Happiness and Social Acceptance in Aristotle and Shakespeare
by Raymond Bradford
In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle presents an understanding of the human that hinges upon the attainment of happiness. Aristotle's analysis leads him to categorize the human experience into three types of lives: the life of pleasure, the life of politics, and the life of contemplation. Each life provides a corresponding degree of happiness. Despite requiring some external fortune and social interaction, Aristotle's philosophy of happiness implies an individual excellence and mental self-sufficiency. In contrast, Shakespeare's Othello presents characters from all different backgrounds whose happiness depends almost entirely upon their social interactions with others; the play suggests social acceptance and security as prerequisites for happiness. Thus, while both Shakespeare and Aristotle understand the human largely through the desire for happiness, Shakespeare ultimately attributes a more crucial role to social interaction and infighting for providing or preventing happiness--a difference that reflects the increased fluidity of society by Shakespeare's time.
Aristotle's understanding of the human focuses primarily upon the function of man and the highest good man hopes to achieve. Unlike honor, excellence, intelligence or wealth, happiness serves as a final goal desired by humans. Since humans desire happiness for no larger purpose, Aristotle considers it the highest good man hopes to achieve. He contends that while people speak of happiness acquired in a variety of ways, the truest happiness comes through the activity of humanity's highest function: the use of the rational principle of the mind. Based on this principle, Aristotle categorizes different types of lives and describes the potential happiness each can render. The "common run of people and the most vulgar" (187) identify happiness with a life of pleasure. "Cultivated and active men" (187) find happiness in a life of politics based upon the pursuit of honor. The contemplative life affords man the greatest capacity for happiness, since it consists of "a life determined by the activity, as opposed to the mere possession, of the rational element" (191). Aristotle reasons that as the goodness of any being depends on the fulfillment of its purpose, the happiness of man can only be attained through the fulfillment of man's purpose.
The hierarchy that Aristotle ascribes to different methods of achieving happiness implicitly recognizes happiness on the highest level as a state attained primarily through the internal development of the individual rather than through social development. While he recognizes that "man is by nature a social and political being" (189) and that self-sufficiency is not defined "by reference to the 'self' alone" (190), Aristotle nonetheless understands happiness on the highest level as primarily self-sufficient. He criticizes the common run of people for their "utter slavishness" in choosing a life of pleasure, which they whimsically acquire and lose. Even though he esteems the political life somewhat higher due to its emphasis on honor and excellence, he deems it too superficial, "for honor seems to depend on those who confer it rather than on him who receives it" (187). Not surprisingly then, Aristotle places the highest value in happiness attained chiefly internally and self-sufficiently by means of man's intellectual development and the exercise of the rational portion of the mind. He further argues for the self-sufficiency of happiness when he states that "the good is a man's own possession which cannot easily be taken away from him" (188).
The actions and psychologies of the characters in Shakespeare's Othello contrast Aristotle's understanding of happiness by emphasizing the critical role of social relations in the realization of all forms of happiness. Indeed, the happiness of the play's significant characters rests on how they perceive their social status and acceptance. Roderigo pines for the love of Desdemona, but finds himself foiled by his inability to gain her love. Cassio wishes to regain the trust of Othello, but cannot recover lost honor because of his failure to recognize Iago's manipulations. Othello acquires happiness through Desdemona, yet his happiness proves fleeting when his social insecurities overwhelm his mind and unravel his marital bliss.
Interestingly, the characters in Othello engage in lives that generally correspond to the lives described by Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics. However, unlike in Nichomachean Ethics, regardless of the life a character leads in Othello, that character requires the feeling of social acceptance before hoping to achieve happiness. Cassio and Othello represent characters driven by the pursuit of excellence and honor in the political life--a pursuit which holds them captive to the opinions of others. Cassio's demotion devastates him due to the loss of esteem he must endure with his peers. He breaks down saying, "Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have / lost the immortal part of / myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation / Iago, my reputation" (2.3. 261-4).
Othello's happiness likewise hinges almost entirely upon his reputation. Even his passionate love for Desdemona arguably stems from a desire to gain acceptance in a foreign society. When facing a confrontation with Brabantio and the Duke, Othello counts on his "parts and title" (1.2. 30) to exonerate him, thereby indicating the store he places in his reputation. The source of outrage Othello expresses upon suspicion of Desdemona's adultery rests largely in fear of a loss of honor. He laments, "My name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face. If there by cords, or knives, / Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams, / I'll not endure it" (3.3. 383-7). For Othello, Desdemona represents ultimate acceptance in Venetian society; her supposed infidelity calls into question the acceptance he thought he obtained and brings out his deepest anger.
Iago's methods of manipulating Othello additionally reveal the extent of the moor's insecurities as a black Muslim rising through the ranks of Venetian society. Iago's reminders of Othello's essential foreignness to Venetian and European customs serve to fuel the General's distrust of his newly-wedded wife's fidelity. For example, Iago states, "I know our country disposition well: / In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks / they dare not show their husbands" (3.3. 201-4). Small remarks of this nature cause Othello to doubt himself and Desdemona. While Aristotle contends that happiness should not easily be taken away by others, Othello's happiness proves remarkably transitory when he finds himself reminded of his status as an outsider.
