially after understanding his views on the tyrants. In Plato’s view, happiness can be achieved through the harmonious functioning of different sides in our mind but also by satisfying our intellectual needs. Plato here advocates a contemplative life rather than a life of joy and richness. But he also adds that each man should deal with the best job he can do. Thus, in a sense he admits that for some people happiness could be achieved through ways other than contemplative life. One objection could be made to Plato on the basis of quality of life. Although Guardians produce knowledge and rule the country, their contemplative life prevents them to have social pleasures. So, in a sense they only use the reason part of their mind and they could not satisfy their appetites and desires. So, it may be argued that Guardians may not be very happy by using only one side of their minds and staying away from pleasures of life.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) is accepted as one of the founders of modern Western thought with his antecedents Socrates and Plato. Aristotle, who was tutored by Socrates’ student Plato, later became very influential in the development of the idea of scientism and scholastic ideology. Aristotle believed in the importance of observation and used “teleology”; the study of ends which claims that everything in this world goes purposely to an end. Aristotle explained this purposeful voyage with the word “nature”. The nature of a thing is what only this thing does or this thing does best. According to Aristotle, the nature of humans (political animals) is to come together and form a state. Aristotle was a student of Plato but they had many different views. Aristotle later founded Lyceum, an alternative university to Plato’s Academy. Aristotle is also known as the tutor of Alexander the Great. We can derive Aristotle’s views about the relationship between wealth and human happiness from his famous book “The Politics”.
Aristotle believed in the importance of observation and used “teleology”, the study of ends which claims that everything in this world goes purposely to an end. Aristotle explained this purposeful voyage with the word “nature”. One of the core assumptions of Aristotle is that “man is by nature a political animal” and the end of political animals is to form a state in which they can socially live in order. In Aristotle’s ideal state every individual, creature and object has a purpose defined according to their nature. According to him, nature of a thing is this thing’s end point and when it is reached it is not possible to go further because at this end point the thing obtained perfection. He asserted that the nature of human beings (political animals) is to live socially and form a state which would provide all men’s needs (material, social, religious). Thus, the state is a natural thing. “This association is the end of those others, and nature is itself an end; for whatever is the end-product of the coming existence of any object, that is what we call its nature-of a man, for instance, or a horse or a household” (Aristotle, p. 59). The main aim of Aristotle is to create a convenient environment in which a good human functioning and a flourishing life can take place. Aristotle thinks that the best or happiest life should be considered both on the individual and on the societal levels. Aristotle claims that there are three elements of a good and flourishing life: “our bodily existence, our intellectual and moral qualities” (Aristotle, p. 391). He also adds that since “the soul is a more precious thing”, the satisfaction of moral qualities are more important and it is superior to the satisfaction of other elements (Aristotle, p. 392). In Aristotle’s view, the best life for men both individually and socially, “is the life which has virtue sufficiently supported by material resources to facilitate participation in the actions that virtue calls for” (Aristotle, p. 393). In Aristotelian thinking, the happiness (endaimonia) cannot be separated from the good life and from the virtue. I think the individual happiness and a good human functioning is core in Aristotelian thinking and they can be achieved only through a virtuous life.
Aristotle’s ideas also seem very solid and consistent but still we could find some point to raise objections to him. For instance, although a person is sufficiently supported by material resources to facilitate participation in the actions that virtue calls for, if he has fewer resources than some other person, will not be less happy than this person? So, the wealth here plays a significant role in raising a people’s chance to have a more virtuous life and that is why sufficient resources may not be sufficient against a huge wealth. But still, Aristotle’s ideas are more organized compared to Plato and he explains the relationship in a better way.
After analyzing Aristotle and Plato’s views on this topic, my own interpretation will be closer to Aristotle. I agree with him that a happy life could be realized through good human functioning and a flourishing life by developing ourselves, living socially in a state and by doing virtuous acts. However, the role of wealth in today’s world is enormously important. In ancient Greece the situation may not be the same as today but in contemporary world a virtuous man having no money could not have a happy life. Unfortunately, everything is our world is based on money and virtue comes later than material power. Here, Aristotle could be right in saying that a person could satisfy his basic needs to develop himself and to have a virtuous life. But since more money means more opportunity to make virtuous acts, I think still money plays a very important role in human happiness. That is why, both Aristotle and Plato’s views are too much idealistic and not in conformity with today’s material realities.
Finally, in my opinion, although all rich people could not be happy, all happy people have at least enough resources to live in comfort and wealth plays a significant role in human happiness especially in the contemporary world.
- Aristotle (1992), “The Politics”, London: Penguin Books
- Plato (1987), “The Republic”, London: Penguin Books