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.

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.

Reason: Our unique human function

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Allen Tucker-Madison Square, Snow-1904, National Gallery of Art

In this post, I discuss reason, the second element of living well and doing well that Aristotle presents in the Nicomachean Ethics.

  … and we consider the function of a human being to be a certain life, and this is an activity and actions of the soul accompanied by reason, the function of a good person to be to do these things well and nobly, and each thing is performed well when it is performed in accordance with the virtue proper to it… (1098a13)

Aristotle’s ethical theory is bound to rationality. Reason is the exclusive function of human beings and he presents it to discuss the highest good in more detail and differentiate between character and intellectual virtues as the drivers towards this good.

The work of human beings

Eudaimonia is the goal we pursue for its own sake and for the sake of nothing else. We are successful in this pursuit if we understand our final cause as human beings, our ergon in Greek, what we are born for; we must know the reason for our existence and the natural telos, or final purpose, we have to fulfill.

We share life – nutrition, growth, reproduction – with plants and animals, but our human telos is superior to biological functions, physical growth or bodily senses. Our telos, the unique function that fulfills our human nature, consists essentially of reason. Rationality is our guide in life and only if we are fully rational can we reach our potential. Rational activity isn’t only thinking in the sense of calculating. It also includes practical reasoning and planning for the future, it helps us make decisions and sustain relationships.

Our unique function isn’t only our ability to reason – this is something that the gods also possess. Rather, our exclusive human function is displayed in action. We fulfill our function well if we do virtuous actions. The virtues aren’t the highest good but their role in attaining it is important.

We express our excellence in good and right actions, guided by the relevant virtue each time, and if there are more than one virtues, with the best and most complete. So, to fulfill our ergon in an excellent way, we should aim to become perfectly rational.

The parts of the soul

… by eudaimonia we mean an activity of the soul. (1102a17)

Eudaimonia consists in excellent rational activity of the most perfect part of the soul. The soul, psuche in Greek, is primary in Aristotle’s theory. Its meaning is broader than that of the soul. All living organisms, even plants and animals, have psuche as the power that activates them. And the same with human beings.

But this is the only similarity we share with other living organisms: our soul possesses a rational part that is exclusively human. That part is an essential activating power and its goods, the virtues, are far superior to external goods, material or bodily.

Our human soul has two parts, a non-rational and a rational one, and we need to know what they do and how they are related to the virtues. Why? Because Aristotle defines eudaimonia as an activity of the soul driven by complete virtue. So, let’s see.

 The non-rational part of the soul and its two elements

The vegetative (or nutritive) element is common to all living organisms, regardless of type (e.g. animal, plant, human) or stage of development (e.g. embryos, children, adults) and involves the power for self-nutrition, reproduction and growth. It functions during sleep, and so good and bad persons aren’t really different for half of their lives. During sleep, our soul isn’t engaged in any good or bad actions – only probably if we are good people, we have better dreams. The virtue of the vegetative element is the excellent function of our biological organs. But no matter how well it functions, it doesn’t make us good persons.

The appetitive element is responsible for our appetites and desires. It has no reason in itself but takes part in reason and obeys it as we obey our father and friends. It disposes us to control our self and seek what is best in life or listen to the advice, criticism or encouragement of others in cases we are tempted to do something wrong. So, we obey reason and do the right thing even if we don’t understand why.

This changes as we develop the virtues, gain life experience and can reason for ourselves why it’s good to do the right thing. Being virtuous means that we probably have this element in our soul and are in harmony with it. And this is important – the appetitive element contributes to our goodness: it protects us from experiencing an inner struggle when we must do an action we perceive as our duty, or from feeling pain when we can’t satisfy our desires.

The rational part of our soul

This part expresses our unique function as human beings, our ergon and our telos. As living organisms, we have the non-rational functions above, but as human beings, we have exclusivity to reason, the ability to think, imagine or perceive. Only in being fully rational, can we be truly human.

We can see the appetitive part as an element of the rational part of our soul too since it obeys it. So, the rational part also has two elements, one possessing reason and one taking part in it and obeying it.

