Aristotle’s Eudaimonia

1.

In the following comments, I’ll argue that eudaimonia describes a mode of being, rather than a particular activity like solving a math problem, bicycle racing, eating ice-cream or giving a lecture. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatarri argue that every concept is a multiplicity. Eudaimonia is not an exception to this; it unifies many final ends as elements of what is variously called flourishing, thriving or happiness (though this last term tends to obscure things).[1] I’ll argue that Aristotle makes virtue a condition on eudaimonia in the same way that he relates potentiality and actuality. While potentiality is a necessary condition on actuality, actuality precedes potentiality; in the same way virtue is a condition on eudaimonia, but eudaimonia precedes virtue. Aristotle calls eudaimonia a ‘first principle’ for this reason.[2] I’ll conclude with some comments on the usefulness of Aristotle’s Eudaimonia to thinking the good life.

2.

In the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle introduces the idea that eudaimonia is complete and self-sufficient with a discussion of means and ends. He says that there are ends we seek out that are not final, but are instead means to some subsequent end; and ends that are final and close sequences. Eudaimonia is a final end. If there was only one final end then this would be the end that eudaimonia is. However, Aristotle adds, ‘if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking’.[3] The implication is that there is more than one final end. This is where a problem is developed. The word ‘most’ conflates different sorts of ends by drawing them all under the analytic of quantity. How is eudaimonia more a final end than every other final end?

J. L. Ackrill says that a whole stream of interpretation has stumbled on this point. Eudaimonia is read one an activity among other activities that is somehow more than these others. In contrasting the ideas of dominant and inclusive ends, Ackrill insists instead that eudaimonia is not an element of its own concept. It is not more or less than any of its constituent final ends because it is not commensurable with them (in fact elements logically outnumber their concept).[4]  Eudaimonia is a different sort of final end. It is the action that unifies many final ends as a complete and self-sufficient mode of being. Eudaimonia includes other final ends, rather than dominating them.

Ackrill notes that in order to allow this move Aristotle introduces a unity of opposites into his argument: the idea that there are final ends that are and are not are final ends.[5] Aristotle says: ‘honour, reason and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of eudaimonia’.[6] So: a is a, but also not-a. This is a consequence of eudaimonia as concept as multiplicity. Aristotle allows that there is more than one end that is sought for its own sake, there are many final ends, and adds the qualifier that there is one final end that is ‘the most final’. This appears to exclude ‘the most final end’ from the rule ‘a is a, but also not-a‘ and instead allow that eudaimonia is simply self-identical. But this reverses the polarity of determination between concept and elements. What actually happens is that eudaimonia excludes all other final ends from self-identity by forcing every other final end under the negation, ‘but also not-a’; the existence of eudaimonia is this forcing. Eudaimonia retroactively eclipses its elements by definition; it is the definition of eudaimonia that its elements are the composition of the good life: if we realise eudaimonia then that is what our actions are. Eudaimonia casts its shadow back over its elements removing their self-sufficiency and defining the lot as a mode of flourishing, thriving or happiness. The reason that the final ends really are final ends is that this status is only removed post-festum.

3.

Those arguments that Ackrill criticises might be called positive interpretations of eudaimonia. They want eudaimonia to be a positive activity that they can locate, perform and realise. This is located in philosophy: if we perform philosophy correctly, as the chief human virtue, we realise eudaimonia. This claim receives prima facie evidence in the final book of the Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle calls philosophy the greatest virtue.[7] But eudaimonia is not a positive concept (nor a virtue). It is rather the determinate negation of a composition of final ends as the good life. It exists as an exception: ‘everything we choose we choose for the sake of something else, except eudaimonia’.[8] The reason we do not choose eudaimonia for the sake of something else is that we do not choose it at all, in any direct sense. Instead, Aristotle says that we choose virtue for the sake of eudaimonia. The relation between what we choose and what we don’t might be clarified with reference to Aristotle’s discussion of actuality and potentiality in the Metaphysics.

