We all say we want to be happy, but the pursuit of happiness often seems like a wild goose chase.
Maybe the problem is not so much with us, or the world we live in, but with the very concept of happiness.
A much more powerful concept, I think, is that of eudaimonia, which literally means 'good soul', 'good spirit', or 'good god'.
Eudaimonia is often translated from Greek simply as 'happiness'—but that can be very misleading. The word 'happy', which is related to 'happen' and 'perhaps', derives from the Norse happ for 'chance', 'fortune', or 'luck'. From Irish to Greek, most European words for 'happy' originally meant something like 'lucky'—one exception being Welsh, in which it originally meant 'wise'.
Another word for 'happy' or 'fortunate' in Old English is gesælig, which, over the centuries, morphed into our 'silly'.
Eudaimonia, in contrast, is anything but silly. It has nothing to do with chance and fortune and everything to do with thought and design. Compared to happiness, it is a much deeper, fuller, and richer concept, sometimes articulated in terms of flourishing or living a life that is worthwhile, fulfilling, and elevating.
Many philosophical schools in antiquity thought of eudaimonia as the highest good, often even the very aim and purpose of philosophy, although the various schools, such as the cynics, the stoics, the skeptics, and the epicureans, may have conceived of it in somewhat different terms.
What can be said is that, unlike happiness, eudaimonia is not an emotion but a state of being, or even, especially for Aristotle, a state of doing. As such, it is more deep-rooted than happiness, and more stable and reliable. Although it leads to pleasure or satisfaction of the highest kind, it does not arise from pleasure, but is according to higher values and principles that transcend the here and now. The people of Athens put Socrates in prison, they even put him to death, but they did not and could not take away his eudaimonia.
Socrates on Eudaimonia
Socrates, it seems, equated eudaimonia with wisdom and virtue. In the Greater Alcibiades, he says that he who is not wise cannot be happy; in the Gorgias, that nothing truly bad can ever happen to a good man; and in the Meno, that everything the soul endeavours or endures under the guidance of wisdom ends in happiness.
At his trial, in the Apology, Socrates gives a defiant defence, telling the jurors that they ought to be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honour as possible, while not caring for or giving thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of their soul. ‘Wealth’ he says, ‘does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.’
Socrates provided the supreme proof that nothing truly bad can ever happen to a good man, for when the jurors condemned him to death, they only made him and his ideas as immortal as can be—and rather than dissuade or appease them, which he could easily have done, he chose instead, very cannily, to abet them.
Plato on Eudaimonia
Plato broadly agreed with his teacher Socrates. In the Republic, Plato’s brother Glaucon argues that most people are fundamentally selfish, but maintain a reputation for virtue and justice to evade the social costs of being or seeming unjust. But if a man could get hold of the fabled Ring of Gyges and make himself invisible, he would behave without any of these restraints:
No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.
According to Glaucon, we behave justly not because we value justice, but because we are weak and fearful; while the unjust man who is cunning enough to seem just will get the better of everyone and everything.
In his magisterial reply to Glaucon, Plato famously conjures an idealized Republic to help him ‘locate’ (define) justice, first in the state, where it is larger and easier to pin down, and then in the individual. He argues that justice and injustice are to the soul as health and disease are to the body: if health in the body is intrinsically desirable, then so is justice in the soul. For Plato, an unjust man cannot be happy because he is not in rational and ordered control of himself.
Aristotle on Eudaimonia
It is, however, with Plato's one-time student Aristotle, and his Nicomachean Ethics, that the concept of eudaimonia is most closely associated.
For Aristotle, a thing is best understood by looking at its end, purpose, or goal. For example, the purpose of a knife is to cut, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what a knife is; the goal of medicine is good health, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what medicine is, or should be.
Now, if one does this for some time, it soon becomes apparent that some goals are subordinate to other goals, which are themselves subordinate to yet other goals. For example, a medical student’s goal may be to qualify as a doctor, but this goal is subordinate to her goal to heal the sick, which is itself subordinate to her goal to make a living by doing something useful. This could go on and on, but unless the medical student has a goal that is an end-in-itself, nothing that she does is actually worth doing.
What, asks Aristotle, is this goal that is an end-in-itself? This ‘supreme good’, he replies, is eudaimonia, and eudaimonia only.
Fine, but what is eudaimonia? For Aristotle, it is by understanding the distinctive function of a thing that one can understand its essence. Thus, one cannot understand what it is to be a gardener unless one can understand that the distinctive function of a gardener is ‘to tend to a garden with a certain degree of skill’.
Whereas human beings need nourishment like plants, and have sentience like animals, their distinctive function, says Aristotle, is their unique and god-like capacity to reason. Thus, our supreme good is to lead a life that enables us to use and develop our reason, and that is in accordance with rational principles.
By living our life to the full according to our essential nature as rational beings, we are bound to flourish, that is, to develop and express our full human potential, regardless of the ebb and flow of our good or bad fortune.
To put this in modern terms, if we develop our thinking skills, if we guard against lies and self-deception, if we train and master our emotions, we will, over the years, make better and better choices, do more and more meaningful things, and derive ever-increasing satisfaction from all that we have become and all that we have achieved, and are yet able to achieve.
Neel Burton is author of The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide