Eudaimonia: Aristotle and happiness

The Greek word eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία) is usually translated as ‘flourishing’ or ‘welfare’. This was, to Aristotle, the highest good (summum bonum). But how, especially today, can we reach this highest good?

Aristotle linked eudaimonia with virtue (here meaning ‘excellence’) and reason. For him, eudaimonia entailed virtue and activity, particularly intellectually stimulating activity, since Aristotle believed that reason (logos) is unique to humankind. Of course, however, activity can be mental or physical, since there is practical reason as well as mental reason. Virtue is, for Aristotle, necessary to attain eudaimonia, yet is not enough, since activity of some kind must be involved which attains success by virtuous means. There are, however, other things that appear to be depended on if one desires to achieve eudaimonia. These are goods external to oneself, such as friendship and beauty, and Aristotle would doubt that eudaimonia could truly be achieved without these kinds of external goods, which means that attainment of ‘flourishing’ seems to involve, to some extent, an element of luck.

How can we apply this to our life today? C. D. Ryff defined eudaimonia with six parts:

  1. Self acceptance
  2. Personal growth
  3. Purpose in life
  4. Autonomy
  5. Environmental mastery
  6. Positive relations with others

Not only must be at one with ourselves, we must have good relationships with others. Of course, a definite purpose is necessary, otherwise we will find ourselves wandering around aimlessly as if in a dark room. It is no doubt the case that although we rely on personal circumstances, it is up to us to attain eudaimonia. If we want it, we must concentrate on what we must do to get it, and discover for ourselves what we must implement and what we must remove from our lives.

One path to fulfilment

For true fulfilment, for genuine satisfaction, there is no easy way. Nothing worth having comes easily. We all know this, but this isn’t the point. It’s not that we don’t know it, it’s that we’re too prone to forgetting it. We need constant reminders of what we know and the ideas and beliefs that drive us need to be refreshed often to keep us going. It would help if, every day, we took just a little time to stop and to reaffirm to ourselves why we are doing what we are doing with our one life. We want things to come easily. We are impatient and easily fall down before instant gratification. Deep down, though, we know that in the long run, it just isn’t worth it. Perhaps the only way to keep our path as straight as possible is to remind ourselves why we should continue. If you genuinely want something, if you really want to become a different person or achieve a goal, then you will persevere. There will be times of failure, but we should never ever give up. It may require what feels like extortionate amounts of sacrifice but it will be worth it. Yet first, we must remember that for even a small glimpse of heaven, we must delve deep into hell first.

Happiness: Utilitarianism

Happiness is hard to define. Moreover, there are many different definitions and opinions of what happiness is, and many believe happiness to be a totally subjective state, and that each person’s definition of happiness is different to the next person. Over the next few posts I will be looking at different philosophical views on happiness and pondering on what is, if there is one, the ‘best’ definition of happiness. This post will deal with the philosophy of utilitarianism.

To the utilitarian, happiness is, fundamentally, the maximization of pleasure and the minimisation of pain. Furthermore, the goal is life, says the utilitarian, is happiness, which is reached, as the founder of utilitarian thought Jeremy Bentham put it, by using your means to ‘create all the happiness you are able to create’ and to ‘remove all the misery you are able to remove.’ Pleasure is good, pain is bad. A happy life is full of pleasure, whereas a miserable one is full of pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is called Act Utilitarianism, since each individual act is scrutinised on the basis of pleasure and pain to decide whether the act is right or wrong-the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is what makes an act right. However, this process can lead to disastrous consequences.

John Stuart Mill built upon Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism by creating a Rule Utilitarianism which bases the rules of a society on the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This way, Mill thought, there could be trust present in society. Moreover, Mill. unlike Bentham, distinguished between types of pleasures, arguing that there are higher (exempla gratia-reading) and lower pleasures (e.g. alcohol). Mill has received criticism for this distinction because this difference makes his theory an elitist theory, rather than a universal one. As well as this, Nietzsche attacked Mill by saying that people have different needs to be happy, and called him a ‘blockhead’ for such an ignorant generalisation.

Peter Singer, a notorious contemporary utilitarian, argued in favour of negative  preference utilitarianism, a form of utilitarianism which holds that pleasure is the absence of pain, and that happiness comes from having one’s preferences satisfied. Again, however, his views have been met with controversy and a questioning as to the genuine moral nature of his and all utilitarian thought.

Utilitarianism bases happiness on pleasure and pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is itself generally rejected, yet Mill’s Rule utilitarianism has influenced our society to some extent, and his view that our own happiness stems from seeking the happiness of others is worth keeping in mind, since it may be that if we want to be happy, we must first want the happiness of others to occur. In this way, parts of Mill’s philosophy are selfless and Mill’s ideas of cultivating good human beings is an idea which has influenced different schools of thought and society up to the present. Singer said that ‘my interests cannot, simply because they are my own, count more than the interests of anyone else’ implying that the interests of all those concerned in a situation should be taken into account. It is difficult, however, to always know what the ‘best’ interest is in such situations. Singer has had profound effects on the idea of wealth and poverty and his book ‘Practical Ethics’ is one of the highest selling ethics books of all time. There is, though, another form of utilitarianism, that of G.E. Moore, which is ideal utilitarianism, and this denies that the goal of life is to maximise pleasure. Rather, Moore said that it is friendship and beauty that should be pursued since they are intrinsically good.

