Eudaimonia

Eudaimonia [yew-day-mo-nee-uh] is a Greek word commonly translated as ‘happiness’ or ‘welfare’; however, ‘human flourishing’ has been proposed as a more accurate translation. It is a central concept in Aristotelian ethics and political philosophy, along with the terms ‘aretē’ (‘virtue’ or ‘excellence’) and ‘phronesis’ (‘practical or ethical wisdom’).

In Aristotle’s works, eudaimonia was (based on older Greek tradition) used as the term for the highest human good, and so it is the aim of practical philosophy, including ethics and political philosophy, to consider (and also experience) what it really is, and how it can be achieved.

Discussion of the links between ‘virtue of character’ (‘ethikē aretē’) and happiness (eudaimonia) is one of the central preoccupations of ancient ethics, and a subject of much disagreement. As a result there are many varieties of eudaimonism. Two of the most influential forms are those of Aristotle and the Stoics. Aristotle takes virtue and its exercise to be the most important constituent in eudaimonia but does acknowledge the importance of external goods such as health, wealth, and beauty. By contrast, the Stoics make virtue necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia and thus deny the necessity of external goods.

In his ‘Nicomachean Ethics,’ Aristotle says that everyone agrees that eudaimonia is the highest good for human beings, but that there is substantial disagreement on what sort of life counts as doing and living well; i.e. eudaimon: ‘Verbally there is a very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is [eudaimonia], and identify living well and faring well with being happy; but with regard to what [eudaimonia] is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing like pleasure, wealth or honor…’

So, as Aristotle points out, saying that eudaimon life is a life which is objectively desirable, and means living well, is not saying very much. Everyone wants to be eudaimon; and everyone agrees that being eudaimon is related to faring well and to an individual’s well being. The really difficult question is to specify just what sort of activities enable one to live well. Aristotle presents various popular conceptions of the best life for human beings. The candidates that he mentions are a (1) life of pleasure, (2) a life of political activity, and (3) a philosophical life.

One important move in Greek philosophy to answer the question of how to achieve eudaimonia is to bring in another important concept in ancient philosophy, ‘arete’ (‘virtue’). Aristotle says that the eudaimon life is one of ‘virtuous activity in accordance with reason.’ And even Epicurus who argues that the eudaimon life is the life of pleasure maintains that the life of pleasure coincides with the life of virtue. So the ancient ethical theorists tend to agree that virtue is closely bound up with happiness (areté is bound up with eudaimonia). However, they disagree on the way in which this is so.

One problem with translating ‘arete’ as ‘virtue’ is that we are inclined to understand virtue in a moral sense, which is not always what the ancients had in mind. For a Greek, areté pertains to all sorts of qualities no longer regarded as relevant to ethics, for example, physical beauty. So it is important to bear in mind that the sense of ‘virtue’ operative in ancient ethics is not exclusively moral and includes more than states such as wisdom, courage, and compassion. The sense of virtue which areté connotes would include saying something like ‘speed is a virtue in a horse,’ or ‘height is a virtue in a basketball player.’ Doing anything well requires virtue, and each characteristic activity (such as carpentry, flute playing, etc.) has its own set of virtues. The alternative translation ‘excellence’ (or ‘a desirable quality’) might be helpful in conveying this general meaning of the term. The moral virtues are simply a subset of the general sense in which a human being is capable of functioning well or excellently.

As with all other ancient ethical thinkers Socrates thought that all human beings wanted eudaimonia more than anything else, however, he adopted a quite radical form of eudaimonism: he seems to have thought that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. Socrates is convinced that virtues such as self-control, courage, justice, piety, wisdom, and related qualities of mind and soul are absolutely crucial if a person is to lead a good and happy (eudaimon) life. Virtues guarantee a happy life eudaimonia. For example, in the ‘Meno,’ with respect to wisdom, he says: ‘… everything the soul endeavors or endures under the guidance of wisdom ends in happiness…’

In the ‘Apology,’ Socrates clearly presents his disagreement with those who think that the eudaimon life is the life of honor or pleasure, when he chastises the Athenians for caring more for riches and honor than the state of their souls: ‘Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth or the best possible state of your soul.’ ‘… it does not seem like human nature for me to have neglected all my own affairs and to have tolerated this neglect for so many years while I was always concerned with you, approaching each one of you like a father or an elder brother to persuade you to care for virtue.’

