What is Eudaimonia in Aristotelian Ethics?

Instructor: Aida Vega Felgueroso

Aida has taught Spanish at the University in Italy. Spanish is her mother tongue and she has a master's degree in Spanish Language and Literature.

In this lesson, we will study the Aristotelian ethics and the three points on which it is based: Eudaimonia (happiness), practice of good, and golden middle way. We will see how this ancient thought remains current.

Aristotle and Eudaimonia

Aristotle was one of the great Greek philosophers. His thinking was very influential both in his time and later. Aristotle studied art, nature, and men. From the study of humanity was born that of ethics, in which the concept of eudaimonia plays a fundamental role. In a very simplistic way, eudaimonia is 'happiness'. In this lesson, we are going to see how Aristotle understands it and how even today his ethics can serve us to live better.

Bust of Aristotle.

Aristotle, the Stagirite

The three great philosophers of Classical Antiquity are Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Aristotle, a disciple of Plato, is the last one chronologically. Perhaps for this reason, he is also the one who culminated the work of the other two and that most influenced in the later Western thought.

Aristotle was born in Stagira, in 384 B.C., hence his nickname the Stagirite. His father was a doctor, and Aristotle, despite being very young, practiced medicine with him. This enabled him to carry out very modern research for his time. He later studied at Plato's Academy, but refuted the ideas of his teacher.

He founded a philosophical school, the Lyceum of Athens and developed a prolific work in practically all subjects: physics, mathematics, religion, aesthetics, ethics. He died on the island of Chalcis, in 322 B.C. at the age of 62.

Aristotle and Plato.

Aristotle's Ethics

Aristotle wrote three works dealing with ethics: Eudemian Ethics, Great Ethics and Nicomachean Ethics. The first is influenced by Plato's thinking and the Great Ethics is a summary of Nicomachean Ethics. So the latter is the most important of the Aristotelian works on ethics. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle exposes his thoughts on the good, the virtue, and the happiness.

The first thing Aristotle tells us is that everything has a purpose and, according to that purpose, we decide whether things are good or bad. So for example, the purpose of a knife is to cut. Therefore, a 'good' knife will be the one that cuts well and a 'bad' knife that does not cut.

What is the purpose of people? Aristotle says that the purpose of mankind is eudaimonia-- happiness.

So, the purpose of man is to achieve eudaimonia which is a state of serene and permanent happiness, rather than the momentary exaltation of the senses. In this way, our actions will be good or bad depending on this ultimate goal. If a person performs an action, this action will be 'good' if it gives him or her happiness. Living healthily, for example, is a 'good' action because it provides us with good health which, in the long run, gives us happiness.

But, what happens when a person feels happy doing actions that hurt others? Aristotle says that the world places everyone in the right place. Thus, if a person steals it may be that, for the moment, the robbery will provide him with happiness. But that person will end up in jail (or running away) and that will not bring him any happiness, but, on the contrary, it will bring him misfortune.

First page of Nicomachean Ethics, 1566.

Good and Virtue

According to Aristotle's ethics, the real happiness, the permanent, is born of the exercise of good and of virtue.

At this point, Aristotle is separated from Socrates. Socrates assured that the important thing is to know the good, the virtuous man is the one who differentiates between evil and good. Aristotle, on the other hand, says that it is not enough to know the good, it is necessary to practice it. To get to the authentic areté (virtue) it is necessary to practice good deeds.

How to Practice Virtue

Aristotle teaches how to practice virtue using another fundamental concept: the golden middle way. Good and virtuous deeds are governed by the mean, by just measure. Because all human characteristics can be negative when they are excessive or, on the contrary, when they are scarce. Balance and moderation is key.

Think of this as illustrated by the concept of fear. If fear is excessive, people will not act correctly because they will be dominated by it, they will be meek or cowardly. But if there is no fear, or if there is too little, people will be reckless and will do unthinking actions that will be negative. In either case, they will not do a good deed and they will not get true happiness.

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