The Time Frame of Flourishing (Nicomachean Ethics Book 1)

A lot of people think that happiness could come to them in a burst of good luck. If they just got that promotion, aced that class, or even won the lottery, then they would find deep rooted happiness.

But Aristotle takes a different stance. He argues that a life of happiness — a life of flourishing — is not something that happens to us. And it definitely does not come about quickly.

He says, “one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.” (I.7)

Aristotle argues that virtue does not grow in a person in one day. If we want to become virtuous people, then we need to prepare for the long haul.

We see this point illustrated clearly in a later chapter: “a boy is not happy; for he is not yet capable of such acts, owing to his age.” (I.9) Aristotle goes as far as saying that a young boy cannot be happy, because he is incapable of being fully developed in the virtues due to his youth.

This might seem strange to us as we read in the context of 21st century life. When I think back to elementary school, all of my memories are happy memories. But Aristotle has a different concept of happiness that may be better translated as “flourishing.” Children may be happy, but their happiness is lived out in ignorance. They don’t yet understand the world in all of its complexity.

As we age and grow into our rationality — that part of our soul that makes us human as opposed to a plant or an animal — we can also grow in our virtue. When we live as humans ought to live, we are living in accordance with virtue.

But we can’t flip a switch and become perfect humans overnight. Living as a human ought to live takes practice. It means unlearning vices and learning the virtues, giving up bad traits and obtaining good ones.

This is the struggle of becoming a virtuous person. It takes years of intense effort to build a flourishing life. Aristotle is definitely hitting at something real. Children’s happiness is qualitatively different than the happiness of adults. Since their rational faculty has not fully developed, they don’t yet understand the depths of the human experience — what it means to be human.

While shallow happiness is certainly not wrong, it is incomplete. Ice cream and Netflix make me happy, but this is very different than flourishing. Humans weren’t made for ice cream and Netflix. However, we can use our rational faculties to make both of those things work within the purpose of humanity. When I eat really good ice cream and focus on the tastes (like whatever you would call an ice cream chef), I am approaching ice cream in a way that is distinctly human and not animal. Similarly, when I watch a TV show and feel empathy for the antagonist, I am watching TV virtuously, engaging in the purpose of humanity.

These are kind of weird examples that may be a bit of a stretch, but the ideas remain the same. We flourish when we are good humans, and it takes time to learn how to be a good human. People don’t become virtuous in a day — it takes a lifetime.