 The virtues of our soul

The structure of the soul helps us distinguish the virtues: some of them, like theoretical and practical wisdom, are intellectual and belong to the rational part of the soul; others – like courage or temperance – are character virtues and belong to the appetitive part. Intellectual virtues give intellectual depth to our existence in the world, and practical wisdom especially give us insight into the particular elements of a situation and the right means to achieve a goal. Character virtues guide our actions and passions according to the virtuous mean. Both kinds of virtues are essential to our goodness since it’s possible that a person is an intelligent and fast thinker, but not a good human being.

So, the rational part of the soul is related to the intellectual virtues and the appetitive to the character virtues. The vegetative element doesn’t relate to our virtues in any way.

Take care, Sophia P.

Fulfilling our unique human nature

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Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge, 1899, National Gallery of Art

In my previous post, I presented the elements of living well and doing well that Aristotle discusses in Books I & X of the Nicomachean Ethics: Nature-fulfillment: Why we do the things we do; Reason: Our unique human function; Independence: A complete and self-sufficient good; Whole life: A long term process; Virtue: Character and intellectual excellence; and Contemplating:  The activity of wisdom.

In this post, I am discussing the first element.

Nature fulfillment: Why we do the things we do?

Fulfilling our human nature is the first of the elements of eudaimonia and it’s grounded in Aristotle’s teleological theory. In essence, it’s about the goals and goods we seek in life. As he says,

Every art and every method, and similarly every action and choice, seems to aim at some good. That is why it has been correctly declared that the good is that at which all things aim. (1094a1)

This is the opening statement of the Nicomachean Ethics and presents the Aristotelian teleology: unless something happens by chance, is an automatic biological function or a behavioral reflex, all our actions aim at a telos that in Greek means end, final purposeor ultimate goal. We don’t live our life randomly, we don’t exist in vain. Our behavior is intentional.

Telos, as an ultimate goal, can also be considered a cause for the sake of which we do what we do, the final cause of our actions, what our actions are for. As an example, if we ask ‘Why is she exercising?’, the answer ‘To be healthy’ indicates according to Aristotle the cause and the ultimate goal of the action and so explains it.

We can’t impose ultimate goals on nature. We can only observe in it the ultimate goals of different living organisms – plants, animals, humans – that drive them to function toward their telos, to fulfill their true nature and reach their potential.

Aristotle explains what an ultimate goal is in terms of the good (to agathon that in Greek means a thing or a good thing). His main aim in Book I is to define the goodwe seek in life that for him has no moral value. It’s an ultimate goal for the sake of which we do everything else – no more, no less.

For all our actions and choices, we have a purpose in mind. We realize our human excellence if we grow in harmony with our nature, and in fact, for anything to be on the list for eudaimonia, it has to fulfill our human nature. If it does, then it’s good: it contributes to a balanced and rational life that enables us to serve our social and political duties and gain the respect, friendship and recognition of others.

Goals and priorities

Are some of our goals more important than others? Yes, they are. In some cases, our goal is an action we do for its own sake – we go for a walk. In other cases, our goal is an outcome separate from the action, it’s an accomplishment – we go to university to obtain a degree. The accomplishment, the degree, is more important than the action – attending a class. Why? Because we attend for the sake of the degree – physically or online.

We have higher goals we pursue for their own sake – we want to be healthy, and secondary goals we seek for the sake of the higher ones – we follow a healthy diet to be healthy. So, though we always act with a goal in mind, we don’t aim at any goal: in fact, we aim at the ultimate goal that is best and an end in itself, one for the sake of which we do everything else. Such a goal must exist, otherwise we would waste our life in a useless and endless pursuit of different but trivial goals. As we will read, this goal is eudaimonia.

The art of politics

Political science makes an important contribution to the achievement of the ultimate human goal. The Politics, Aristotle’s political theory, follow and complete the Ethics,his ethical theory. Ethics and politics are practical sciences that concern behavior and good action at the individual and social level. The Ethics is about the best human life – individual excellence; the Politics is about the best forms of social organization that can make such a life possible – social excellence.

