Aristotle’s Eudaimonia (Happiness)

Happiness [Eudaimonia] above all else seems to be of this character, or we always choose it on the account of itself and never on account of something else.” (Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins, Book I, Chapter 7, 1097b 0-1)

The English word “happiness” here,” John said, “doesn’t get to what the Greek definition of happiness is. The Greeks term is eudaimonia.  It is translated as a well lived or flourishing life. It’s not just about momentary bouts of happiness. Eudaimonia gives happiness a long lasting, unique stripe to the English word “happy”. It’s a mode of living.   To continue, “[Eudaimonia], then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.” (Book I, Chapter 7, 1097b 20-21). Eudaimonia is just that thing that stops the infinite regress. It’s the ends to everything we do. It isn’t a lust after hedonistic pleasure. Nevertheless, It of course involves certain pleasures of a noble breed. After this passage, he departs from this topic until a later date. Now he moves to man’s unique activity of soul, which is reason.

Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next here there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be common even to the horse, and the ox, and every animal. … Now if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle, and if say that ‘so and so’ and ‘a good so-and-so’ have a function which is the same in kind, e.g. a lyre and a good lyre-player, and so without qualification in all cases, eminence in respect of goodness being added to the name  of the function (for the function of a lyre-player is to play the lyre, and that of a good lyre player is to do so well) if this is the case, and we state the function of man to be a certain principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.” (Book I, Chapter 7, 1097b 34/1098a 18)

“So what supervenes atop of the life of a plant,” Daniel said, “which is growth and nutrition, then, in due order and succession, comes sense perception which all beasts have. However, on top of all of that, what is unique to human beings is found to be a special sort of reason. The difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, I believe, is the human capacity to obtain universals and logical necessities.”

“Animals and infants,” John said, “never cease to amaze us. The flaw in Aristotle’s argument is that we don’t know what other animals think or are capable of because we can’t get into their minds. We can only make inferences. Let’s look at another famous passage in Aristotle’s treatise. This one will remind you of Herodotus on the good life:

But we must add ‘in a complete life.’ For one swallow [1]does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy. (Book I, Chapter 7, 1098a 17-20)

Herodotus, in his brief passage on the meeting between Solon and Croesus, came to the conclusion that we cannot judge whether one lived a good life until it came to its finality. Brief encounters with happiness may arise and disappear, but they are not the same as a mode of flourishing happiness that runs through one’s life that just is the stripe of a eudaimonic life.”

John, after a moments pause said, “Aristotle presses on with his inquiry into eudaimonia, and comes to the conclusion that, however it comes about, it is the greatest gift that can be bestowed upon us. Here’s the quote:

[T]he question is asked, whether [eudaimonia] is to be acquired by learning or by habituation or some other sort of training, or comes in virtue of some divine providence or again by chance. Now if there is any gift of the gods to men, it is reasonable that [eudaimonia] is god-given, and most surely god-given of all human things inasmuch as it is the best. But this question would perhaps be more appropriate to another inquiry; [eudaimonia] seems, however, even it is not god-sent but comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things; for that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed. (Book I, Chapter 9, 1099b 9-20)


Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit… [F]or nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. (Book II, Chapter 1, 1103a 11-21)

There it is,” John said. “The moral virtues, categorially, are not in us by nature. The moral virtues must be practiced and rehearsed so much so that they become second nature. They’re like riding a bicycle. Once you learn to peddle and steer well enough you no longer have to think about which pedal you should press your weight on, and before you know it you’re doing it. Some have the advantage of beginning moral virtue at a much younger age, which makes their habituated moral virtues more concrete. As for the intellectual virtues, they come about by learning and experience. However, some learn much quicker than others and if their early education was well instructed then they have a great advantage. Remember, Aristotle began at Plato’s Academy at just age 17. He was of ripe age intellectually. Now let’s look forward to what Aristotle has to say about the importance of the activities we choose to take part in, because some may be more conducive towards moral behavior than others:

Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference. (Book II, Chapter 2, 1103b 21/1103b 25)

[1] A graceful song bird which migrates with regularity.

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