Eudaimonia in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

Carolyn Ray

Forum: Independent Study on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Indiana University, 1989
Director: Dr. Michael Morgan, Ancient Philosophy
This piece is the one of a set of three papers written for an independent study undertaken during the author's second year in graduate school, the first tentative foray into Aristotle's ethics. This and the other two pieces, Friendship in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Egoism in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics , work together to present the case that altruism is utterly foreign to Aristotle's ethics and that egoism is his implicit doctrine, despite typical mainstream commentator's interpretations. They challenge textual interpretations one by one, showing that only an egoist ethic can explain the passages that commentators find most puzzling, and allow them to fit consistently with other relevant passages and works. Although the independent study and the papers were not undertaken with this goal in mind (the purpose of the study was simply to familiarize the author with the philosopher's broader work in preparation for advanced study of his metaphysics and epistemology), nevertheless the text forced these conclusions. The current piece is a rough attempt at a coherent view of Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia, sometimes translated as "happiness". It is almost casually styled, as if in conversation with the professor. She had been introduced to objectivist ideas just one year earlier, following four thoroughly analytic years in college and one in graduate school. This is the first and least developed work in the series.

This essay was not written in the author's customary gender-neutral style. The reason is that there is little reason to believe that Aristotle was writing about women. For some hair-raising sexism (and racism), see his Politics, in which he grants that women may be slightly more rational than slaves, but that's pushing it. When he says, "Man is a political animal," (1253a7) he is talking about male Greek persons, for "moral virtue belongs to all of them; but the temperance of a man and of a woman, or the courage and justice of a man and of a woman, are not, as Socrates maintained [Meno, 72 a-73 c], the same; the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying." (NE, 1260a20-25) Choice passages from the Politics include 1261a4-5, 1263b9-11, and especially 1262b36-1263a1-3.

Do we choose life because of pleasure, or pleasure because of life? Let us set aside this question for now, since the two appear to be yoked together, and to allow no separation; for pleasure never arises without activity, and, equally, it completes every activity (1175a25).

The Term 'Eudaimonia': 'Flourishing' or 'Happiness'?

I have a number of very roughly-formulated things to say about eudaimonia in this essay. I hope that focusing later on other specific aspects of NE will help me to pull all this together better. I think the problems my sources discuss are the products of contrived readings; all of those sources recognized this fact, and cleared up the confusions accordingly. At the level at which I have so far studied, the Nicomachean Ethics seems unproblematic, though demanding in the sense that Aristotle seems to find so many of his connections too obvious to explain. I mention this by way of partial explanation of the naive way that I fill out the connections that Aristotle leaves for us to make on our own.

A good place to start is with Ackrill's brief characterization of eudaimonia: eudaimonia "is doing well, not the result of doing well" (Ackrill, p. 13). Even though Irwin translates 'eudaimonia' as 'happiness', I will use Cooper's translation 'flourishing' instead. The reason for my choice comes mainly from Book X, where Aristotle tells us that eudaimonia is a process and not a state (1176b5). It is easier to keep this in mind if the word 'flourishing' is used, since 'happiness' names a state, rather than a process, in English.

Furthermore, there is popular prejudice, especially among philosophers, against the idea that being happy is consistent with being virtuous. Hence, the use of the word 'happiness' psychologically weights the case against the credibility of Aristotle's doctrine, since he does think that eudaimonia is virtuous action (1176b5). His doctrine is at least rendered more worthy of consideration by such critics if they are first appeased by the more neutral term.

Ackrill has different reasons for thinking that 'happiness' is not the proper translation. eudaimonia is the final end. While many things may be final ends, only eudaimonia is the most final end--the "one final good that all men seek" is happiness.(Ackrill, p. 12).

This is where he sees the difference; what is true of happiness is not true of eudaimonia. Happiness may be renounced in favor of some other goal, but eudaimonia may not. In suffering in order to do the right thing, one sees one's life fall short of eudaimonia. But it is comfort that is renounced (Ackrill, p. 12). If this is true, then the idea of equating happiness with eudaimonia makes nonsense of Aristotle's discussions of the virtues. More specifically, a virtuous person who must do unpleasant things in order to be brave has a life full of pain, and so cannot be said to be happy any more than can a slave. But in being brave he is still demonstrating his desire for eudaimonia, since virtue is part of the way to assuring eudaimonia. The possibility of a person renouncing happiness and striving for some other good would not have made sense to Aristotle. This is just to fill out the concept of the most final end--everything else is done for its sake, and all those things are done for their own sake as well; and the best possible life is also an end in itself.

