Eudaimonism is an ethical theory which maintains that happiness (eudaimonia) is reached through virtue (aretê). Eudaimonia and aretê are two central concepts in ancient Greek ethics. Eudaimonia, which literally means "having a good guardian spirit," is often translated into English as "happiness," and while this is adequate in so far as it goes, it does not entirely capture the meaning of the Greek word. One important difference is that happiness seems closely bound up with a subjective assessment of the quality of one's life, whereas eudaimonia refers to an objectively desirable life. Eudaimonia is then a more encompassing notion than happiness since bad events that do not contribute to one's experience of happiness do affect one's eudaimonia.
All ancient ethical theorists understand eudaimonia to be the highest human good, but they differ from one another regarding how to achieve it in its relation to aretê. Specifying the relation between these two central concepts is one of the important preoccupations of ancient ethics, and a subject of much disagreement. As a result, there are a various forms 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.
Eudaimonism has been largely forgotten since the Renaissance, but it has seen a revival after the middle of the twentieth century thanks to the works of ethicists such as Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre. Perhaps, one task of contemporary eudaimonism is to remember ancient Greek ethics' understanding of eudaimonia as rooted in the Form of the Good (Plato) or in the contemplative activity of God (Aristotle).
Eudaimonia: Etymology and translation
In terms of its etymology, eudaimonia is an abstract noun derived from the adjective, eudaimon. This adjective is, in turn, a compound word comprised of eu, meaning "well," and daimon (daemon), which refers to a sort of guardian spirit. Therefore, to be eudaimon is to live well, protected and looked after by a benevolent spirit. Despite this etymology, however, discussions of eudaimonia in ancient Greek ethics are often conducted independently of any supernatural significance.
Translation of the word
The standard English translation of eudaimonia is "happiness." In the Nicomachean Ethics, however, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) says that eudaimonia means "living well and doing well." It is significant that synonyms for eudaimonia are living well and doing well. So, "happiness" seems not to 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 people say of someone that he is a happy man, they usually mean that he seems subjectively contented with the way things are going in his life. In contrast, eudaimonia is a more encompassing notion than happiness, since events that do not contribute to one's experience of happiness may affect one's eudaimonia.
Eudaimonia depends on all the things that would make people happy if they knew about them, but quite independently of whether they do know about them. Ascribing eudaimonia to a person, then, may include ascribing such things as being loved by family and having fine friends. These are all objective judgments about someone's life: They concern a person really being loved by family and really having fine friends. This implies that a person who has evil sons and daughters will not be judged to be eudaimon, even if he or she does not know that they are evil and therefore feels pleased and contented with the way he or she thinks they are. Conversely, being loved by one's children would not count towards your happiness, if you did not know that they loved you; but it would count towards your eudaimonia, even if you did not know that they loved you. So, eudaimonia corresponds to the idea of having an objectively good or desirable life, to some extent independently of whether one knows that these things obtain. It includes not only conscious experiences of well-being and success but a whole lot more. Regarding this, see Aristotle's discussion in the 10th and 11th chapters of Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics.
Because of this discrepancy between the meaning of eudaimonia and happiness, some alternative translations have been proposed. W.D. Ross (1877-1971) 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. Perhaps the safest alternative is to leave the term untranslated (transliterated), allowing its meaning to emerge by considering how it is actually used by the ancient ethical philosophers.
Achieving eudaimonia through aretê (virtue).
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that everyone agrees that eudaimonia, which is identified as "living well and doing well," is "the highest of all goods" for human beings, but that there is substantial disagreement on what sort of life counts as living and doing well. So, saying that the eudaimon life is a life which is objectively desirable, and means living and doing well, is not to say very much. The really difficult question is: What sort of activities enable one to live and do well. Aristotle presents various popular conceptions of the best life for human beings. The candidates that he mentions are: 1) The vulgar life of pleasure, 2) the political life of honor, and 3) the contemplative life.
