If you have poked around Greek philosophy texts at all, you have probably encountered the term Eudaimonia. This is an essential concept that we must wrap our heads around if we are to understand what the whole point of philosophy is (according to the Greeks).
I am no professor on Greek philosophy, and I can’t say that I know very much in the way of translating ancient Greek at all, so take what you are about to read here with a bit of skepticism.
The ancient Greek Philosophical schools were all about Eudaimonia. The Stoics, Skeptics, Cynics, Peripatetics, Epicureans, etc… They all pretty much agreed that Eudaimonia was the best thing ever, and that we should all pursue it. However they all disagreed on the best way to obtain it.
So what does Eudaimonia even mean? Well the term is often translated as “happiness”. That makes sense, everybody wants to be happy, but they might disagree about the best way the become happy, right? Now this is an ok definition, but it is still a little vague. A better translation of eudaimonia is often said to be “human flourishing”. Ok, that is a little different than happiness, and more specific in some ways but confusing in other ways. What does it really mean for a human to flourish?
If we say something like “wow, that new tree you just planted is really flourishing” we mean something along the lines of “that plant appears to be very healthy and is growing in an almost accelerated manner in its current environment”. Wow that explanation sounds like it was written by a robot huh?
Anyways, hopefully that helps us to unpack what we might mean by “human flourishing” a little, but we are still not quite there yet. I think there is still some ambiguity here, and that we can come up with a better definition.
The ancient philosophers were largely working within the framework of Teleology. To quote Wikipedia “Teleology (from Greek telos, meaning end or purpose) is the philosophical study of nature by attempting to describe things in terms of their apparent purpose, directive principle, or goal”.
Maybe this will be a little easier to understand with a super overused example. Think of a knife. What is the purpose, or the telos, of a knife? The purpose of a knife is to cut things. A good knife cuts wells, while a bad knife cuts poorly.
So with this in mind how can we flesh out the idea of Eudaimonia? Well, as humans all of our action have some sort of goal or purpose. Why do people go to college? People go to College, so they can get a job, so that they can earn money, so that they can buy things, so that they can provide themselves with the materials that they think are required for a good life. So the end purpose of going to college is to have a good life. That is essentially the purpose of all of our actions isn’t it? We think, correctly or incorrectly, that our actions will lead us to have a good life.
Eudaimonia is that life that we are all seeking. It is a life full of happiness, contentment, and fulfillment. It is the best possible life that a human can have. So, now we have a definition I think that we can work with.
Eudaimonia – The best possible life that a human can have, full of happiness, contentment, and fulfillment.
So, if we define eudaimonia this way, and I ask you the question, “Do you want a life of Eudaimonia?” you are probably going to answer “Yes”. I think you would be hard pressed to find someone you does not want a life defined as “the best possible life that a human can have”.
So what is the problem here? Well it turns out that people are going to disagree about how exactly you can go an obtain a life of Eudaimonia. Here is a really brief, and in no way sufficient, tongue in cheek caricature of how the different Greek philosophical schools thought a person could reach a life of Eudaimonia.
Cynics – Live an ascetic life, abandon all of your worldly possessions except for the absolutely bare minimum you need to live. Go against the flow of common social norms. Bark at people when they do something stupid, and don’t forget to hug cold statues while wearing little to no clothing. You must also do backwards moonwalks into large crowds of people to prove that you are “going against the flow” of Society.
Epicureans – Move away from everyone else to live in a commune with all your best friends and become a self sufficient community. Remember that the only good is pleasure and the only bad is pain. And by pleasure I mean adding one piece cheese to you daily meal which consists of just a little wine and bread. Also don’t forget to tend to your garden, you gotta have one even if you don’t like plants.
Skeptics – We are troubled throughout life because we make incorrect judgments about what is good or bad for us. We become disappointed when our judgments do not match up with reality. The best way to alleviate this issue is to not make any judgments at all, about anything, ever. Is that the edge of a cliff over there? How can I be sure? I will suspend my judgement and walk over there anyways.
Peripatetics – The best human life consists of using reason, and being the best person you can possibly be. But you also kind of need money, friends, family, and good luck. So if you aren’t lucky, or are born into unfortunate circumstances, oh well, no Eudaimonia for you. Also don’t forget to walk around a lot and think about things.
Stoics – The best human life consists of using reason, and being the best person you can possibly be. You must be wise, courageous, temperate, and just. It doesn’t matter if you are a slave or an emperor. The only thing that matters are your own actions and your character. Because the only thing that matters are your actions, you can be happy all the time. Yes all the time, even if you are being tortured and your limbs are being hacked off one by one, you are happy. Also, the Stoic sage is the only one who can fully acquire a life of Eudaimonia, because he is the best person ever and always makes the right decisions. But this guy only appears once every ten thousand years, so you probably ain’t him. And by the way everyone else who is not a sage is insane, full of vice, and never acts correctly even if they copy the sage action for action.
And I chose to be a Stoic huh?