Are we then to count no other human being happy either, as long as he is alive? Must we
obey Solon's warning,1
and ‘look to the end’?
And if we are indeed to lay down this rule, can a man really be happy
after he is dead? Surely that is an extremely strange notion, especially for us who define
happiness as a form of activity!
While if on the other
hand we refuse to speak of a dead man as happy, and Solon's words do not mean this, but
that only when a man is dead can one safely call him blessed as being now beyond the reach
of evil and misfortune, this also admits of some dispute; for it is believed that some
evil and also some good can befall the dead, just as much as they can happen to the living
without their being aware of it— for
instance honors, and disgraces, and the prosperity and misfortunes of their children and
their descendants in general.
But here too there is a
difficulty. For suppose a man to have lived in perfect happiness until old age, and to
have come to a correspondingly happy end: he may still have many vicissitudes befall his
descendants, some of whom may be good and meet with the fortune they deserve, and others
the opposite; and moreover these descendants may clearly stand in every possible degree of
remoteness from the ancestors in question. Now it would be a strange thing if the dead man
also were to change2
with the fortunes of his family,
and were to become a happy man at one time and then miserable at another;
yet on the other hand it would also be strange if ancestors were not
affected at all, even over a limited period, by the fortunes of their
But let us go back to our former difficulty,3
for perhaps it will throw light on the question4
we are now examining.
If we are to look to the end, and congratulate a man
when dead not as actually being blessed, but because he has been blessed in the past,
surely it is strange if at the actual time when a man is happy that fact cannot be truly
predicated of him, because we are unwilling to call the living happy owing to the
vicissitudes of fortune, and owing to our conception of happiness as something permanent
and not readily subject to change, whereas the wheel of fortune often turns full circle in
the same person's experience.
For it is clear that if we
are to be guided by fortune, we shall often have to call the same man first happy and then
miserable; we shall make out the happy man to be a sort of ‘chameleon, or a
house built on the sand.’5
But perhaps it is quite wrong to be guided in our judgement by the changes of fortune,
since true prosperity and adversity do not depend on fortune's favours, although, as we
said, our life does require these in addition; but it is the active exercise of our
faculties in conformity with virtue that causes happiness, and the opposite activities its
And the difficulty just discussed is a further confirmation of our definition; since none
of man's functions possess the quality of permanence so fully as the activities in
conformity with virtue: they appear to be more lasting even than our knowledge of
particular sciences. And among these activities themselves those which are highest in the
scale of values are the more lasting, because they most fully and continuously occupy the
lives of the supremely happy: for this appears to be the reason why we do not forget
The happy man therefore will possess that element of stability in question, and will
remain happy all his life; since he will be always or at least most often employed in
doing and contemplating the things that are in
conformity with virtue. And he will bear changes of fortunes most nobly, and with perfect
propriety in every way, being as he is ‘good in very truth’ and
‘four-square without reproach.’6
But the accidents of fortune are many and vary in degree of magnitude; and although small
pieces of good luck, as also of misfortune, clearly do not change the whole course of
life, yet great and repeated successes will render life more blissful, since both of their
own nature they help to embellish it, and also they can be nobly and virtuously
while great and frequent reverses can crush and mar our bliss both by the pain they cause
and by the hindrance they offer to many activities. Yet nevertheless even in adversity
nobility shines through, when a man endures repeated and severe misfortune with patience,
not owing to insensibility but from generosity and greatness of soul.
And if, as we said, a man's life is determined by his activities, no
supremely happy man can ever become miserable. For he will never do hateful or base
actions, since we hold that the truly good and wise man will bear all kinds of fortune in a
seemly way, and will always act in the noblest manner that the circumstances allow; even
as a good general makes the most effective use of the forces at his disposal, and a good
shoemaker makes the finest shoe possible out of the leather supplied him, and so on with
all the other crafts and professions.
And this being so,
the happy man can never become miserable; though it is true he will not be supremely
blessed if he encounters the misfortunes of a Priam. Nor yet assuredly will he be variable
and liable to change; for he will not be dislodged from his happiness easily, nor by
ordinary misfortunes, but only by severe and frequent disasters, nor will he recover from
such disasters and become happy again quickly, but only, if at all, after a long term of
years, in which he has had time to compass high distinctions and achievements.
May not we then confidently pronounce that man happy who realizes complete goodness in
action, and is adequately furnished with external goods? Or should we add, that he must
also be destined to go on living not8
for any casual period but throughout a complete
lifetime in the same manner, and to die accordingly, because the future is hidden from us,
and we conceive happiness as an end, something utterly and absolutely final and complete?
If this is so, we shall pronounce those of the living who possess and are destined to go on
possessing the good things we have specified to be supremely blessed, though on the human
scale of bliss.
So much for a discussion of this question.