What eudaimonia is not: Popular misconceptions about the best life

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?

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.

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

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.