I am not sure that I understand Ackrill's reasons for rejecting 'happiness' as the translation of 'eudaimonia' Comfort is not happiness. Graduate school is uncomfortable a great deal of the time. Nonetheless, I am happy to be here, and can think of no better life than the one I have planned--not because all of the particular parts of it are comfortable or fun, but because it is the right thing for me to do. I am happy because I am making the right decisions. Ackrill's argument needs a concept of happiness that is much more narrow than the one that translators seem to intend when they use the word 'happiness.'

Action, Virtue and Eudaimonia

It is plain that eudaimonia is not solely dependent on what the subject thinks or feels about his life. Rather, eudaimonia is an objectively real state. If we do regulate our lives according to the possibility of eudaimonia, and there is to be some objective moral judgment made about them, then there must be an objective fact of the matter with reference to which we act and judge. Aristotle, with this requirement, gets the jump on modern epistemological counterexamples of flourishing people drugged into believing that they are not flourishing, and non-flourishing people who believe they are flourishing. There is a fact of the matter. (Thus, if we use our word 'happiness' to represent his 'eudaimonia', then it must be with an objective, rather than a subjective, connotation. This not to say that a person cannot know when he is flourishing, or that there is some special problem with person's knowing that he himself is flourishing. If there is an objective truth of the matter, then he has just as much access to it as anyone else.)

But there may yet be a special problem for the individual's access to the state of his life. Since Aristotle thinks that what happens after the person's death also helps to determine whether the person was (is?) flourishing, how can anyone alive ever know that he is in fact flourishing?

The only solution possible is that the subject lays the groundwork for his children while he is alive. If he acts virtuously, no shame will be left to them. And if he manages his household well, they will be well-provided for. If he has friends--and the virtuous person has the best of friends--then his children will have those same friends. And if he teaches his children carefully, they will find it easy to be virtuous and so preserve his good name. None of this is guaranteed. Rather, evidence of the flourishing life is gathered from one's own actions and accomplishments, and used inductively.

Not only is flourishing not solely dependent on what the subject thinks. It is also not up to us entirely to decide to flourish (1111b29-31). . We can decide to be virtuous, and that is part of what it takes to flourish. We can wish to flourish, but it is not something we decide. For example, we cannot actually flourish if fortune is against us, no matter how virtuous we are.

All this is well and good, but Ackrill thinks that Aristotle leaves unanswered the most interesting questions that he poses:
  1. What is the criterion of right action and of moral virtue?
  2. What is the best life for a man to lead? (Ackrill, p. 3)
According to Ackrill, Aristotle does not answer (1), and gives two answers to (2): good action, and purely contemplative activity. It cannot be that right actions are right because they make contemplation possible; this would be inconsistent with the importance Aristotle places on the right action being an end in itself rather than a mere means. If this is the case, then the book does not really give us any guidance with regard to what to do. Aristotle has merely chosen some individual or group of individuals that society praises and modeled his theory thereon.

But I think this is not the case. Regarding Ackrill's second question, "what is the best life for a man to lead," the answer seems obviously to be "a virtuous life that includes study." Good action is part of eudaimonia; and the most flourishing life is one that includes purely contemplative activity. Furthermore, in response to the charge that Aristotle does not tell us how the two can be combined or related, I will start by noting the following passage:
Since happiness is an activity of the soul expressing virtue, we must examine virtue; for that will perhaps also be a way to study happiness better (1102a5-7).
Book I, Chapter 13, through the end of Book IX, constitute Aristotle's attempt to make that connection. (They are, in addition, his attempt to answer the question: "What is the criterion of right action and of moral virtue?" I'11 come back to this later. I do not know what Ackrill is looking for, if he cannot find the answer in the doctrine of the mean.)

Leading a life including purely contemplative activity is not necessarily doing only theorizing: rather, it can be construed as leading a life that has pure theorizing as one among its varied activities.

I will argue that this is how we should read Aristotle. There is one passage in particular that apparently denies that eudaimonia is identical to the activity of study; in this passage, he uses a reductio form that seems to be, for me at least, quite characteristic of his writing. The passage begins with a speculation which does not seem to be asserted but set forth for examination:
In another way also it appears that complete happiness is some activity of study. For we traditionally suppose that the gods more than anyone are blessed and happy (1178b8-10).
After showing that the gods are flourishing not in virtue of just or brave or generous actions, but rather in virtue of the activity of study, Aristotle tells us that the human activity that is closest to the only activity it makes sense to ascribe to the gods is the one that will "more than any of the others, have the character of happiness" (1178b23). Flourishing extends just as far as study, and the more a person studies, the more he will flourish, since study is valuable in itself.

