What is Eudaimonia For Aristotle?
In what follows I describe Aristotle’s meaning of ‘eudaimonia’ and ‘psyche’ and show that eudaimonia is not a state of, nor an activity of, the psyche. Whilst the psyche does have a particular ordering when the individual is in eudaimonia, eudaimonia extends the psyche. The particular ordering is necessary but insufficient, on its own, to allow the individual to reach eudaimonia. Aristotle presents eudaimonia as the highest human end. I will consider his reasoning for this claim and question some of his premises.
Aristotle asserts that above the particular goods such as money and health there is another type of good that is good in itself. This higher good is the cause of whatever goodness there is in all other (particular) goods. Aristotle labels this higher good eudaimonia. He roughly equates eudaimonia with happiness, which he identifies with living or doing well. Eudaimonia is a first principle, therefore everything else we undertake we do for its sake. One interpretation could then be that eudaimonia is the cause of what is good. The particular goods are necessary to reach eudaimonia. For example, we need a certain amount of wealth to accumulate enough leisure time (time away from work) to contemplate what constitutes the good life. Aristotle concedes that to do things well is rare. Because of these qualifications, not everyone will achieve eudaimonia, but everyone has the potential. According to Aristotle, eudaimonia is perfect and self-sufficient, that is eudaimonia by itself makes life desirable and is in no way deficient. Eudaimonia is the end to which our actions are directed, pleasure and pain being the standards by which we regulate our actions. Virtuous actions are pleasurable in themselves. Eudaimonia is acquired through moral goodness, which is the result of habit. During a person’s formative years (childhood) they are schooled as to which actions are moral and good. Actions teachers and wise men (philosophers) judge good are praised and encouraged whilst immoral actions are blamed and censured.
Aristotle contends that our psyche consists of a number of parts. Fundamentally the psyche is part irrational and part rational. The irrational component is split into two elements – the vegetative and the sensitive. The vegetative element is common among all living creatures and is consistent with human nature, as such this element is unchangeable and habituation is ineffective. It accounts for our need for nutrition and our capacity for growth. The sensitive element deals with our impulses, our passions, our capacity for movement and basic decision-making. We share this element with animals. The rational part of our psyche is the important one in Aristotle’s assessment of what constitutes eudaimonia because it is strictly human (not common to all creatures, or shared with animals, but uniquely human). Aristotle thought every species had something that was unique to it and from this one could extrapolate to find the species-specific function (ergon) and aim (telos), which in turn directs us to how that species can live well. For humans this would be the use of our reason. The rational part is itself divided in two – deliberative reason and theoretical reason. Theoretical reason is orientated towards things that just are whereas deliberative reason is instrumental and orientated towards things that can be different, it is more akin to means-ends reasoning.
It is the case, according to Aristotle, that the human psyche is in a state of excellence when theoretical reason rules practical reason and when practical reason controls the passions. So it follows this would be the psyche of a person in eudaimonia. However, eudaimonia is not simply a state of psyche. Our psyche is given to us by nature, but our education and experiences order the components. For instance, a soldier would be ruled by practical reason rather than theoretical reason because this would allow him to perform his function in the polis best. There are three constituents to eudaimonia. Firstly, social bases of happiness; second, virtues of character (ethical excellences or personality traits) and third, virtues of intellect (judgments in exercising the virtues of character in certain situations). It is our psyche that ties our character and intellectual virtues together. Theoretical reason lets us contemplate the good life, that is, moral goodness and ethical excellences whilst deliberative reasoning gets us there. The psyche does not account for the social bases of happiness. So the psyche in itself is not enough to achieve eudaimonia, but is essential for it. The ordering of the psyche is a necessary but insufficient condition. From here it can also be seen that eudaimonia is not an activity of the psyche. Again we make use of the psyche to get to eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is separate from the psyche. It is an end, the end of all our actions. Our actions are derived from our psyche.
