VQ or Virtuous Intelligence: A conversation with Aristotle on the highest good

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Thomas Gainsborough (British, 1727 – 1788 ), Mountain Landscape with Bridge, c. 1783/1784, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection 1937.1.107, National Gallery of Art

This post is an extract from my book on Aristotle’s ethical theory: “Eudaimonia as a way of life: A conversation with Aristotle inspired by the Nicomachean Ethics”, 2016.

The book has already been published in print form and will soon be published in digital. I begin with an extract from the Nicomachean Ethics (Ethics). In the parenthesis, you can see the Bekker numbering of the text: Page (1095), Section (a), Line (19). This numbering is used in all editions of the Ethics.

What is Eudaimonia? In search of the highest good

As to the name, most people agree, laymen and educated alike, that the highest good is eudaimonia, and consider that living well and doing well is the same thing as eudaimonia. (1095a19)

The meaning of the word

Eudaimonia was a popular, not a philosophical, term in ancient Greece. In modern Greece, it’s philosophical rather than a common term we use. It’s a word made up of eu, that means well, and daimon, a kind of guiding spirit.

To be ‘eudaimon’ literally meant to be blessed by a spirit or divinity and good luck is implied in the word. Blessed people were thought to have a good spirit that might take care they were born to a good family, lived long, and weren’t too heavily inflicted by disease or misfortune.

Aristotle doesn’t develop his theory based on the existence of such a good daimon, though he argues both that good luck brings necessary external goods to our life and that chance plays a role. Also, he didn’t coin the term. Hesiod spoke about eudaimonia in his Works and Days, 7th century B.C..E, more than three centuries before Aristotle (384 -322 B. C.E.)

So, what exactly is eudaimonia?

Eudaimonia is about who we could be if we realized our human nature and nurtured our goodness. We can understand it as flourishing, functioning well or being fulfilled as human beings in harmony with our nature. It’s a journey into individual excellence in our life as a whole: being good persons and pursuing the best life, starting here and now, not in ancient Athens!

Eudaimonia is living well (eu zēn) and to live well we need to know our human function and our natural inclinations and how to fulfill them. It’s also doing well (eu prattein) and to do well we must educate and cultivate a good character.

Aristotle makes a systematic inquiry into character. He analyzes individual excellence that depends on what we do, on our responsibility and our choices, and on the virtues we develop with practice and effort. Ultimately, we express our good character in the activity of eudaimonia.

Aristotle uses the term ēthos, the root of ethics, that in Greek means character. Ta Ethika (the Ethics) is the study of matters dealing with character. Character must be cultivated so that we grow as whole persons; it’s not enough to acquire skills and perform individual actions. We must develop stable dispositions to do good actions and be good persons.

Character education should start from a young age and aim not only at individual excellence but at a society in which people can live a good life. But it can’t last forever, no lifelong learning concept is really involved in Aristotle’s thought. Once we develop a good character, there is no easy reversal, no way back to a previous stage – a good character is stable.

Stability is essential. Eudaimonia is synonymous to living well and doing well not only once but repeatedly and until the end of life. And this brings with it determination, practice and personal responsibility. As Aristotle says: 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)

Is eudaimonia one more goal?

Eudaimonia isn’t one goal among others. It’s the best, the most pleasant and most noble at the same time. It’s an end in itself: the highest good; the human good; the perfect good; the practically attainable good; the best thing; or the highest thing. So, the human good is different from the highest human good. It’s like an end point, that we could see as highest, last or best.

You can understand that eudaimonia is the final goal of human life if I asked you why you are reading this post. You would probably say that you are interested to read what Aristotle wrote.  But if I asked you why do you want to read what he wrote?

    • I want to learn about his ethical theory.
    • Why do you want to learn about his ethical theory?
    • I want to learn what is eudaimonia.
    • Why do you want to learn what is eudaimonia?
    • I want to attain eudaimonia.
    • Why do you want to attain eudaimonia?
    • Do you expect an answer?

The question, “Why do you want to attain eudaimonia?” is obviously rhetorical and a strange one to ask. Who doesn’t want to live the best life? Anything else we do is just a means to this end.

Take care, Sophia P.