What eudaimonia is not: Popular misconceptions about the best life

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Theodore Robinson (American, 1852 – 1896 ), The Valley of the Seine, from the Hills of Giverny, 1892, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund) 2014.79.30, National Gallery of Art

For the prominent ways of life are three: … [a life of enjoyment], second the political, and third the life of contemplation. (1095b17)

Before analyzing what a life of eudaimonia is, I will present what it’s not. This shouldn’t surprise you since it was Aristotle’s method of inquiry. Before presenting his views on a topic, in this case on the best life, he discussed ta “endoxa” or the popular views that all people, the majority or the wise people, had on this topic, or what they knew by experience. He did that to avoid starting his analysis on any topic from zero. He also wanted to build on existing knowledge as a source of enlightenment and information that shouldn’t be wasted.

He examined popular opinions critically. Then he added or adapted, he accepted or rejected, not because these opinions had no value, but because they were inadequate. In this way, he gradually developed his own theory.

So, as to the best life, he first presented three popular views: a life of enjoyment, the political life and the life of contemplation. He discussed and rejected the first two and discussed the third one at the end of the Ethics. He also presented and criticized the life of money making. All these views accepted eudaimonia as the best life, the highest good, but disagreed as to what it consists in. It’s not strange that so many opinions exist since even the same person could have different opinions at different periods in life: in illness the highest good is health, but in poverty it’s wealth.

Three ways of life

A life of enjoyment

Some people are hedonists and think that the highest good is pleasure, or they can’t really conceive the best life without pleasure of bodily comforts and desires. They believe pleasurable activities are the best because they choose them for their own sake.

But a life of pleasure is inferior to human nature and it may harm more than benefit people who don’t take care of their bodies and property. Pleasurable activities are good if they seem so to the good person. Second, pleasure, as a positive feeling, doesn’t fulfil our essential human nature and isn’t the distinctive human good, it isn’t eudaimonia. Pleasure follows from eudaimonia but it’s not identical with it. Third, pleasure is largely passive. But eudaimonia is a life of rational activity, not a passive state of being. Finally, to say that we have attained eudaimonia, we need to see our life as a whole until the end, not specific moments in time.

So, is pleasure of no value at all? Well, it is of value but not in itself: in fact, it completes virtue. By doing virtuous actions that are pleasant both for us and in themselves, we experience natural pleasure and we don’t need more to make our life better. We find pleasure in the things and activities we like. If we are good persons, we find it in our virtuous actions. Pleasure arises out of feelings of satisfaction but it’s not eudaimonia. Feeling good is a by-product of doing and being good: if we do good actions we draw pleasure from them and this indicates our goodness.

The political life

Educated people and people of action think that the highest good is honor, the object of the political life. But this can’t be. Honor depends more on the person who grants it than on us who receive it and is about how other people perceive us so we can’t control it, but we want to be in control of the highest good.

Also, we want to be honored for our personal excellence, our virtues, by people of good judgement who know us. What about virtue then? Is it the highest good? No, virtue too is inadequate because it’s a disposition not an activity. We can possess virtue even when we are asleep, inactive or when we suffer misfortunes. So, we can’t live the best life if we possess virtue but don’t use it. The presence of virtue alone isn’t enough; it’s the exercise of virtue that counts.

A life of contemplation

Aristotle mentions the life of contemplation at the beginning of the Ethics but discusses it in Book X.

A life of moneymaking

Aristotle mentions the life of moneymaking since there are people who consider wealth to be the highest good. But wealth isn’t an end in itself, it’s only a useful means to other things. Sometimes it can do more harm than good and if we mostly care to make money, we risk to waste our life in hard labor. But eudaimonia also requires leisure time. So, it’s strange if our main goal in life is to make money.

Summing up on the different ways of life

Pleasure, honor and virtue are superior to wealth because we desire them for their own sake but still we also desire them for the sake of eudaimonia. So, they aren’t ends in themselves but only means to the highest good in life.

The best life isn’t simply the satisfaction of our desires. We may have socially imposed, false, wrong or extreme desires. And we may satisfy them, but end up feeling empty or disappointed. We may not even understand why we had them in the first place.

The best life is a whole life, for as long as we live and until the end. It’s not individual moments of pleasure or satisfaction. It spans not only the time we live but also death, so we can only say a person attained eudaimonia after we see her or his end.

The best life is an activity, not a state of being. We need to act all the time. It needs continuous effort: in fact, we are what we repeatedly do. We are just if we do just actions and generous if we do actions of generosity.

We need to be in control of our life, we can’t depend on others to give us the highest good to fulfil our nature and our human function.

So, what is Aristotle’s view about the best life after all? Is there a best way to live? And if there is, can the philosopher tell us what it is?