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Is Aristotelian Eudaimonia Happiness?

  • J.C. Dybikowski (a1)

“We Need Not hesitate to translate the word eudaimonia by the English ‘happiness’” (my transliteration). So Burnet wrote in 1900, but the hardening consensus is that he was wrong. The differences between the two notions, it is now commonly supposed, are too many and too deep to think that happiness and eudaimonia are very closely related; and consequently “happiness”, the long-established conventional translation, will seriously mislead us in understanding the nature of Aristotelian eudaimonia.

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1 Burnet, The Ethics of Aristotle, p. 1.

2 Apart from those cited in the paper, the view is supported, among others, by Joachim , Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics, p. 28; and Gosling J., Plato: Philebus, p. 140. Gosling uses an etymological argument. He says: “Originally [eudaimon] was a word for remarking on what a good guardian spirit a man was blessed with. It leaves open how we should judge the work of guardian spirits. Their ability to supply us with happy or pleasant lives is obviously one possible criterion, but for that very reason ‘happiness’ cannot be the meaning”. Not only are arguments from origins weak, but a parallel argument can be run for happiness. It derives from hap, meaning luck. What we would characterize as a happy or pleasant life might be a possible criterion for good luck. “Happiness”, therefore, cannot mean what we take it to mean, which is evidently absurd.

3 See, for example, R. Brandt, article on Happiness, Encyclopedia of Philosophy; and Kenny A., “Happiness”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1965 1966), p. 93.

4 J.S. Mill, for example, considered many of these as parts of happiness. See Utilitarianism, Ch. 4.

5 The most comprehensive review of literary uses of eudaimonia may be found in C. de Heer, Makar, Eudaimon, Olbios, Eutuches: A Study of the Semantic Field Denoting Happiness in Ancient Greek to the End of the 5th Century B.C.

6 A nice example is provided by Jane Austen's narrator who at one point remarks - one would have wished ironically - of Emma: “To be in company, nicely dressed herself, and seeing others nicely dressed, to sit and smile and look pretty, and say nothing, was enough for the happiness of the present hour.

7 Ackrill J., “Aristotle on Eudaimonia”, British Academy Lecture (1974), pp. 1213; see also his Aristotle's Ethics, p. 242.

8 Williams B., Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, (Harper Torchbooks) pp. 81 ff.

9 Ackrill J., “Aristotle on Eudaimonia”, p. 13. As stated in this passage Ackrill's argument, which is only partly quoted here, relies on actually identifying happiness as comfort or prosperity. For on the basis of an admission about the latter he draws his conclusion about the former. See also A. Kenny's “Happiness” whose arguments against Aristotle's account of happiness Ackrill recasts as arguments against identifying eudaimonia with happiness.

10 Among recent discussions see: Vendler Z., “Times and Tenses”, Philosophical Review (1957), pp. 143–60;Kenny A., Action, Emotion and the Will, Ch. 8; J. Ackrill, “Aristotle's Distinction Between Energeia and Kinesis”, in Bambrough R. (ed.), New Essays on Plato and Aristotle, pp. 121–41.

11 Notably by Kenny A., Action, Emotion and the Will, p. 173, n. 2.

12 Ackrill's translation. See Ackrill, Ibid., p. 122.

13 Following this suggestion helps us over a difficulty. In Meta. 0.6 an energeia, on my interpretation, can be either an activity or a state whereas in N.E. 1 it must be an activity. Yet both works assert that eudaimonia is a (certain) energeia. If the ‘is’, however, is that of identity in Meta. 6.6, then N.E. I' is asserting a different thesis. This account is lent some color by the fact that tense-relations are at the heart of the Metaphysics thesis, but a different set of arguments supports N.E. I'S thesis. While this account is admittedly awkward, at least it is not impossible and I persist in believing that it is true.

14 Wiggins D., Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity, p. 10.

15 Austin J.L., “Agathon and Eudaimonia in the Ethics of Aristotle”, Aristotle: A Collection of Critical Essays, (ed.) Moravcsik J., p. 280. Austin's initial hostility to “happiness” as a translation of eudaimonia is really directed at Prichard's equating of happiness with pleasure. Once he sees this (p. 283), he reconciles himself to the translation. Austin's point “hence the discussion … of the various bioi which lay claim to being eudaimonia” doesn't take us very far because these bioi are very probably only abstractions of aspects of a person's total life and such aspects need only characterise a person for periods within his life's full term. This point is forcefully made by David Keyt in a forthcoming paper, “Intellectualism in Aristotle”.

16 The authenticity of the M.M. has been defended most recently by Cooper J., “The Magna Moralia and Aristotle's Moral Philosophy”, American Journal of Philology (1973). PP. 327–49; and compare Rowe C., “A Reply to John Cooper on the Magna Moralia”, American Journal of Philology (1975), pp. 160–72.

17 A similar equivocation would seem to underpin Aristotle's linkage of eudaimonia as an energeia (energeiai being tele or ends) and eudaimonia as belonging primarily to a life. The link is made at Rhet. 1450a15 ff.

18 For some further references, although admittedly there are not many, see the tables in de Heer.

19 Suits B., “Aristotle on the Function of Man: Fallacies, Heresies and Other Entertainments”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy (1974), pp. 3940.

20 Cooper J., Reason and Human Good in Aristotle, p. 89, n. I; see also MacC A.. Armstrong, “Aristotle's Conception of Human Good”, Philosophical Quarterly (1958), pp. 259–60, who says “eudaimonia is usually translated ‘happiness’, but this rendering suggests a glow of contentment …” (my transliteration). Cooper recommends “human flourishing” as a preferable translation to “happiness”. Since this suggestion has been widely and sympathetically received, it deserves some brief comment. First, “human flourishing” fails as a translation because it makes nonsense of eudaimonia's predicability of the Gods. (Nor is there any retreat to “flourishing” because that would license eudaimonia's predication to plants and animals.) Second, Cooper asserts that “flourishing implies the possession and use of one's mature powers over, at any rate, a considerable period of time” (my emphases), but this simply seems not true. Third, Cooper argues: “… it is plausible to suppose that a man's flourishing partly consists in his having good grounds for a good prognosis for his children's lives, and if after his death he turns out to have been deceived in this regard it does seem natural to say that his life was not so flourishing as it had seemed.”. But in what regard is he said to be deceived? Is his prognosis false or is it false that he had good reason to make it? If only the latter, the inference about the diminishment in his flourishing seems to collapse; but if the former, the position fails to match up to Aristotle's since his suggestion is that what happens to the children weakens the claim to eudaimonia whether or not it would have been antecedently reasonable for the parent to expect such an outcome.

21 Nagel T., “Death”, Noûs (1970), pp. 7778.

22 See, among others, Brandt's R.Encyclopedia entry and R. Montague, “Happiness”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1966-1967), pp. 87102.

23 See further Solomon R., “Is There Happiness After Death?”, Philosophy (1976), pp. 189–93.

24 R. Montague, “Happiness”, p. 90.

25 See further Lloyd-Thomas D.A., “Happiness”, Philosophical Quarterly (1968), pp. 97 ff. and esp. 106-7, although he does not consider retrospective first-person assessments.

26 See, e.g., R. Scruton, “Reason and Happiness”, Nature and Conduct Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures, Vol. 8 (1975), pp. 139-61.

27 I have accumulated many debts in writing this paper, but most especially to Myles Burnyea, Mohan Matthen and Richard Sorabji and, more recently, Alan Code.

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