Aristotle argues that actuality precedes potentiality. When he distinguishes between the potentiality of an object and its actuality, he distinguishes between processes and actions. His description of processes gives-away why actuality precedes potentiality: ‘All processes are incomplete’.[9] Whereas potentiality is a process and is thus incomplete, actuality is a complete action. We have the complete action in mind before we begin the process. Likewise for human virtue and eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is what we have in mind in everything we choose to do, before we begin doing it. While Aristotle insists that virtues are not potentialities, in that they are actions and not processes, the negation that he adds to them means that they act as if they were only potentialities for eudaimonia. Virtues are made incomplete by eudaimonia, whereas, eudaimonia is always complete and self-sufficient.

But like actuality, eudaimonia is under the condition of its (as if) potentiality. Eudaimonia is the human good that is sought before all others. Aristotle calls it a ‘first principle’ and the starting point for all that we do.[10] Any human good must be distinguished from what is merely incidental to life. For example, Aristotle notes that the virtue of bodily reproduction is common to all animals, and so not a specifically human virtue. Human virtue is distinguished from other sorts of virtue by being equated with reason, or the soul.[11] And this quality renders it necessary to eudaimonia. If eudaimonia is a human good, then it is a good of the soul. Its concept therefore depends on elements that are also goods of the soul. These goods are the human virtues that ‘if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them’.[12] They are the final ends that eudaimonia excludes from their own finality.

All Aristotle says about the particularity of virtue is that eudaimonia is in accordance with it: ‘If eudaimonia is activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be that of the best thing in us’.[13] This can be read as the interpreters that Ackrill criticises do, as equating eudaimonia with the highest virtue. But it can also be read as simply including the highest virtue in the concept of eudaimonia. Further: Aristotle goes out of his way to say that eudaimonia isn’t a virtue. If individually the virtues can be praised, when they are unified under the concept eudaimonia they are ‘above praise’.[14]

4.

Aristotle says that the future is ‘obscure’.[15] The usefulness of eudaimonia to thinking the good life is that it exists as a negation rather than in positivity. Aristotle shows this both by making final ends exist a unity of opposites under the rule ‘a is a, but also not-a‘. In their positivity the final ends called virtues are praiseworthy, but in their negation into the concept eudaimonia they are above praise and thus no longer simply virtues. Aristotle also calls eudaimonia an exception to all that we choose in and for itself. What we choose in and for itself is a positive act, and eudaimonia is an exception to this positivity. If eudaimonia is something that we want to realise in the future, the obscure future, then our present mode of being if under some lack.

The uncertainty of the future is simply another way of saying that eudaimonia has no positive existence, but like Hegel’s essence or Marx’s value must appear as something other than itself. Eudaimonia is obscure because it is something we are moving towards and thus do not have in the present. Like actuality we are aware of it as a clear and distinct first principle, but we nevertheless have no certainly about its particular form. Aristotle notes that the ‘mean’ that constitutes moral virtue is not know by reason, but intuition.[16] This confounds the positive interpretation of eudaimonia and supports Aristotle’s insistence that a builder only learns and realises their particular virtue by building something.[17] Eudaimonia only casts its shadow back across our actions, but can never be located a priori.

Bibliography.

 

Ackrill, J. L. ‘Aristotle on Eudaimonia’ in A. Rorty, Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics (Berkeley, University of California Press), pp 15-33.

Aristotle. Metaphysics (London: Penguin, 2004)

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Barnes, Jonathan. Aristotle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).


[1] See: Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle (Oxford University Press, 1982), pp 78-9: ‘The intellectual giants of history may not all have been happy men, but they were all successful men – they all flourished and achieved eudaimonia.’

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2009), I.4, I.12.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.7.

[4] J. L. Ackrill, ‘Aristotle on Eudaimonia’ in A. Rorty, Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics (University of California Press), pp 15-33, p 23.

[5] Ackrill, ‘Aristotle on Eudaimonia’, p 23.

[6] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.7 (translation modified), see also: X.6.

[7] See: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X.7.

[8] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X.6 (translation modified).

[9] Aristotle, Metaphysics (Penguin, 2004), Theta 6.

[10] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.4, I.12.

[11] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.13.

[12] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.7.

[13] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X.7 (translation modified).

[14] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.12.

[15] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.10.

[16] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, II.9.

[17] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, II.1.