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Introduction | History of Eudaimonism
Introduction Back to Top

Eudaimonism (or Eudaemonism or Eudaimonia) is a moral philosophy that defines right action as that which leads to the "well-being" of the individual, thus holding "well-being" as having essential value. It makes up part of the system of Virtue Ethics propounded by the ancient Greek philosophers, in which a lifetime of practicing the virtues ("arÍte") in one's everyday activities, subject to the exercise of practical wisdom ("phronesis") to resolve any conflicts or dilemmas which might arise, will allow the individual to flourish and live the good life ("eudaimonia").

The term "eudaimonia" is a classical Greek word, commonly translated as "happiness", but perhaps better described as "well-being" or "human flourishing" or "good life". More literally it means "having a good guardian spirit". Eudaimonia as the ultimate goal is an objective, not a subjective, state, and it characterizes the well-lived life, irrespective of the emotional state of the person experiencing it.

In more general terms, Eudaimonism can be thought of as any theory that puts personal happiness and the complete life of the individual at the center of ethical concern. It can therefore be associated with ethical Individualism and Egoism.

History of Eudaimonism Back to Top

The concept came to fruition in Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics", which dates from the 4th Century B.C., although the earlier thinkers Democritus, Socrates and Plato described a very similar idea. Socrates, as represented in Plato's early dialogues, held that virtue is a sort of knowledge (the knowledge of good and evil) that is required to reach the ultimate good, or eudaimonia, which is what all human desires and actions aim to achieve.

Plato noted that even "evil" people feel guilt at doing something which is clearly wrong, and, even when there is no fear of punishment, doing what is wrong simply makes people miserable. He further refined the idea of eudaimonia, claiming that the rational part of the soul or mind must govern the spirited, emotional and appetitive parts in order to lead all desires and actions to eudaimonia, the principal constituent of which is virtue.

According to Aristotle, eudaimonia is constituted, not by honor, wealth or power, but by rational activity in accordance with virtue over a complete life, what might be described today as productive self-actualization. This rational activity, Aristotle judged, should manifest as honesty, pride, friendliness, wittiness, rationality in judgment; mutually beneficial friendships and scientific knowledge.

Epicurus (and subsequent Hedonists) agreed with Aristotle that happiness, or eudaimonia, is the highest good, but he identified this with pleasure, on the grounds that pleasure is the only thing that people value for its own sake, and that its presence or absence is something which is immediately apparent to everyone. He also noted that it may be necessary to forgo short-term pleasure if that will ultimately lead to greater pleasure in the long-term.

The Stoics also believed to some extent that eudaimonia was the highest good, although for them virtue and well-being consist of living according to Nature and, even if perfect virtue is actually unachievable, the least we can do to is to act "befittingly", in the hope of approaching or approximating eudaimonia.

St. Augustine of Hippo later adopted the concept as "beatitudo", and St. Thomas Aquinas worked it out into a Christian ethical scheme, where eudaimonia is found ultimately in a direct perception of God, or complete blessedness.

Immanuel Kant was an important opponent of Eudaimonism. He rejected the view that happiness is the highest good, and insisted that happiness can be an ingredient of the highest good, but only if it is deserved. Still later, Existentialism rejected Eudaimonism on the grounds that happiness is just a bourgeois fantasy.

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