His next move is not to conclude that a life that consists solely of study is the only flourishing one, or even that such is the most flourishing one. Rather, the next move is to deny that such a life is possible for the human being:
However, the happy person is a human being, and so will need external prosperity also; for his nature is not self-sufficient for study, but he needs a healthy body, and needs to have food and the other services provided (1178b33-35).
That Aristotle should say this is not surprising, since it comes directly on the heels of a description of the gods as creatures who do nothing but study. If this life were possible for human beings, human beings would be gods. He has firmly in mind just who he is talking about.

And who is he talking about? He has already told us at 1147b15 that food and sex are examples of necessary bodily pleasures. Furthermore, the pleasures of victory, honor, and wealth are choiceworthy in themselves, but unnecessary.

The Intellect, and The Intellectualist Thesis

It is not just any lover of pleasure, however, who can flourish. The flourishing human being turns out to be a self-lover. We come to find out later that a person is identical to his understanding; thus, in choosing to study, he chooses himself, for to do otherwise would be irrational (1178a3). After noting that it is the basely greedy person who is commonly called a self-lover, he says:
And plainly it is the person who awards himself these goods whom the many habitually call a self-lover. For if someone is always eager to excel everyone in doing just or temperate actions or any others expressing the virtues, and in general always gains for himself what is fine, no one will call him a self-lover or blame him for it.

However, it is this more than the other sort of person who seems to be a self-lover. At any rate he awards himself what is finest and best of all, and gratifies the most controlling part of himself, obeying it in everything. And just as a city and every other composite system seems to be above all its most controlling part, the same is true of a human being; hence someone loves himself most if he likes and gratifies this part (1168b24-34).
That "most controlling part" is the person's understanding or reason. What is proper to any creature is what is best and most pleasant for it, a human being who studies is not only most human but the one who can be said most truly to flourish (1178a5-8). So the best life belongs to the self-lover, since it is the understanding that is gratified and increased by the activity of study, which it is now clear Aristotle thinks is the most god-like activity.

Study is the activity that expresses the best element in us. Aristotle calls it the "divine element'" he offers the following, perhaps as his own definition of 'eudaimonia':
But the activity of understanding, it seems, is superior in excellence because it is the activity of study; aims at no end beyond itself; has its own proper pleasure, which increases the activity; and is self-sufficient, leisured and unwearied, as far [as these are possible] for a human being. And whatever else is ascribed to the blessedly happy person is evidently found in connection with this activity.

Hence a human being's complete happiness will be this activity, if it receives a complete span of life, since nothing incomplete is proper to happiness (1177b15-1177b25).

Why focus on the understanding, rather than on some other capacity? Because
what is proper to each thing's nature is supremely best and pleasantest for it; and hence for a human being the life expressing understanding will be supremely best and pleasantest, if understanding above all is the human being (1178a5-7).
Passages such as these have lead to what Cooper calls "the intellectualist interpretation." Cooper argues that the interpretation on which Aristotle thinks that a human being's eudaimonia consists only in purely intellectual activity is wrong. Such an interpretation reduces the Nicomachean Ethics to a bunch of interesting but disconnected remarks.

He shows this interpretation to be wrong by arguing that having a single ultimate end to which all other ends are subordinate is a coherent idea. Human flourishing is an end of an order different from any concrete end that could be named. We always want those ends so that we can flourish. But we want to flourish. for no further end. It is for this reason that the sensible human being orders his secondary goals with a view to an ultimate one--so that he has some basis for deliberation about how to reach the secondary goals, since they are the means to the ultimate goal.

If Aristotle thought that theoretical activity was the most important thing for a human being to do, to the extent that all other ends must be for its sake, then he would not have said that human flourishing includes a variety of good things, as he does at 1097b16-203:
Moreover [the complete good is the most choiceworthy, and] we think happiness is most choiceworthy of all goods, since it is not counted as one good among many. If it were counted as one among many, then, clearly we think that the addition of the smallest of goods would make it more choiceworthy...[But we do not think any addition can make happiness more choiceworthy; hence it is most choiceworthy.]
It makes no more sense to say that intellectual or theoretical activity is the ultimate end than it does to say that moneymaking is (Cooper,p. 107). If the pursuit of honesty, for example, conflicts with the ultimate goal of money-making, then honesty must be given up. But the virtuous person does not give up some virtues for his end; rather, in order to achieve the end (eudaimonia), he must be ready to display any and all virtues.

