A surprising turn: Eudaimonia as an activity of wisdom

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Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890, National Gallery of Art

If eudaimonia is an activity in accordance with virtue, it is natural that it is in accordance with the highest one similar to the best element in human beings. Whether this element is intellect or something else that naturally rules and guides us and understands noble and divine things, …, its activity, in accordance with its proper virtue, will be complete eudaimonia. (1177a12)

In the last book of the Ethics, Aristotle makes a surprising turn that almost contradicts his own theory. In Book I, he argues that eudaimonia is an activity of the rational part of the soul driven by character and intellectual virtues. But in Book X, we read that eudaimonia is an activity of contemplation favored by the gods and the wise people.

So, can we attain eudaimonia, human and mortal as we are?

… we shouldn’t listen to those who urge us to think of human things because we are human, or of mortal things because we are mortal. On the contrary, as much as possible, we should aspire to immortality and act in accordance with the highest element within us since, although it is small in size, it’s higher than anything else in power and value. (1177b31)

If eudaimonia is a life of contemplation, a divine and wise activity, can we attain it after all, and if yes, in what way? Isn’t that a contradiction? Didn’t Aristotle reject the platonic Form as too theoretical, abstract and distant from our human experience? Didn’t he aim to give us a practical framework that would help us organize our life?

Well, the answer to all these questions is Yes – that is a contradiction. And, Yes – Aristotle aimed to give us a practical framework. But he has a point after all.

Finding the divine within us

His point, contradictory as it might be, is that we shouldn’t listen to the voices that urge us to live bound by our humanity and our mortality. Rather, as much as we can, we should aspire to immortality, and through wisdom and contemplation, we should find the divine element within us, we should reach our higher self. It’s all about self-actualization and transcendence. That may be difficult but not impossible and the difficult is always better than the impossible, in all areas of human endeavor.

We can’t possibly live our life exclusively in contemplation. Contemplation is complete eudaimonia if it lasts a whole life till the end, and it’s a way of life superior to the one we can humanely attain. But if the intellect is the divine within us, then a life of contemplation is also divine in the sense that it’s our true self, the essential and best part in us. So, it would be irrational not to prefer this way of life, or at least try to experience it.

The divine element is expressed in our consciousness, in our realization of the things we have and of the goals we pursue in life, of our limitations and the value of other people. Eudaimonia without consciousness is no eudaimonia at all. This is how we can interpret Aristotle’s concern with human life: it’s not a life lived in divine contemplation, but a life lived with awareness expressed as divine thought. So, the life he sees as the ultimate goal of our efforts, that can make our existence meaningful, is a thoughtful, aware and deliberative life – a divinely human life. Then, it rests with us to understand, accept and live it in our own personal ways.

 Take care, Sophia P.