One basic move in Greek philosophy in answering the question of how to achieve eudaimonia, is to bring in the other important concept in ancient philosophy, that is, aretê ("virtue"). For example, Aristotle says that the eudaimon life is the life of "activity of soul in accordance with virtue." And even Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.), who believes that the eudaimon life is the life of pleasure, maintains that the life of pleasure coincides with the life of virtue: "It is impossible to live pleasantly without living wisely and honorably and justly." So the ancient ethical theorists tend to agree that virtue is closely bound up with happiness (aretê is bound up with eudaimonia). However, they disagree on the way in which this is so.
Translation of aretê
The Greek word aretê is usually translated into English as "virtue." One problem with this 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, aretê pertains to all sorts of qualities we would not regard as relevant to ethics, such as 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 aretê connotes would include saying something like "speed is 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 or flute playing) has its own set of virtues. The alternative translation "excellence" 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.
Main views on eudaimonia and its relation to aretê
What we know of the philosophy of Socrates (c.469–399 B.C.E.) is almost entirely derived from the writings of Plato (c.428–c.348 B.C.E.). Scholars typically divide Plato's works into three periods: the early, middle, and late periods. They tend to agree also that Plato's earliest works quite faithfully represent the teachings of Socrates, and that Plato's own views, which go beyond those of Socrates, appear for the first time in the middle works such as the Phaedo and the Republic. This division will be employed here in dividing up the positions of Socrates and Plato on eudaimonia.
As with all other ancient ethical thinkers, Socrates thinks that all human beings want eudaimonia more than anything else. (See Plato's Apology 30b, Euthydemus 280d-282d, and Meno 87d-89a). However, Socrates adopts 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 soul are absolutely crucial, if a person is to lead a good and happy (eudaimon) life. Virtues guarantee a life of eudaimonia. For example, in the Meno, with respect to wisdom, he says: "all that the soul attempts or endures, when 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 pleasure or honor, when he chastises the Athenians for caring more for riches and honor than the state of their souls: "You, my friend—a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens—are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?" Socrates states that he comes to the Athenians "individually like a father or elder brother, exhorting you to regard 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 the 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 wealth and political power, for example. 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 asks, "And will life be worth having, if that higher part of man [i.e., the soul] be destroyed, which is improved by justice and depraved by injustice? Do we suppose that principle [i.e., the soul], whatever it may be in man, which has to do with justice and injustice, to be inferior to the body?" and Crito answers, "Certainly not." 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. We shall see later on that 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 the Sophist Thrasymachus, that conventional morality, particularly the virtue of justice, actually prevents the strong man from achieving eudaimonia. Thrasymachus' views are restatements of a position which Plato discusses earlier in the Gorgias through the mouthpiece of Callicles. The basic argument presented by Thrasumachus and Callicles is that justice (or 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 II 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 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.
The argument of the Republic is lengthy, complex, and profound, and the present context does not allow that we give it proper consideration. In a thumbnail sketch, Plato argues that the 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. By contrast, argues Plato, 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. (Virtue is necessary for eudaimonia.) On Plato's version of the relationship, virtue is depicted as the most crucial and the dominant constituent of eudaimonia.
Aristotle's account is articulated in the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics. In briefest outline, for Aristotle, eudaimonia involves activity, exhibiting aretê (excellence) in accordance with reason. This conception of eudaimonia derives from Aristotle's view that rationality is peculiar to human beings so that the function (ergon) of a human being will involve the exercise of his rational capacities to the highest degree. The basic thoughts are that eudaimonia will be gained when a creature develops its rational capacities properly, and that reason is a distinctively human capacity. It follows that eudaimonia for a human being involves the attainment of aretê (excellence) in reason.
