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Eudaimonia in the Theory of Aristotle

Daniel Cole, Aida Vega Felgueroso
  • Author
    Daniel Cole

    Daniel Cole has taught a variety of philosophy and writing classes since 2012. He received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Kentucky in 2021, his MA in philosophy from Miami University in 2011, and his BA in philosophy from Ball State University in 2008.

  • 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.

Learn about Aristotle and his idea of eudaimonia, or a life well-lived and with happiness. Discover how Aristotle's eudaimonia has been interpreted since his time. Updated: 03/02/2022

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Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived from 384 to 322 BCE. He was the student of Plato and the teacher of Alexander the Great. He is also one of the most famous philosophers in history and made major contributions to virtually every field of study that existed during his era, including logic, metaphysics, biology, rhetoric, and political theory. Among his most enduring contributions is his ethical theory, and Nicomachean Ethics is his most famous work in that field. In it, Aristotle presents his theory of eudaimonia, or '"happiness."'

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  • 0:04 Aristotle & Eudaimonia
  • 0:35 Aristotle, the Stagirite
  • 1:37 Aristotle's Ethics
  • 3:20 Good & Virtue
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Aristotle's Eudaimonia

What is eudaimonia? Eudaimonia's definition is often simply rendered as '"happiness"' or '"the good life."' Note that the focus is on a whole life rather than any particular moment within it. Eudaimonia for Aristotle is not simply a pleasant life or even a life of fame and fortune. So what does eudaimonia mean for Aristotle? Aristotle's theory of eudaimonia stems from his understanding of what makes a human being. Aristotle's '"happiness"' means a life of reason because humans are rational beings.

Aristotle's argument proceeds by noting that we call something good when it is good at performing the function peculiar to that thing. Thus, a good knife is a knife that is good at cutting, while a good hammer is good at driving nails into wood. A good knife need not be good at hammering nails, while a good hammer need not be good at cutting. Thus, the question of what makes a good human life comes down to what function is peculiar to humans. He then argues that the function peculiar to humans is using our reason. Thus, a good human life, eudaimonia, will be achieved through the use of one's reason.

Aristotle offers two versions of the good life since there are two uses of reason, a practical and a theoretical. The theoretical life is spent in contemplation of things that cannot change, like studying the motion of the stars. Aristotle contends that a life spent in such contemplation is the happiest and most divine.

The practical life of reason is the one that is often discussed in ethics, and Aristotle devotes much of Nicomachean Ethics discussing it. The most distinguishing feature of a good practical life is that it involves cultivating multiple virtues. Virtues are acquired character traits that aid in human flourishing. Moreover, they reflect a mean, a middle point, between excessive and deficient feelings, habits, and inclinations. Aristotle refers to this middle point as the golden mean. It is not a strict mathematical average, and it requires wisdom to know where it lies.

For example, courage is a virtue that helps a person lead a good life. It is also a middle point in terms of fear, where excessive fear is cowardice, and deficient fear is brashness. Both cowardice and brashness lead to a less rational, less full life. However, Aristotle remarks that one extreme is often preferable to the other, and consequently, it may be helpful to risk the less severe evil. In keeping with the courage example, cowardice is worse than being brash, and consequently, the golden mean will be closer to brashness. Further, it will be more acceptable to err on the side of being brash.

According to Aristotle, we come to learn virtues by imitating people of practical wisdom. People with practical wisdom have cultivated their virtues, and they know how to express them in the right way, at the right time, with regard to the right objects, etc. Practical wisdom involves excellence at deliberation. It is the mark of someone who has developed their rational capacity for things that can change, which is to say, practical human life.

So what is happiness according to Aristotle? Aristotle's definition of happiness is a rational life, and for those living a practical life, that means a life of cultivated virtues. Aristotle defined eudaimonia by pointing to the rational function of human beings and claiming that a good human life meant being good at using one's reason. One can develop virtues by using one's reason by finding the golden mean between extremes.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of eudaimonia?

One possible example of eudaimonia would be Benjamin Franklin's life. He espoused cultivating virtues and practiced scientific inquiry, thus demonstrating that he chose to live a rational life.

What is the difference between happiness and eudaimonia?

The difference between happiness and eudaimonia is a matter of translation. Often, the term happiness is used to translate eudaimonia. However, happiness is often associated with pleasantness or contentment in everyday discourse, which is different from eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is about living well, which emphasizes living rationally rather than pleasantly.

What is the meaning of eudaimonia?

Eudaimonia is often translated as happiness. It could also be translated as a good life. For Aristotle, a good life will be one lived in accordance with reason, which entails cultivating one's virtues.

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