In some respects, Iago represents a character capable of happiness by means of a life of contemplation. However, his need to vindicate himself socially thwarts such a possibility. He constantly employs the rational element of his mind, but he does so to disrupt the happiness of others. Iago avoids applying his devastating capacity for rational thought toward the wisdom of his actions; he allows his bitter passions to flow unimpeded by reason. Thus, Iago's insecurities in believing himself cuckolded by Othello ["it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets / H'as done my office" (1.3. 378-9)], or in perceiving a slight to his reputation in the promotion of Cassio, prevent him from psychologically pursuing any happiness beyond proving his own worth.
If Othello differs from Nichomachean Ethics by understanding the human experience through the need to vindicate oneself within a social framework, Desdemona ostensibly proves an exception to the rule. Desdemona does not simply lead a life of pleasure, yet she appears to attain happiness mostly independent of her perceived social acceptance in society. For example, Desdemona disregards societal opinions and expectations in deceiving her father for a marriage generally looked down upon by Venetian society. However, her apparent disregard for societal opinion in developing her happiness can arguably occur only because she already possesses societal repute and esteem. Desdemona enjoys the attention of men from an early age. Her established position in society is never questioned during her short life. Had Desdemona felt the fear of societal alienation or social inferiority experienced by most of the play's male characters, perhaps she too would find her happiness dictated by social interactions.
Another possible dilemma leads to a similar analysis. One could argue that the Aristotelian view of happiness indirectly coincides with the Shakespearean view. The characters in Othello fail to attain happiness because of their preoccupation with reputation and social standing; it prevents them from pursuing a life of contemplation capable of providing greater and more self-sufficient happiness. The failures of characters like Othello and Iago can be attributed to bad fortune in the absence of "good birth, good children, and beauty" (Aristotle 194). This argumentation sounds convincing in harmonizing the two viewpoints, but fails to acknowledge a fundamental difference: while Shakespeare's understanding of happiness, as presented in Othello, may parallel Aristotle's perspective in recognizing the adverse effects of social insecurities on the attainment of happiness, Aristotle implicitly assumes that by pursuing happiness in the correct manner, one can transcend one's socio-psychological complexes. While an analysis of Othello does not explicitly reject this assumption, the lives of the characters suggest that one cannot hope to pursue any degree of happiness until first reconciling perceived social insecurities in relation to one's peers. Indeed, social insecurities ultimately consume Roderigo, Cassio, Othello, and even Iago. Also, while it may appear that some people have the ability to overlook negative societal opinions to pursue their own happiness (as Desdemona does), the likely possibility exists that people can only do so if they experience little to no social alienation or anxiety during the course of their lives--a rare likelihood.
Shakespeare's predominant association of the human experience and happiness with the social interplay of the individual and society, as opposed to the internal development of the individual in a self-sufficient Aristotelian sense, reveals underlying changes in society over time. Othello presents a society in which individuals climb and claw to enhance their reputation among peers by seemingly any means they can employ. Backbiting, infighting, and social and psychological manipulation dominate the landscape of the play. While Aristotle concedes the social and political nature of human beings, social and political considerations do not dominate his understanding of the acquirement of happiness to the same extent. The increased fluidity in class and social structure during Elizabethan England may account for this difference in outlook. As in Othello, when people observe newfound opportunities for advancement within the social structure, competition between individuals of all classes becomes more pronounced.
The relationships of characters in Othello illustrate the effects of the increase in social mobility from the relatively rigid class structure of Aristotle's time to Elizabethan England with its prominent middle class. For example, the conflict between Iago and Cassio arises from the greater ability for movement within the social structure. Iago moves up through the ranks of the military to enjoy the position he holds. In contrast, Cassio enjoys a position of high standing due to his noble birth. Iago observes Cassio's quickness in ascending the military ranks and comes into conflict with him for power and rank. In a more rigid society, Iago would not have the opportunity to compete against Cassio; the greater mobility afforded by society in Othello allows Iago the possibility to maneuver past an individual he perceives as less gifted, even though Cassio enjoys higher class. Iago's comments on Cassio reveal bitterness and class-consciousness, "[Cassio] never set a squadron in the field, / Nor the division of a battle knows / More than a spinster; unless the bookish theory, / wherein the tongued consuls can propose / as masterly as he. Mere prattle without practice is all his soldiership" (1.1. 19-24).
The interactions between Iago and Roderigo, and Othello and Desdemona, additionally demonstrate social conflict created by increased social mobility. Roderigo enjoys the privileges of nobility with little experience of the real world or the struggle for social ascendancy. In contrast, Iago knows the intricacies of fighting to the top of the social order. Thus, Roderigo becomes vulnerable to Iago's manipulations. Othello enjoys his status as a military commander due to his success moving through the ranks and demonstrating prowess of command in battle in a range of locales. These successes open doors of opportunity that would remain closed in a less flexible society. Conflict occurs when Othello enters the social setting of Venice with an awareness of his essentially low birth status and foreign ethnicity. He acquires a bride in Desdemona unimaginably beyond his reach in a more rigid societal structure. The large discrepancy between Othello's birth status and the extent of his success creates deep-seated insecurities of social inferiority beneath the surface of the calm and collected man of experience. Thus, increased social mobility generates conflict and provides the impetus for a perception of happiness predicated upon social interaction and development.
Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. From Plato to Derrida. Ed. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann. 4th ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2003. 185-243.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. New York: Signet Classic, 1986.