Now, both flutes (1175b3-5) and sex distract people from theorizing. Yet relaxation and sexual activities are both necessary pleasures (1147b15). Since self-love is a necessary condition of being good and a self-lover awards himself the best things, the good person will at least give himself sex and relaxation. Thus, it seems that a conflict arises between being good and theorizing, since everything that conflicts with theorizing as the ultimate end must be dropped.

Because Aristotle identifies the person with his understanding, he cannot be claiming that the theorizer is necessarily a virtuous person. A virtuous person does things in the way that a virtuous person would do them. But a theorizer who acts virtuously will not do these acts in the way a virtuous person does, because his interest and commitment lie in a nonhuman realm. But a second kind of life, inferior but still flourishing, is one devoted both to moral virtue and to theorizing. The first is best, because a human being is his understanding, and it is better to act in accordance with one's proper nature (Cooper, p.164).

So the intellectualist thesis is wrong. People who do not study can flourish too, given that their lives express the other virtues, the human virtues. It's just that they will need more external goods, like money, other people, freedom, etc., in order to "make their virtue clear" (1178a34). The best person also needs these because he is human, but not for the very virtue that makes him best, because that is divine (1178a9-1178b8).

Directions for Being Good

The question still remains, however (for some readers, anyway): How to determine the right way to act? In what follows, I will attempt illuminate the issue with specific examples and explanations that I think not only clarify Aristotle's view but also bear out his conclusions. (It might seem that this is a topic for another paper. But I suspect that separating the directions for being good from the discussion of eudaimonia does violence to Aristotle's theory.)

We know that actions should express correct reason (1103b32-5) and avoid excess and deficiency (1104a5). Good people make the choices that are fine, expedient and/or pleasant (1104b30). They will, when the occasions arise, be brave, temperate, generous or magnanimous, honor-loving, mild, truthful, witty, friendly, just, etc. Underlying his suggestions for finding the mean (1109a20-1109b15) is the assumption that, when we err on one side of virtue or the other, we know it. But just in case we don't know in a particular case, and the only thing that is clearly different about the two extremes is that one is more pleasant, we should do the less pleasant thing, since we are biased in favor of pleasure. For example, if I don't know whether I should tell my neighbor that I can play the harpsichord well or that I play it poorly, and find it much easier to tell her I play it badly (since that will create low expectations in her and I can then impress her with my real skill), I should try to boast a little. If I am careful, I will give her an assessment that is accurate.

Pleasure is our first guide to what is good for us. How can it be, then, that we must be wary of pleasure, and pull away from it in order to do the right thing? Is this what flourishing requires? If so, Aristotle's view of man's nature must have been a darkly suspicious and cynical one. Yet such a view does not square with the rest of what he says. To take just one example,
Do we choose life because of pleasure, or pleasure because of life? Let us set aside this question for now, since the two appear to be yoked together, and to allow no separation; for pleasure never arises without activity, and, equally, it completes every activity (1175a25).
Not only is pleasure good for guiding the young in moral action. It is also inextricably tangled up with life itself. Do we desire pleasure for life or life for pleasure? His answer, implied by his explicit recognition that the two are inseparable, is "Both!"

Since that's the case, the good person, the flourishing person, chooses what is pleasant--truly pleasant, not subjectively so. Aristotle does not here mention what to do if what is expedient conflicts with what is pleasant, probably because his discussion makes it obvious that the decision which yields the long-term benefits--remember eudaimonia is a whole life, including what happens to our reputations and our associates after death--is the correct (the moral) decision. So when we pull away from the more pleasant alternative, perhaps we are turning away from the apparent pleasure; what results will be the objective pleasure.

How do you figure out whether to do the expedient or the pleasant in any given case? On a case-by-case basis, reason will take the empirical evidence provided by one's own life, the lives of the non-flourishing, and the lives of those have flourished, and use it to make the decision at hand.