It emerges a bit further on that this concern for one’s soul, that one’s soul might be in the best possible state, amounts to acquiring moral virtue. So Socrates’ point that the Athenians should care for their souls means that they should care for their virtue, rather than pursuing honor or riches. Virtues are states of the soul. When a soul has been properly cared for and perfected it possesses the virtues. Moreover, according to Socrates, this state of the soul, moral virtue, is the most important good. The health of the soul is incomparably more important for eudaimonia than (e.g.) wealth and political power. Someone with a virtuous soul is better off than someone who is wealthy and honored but whose soul is corrupted by unjust actions.

This view is confirmed in the ‘Crito,’ where Socrates gets Crito to agree that the perfection of the soul, virtue, is the most important good: ‘And is life worth living for us with that part of us corrupted that unjust action harms and just action benefits? Or do we think that part of us, whatever it is, that is concerned with justice and injustice, is inferior to the body? Not at all. It is much more valuable…? Much more…’ Here Socrates argues that life is not worth living if the soul is ruined by wrongdoing. In summary, Socrates seems to think that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. A person who is not virtuous cannot be happy, and a person with virtue cannot fail to be happy. Stoic ethics takes its cue from this Socratic insight.

Plato’s great work of the middle period, the ‘Republic,’ is devoted to answering a challenge made by a sophist Thrasymachus, that conventional morality, particularly the ‘virtue’ of justice, actually prevents the strong man from achieving eudaimonia. Thrasymachus’s views are restatements of a position which Plato discusses earlier on his in writings, in the ‘Gorgias,’ through the mouthpiece of Callicles. The basic argument presented by Thrasymachus and Callicles is that justice (being just) hinders or prevents the achievement of eudaimonia because conventional morality requires that we control ourselves and hence live with un-satiated desires. This idea is vividly illustrated in book 2 of the ‘Republic’ when Glaucon, taking up Thrasymachus’ challenge, recounts a myth of the magical ring of Gyges. According to the myth, Gyges becomes king of Lydia when he stumbles upon a magical ring, which, when he turns it a particular way, makes him invisible, so that he can satisfy any desire he wishes without fear of punishment. When he discovers the power of the ring he kills the king, marries his wife and takes over the throne. The thrust of Glaucon’s challenge is that no one would be just if he could escape the retribution he would normally encounter for fulfilling his desires at whim. But if eudaimonia is to be achieved through the satisfaction of desire, whereas being just or acting justly requires suppression of desire, then it is not in the interests of the strong man to act according to the dictates of conventional morality. (This general line of argument reoccurs much later in the philosophy of Nietzsche.) Throughout the rest of the ‘Republic,’ Plato aims to refute this claim by showing that the virtue of justice is necessary for eudaimonia.

Plato argues that virtues are states of the soul, and that the just person is someone whose soul is ordered and harmonious, with all its parts functioning properly to the person’s benefit. In contrast, Plato argues that the unjust man’s soul, without the virtues, is chaotic and at war with itself, so that even if he were able to satisfy most of his desires, his lack of inner harmony and unity thwart any chance he has of achieving eudaimonia. Plato’s ethical theory is eudaimonist because it maintains that eudaimonia depends on virtue. On Plato’s version of the relationship, virtue is depicted as the most crucial and the dominant constituent of eudaimonia.

For Aristotle, eudaimonia involves activity, exhibiting virtue (‘aretē’) in accordance with reason. This conception of eudaimonia derives from Aristotle’s essentialist understanding of human nature, the view that reason (‘logos,’ sometimes translated as ‘rationality’) is unique to human beings and that the ideal function or work (‘ergon’) of a human being is the fullest or most perfect exercise of reason. Basically, well being (eudaimonia) is gained by proper development of one’s highest and most human capabilities and human beings are ‘the rational animal.’ It follows that eudaimonia for a human being is the attainment of excellence (‘areté’) in reason.

