Eudaimonia and Happiness: Same or different?

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Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853 – 1890 ), Roses, 1890, oil on canvas, Gift of Pamela Harriman in memory of W. Averell Harriman, National Gallery of Art

The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s seminal work on ethics is a hymn to eudaimonia. However, we often read or hear the word “happiness” as a synonym or a translation for it. So, we need to clarify: Is eudaimonia the same as happiness? If not, how is it different?

Eudaimonia isn’t happiness for Aristotle. In the Ethics, we read that happiness is a kind of prosperity and good luck that brings external goods to our life – material and bodily goods like money, an aristocratic descent, good children, status, powerful friends, a nice appearance and health. This is why there are people who mistake happiness for eudaimonia.

Though material and bodily goods are necessary for eudaimonia, they aren’t its essential elements. To attain eudaimonia, we must have and use the goods of the soul, that it character and intellectual virtues, because eudaimonia is an activity of the rational part of the soul that is driven by virtue.

Through the character virtues we can develop, always with the guidance of practical wisdom, or prudence, we can do those actions that will help us experience eudaimonia every day and until the end of life. As we read in Book I, One swallow does not make a spring, nor does one day. And neither one day nor a short time make someone blessed and eudaimon. (1098a16)

Aristotle doesn’t tell us that we must pursue eudaimonia. He takes it for granted that we do because this is our highest purpose in life and our natural work as human beings. His aim is rather to analyse in a practical what elements eudaimonia consists in.

In essence, he gives us a general framework, a compass, that will help us set priorities and decide how we can evaluate and use our external goods in order to attain the highest good – eudaimonia – that is the most perfect, the most beautiful and the most pleasant at the same time. Our allies in this lifelong pursuit are our character and intellectual virtues.

Take care, Sophia P.