The question we must ask ourselves, it seems, is whether our goal is to maximise pleasure and minimize pain, or whether there is something else about life which is worth attaining. Yet, what is it if such a thing exists? And is it a universal goal, or do we each have our own, individual and subjective path to happiness? Is happiness even attainable? These questions will be deliberated upon in further posts.

Pessimism and happiness

Pessimism tends to be looked down upon in today’s society, and it is thought that optimism is the way forward and the only outlook which will permit a certain kind of happiness. The image of pessimist would usually be thought of as somebody who is always in a bad mood, who does not appreciate the joys of life, and does not enjoy anything much at all. Although this may be a form of pessimism, not all pessimism is the same.

It is reasonable to say that, at certain times, we may all feel somewhat pessimistic: our job is not going well, we do not enjoy our hobbies as we much as we used to, and we seem to make so many mistakes that despair appears to be the only option. Optimism disdains and despises such thoughts, and always hopes for the best and is confident that the future will turn out to be what we hope it to be. Although this does, in theory, seem like a good option for pursuing happiness, in practice it does not, generally, turn out the same way.

Pessimists are unfairly discarded in today’s society and are looked upon only as barriers to success and satisfaction, yet this is not the case. Pessimism is not saying that we cannot be appreciative, joyful, or glad in moments of life. On the contrary, pessimism is letting us know that not everything will turn out the way we wish, that we will always make mistakes, and that by expecting the worst outcomes, things can only get better. Moreover, pessimists are well aware of the possibility of a sudden death, and the inevitability of everybody’s death, as well as a universal imperfection present in everyone. Being aware that one day, we will not be alive anymore can, even though it stems from a pessimistic thought, lead to greater appreciation of the pleasures of life, since we have become acutely aware of life’s limits and brevity. Similarly, awareness of flawed human nature can lead to compassion, a fundamental teaching of Arthur Schopenhauer, since we recognise that we are all very similar indeed, and that we all make mistakes and are fallible.

Pessimism recognises that life is not always going to be what we hoped for, and if we accept and embrace the tough parts of life, while realising that our lives are short and that we are all gradually dying (as Alain de Botton puts it), then perhaps we can get more out of life, and when the desirable parts of existence come upon us, we can experience them more fully and with greater appreciation. We may find that eventually, pessimism may lead us to a strange, unknown kind of happiness.

Lucretius and becoming happy

 

Titus Lucretius Carus was born in 99BC, and died in 55BC. He was a Roman philosopher and poet, who influenced the likes of Virgil and Cicero.

Lucretius was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and is most famous for his work de rerum natura (On the nature of things). In this poetic work, Lucretius defends the Epicurean philosophy, and argues in favour of many topics such as atomism, no life-after-death, why the gods (or God) do not care for us, and the concept of ataraxia (freedom from fear, or serenity). It is on this last point, ataraxia, that I will focus on.

The term ataraxia (ἀταραξία) was defined by Sextus Empiricus as ‘an untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul.’ For Epicurus, and consequentially Lucretius, this state was a state of happiness. How, then, could one reach such a state? Firstly, the satisfaction of basic desires, such as hunger and thirst must be fulfilled. Lucretius was adamant, though, that one must not overeat or overdrink, since this will lead to addiction and a dissatisfaction. We must, Lucretius maintains, only eat what we need. As Cicero said, ‘Eat to live, not live to eat.’ Two other crucial things that Lucretius says that we should avoid are religion and romantic love. Religion involves fear of the gods, and we may be constantly irritated by the fact that the gods are watching carefully and judging our every move. Moreover, by thinking that the gods can influence our lives, we may spend unnecessary time exerting ourselves in order to gain help from the gods. This just isn’t the case, Lucretius says, and it’s nonsense. Once we realise that the gods do not care for us, we can get on with our lives. Secondly, romantic love should be avoided. This is not all love, just the specific kind of love which again, like religion, may irritate us and bug us constantly. We become attached to someone in such a way that a glance to another person may make us jealous, or we may think that our lover doesn’t really like us so we buy them unnecessary gifts and try to impress them with all kinds of effort. This again prevents us from attaining ataraxia.

Fear of death is perhaps the main reason ataraxia is so hard to attain, but Lucretius is adamant that fear of death is unreasonable and should be avoided. Once we accept death can we be free of the fear that comes from it, and from this can we become calm. Ataraxia is the absence of pain, and though this sounds so simple, it is in fact most difficult to reach, especially in today’s frantic world.

So how, then, in today’s society, could one attain ataraxia?

Perhaps you would have to move, with a group of friends, to the country, like Epicurus himself did, and detach yourself from the worldly life, living virtually off your own back and surrounding yourself with friendship, goodwill, and virtue. But this isn’t really at all possible for the majority. Maybe we will never be able to reach ataraxia in its fullest, if such a thing is even possible, but we may be able to at least have glimpses of it. Late at night, we ponder on the world and our life, and think about how sub specie aeternatis, we are quite insignificant, and that the majority of our troubles of our everyday life are in fact quite comical. We may, at times, find ourselves accepting death, and thinking that even though we will die at one point, we still have time now, which we can use to build the relationships with the people around us, and to seize the day. We may come to believe that the gods (or God) do not care about us, and that we are left to our own devices. We don’t have to despair about this. Rather, we can recognise the immense responsibility that we have, and that we can only rely on ourselves to influence the change we wish to see.  

If Epicurus and Lucretius were right, and that ataraxia is indeed happiness, then although we may never be able to fully attain such a state, perhaps due to the way society has developed over the centuries, we may, at least, achieve glimpses of such a state, and, after some time, come to realise that a glimpse is all we really need.