Independence: Eudaimonia is a complete and self-sufficient good in a whole life

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Alfred Sisley-First Snow at Veneux-Nadon-1878, National Gallery of Art

In this post, I discuss two more elements of living well and doing well, that is of eudaimonia, as a complete and self-sufficient good and one that takes a whole life.

So, it seems that eudaimonia is something complete and self-sufficient and so it is the end of actions. (1097b20)

What is important to notice in the extract above is that eudaimonia is complete and self-sufficient and the ultimate goal we can reach that will make our life perfect and lacking in nothing – if we act in certain ways. Eudaimonia is an activity.

Complete: A good we always choose for itself

We have different goals in life: goals that are means to other goals; goals we want to achieve both for themselves and for the sake of other goals; and goals we want to achieve only for themselves. Eudaimonia is of the third type: it’s an end in itself, and more complete than the goals we seek both for themselves and for the sake of others. For example, we may choose pleasure, honor, virtue or wealth for themselves. But we also choose them because we believe that they contribute to eudaimonia.

So, eudaimonia is a teleion good (meaning perfect in Greek), it’s related to telos (meaning goal or end). It’s the highest good and a perfect goal that gives a structure to our actions and to our smaller goals as we continuously strive to achieve it.

Self-sufficient: A final goal we seek in life

Eudaimonia makes life worth living, full and lacking in nothing. If we attain it, we satisfy all our needs and we can probably rest from effort. As human beings, we aren’t self-sufficient. So, we don’t have to live a solitary life: we can attain eudaimonia with our family and friends.

So, we prefer eudaimonia to all other goods. It’s not one thing among others but even if it were, and even if we added the smallest thing to it, we would still consider it more worthy to choose. We don’t praise eudaimonia but we honor it as superior to all else.

Whole life: A long-term process

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)

This extract stresses the need to practice and repeat virtuous actions over a whole life. Today, we speak of life as whole as encompassing all domains (family, friends, work). In ancient thought, however, the whole had a time dimension – a person could be considered eudaimon only after death.

Isn’t it enough to be virtuous and have external goods for our whole life? Well, before we can say that a person has attained eudaimonia, we should see both the course of her/his life and her/his end. Eudaimonia is a final and complete end, and to be blessed, in human terms, we must have a good life and a good death.

Since there can be reversals of fortune and many chance events can happen, we may fall in misfortune, at a young or an old age. This is what happened to Priam, the virtuous king of Troy, who lost his fortune and children in the war. So, we should take Solon’s advice and “look at the end” before we can say that a person attained eudaimonia.

After death, the good or the bad fortune of our friends and descendants may affect us but not to an extent that it may take away the eudaimonia we attained while we were alive, or the opposite.

Does chance play a role in life? Yes, it does. Chance gives us the external goods we need to live and do well. If we have them, we are blessed. But we need to be rational and use them well. As Aristotle says elsewhere, it’s up to us to carefully decide which of the things we possess contribute to the good life, and under what conditions we should possess them. (Eudemian Ethics, 1214b14)

Also, “the future is not manifest to us” and so chance can be the source of unexpected events and reversals of fortune that are beyond our control, and affect us to different degrees even if we are virtuous. Minor good or bad events don’t have a big impact. Major ones affect us more. Good events make our life more blessed and naturally better and we can deal with them in a noble and virtuous way. Bad events, like a premature death, cause us pain and make our life difficult, and we need a long time and good achievements to recover. However, if we are virtuous we can bear calmly a misfortune that befalls us.

Also, since actions really matter in life, if we are truly virtuous and wise, we can’t become miserable because our actions are good. We bear misfortunes with dignity and always do what is most appropriate. Virtue is stable and so is our life. But despite the role of chance, we can’t leave the best of things to it. Though our life is affected by chance, eudaimonia isn’t. Rather, it depends on our actions that are driven by our virtues. We can’t know the future. But at least we can try to be our good selves in the present.

Take care, Sophia P.