Most people tend to associate happiness with feeling good, that is, with a life that offers a variety of pleasures and comforts. Some tend to associate happiness with being able to do whatever they want to do, still others associate it with achieving everything they have set out to achieve in life. But ask yourself whether it is possible to have many and frequent pleasures in life, yet remain unhappy. And is it possible to have few pleasures in life, yet be happy? Moreover, is it possible to be able to do whatever you want, yet still be unhappy? Finally, is it possible to achieve everything you have set out to achieve in life, yet remain profoundly unhappy?
The answers to these questions almost never vary among young people, for they consistently answer in the affirmative. But if it is possible to have many and frequent pleasures in life yet remain unhappy, it is obvious that happiness is not necessarily having many and frequent pleasures. And if it is possible to achieve everything you have set out to achieve in life yet remain unhappy, then it is clear that happiness is not necessarily achieving everything you have set out to achieve. And if it is possible to be able to do whatever you want in life yet remain unhappy, then happiness is not necessarily doing what you want to do.
This last point is intriguing in that it is so counterintuitive: Happiness is not necessarily doing what you want to do. How is it possible that happiness is not necessarily doing what you want to do? Can it possibly consist in doing what you don't want to do? Perhaps.
It would seem very possible for a person to take himself down a road at the end of which he will fail to find what he originally thought would be there, ready to greet him, namely, happiness. In other words, it is very possible to mislead oneself. Obviously, happiness is not 'to each his own'. In short, one can very well be one's own worst enemy.
And so, what could be more important than to set out on a quest for the answer to the question about what exactly constitutes human happiness. Out of all the ends we may pursue, what end is alone worthy of desire? And what could be more important than to examine the choices we are currently making in order to determine whether or not we have made that end our own, namely the end which alone is worthy of desire?
That is what Socrates was all about. He was aware that human persons make choices for the sake of some end, which in turn is pursued for the sake of some other end, which in turn is pursued for the sake of some other end, etc. For example, why did you choose to dress in these cloths this morning? You might answer: In order to get ready for school. Why are you choosing to go to school? You might reply: In order to get into university. Why are you choosing to go to university? In order to receive an education. Why are you choosing an education? In order to become employed. Why do you want employment? In order to make money. Why do you want to make money? In order to buy a house. Why do you want to buy a house? In order to raise my family.
What is the end, however, that is sought not as a means to some other end, but for its own sake? In other words, what is the ultimate end? We will know the answer to that question when we can no longer answer the question "why" any further. For example, why do you want to raise a family? At this point, you might say, because I just want to. But why? The answer is: for its own sake. In other words, that is the end I seek for its own sake, and I believe that achieving this end will make me happy.
And so at this point, the question is whether or not that end really will make you happy. Is it possible to achieve all that, namely, a university education, employment, financial stability, a house in the suburbs, a wife/husband and family, and yet be unhappy? The facts tell us that indeed, it is possible.
Socrates was aware that happiness is universally pursued by everyone as the ultimate end, desired not for the sake of some other end, but for its own sake. But what is the content of that end? What are the choices that we ought to make in order to achieve happiness? Socrates divided humanity into three groups on the basis of what each group regarded as the ultimate end that promises happiness. The first group is in the majority. Those in this group make choices that are directed ultimately towards pleasure as the chief good.
But not everyone pursues pleasure as their chief end; some are willing to sacrifice pleasures for the sake of what they regard as the chief end, namely, honors, fame, or social status.
Then there are those people who pursue neither honors, nor social status, nor a life devoted to pleasure. Rather, they have made wisdom or knowledge their chief end. These latter are in the minority, and of course, Socrates belongs to this group.
Socrates does not mean to suggest that any kind of knowledge is the ultimate end that alone brings happiness. One might be very learned, but that does not mean that one will necessarily happy. Rather, Socrates refers to a certain kind of knowledge, namely, practical knowledge, that is, wisdom, which is moral knowledge. Diogenes tells us that Socrates used to say: "there was one only good, namely, knowledge; and one only evil, namely ignorance." For Socrates, knowledge is the only good because if one knows the good one will choose the good, and if one chooses the good, one becomes good. Hence, to say that happiness is knowledge is to say that happiness is goodness. That is why Socrates says that knowledge is virtue. Hence, happiness is virtue, which means that happiness is the perfection of the soul. To perfect the soul is to make it as good as possible. In his Apology, Plato depicts Socrates thus:
Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this? And if the person with whom I am arguing says: Yes, but I do care; I do not depart or let him go at once; I interrogate and examine and cross-examine him, and if I think that he has no virtue, but only says that he has, I reproach him with undervaluing the greater, and overvaluing the less. And this I should say to everyone whom I meet, young and old, citizen and alien, but especially to the citizens, inasmuch as they are my brethren. For this is the command of God, as I would have you know; and I believe that to this day no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God. For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue come money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, my influence is ruinous indeed. But if anyone says that this is not my teaching, he is speaking an untruth.
For Socrates, the starting point of the life of virtue is to "know thyself". This means that a person must realize that the soul is the true self, not the body. Those who pursue pleasure mistakenly believe that the body is the true self. And since "the unexamined life is not worth living", the next step is to examine the choices that we make in order to determine whether those choices are rooted in the judgment of the soul, or merely the desire for property, pleasure, or honors. Finally, one must be able to govern oneself, for this is true freedom, not the false notion that sees freedom as nothing more than doing whatever you want to do. Genuine freedom is inextricably linked to knowledge, and so the more knowledge a person has, the freer he is. Hence, freedom is knowing what one ought to want as well as having the ability to direct oneself to that end. Without knowledge, one is simply a slave to one's passions as well as social custom.