According to Aristotle, eudaimonia actually requires activity, action, so that it is not sufficient for a person to possess a squandered ability or disposition. Eudaimonia requires not only good character but rational activity. Aristotle clearly maintains that to live in accordance with reason means achieving excellence thereby. Moreover, he claims this excellence cannot be isolated and so competencies are also required appropriate to related functions. For example, if being a truly outstanding scientist requires impressive math skills, so that one might say ‘doing mathematics well is necessary to be a first rate scientist.’ From this it follows that eudaimonia, living well, consists in activities exercising the rational part of the psyche in accordance with the virtues or excellency of reason. Which is to say, to be fully engaged in the intellectually stimulating and fulling work at which one achieves well-earned success. Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ is devoted to filling out the claim that best life for a human being is the life of excellence in accordance with reason. Since reason for Aristotle is not only theoretical but practical also, he spends quite a bit of time discussing excellence of character which enable a person to exercise his practical reason (i.e., reason relating to action) successfully.

Aristotle’s ethical theory is eudaimonist because it maintains that eudaimonia depends on virtue. However, it is Aristotle’s explicit view that virtue is necessary but not sufficient for eudaimonia. While emphasizing the importance of the rational aspect of the psyche, he does not ignore the importance of other ‘goods’ such as friends, wealth, and power in a life that is eudaimonic. He doubts the likelihood of being eudaimonic if one lacks certain external goods such as ‘good birth, good children, and beauty’. So, a person who is hideously ugly or has ‘lost children or good friends through death,’ or who is isolated, is unlikely to be eudaimon. In this way, ‘dumb luck’ (chance) can preempt one’s attainment of eudaimonia.

Epicurus identified eudaimonia with the life of pleasure. His ethical theory is hedonistic. (His view proved very influential on the founders and best proponents of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill). Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and that pain is the only intrinsic bad. An object, experience, or state of affairs is intrinsically valuable if it is good simply because of what it is. Intrinsic value is to be contrasted with instrumental value. An object, experience, or state of affairs is instrumentally valuable if it serves as a means to what is intrinsically valuable. To see this, consider the following example. Suppose you spend your days and nights in an office, working at not entirely pleasant activities, such as entering data into a computer, and this, all for money. Someone asks, ‘why do you want the money?’ and you answer, ‘So, I can buy an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean, and a red Ferrari.’ This answer expresses the point that money is instrumentally valuable because it is a means to getting your apartment and red Ferrari. The value of making money is dependent on the value of commodities. It is instrumentally valuable: valuable only because of what one obtains by means of it.

Epicurus identifies the eudaimon life with the life of pleasure. He understands eudaimonia as a more or less continuous experience of pleasure, and also, freedom from pain and distress. But it is important to notice that Epicurus does not advocate that one pursue any and every pleasure. Rather, he recommends a policy whereby pleasures are maximized ‘in the long run.’ In other words, Epicuric claims that some pleasures are not worth having because they lead to greater pains, and some pains are worthwhile when they lead to greater pleasures. The best strategy for attaining a maximal amount of pleasure overall is not to seek instant gratification but to work out a sensible long term policy.

Ancient Greek ethics is eudaimonist because it links virtue and eudaimonia, where eudaimonia refers to an individual’s (objective) well being. Epicurus’ doctrine can be considered eudaimonist since Epicurus argues that a life of pleasure will coincide with a life of virtue. He believes that we do and ought to seek virtue because virtue brings pleasure. Epicurus’ basic doctrine is that a life of virtue is the life which generates the most amount of pleasure, and it is for this reason that we ought to be virtuous. This thesis—the eudaimon life is the pleasurable life—is not a tautology as ‘eudaimonia is the good life’ would be: rather, it is the substantive and controversial claim that a life of pleasure and absence of pain is what eudaimonia consists in.