According to Aristotle, eudaimonia actually requires activity, action, so that it is not sufficient for a person to have a certain disposition to behave in certain ways. He thinks it is necessary for a person also to exercises his dispositions, that is, to exhibit activity according to the capacities of reason. Eudaimonia requires not only traits of character but activity. Aristotle clearly maintains that to live in accordance with reason means attaining excellence in its use. Perhaps it is true that any human being of normal capability will employ rational capacities to some extent, but this is not enough for Aristotle. He claims that performing a function well entails exhibiting certain excellences or virtues appropriate to that function. So, for example, being a good psychologist requires being highly attentive, so that we might say that attentiveness is a quality necessary for someone to be a good psychologist. From this it follows that eudaimonia, living and doing well, consists in activities exercising the rational part of the soul in accordance with the virtues or excellences of reason, as is shown in the 7th chapter of Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics. The rest of the Nicomachean Ethics is devoted to filling out the claim that the 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 excellences of character which enable a person to successfully exercise his "practical wisdom" (phronêsis), that is, reason or wisdom relating to action.
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 soul, he does not entirely ignore the importance of "external goods" such as "friends and riches and political power" in a life that is eudaimon. He thinks that one is unlikely to be eudaimon, if one lacks other external goods such as "good birth, goodly children, beauty." For "the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary and childless is not very likely to be happy, and perhaps a man would be still less likely if he had thoroughly bad children or friends or had lost good children or friends by death."
The ethical theory of Epicurus is hedonistic. Much later in history, his view proved very influential on the founders and best proponents of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). 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. Suppose that a person spends days and nights in an office, working at not entirely pleasant activities, such as entering data into a computer, and this, all for money, by which to buy a gorgeous apartment overlooking the Mediterranean, and a red Ferrari, for example. In this case, money is instrumentally valuable because it is a means to realizing the pleasure.
Epicurus identifies the eudaimon life with the life of pleasure. He understands eudaimonia as a more or less continuous experience of the pleasure, and also, freedom from pain and distress. But it is important to notice that he 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, Epicurus claims that even some pains are worthwhile when they lead to greater pleasures, and that some pleasures are not worth having because they lead to greater pains: "It is better to endure particular pains which produce greater satisfactions that we may enjoy. It is well to abstain from particular pleasures which produce more severe pains so that we may not suffer them."
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 he 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). Aristotle 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 the 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 people literally aim for eudaimonia. Rather, eudaimonia is what people achieve (assuming that people aren't particularly unfortunate in the possession of external goods) when they 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 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: "The beginning and the root of all good is the pleasure of the stomach; even wisdom and culture must be referred to this." So, whereas Aristotle would not say that one ought to aim for virtue in order to be attain pleasure, Epicurus would endorse this claim.
Stoic philosophy begins with Zeno of Citium (333–264 B.C.E.) around 300 B.C.E., and was developed by Cleanthes (c.301-252 or 232 B.C.E.) and Chrysippus (c.280-c.207 B.C.E.) into a formidable systematic unity. Stoic ethics is a particularly strong version of eudaimonism. According to the Stoics, eudaimonia is necessary and sufficient for virtue. (This thesis is generally regarded as stemming from the Socrates of Plato's earlier dialogues.) The concept of aretê is not quite the same as that of the English "virtue" since aretê includes many non-moral excellences such as physical strength and beauty. However, the Stoic concept of aretê is much nearer to our conception of virtue, which is essentially referring to the moral virtues. So when the Stoics write of virtues, they mean states such as justice, moderation, and courage.
The Stoics make quite a radical claim, which is 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 deny the importance of external goods recognized by Aristotle, who thinks that severe misfortune (such as the death of one's family and friends) could rob even the most virtuous person of eudaimonia. This Stoic focus on moral virtues re-emerges later in the history of ethical philosophy in the writings of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), 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 not unconditionally so. The basic similarity between Stoicism and Kantianism regarding their focus on the moral sense of virtue, however, cannot ignore their very fundamental point of difference, which is that Stoicism is still in the ancient Greek tradition of virtue ethics, whereas Kantianism is deontological, emphasizing the importance of moral rules for us to follow.
