The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (detail).

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (d. 322 BCE) tries to discover what is ‘the supreme good for man’, that is, what is the best way to lead our life and give it meaning.

For Aristotle, a thing is most clearly and easily 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, at least, ought to be.

Now, if one persists with this, 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? What, in other words, is the final purpose of everything that we do?

The answer, says Aristotle, is happiness.

And of this nature happiness is mostly thought to be, for this we choose always for its own sake, and never with a view to anything further: whereas honour, pleasure, intellect, in fact every excellence we choose for their own sakes, it is true, but we choose them also with a view to happiness, conceiving that through their instrumentality we shall be happy: but no man chooses happiness with a view to them, nor in fact with a view to any other thing whatsoever.

Why did we get dressed this morning? Why do we go to the dentist? Why do we go on a diet? Why am I writing this article? Why are you reading it? Because we want to be happy, simple as that.

That the meaning of life is happiness may seem moot, but it is something that most of us forget somewhere along the way. Oxford and Cambridge are infamous for their fiendish admission interviews, and one question that is sometimes asked is, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ So, when I prepare prospective doctors for their medical school interviews, I frequently put this question to them. When they flounder, as invariably they do, I ask them, ‘Well, tell me, why are you here?’

Our exchange might go something like this:

“What do you mean, why am I here?”

“Well, why are you sitting here with me, prepping for your interviews, when you could be outside enjoying the sunshine?”

“Because I want to do well in my interviews.”

“Why do you want to do well in your interviews?”

“Because I want to get into medical school.”

“Why do you want to get into medical school?”

“Because I want to become a doctor.”

“Why do you want to put yourself through all that trouble?”

And so on. 

But the one thing that the students never tell me is the truth, which is:

“I am sitting here, putting myself through all this, because I want to be happy, and this is the best way I have found of becoming or remaining so.”

Somewhere along the road, the students lost the wood for the trees, even though they are only at the beginning of their journey. With the passing of the years, their short-sightedness will only get worse—unless, of course, they read and remember their Aristotle.

Books save lives.

Why eudaimonia is much better than happiness.

eudaimonia

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 better 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 is 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 luck and everything to do with hard work. It is a much deeper, fuller, and richer concept than happiness, sometimes articulated in terms of flourishing or living a life that is worthwhile or fulfilling.

Many philosophical schools in antiquity thought of eudaimonia as the highest good, often even the very aim and purpose of philosophy, although various schools such as epicureanism and stoicism 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 stable and reliable, and cannot so easily be taken away from us. Although it leads to pleasure or satisfaction of the deepest kind, it does not come from pleasure, but is according to higher values and principles that transcend the here and now.

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 ultimate proof that nothing truly bad can ever happen to a good man: When the jurors condemned him to death, they only made him and his ideas immortal—and he made sure not to stop them.

Plato on Eudaimonia

Plato broadly agreed with 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 appearing unjust. But if a man could get hold of the mythical Ring of Gyges and make himself invisible, he would most surely behave as it suited him:

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.

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.

As part of his lengthy reply to Glaucon, Plato famously conjures up an idealized Republic to help him ‘locate’ (define) justice, first in the state and then in the individual. Plato 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 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 reason.

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 done, and are yet able to do.