One important difference between Epicurus’ eudaimonism and that of Plato and Aristotle is that for the latter virtue is a constituent of eudaimonia, whereas Epicurus makes virtue a means to happiness. To this difference, consider Aristotle’s theory. Aristotle maintains that eudaimonia is what everyone wants (and Epicurus would agree). He also thinks that eudaimonia is best achieved by a life of virtuous activity in accordance with reason. The virtuous person takes pleasure in doing the right thing as a result of a proper training of moral and intellectual character. However, Aristotle does not think that virtuous activity is pursued for the sake of pleasure. Pleasure is a byproduct of virtuous action: it does not enter at all into the reasons why virtuous action is virtuous. Aristotle does not think that we literally aim for eudaimonia. Rather, eudaimonia is what we achieve (assuming that we aren’t particularly unfortunate in the possession of external goods) when we live according to the requirements of reason. Virtue is the largest constituent in a eudaimon life. By contrast, Epicurus holds that virtue is the means to achieve happiness. His theory is eudaimonist in that he holds that virtue is indispensable to happiness; but virtue is not a constituent of a eudaimon life, and being virtuous is not (external goods aside) identical with being eudaimon. Rather, according to Epicurus, virtue is only instrumentally related to happiness. So whereas Aristotle would not say that one ought to aim for virtue in order to attain pleasure, Epicurus would endorse this claim.

Stoic philosophy begins with Zeno of Citium, and was developed by Cleanthes and Chrysippus into a formidable systematic unity. Zeno believed happiness was a ‘good flow of life’; Cleanthes suggested it was ‘living in agreement with nature,’ and Chrysippus believed it was ‘living in accordance with experience of what happens by nature.’ Stoic ethics is a particularly strong version of eudaimonism. According to the Stoics, virtue is necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. (This thesis is generally regarded as stemming from the Socrates of Plato’s earlier dialogues.) The conventional Greek concept of ‘arete’ is not quite the same as that denoted by ‘virtue,’ which has Christian connotations of charity, patience, and uprightness, since ‘arete’ includes many non-moral virtues such as physical strength and beauty. However, the Stoic concept of ‘arete’ is much nearer to the Christian conception of virtue, which refers to the moral virtues. However, unlike Christian understandings of virtue, righteousness or piety, the Stoic conception does not place as great an emphasis on mercy, forgiveness, self-abasement (i.e. the ritual process of declaring complete powerlessness and humility before God), charity, and self-sacrificial love, though these behaviors/mentalities are not necessarily spurned by the Stoics (they are spurned by other philosophers of Antiquity). Rather Stoicism emphasizes states such as justice, honesty, moderation, simplicity, self-discipline, resolve, fortitude, and courage (states which Christianity also encourages).

The Stoics make a radical claim that the eudaimon life is the morally virtuous life. Moral virtue is good, and moral vice is bad, and everything else, such as health, honor, and riches, are merely ‘neutral.’ The Stoics therefore are committed to saying that external goods such as wealth and physical beauty are not really good at all. Moral virtue is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. In this, they are akin to Cynic philosophers such as Antisthenes and Diogenes in denying the importance to eudaimonia of external goods and circumstances, such as were recognized by Aristotle, who thought that severe misfortune (such as the death of one’s family and friends) could rob even the most virtuous person of eudaimonia. This Stoic doctrine re-emerges later in the history of ethical philosophy in the writings of Immanuel Kant, who argues that the possession of a ‘good will’ is the only unconditional good. One difference is that whereas the Stoics regard external goods as neutral, as neither good nor bad, Kant’s position seems to be that external goods are good, but only so far as they are a condition to achieving happiness.

Interest in the concept of eudaimonia and ancient ethical theory more generally enjoyed a revival in the twentieth century. Elizabeth Anscombe in her article ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ (1958) argued that duty based conceptions of morality are conceptually incoherent for they are based on the idea of a ‘law without a lawgiver.’ She claims a system of morality conceived along the lines of the Ten Commandments depends on someone having made these rules. Anscombe recommends a return to the eudaimonistic ethical theories of the ancients, particularly Aristotle, which ground morality in the interests and well being of human moral agents, and can do so without appealing to any such lawgiver. Julia Driver in the ‘Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’ explains: ‘Anscombe’s article ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ stimulated the development of virtue ethics as an alternative to Utilitarianism, Kantian Ethics, and Social Contract theories. Her primary charge in the article is that, as secular approaches to moral theory, they are without foundation. They use concepts such as ‘morally ought,’ ‘morally obligated,’ ‘morally right,’ and so forth that are legalistic and require a legislator as the source of moral authority. In the past God occupied that role, but systems that dispense with God as part of the theory are lacking the proper foundation for meaningful employment of those concepts.