Eudaimonia and modern moral philosophy
Interest in the concept of eudaimonia and ancient ethical theory more generally has enjoyed a tremendous revival in the twentieth century. This is largely due to the work of the British analytic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001). In her article "Modern Moral Philosophy," Anscombe argues that duty-based conceptions of morality are conceptually incoherent for they are based on the idea of a "law without a lawgiver." The point is that a system of morality conceived along the lines of the Ten Commandments, as a system of rules for action, depends (she claims) on someone having actually made these rules. However, in a modern climate, which is unwilling to accept that morality depends on God in this way, the rule-based conception of morality is stripped of its metaphysical foundation. 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 questionable metaphysics.
The root of eudaimonia
It was observed above that discussions of eudaimonia in ancient Greek ethics are often conducted independently of any supernatural significance, even if the word etymologically contains a sort of guardian spirit. It was also learned above that according to Elizabeth Anscombe, the ancient Greek theories of eudaimonia are not grounded in any metaphysical ultimates such as God but only in the interests of the eudaimonia of human beings, and that it is the reason why she considers these ancient theories to be able to be resuscitated properly in the climate of the twentieth century, which is unwilling to accept that morality depends on God.
But, a more careful examination of eudaimonia, as understood by the ancient Greeks, undoubtedly shows they believe that eudaimonia, although it, of course, results from virtue, is essentially rooted in something ultimate beyond this world. According to Socrates and Plato, virtue consists in the soul's rational knowledge of eternal truth in the Forms in pursuit of its own inner harmony. For Aristotle, eternal truth is not in the Platonic Forms but is already embedded in human beings; so, virtue means practicing eternal truth after studying it from human nature. But, as long as the soul involves eternal truth, virtuous activities of the soul imitate the contemplative activity of God. When it comes to what he calls "intellectual virtues," Aristotle explains them as purely rational abilities of the soul, which are even closer to the activity of God.
It is in the context of these explanations of virtues that the root of eudaimonia can be understood. Plato naturally considers eudaimonia as the final purpose of virtuous human life to be rooted in the Forms, especially the Form of the Good. According to Aristotle, eudaimonia is the highest good, which is something immanent in humans, but which is perfectly enjoyed in the purely contemplative life of God as the pure form: "The activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness." In quite a similar vein, Epicurus relates the human life of pleasure to the beatitude of the gods, although he is an atomist unlike Plato and Aristotle. As for the Stoics, they are largely Socratic.
Perhaps, one of the tasks of contemporary theories of eudaimonia, which have resulted from a revival of the ancient Greek theories, is not to ignore this key point of ancient Greek ethics regarding the root of eudaimonia, in spite of Anscombe's initial attempt to ignore it. Alasdair MacIntyre, author of the highly regarded book, After Virtue, is one of those contemporary virtue ethicists who talk about the root of eudaimonia by reworking the Aristotelian idea of an ethical teleology in the context of the ethical ideas of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I, 4. Retrieved November 11, 2008.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I, 10 & I, 11. Retrieved November 11, 2008.
- W.D. Ross, Aristotle: A Complete Exposition of his Works and Thought (New York: Meridian Books, 1959), 186.
- John M. Cooper, Reason and Human Good in Aristotle (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1986), 89-90.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I, 4. Retrieved November 11, 2008.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I, 5. Retrieved November 11, 2008.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I, 7. Retrieved November 11, 2008.
- Epicurus, "The Principal Doctrines of Epicurus." Retrieved November 13, 2008.
- Plato, Meno. Retrieved November 12, 2008.
- Plato, Apology. Retrieved November 12, 2008.
- Ibid., italics added.
- Plato, Crito. Retrieved November 12, 2008.
- Plato, Republic, Book II, Section on "Glaucon." Retrieved November 12, 2008.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I, 7. Retrieved November 11, 2008.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I, 8. Retrieved November 11, 2008.
- Epicurus, "Fragments from Uncertain Sources." Retrieved November 13, 2008.
- G.E.M. Anscombe, "Modern Moral Philosophy." Retrieved November 13, 2008.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X, 8. Retrieved November 11, 2008.
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