Aristotle paints eudaimonia as the highest human end. That is, eudaimonia is the highest good being desirable for itself and not for the sake of some other good and makes all other goods desirable for its sake. His argument is as follows:
(P1) There is a highest human good/end (eudaimonia)
(P2) Every species has a uniqueness
(P3) The good of a human must have something to do with being human
(P4) Virtue is involved in goodness
(P5) If we identify the uniqueness we can identify that species’ ergon and telos
(P6) The capacity to reason is unique to human beings
(C1) Every human has the potential to use reason as a guide over the course of their
life and they strive to live up to this potential (telos) and the function of human
beings is in the activity of the psyche in accordance with virtue (ergon).
(P7) When we fulfil our human function we exemplify what it is to be human
(P8) The highest human good is to be found in the members of the species that
exemplify what it is to be human, that is, the one’s that flourish
(P9) Flourishing equates to living well/the good life
(C2) Living the good life consists in a lifetime of activity that actualises the virtues of
the rational part of the psyche
(P10) The good life / the highest human good / eudaimonia makes us happiest
(C3) The highest good is an end because it is good in itself and all other goods such
as wealth and character virtues are a means to getting it
(C4) No higher end, or any other end to being human, presents itself
(C5) Eudaimonia is the highest human end
The argument appears to be valid; if all the premises were true then the conclusions will be true also. We may question whether the good life (as Aristotle describes it) actually makes us happiest. Aristotle seems to prioritise the state over the individuals living in the state. He claims that it is better to secure what is good for the state than the individual. Thus the fact that many (the majority?) of residents are disqualified on the basis that the do not have adequate resources to develop enough leisure time to contemplate eudaimonia and carry out virtuous activities. Indeed for any one other than upper middle class male citizens eudaimonia will continue to be an unachievable end. This begs the question as to why these people would want to strive for it when they know it’s unobtainable; surely they would have no motivation. Furthermore, striving for eudaimonia and never reaching it does not make someone happy. True Aristotle may retort that virtuous activity is pleasurable in itself, but under some circumstances and to some people, vicious actions may well be pleasurable for their own sake. For example a serial killer kills people just because he derives pleasure in the act not because he needs to kill them as a means to some other end. Although it is difficult to deny eudaimonia as the highest human end when we follow Aristotle’s argument, because he tries to account for the goodness of the state he is forced to sacrifice a number of people to necessary work so that the elite may reach eudaimonia and perfect happiness. Perhaps Aristotle can justify this sacrifice by appealing to his ‘doctrine of the mean’. The doctrine of the mean asserts that virtue is the mean between vices of excess and vices of deficiency. As many people as the state can afford achieve eudaimonia, anymore and there would be too few external goods and resources i.e. the wealth of the state or number of doctors in the state (wealth, health) and any fewer would not be securing what is best for the state. Still, it leaves unanswered the question of what motivation the disqualified members of the state would have to aim at eudaimonia, unless it was for the good of the state and so other more privileged members could acquire eudaimonia. This seems a lot to ask and in the long run may well cause factions within the state, something Aristotle was keen to avoid. Aristotle forgets his basic claim that the state came about so people could live but it continues so they can live well, that is, everyone not simply the elite.
In sum, eudaimonia is reached when people live well, which is to say flourish. Eudaimonia is the highest good. It consists in a lifetime of activity that actualises the virtues of the rational part of the psyche. The psyche of a person in eudaimonia is ruled be theoretical reason, but eudaimonia is a concept distinct from the psyche, being neither a state nor an activity of the psyche. Eudaimonia is acquired through moral goodness, which is learned via habituation. Eudaimonia requires external goods. Eudaimonia is an end, we use all other goods to achieve it, thus eudaimonia is the highest end for human beings (requires reason which is strictly human). As the highest human good, Aristotle assumes that eudaimonia is a state of perfect happiness. This may be true, but it does not follow that striving for eudaimonia makes us happy, or is the best way to live. Many people will not reach eudaimonia because they do not have adequate resources, they may well know they will never reach eudaimonia. It would be hard to give these people a motive to continue to strive for something unobtainable. The best Aristotle seems to come up with is that the goodness of the state comes before the good of the individual, some members of the state must sacrifice their happiness. This reasoning is weak and probably ineffectual. If eudaimonia is the highest human end, then steps should be taken to ensure everyone has an equal chance of securing it.
•Thomson, J (trans.) (1953). Aristotle The Nicomachean Ethics. The Penguin Group.
•Honderich, T (2005). Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press
•Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (25.02.2010):http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/