Happiness: Platonic, Aristotelian and Beyond

HON 101


The ancient Greek word eudaimonia (eudaimonia), translated most often into English as ‘happiness,’ derives from its roots ‘eu’ – approximated as ‘good’ – and ‘daimon’ – meaning spirit (M-W). The etymology of this term for “good spirit” reveals the inadequacy of ‘happiness’ as its translation. The fleeting, immediate emotion usually called ‘happy’ in English differs from the more lasting personality, disposition and condition implied by the Greek ‘eudaimon.’ The state of eudaimonia entails relatively permanent self-satisfaction, prosperity, and often wealth. The English virtue, of sorts, contentment may more accurately convey the ancient Greek sense of eudaimonia.

One cannot separate this Greek spirit of contentment for ideas of virtue and good. In the Republic, Plato argues that the just, virtuous man will have a good life and will thus be happy (Plato 353e), clearly demonstrating the permanent sense of eudaimonia. The Republic delves into the nature of justice, elaborating on its relationship with happiness. Due to the interpersonal basis of justice, Plato contends that in a just community what is good for the state will inevitably be good for each citizen. For Plato, the just state promotes the happiness of all its constituents. Thus Platonic justice causes individual happiness, and vice versa.

Furthermore, the realization of justice, in the individual and in the state, is a benefit of happiness. Plato reckons “justice is itself the best thing for our true self” (Plato 612b), and consequently goodness its own reward, as justice is good. The Republic also asserts that the gods reward just men materially for their divine characteristics (Plato 612e-13c). Plato’s “Myth of Er” explains the blessings bestowed to good men in the afterlife (Plato 614). So does happiness become its own reward, in this life and/or the next?

Aristotle seems to think so, as he states in the Nicomachean Ethics that the virtuous take pleasure in their own virtues. That is, moral actions augment the happiness of the truly virtuous man who undertakes them, “for to feel rightly or wrongly has no small effect on our actions” (Aristotle II.3). Yet Aristotle believes true virtue, like eudaimonia, is a “permanent disposition” of the good man’s soul. How, then, can one take on such a disposition if not born virtuous; how may one become “happy?” Aristotle answers that “acts from which [virtue] arose are those in which it actualizes itself –” “hence we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and be pained by the things that we ought” (Aristotle II.3).

In the Republic, the idealized Guardian class receives the education to which Aristotle refers. The Republic’s ruling caste schools its successors in the virtues needed to attain a just character and its supposed consequent – a happy life. To achieve eudaimon, Plato feels the Guardians must exercise virtue in thought through training in dialectical method, or rational discussion (Plato 531d-34a). The dialectic, this Platonic investigation of eternal ideals, can occur within the mind of the individual alone. This form of meditating on the a priori can enlighten; by “relying on reason without any aid from the senses, and refus[ing] to give up until one has grasped by pure thought what the good is in itself, one is at the summit of the intellectual realm” (Plato 532a-b). The Platonic dialectic implies a “destination,” or end to the process of rational thought at which pure virtue of the mind is attained (Plato 532e).

The notion of contemplation presented in the Nicomachean Ethics parallels Plato’s dialectic. Aristotle describes happiness in the highest sense, eudaimonia, as the contemplative life (Aristotle X.7). Since virtue promotes pleasure and opposes suffering in the self and for others, acts of moral virtue beget happiness. The realization of one’s own goodness by self-induced dialectic, or contemplation of one’s virtuous deeds, will then lead to greater happiness. Thus Aristotelian contemplation purportedly manifests eudaimonia.

Here it seems important to expound upon Aristotle’s idea of a contemplative life. The contemplative man will not spend his time solely engaged in meditative practice, sitting austerely like Rodan’s “The Thinker,” as a superficial reading of the Ethics might convey. On the contrary, the contemplative man gravitates toward the good in all aspects of life. Because the act of contemplation will strengthen his intellectual virtues,