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The modern term "happiness" is translated almost exclusively into the category of feelings. To be happy is described as the sensation you get when buying a Coca Cola, drinking it on the beach, surrounded by beautiful it-girls. Happiness is the instant bliss – the very moment of gladness – when you acquire something that you desire. The advertisement industry has perfected this type of materialist propaganda, insinuating that material wealth instantaneously implies happiness. The Coca Cola ad illustrates this to perfection. The presence of the Coke bottle and its content solves the young man's problems as he now smiles, laughs and feels good. The news industry follows the same path. Watching CNN is like going to a concert, designed to give you either "good or bad feelings," arguably swaying a person negatively or positively toward CNN's desired viewpoint.
Yet, our sense of "instant happiness" stands in stark contrast to the ancient Greek philosophers, whose moral philosophy defined happiness as a state of mind that develops over time. It was regarded as the result of attitudes and virtues acquired in a lifelong search for wisdom. They did not believe that "instant bliss" had much to do with the mental state of happiness.
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The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) explained that the road to happiness – a steady, ongoing flow of inner contentment – was to develop a strong character and use one's abilities to the betterment of human kind. The person who spent his time helping others in the fellowship of men, would over time develop a balanced mind and a deep sense of fulfillment. This would in the long run satisfy him, as he engaged in the lives of others and sought to use his abilities to help society. Aristotle famously states in his book "Politics" that: "Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who and not accidentally, is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual."
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Over the course of their lives, both Plato (428-348 B.C.) and Aristotle struggled against the trends of social dissolution in the Athenian democracy. Plato's "Republic" and his dialogues with Trasymakos provide examples of challenges of the Athenian hedonism and its legalization of egoism. Plato speaks of the ongoing conflict in the human soul between reason and feelings, how it may be, for example, reasonable not to steal yet the feeling of greed may still tempt a person to do so. The role of reason is to steer the soul in the right direction so that feelings do not take negative dominion. Plato famously said on the origin of tyranny in "Republic" that: "The probable outcome of too much freedom is only too much slavery in the individual and the state." He further describes the intolerable lack of boundaries that lead to tyranny, sentences that bear remarkable resemblance to contemporary culture, saying:
"… the father accustoms himself to become like his child and fears his sons, while the son likens himself to his father, and feels neither shame nor fear in front of his parents, so he may be free. The teacher fears his pupils and fawns upon them, while pupils look down on their teachers as well as their overseers; and, overall, the young copy the elders and contend hotly with them in words and in deeds, while the elders lower themselves to the level of the young."
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Many Greek philosophers believed that hedonism would cause social disintegration over time – and ultimately result in the fall of Athenian democracy. They were correct. A few years after Aristotle and Plato discussed their objection to the hedonist tendencies, its golden age of the city state of Athens was over. The once-great culture fell into oblivion in history. In "Nicomachean Ethics," Aristotle pointed out that those who live according to hedonism search for self-gratification, yet eventually become disappointed and spiritually imbalanced. They become emotionally incapacitated by an addiction to stronger and stronger stimuli, always looking for an even greater "sensual kick of emotions."
Aristotle's ethic of virtue recommends moderation and indicates that the road to happiness is not unilaterally equivalent to the satisfaction of carnal desires. He felt that asceticism does not per se lead to a harmonious life, but neither does hedonism. The desirable is the middle way. The quest for the Aristotelian "golden mean" has been discussed since ancient times. To which degree should reason control feelings? How do we achieve true happiness? Such normative reflections touch upon deep philosophical questions about how to experience life as meaningful.
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