Models of eudaimonia in psychology emerged out of early work on self-actualization and the means of its accomplishment by researchers such as Erikson, Allport, and Maslow. Psychologist C. D. Ryff highlighted the distinction between ‘eudaimonia wellbeing,’ which she identified as ‘psychological wellbeing,’ and ‘hedonic wellbeing or pleasure.’ Building on Aristotelian ideals of belonging and benefiting others, flourishing, thriving and exercising excellence, she conceptualized eudaimonia as a six-factor structure: Autonomy, Personal growth, Self-acceptance, Purpose in life, Environmental mastery, and Positive relations with others. Importantly, she also produced scales for assessing Mental health. This factor structure has been debated, but has generated much research in wellbeing, health, and successful aging.

Individual differences in both overall Eudaimonia, identified loosely with self-control and in the facets of eudaimonia are heritable. Evidence from one study supports five independent genetic mechanisms underlying this trait, leading to a genetic construct of eudaimonia in terms of general self-control, and four subsidiary biological mechanisms enabling the psychological capabilities of purpose, agency, growth, and positive social relations.

In terms of its etymology, ‘eudaimonia’ is an abstract noun derived from ‘eu’ meaning ‘well’ and ‘daimon’, which refers to a minor deity or a guardian spirit. Eudaimonia implies a positive and divine state of being that man is able to strive toward and possibly reach. A literal view of eudaimonia means achieving a state of being similar to benevolent deity, or being protected and looked after by a benevolent deity. As this would be considered the most positive state to be in, the word is often translated as ‘happiness’ although incorporating the divine nature of the word extends the meaning to also include the concepts of being fortunate, or blessed. Despite this etymology, however, discussions of eudaimonia in ancient Greek ethics are often conducted independently of any super-natural significance.

In his ‘Nicomachean Ethics,’ Aristotle says that eudaimonia means ‘doing and living well.’ It is significant that synonyms for eudaimonia are ‘living well’ and ‘doing well.’ On the standard English translation, this would be to say that ‘happiness is doing well and living well.’ The word ‘happiness’ does not entirely capture the meaning of the Greek word. One important difference is that happiness often connotes being or tending to be in a certain pleasant state of consciousness. For example, when we say of someone that ‘he is a very happy man,’ we usually mean that he seems subjectively contented with the way things are going in his life. We mean to imply that he feels good about the way things are going for him. In contrast, eudaimonia is a more encompassing notion than feeling happy since events that do not contribute to one’s experience of feeling happy may affect one’s eudaimonia.

Eudaimonia depends on all the things that would make us happy if we knew of their existence, but quite independently of whether we do know about them. Ascribing eudaimonia to a person, then, may include ascribing such things as being virtuous, being loved, and having good friends. But these are all objective judgments about someone’s life: they concern a person’s really being virtuous, really being loved, and really having fine friends. This implies that a person who has evil sons and daughters will not be judged to be eudaimonic even if he or she does not know that they are evil and feels pleased and contented with the way they have turned out (happy). Conversely, being loved by your children would not count towards your happiness if you did not know that they loved you (and perhaps thought that they did not), but it would count towards your eudaimonia. So eudaimonia corresponds to the idea of having an objectively good or desirable life, to some extent independently of whether one knows that certain things exist or not. It includes conscious experiences of well being, success, and failure, and more.

Because of this discrepancy between the meaning of ‘eudaimonia’ and ‘happiness,’ some alternative translations have been proposed. W.D. Ross suggests ‘well-being’ and John Cooper proposes ‘flourishing.’ These translations may avoid some of the misleading associations carried by ‘happiness’ although each tends to raise some problems of its own.

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