Understanding Aristotle's Concept of Eudaimonia
Happiness is something unique to everyone. Some may find “happiness” by playing Super Mario Smash Brothers Ultimate or by reading a good book. Others find “happiness” through behaviors that generally possess more negative connotations such as bullying others, but each practice of action is not inherently happy. Happiness is subjective to a person and does not possess a particular form, yet it appears to be something we all strive to achieve. It may seem hard to believe everything we do is for happiness; we eat, study, fight, etc. all in the hopes of being “happy” at some point in our life. This sense of happiness as defined by Aristotle is eudaimonia; the highest human good.
This concept of the highest good strives away from other desires or intentions, not to be confused with other ideals such as hedonism. A hedonist functions for self-pleasure, to indulge themselves with the aspiration of maximizing “physical and sensory enjoyment” (Hall, 2018). This desire for physical enjoyment is no different from animals eating or mating. We seek to explore and classify different qualitative levels of happiness and this is known as qualitative hedonism. Aristotle criticizes this structure of happiness due to its temporary nature and does not seek to achieve human excellence or fulfill the potential of an individual.
Happiness as defined by Aristotle is not measurable until one has passed away and only then can one determine if another individual has lived a fulfilled life. As overwhelming as it may sound, it is rather common in movies that an actor’s final words before passing either consist of content or longing for an uncompleted desire; “I wish I had…,” “I should have…,” “I regret not…,” etc. (Hall, 2018). John F. Kennedy summarizes Aristotelian happiness as “the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.” President Kennedy stresses this concept of utilizing one’s natural abilities and existence to fulfill the potential of living a virtuous life. By living a life in which natural repetitive behavior produces excellence or standing virtue, one will be able to strive towards living a life of happiness. This concept of natural fulfilling virtue is central to achieving the happiness that Aristotle describes.
Aristotle believes that to achieve a state of eudaimonia, it is not through an accumulation of individual happy incidents that when reaching a certain quantity would equate to having lived a fulfilled life, nor could material gains or wealth define a well-fulfilled life. The philosopher believes that happiness in fact is “the end goal of every man” and in turn, it is to achieve a “means to a higher end.” This is because events of happiness may only be those of temporary relief and do not necessarily promote the fulfillment of an individual. We do daily tasks that may seem tedious or not immediately rewarding such as getting an education or general hygiene practices in the hopes of achieving something else.
The repetitive nature of these daily tasks may allow one to become a virtuous person who can achieve a state of eudaimonia. When doing these tasks, one must not act regarding the opinion of others or because he believes it to be the right thing to do, but rather by unconscious nature. One is only truly virtuous when virtuous behavior is exhibited by one’s own repeated habits and is conducted without the purpose or expectation of a response from the conduct (Hseih, 1997). The behavior in itself must be conducted for the purpose of its goal and not driven by an ulterior motive. By combining the repetitive virtuous nature as well as acting to promote the “enrichment of human life,” the highest human good can be achieved.
Developing these natural habits can be difficult for some and Aristotle recognizes that there may be circumstances where one will face hardships of achieving a state of eudaimonia. Being born in a low socioeconomic status, having no children, family members, or loved ones; or even being extremely ugly can all hinder one’s ability to advance in living a virtuous life. An example of one of the worst conditions that may prevent one from living a virtuous life would be losing a loved one. This sort of event deprives one of the physical, mental, and emotional experiences invested into the individual throughout their relationship. The former issues are manageable as Aristotle advocates that the ability to exercise the “moral and psychological excellence” does not require physical appearance or performance, nor materialistic possessions. However, events that may deprive or associate tremendous pain with one’s psyche and moral grounds will pose the most difficulty in striving towards living a strong virtuous life.
Regardless of these hardships being present, it does not completely hinder the possibility for someone to develop these habits and better themselves with virtues. Aristotle defines happiness not as a virtue, the exercising of a virtue, or a temporary experience but rather the pinnacle of our existence that is only measured after we have lived our lives. By the continuous exercise of virtuous habits, one can have lived in a state of eudaimonia. These virtuous habits are summarized by a Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu in his statement “the highest virtue is not virtue and but inferior virtue cannot let go of being virtuous and therefore is not virtue.” A Youtuber, After Skool, summarizes his statement to simply mean “the highest virtue is not consciousness of itself as virtue,” implying that one must act in good nature not because it is good or for a gain but because they are simply behaving off a habitual practice without any ulterior expectation. When one does this and establishes a natural repetition of behavior towards the acts, one will be able to live a happy life and have fulfilled their existence once they have passed.
Hall Edith, Why read Aristotle today? Aeon, May 2018, https://aeon.co/essays/what-can-aristotle-teach-us-about-the-routes-to-happiness
Hedonism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Psychology, April 2004, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hedonism/
Hsieh Mertz Diana, Between Instinct and Habit Aristotle on Habit, Washington University St. Louis, March 1997)http://enlightenment.supersaturated.com/essays/text/dianamertzhsieh/thesis/03.html
Leonard Anva, The Goal of Happiness: A summary of Nicomachean Ethics, Classical Wisdom, August 2019, https://classicalwisdom.com/philosophy/aristotle/the-goal-of-happiness-a-summary-of-nicomachean-ethics/
Alan Watts - The Road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions, After Skool, December 22nd 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cegl1BZ-0tI&list=PLvcACf5Pc0vV_lp_tP80aHpNjY_XJrG8l&index=12