If it is correct reason that guides the virtuous persons, what do virtuous persons reason about? In a terrifying situation, the properly brave person reasons that, though life is choiceworthy, only a certain kind of life is worth living (since pleasure is bound up with life) If an army is attacking his country and thus the way of life he has loved, he fights because he has weighed the alternatives and found the prospect of possible death preferable to living in slavery. Here, it might have seemed more pleasant to hide from the generals; but he has chosen the more painful route, risking his life because he chooses life. The brave action is chosen because it is brave; but there is a further end--preserving a way of life--for which brave actions are chosen.

The Doctrine of the Mean, and Some Applications

How can one achieve the mean between two vices? A person is naturally drawn toward one or the other of two contrary vices. (Note that is would be silly to say one of these extremes is " more pleasant" than the other, if Aristotle has in mind a subjective idea of pleasure. And further, the objective pleasure must come from the actual result, not the acting.) Thus, if he pulls away from the one he tends toward, he will achieve the mean more easily. For example, if he tends to get so angry that his other activities are hindered, he should try to be inirascible (See, 1109a20-1109b15).

These are some of the specifics. On a more general level, there is only one general way of achieving eudaimonia. If someone has made a lot of mistakes in his life, then he has not lived the best possible life, although it nevertheless may have been a good life. Compared to someone who has good fortune and has made no mistakes, he still looks good but is obviously not the best.

It is the best life that we aim at. But if I can trust Irwin's translation, Aristotle refers not only to the best life but also to the good life. Thus, eudaimonia is possible even for those who make mistakes.

There are many lifestyles and infinite varieties of circumstances. But examine carefully not only the virtues Aristotle lists, but also the general remarks he makes. The virtues are those states which, on the whole, inspire activities which work out best for the human being. Furthermore, the intelligent person knows what's good for him, in an objective sense. It is clear to us who in our community is flourishing. That person is flourishing because of the kinds of things he does and the ways he does them. He acts in accordance with reason, and chooses what is expedient, pleasant, and fine.

Such a person, then, is our model. The man who flourishes is virtuous. Thus, we should do as he does. And it turns out that he is brave, mild, temperate, etc. He may also study--remember there are degrees to which a person can be successful.

And how do we know this person is really virtuous? How do we know it is not just luck? What is virtuous is what works. We can observe our contemporaries and human beings throughout history, available for our examination. Maybe the pieces of luck will be different--Donald Trump's father introduced him to dealing, while my mother introduced me to study--but our ways of acting on our good fortune must be the same in some sense. Trump would not cheat on a deal, and I would not cheat on an exam, etc. It may turn out that Trump does not lead the best life; but that is no excuse for my not being virtuous, since I have plenty of other examples from history to follow.

How do we know what behavior is virtuous? We must watch the person who is living the best life, or at least a good one; or we watch an assortment of people who are leading good or mostly good lives, and make a model from the combination. For example, if Trump has not done anything brave, one obvious person to look to for an example is an experienced soldier. He may also be a suitable person to look to for instruction on finding the mean between boastfulness and self-deprecation. How can we tell if he expresses the mean and not one of the extremes? One indication is whether his self-love seems to depend on the way he performs his acts of bravery or on what other people think of them. The boastful person will try to build his self-love by exaggerating, and the self-deprecator will try to milk confirming praise from his fellows. But the truthful person "acknowledges the qualities he has without belittling or exaggerating" (1127a15).

It is clear that Aristotle leaves a lot up to us. We have to find, by empirical means and by reason (this is science!) what is virtuous and how to achieve eudaimonia.

But if he simply says that the virtuous action is what the virtuous person does, then has he given us any guidance at all? I think he has. The trick to understanding the guidance is to resist the temptation to read the Books on specific virtues as separate from the discussions of pleasure and reason. Aristotle is talking about human beings, with or without a divine part, and there are certain facts about us that are accessible to anyone who takes the trouble to discover them.

It has sometimes been said that Aristotle knows how we should act but not why. I don't think that is true. At bottom, he knows that life is simply choiceworthy. Without life, we have nothing. Virtuous actions are the ones that make something that is already choiceworthy, even better. Since life and pleasure are yoked together, and virtuous actions lead to objective pleasure in the success that they bring (given good fortune), it makes good sense to be virtuous.

Essay 2: Friendship in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics || Essay 3: Egoism in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics


Ackrill, J.L. Aristotle on eudaimonia. Dawes Hicks Lecture in Philosophy. Read October 30, 1974. London: Oxford University Press.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Terence Irwin, translator. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1985.

Cooper, John M. Reason and Human Good. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Nagel, Thomas. "Aristotle on Eudaimonia," in Essays on Aristotle's Ethics. Amelie Rorty, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.