How to tell whether someone has a good life before it is over.
Again, as regards fortune and the good life, is it the case that no one can be truly happy while they are alive because it is still possible there could be terrible things in store for them and they could die in misery? Must we, as Solon (the lawgiver of Athens) says, wait until the end before we call a person happy? And if we do, then is it also the case that people are happy while they are dead? Well, since we already said that happiness means activity, doing things, it would not make sense for us to agree that dead people can be happy.
Well, maybe that is not what Solon meant. Maybe he meant that we can call a person happy, but cannot be sure that we are right in saying that until after he is dead (because then nothing bad can happen to him). Well, even this is not right. A dead person can have both good and bad things happen to them, just as much as they can happen to someone who is alive, even though they are not aware of it. What things? I mean here honors and dishonors, their children doing well or poorly in life.
And we seem to have hit on a problem here. Say a person lived happily up to old age and died peacefully, for their descendants life goes on and they may be up or down depending on the turns of fortune's wheel. It would be odd to say about a dead person that one day they are happy and the next day they are not. At the same time, it would also be odd to say once someone dies, it makes no difference how the lives of their children turn out. If their happiness is dependent on their virtue, on them doing good things, and they have raised their children badly, but that is not found out until after the person is dead, how does it make sense to say they lead a good life? This is a problem, but let us back up a few steps and try to clear up a few things and then maybe we can go on.
Now, we have this question of whether or not to call someone happy if they are not yet dead. We do not want to have to do that because happiness is based on activity. But we also do not want to say a person is living a life worthy of their goodness when it may yet turn out bad. So it seems like either we have to wait until they are dead or we have to keep changing our opinion about the person. Well, to keep changing things is odd also. We said that happiness comes from virtue and that virtue is something that is hard to lose, unlike honor or wealth. So how can we take away happiness for someone that is still virtuous? And yet we have already said we do not want to call unfortunate people happy. And now we come to it. In some way we must have been wrong about fortune and happiness. Let us take that back and let us set it down that whoever has virtue and uses it is living well, no matter whether they are up or down with regard to other things.
And now we can see our definition of happiness to be a strong one. Out of everything that a person can do, the most lasting one is the ability to act virtuously. (Many think virtue keeps better than even knowledge of things.) Truly happy people will always be acting virtuously and by doing that they will keep up their virtue and their happiness. These truly happy people will always either be doing something of worth or they will be contemplating what they might do. The truly happy ones will handle whatever fortune gives in such a way that is noble and no one could find fault with.
Now, in life many things may chance to happen. Some of them are small and, whether they are good or bad, still they do not make all that much of a difference in life one way or the other. On the other hand, when many great pieces of good fortune happen they do make a difference and they do make life happier. Not only do they bring with them good and beautiful things, but they also give a virtuous person a chance to handle them in a gracious and noble way. But there are also great misfortunes that can bring with them pain and misery and keep one from doing what they were meant to do. Yet even here nobility shines through, when a person quietly bears with such things, not because they have no feelings and are not human, but rather because they are noble and their soul is great.
If what we do in life is what makes it be good or bad, no happy person will ever become miserable. Why? Because they act right and never do things that are hateful and mean. In our opinion, someone who is truly wise and good will take whatever it is that life gives and handle it well and make a good and proper use of it. A good general makes the best use of the army that he has. A good shoemaker makes the best shoes out of the materials that he has to work with. So likewise, a good person will make the best possible life for themselves, because that is type of person they are. Of course, if bad things happen to such a person, we do admit that their life would have been better if those things had not happened. But that does not stop us from saying they lived well the life that they actually had.
And one who is happy does not have a shaky character and is not easily changed, going up and down, down and up. Rather it takes a lot to get to such a person. If they are got to, then that means it is serious and it will take them some time to recover themselves (if at all), and to then go on and make up for it with many successes.
And maybe we can now set it down that it is right to call a person is happy if (1) they are seen to be making good use of their abilities to do good works and deeds, (2) they have everything they need in order to do what they are best at, and (3) it has been this way with them not for just a short while, but for a long time. And yet maybe we should add to that that it is their destiny continue on the rest of their life in this way and die happy. Well, it is true that we cannot see the future. On the other hand, we have been saying that happiness is something final, without anything beyond it. So we will still say that those people who meet those three conditions laid out are happy, but happy as human beings, for whom things are, as everyone knows, uncertain.
So much for these questions. Let us now go on.
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