Political science is instrumental for creating a society that helps citizens attain eudaimonia and true politicians should study the virtues of the soul to prepare good citizens who are willing to obey the laws.

Human beings are made to live in a political society, we are political animals. As Aristotle says elsewhere, “But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state.” (Politics, 1253a28). (Translated by Benjamin Jowett, 1952)

Political authority and obedience should be based on expertise, or they are the result of force. Political expertise is the highest authority: it defines the most respected skills and methods of production; and what the various sciences should investigate and to what extent, though outcomes are flexible. It defines what citizens should or shouldn’t do and is concerned with their good. Most importantly, however, it’s concerned with the good of the city (or polis) as a whole. Political science then is the highest expert authority that aims at the highest good.

Things that can be otherwise

To achieve the highest good, we need to know what it is. But can we know exactly? Well, we can’t, not exactly at least, because we deal with human affairs that change and can be otherwise (they are ta endexomena). Ethics is about good things that are open to diversity of opinion and uncertainty and seem to exist by law, not by nature.

Aristotle tells us that we can’t expect to find precise answers about the human good as those we find in the sciences that deal with unchangeable laws, like mathematics. What we can do is first draw a general outline and then add the details with as much precision as the topic allows.

Take care, Sophia P.

Eudaimonia at last?

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George Inness (American, 1825 – 1894 ), The Lackawanna Valley, c. 1856, oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Huttleston Rogers , National Gallery of Art

In my previous posts, I discussed the difference between “eudaimonia” and “happiness”, or good luck that brings external goods in our life; the meaning of eudaimonia as the highest good we seek for its own sake and for the sake of nothing else; and the three popular misconceptions about the best life: a life of enjoyment, the political life and the life of money making that Aristotle presented and rejected as inadequate.

So, where do we go from here? What is the philosopher’s own view about the highest good and the best life?

The questions Aristotle asks: What is the best human life?

From the start, Aristotle says he aims his theory to be practical. It’s not enough to know about virtue – what is important is to be virtuous. He analyzes how we can “live well” and “do well” as human beings out of personal choice and effort. He accepts that eudaimonia can be affected by chance, since we are human and mortal, but it doesn’t depend on chance, not totally at least, and so we shouldn’t leave it to that.

We should consciously choose to be good and do what is right. To believe that eudaimonia is the result of effort, rather than chance, gives us hope that we can attain it. How? If we use the virtues we have acquired and matured through habituation, or continuous and conscious practice, until they become permanent states of character (hexis). And more than that, we can attain eudaimonia through reason, our unique human function.

To analyze whether eudaimonia is an activity within our control, the philosopher asks:

–       What is the ultimate goal of human life?

–       What is the best life for human beings?

–       What is the best life for me?

–       What does a life of eudaimonia consist in?

–       What kind of persons do we want to be?

–       How can we be good persons?

The philosopher tells us not that we should aim at eudaimonia, but that we do aim at it; not that we ought to live a life of eudaimonia, but what such a life consists in. As such, he isn’t moralizing. Rather he is presenting an objective and naturalistic account of how character and intellect guide us toward the best life that meets specific criteria, and shows us the way to fulfill our human nature to make a success of our life.

As an expert in ethics, he is guiding us. Why? Because in all areas of life we turn to the experts for advice. Why? Because we don’t know. We all say we seek eudaimonia, but then disagree as to what it is, it means different things to each of us. In reality, our initial agreement was only in words. What is needed, Aristotle thinks, is to define the human good and the best life objectively so that we can pursue it with a clear vision.

So, he presents the elements eudaimonia consists in:

One side: Living well and doing well

·  Nature-fulfillment: Why we do the things we do

·  Reason: Our unique human function

·  Independence: A complete and self-sufficient good

·  Whole life: A long term process

·  Virtue: Character and intellectual excellence

 The other side: Contemplating

·  The activity of wisdom

These are the elements I’m going to analyze in the posts that will follow.

Take care, Sophia P.

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?

 

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.