Why happiness is the sum of our lives at the end
One of the lessons I remember from my Intro to Philosophy class lo these fifty years hence is that Aristotle thought happiness cannot be fully known until old age.
When I was 18 I thought that idea was bunk. Now I think it is wise.
Eudaimonia is Aristotle’s term for a life well-lived.
“How one fares at a later stage, when it comes to its strengths, weaknesses, and activities, depends partly on what one did at an earlier stage”
or, as Aristotle says
“One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
Hmm, I never knew that was where the swallow-summer expression was from.
For those of you who get glassy-eyed reading about Aristotelian ethics, let me just say, much of it was as true to me as common sense your grandparent (or another wise person if your grandparent wasn’t) said over and over again.
It is the sum of our lives that makes us happy in old age.
For me, it’s the knowledge I contributed to others and found meaning for myself in my career.
I loved, not always well, but sometimes very well indeed. I learned.
I have been blessed with a child and a grandchild.
Aristotelian ethics also addresses friendship, which makes sense.
He says friends that serve a purpose — are transactional — are not as valuable as friendships of virtue, or friends we love and are loved by simply for who we are.
I have friends from childhood and the various stages of adulthood.
I have learned that a good career and good friends and sound relationships don’t just happen. One must nourish them.
Likewise, I get weary of the many stories on the internet feed and elsewhere about ways to get rich. Getting rich is looking back on a life well-lived.
I would amend this principle, however, because particular fine times remain as pinnacles that warm the memory and inform the personality. You have your pinnacles, and I have mine. Sometimes they are silly. Some are too intimate to share. Others are very public.
I also don’t think those pinnacles should be diminished by what followed. I was sublimely happy on the NYC ultimate date — a carriage ride through Central Park, waking in the shadow of the Chrysler Building, and a helicopter ride around Manhattan. It sounds like a movie just recounting that day — even though that romance proved problematic later. Maybe it’s a little bit like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall when he recalls the sublime moments that could not be replicated with someone else.
Anyhow, now you can remind your grandchildren — or others — “One swallow does not make a summer” and know you are quoting Aristotle. And you are a sage.