Some Ancient Greek philosophers focused on happiness (eudaimonia) as the highest good. Taken as the highest good, happiness is something valued solely for its own sake, the standard upon which all other things derive their value, and a structurally stable condition of being that pertains to one’s life as a whole.
It is also partly subjective and objective in nature. Subjective because one cannot be happy without believing or feeling happy. Objective in the sense that any eudaimonistic account of happiness is based on universalizable and natural features that should guide how one lives their life. To distinguish this formal conception of happiness from others, the ancient Greek conception will be referred to as “eudaimonism.” In this context, eudaimonists differ greatly in the extent to which they think theories about reality, knowledge, and psychology are important to happiness. Weak eudaimonists offer accounts of happiness with no necessary appeal to non-ethical theories. Strong eudaimonists conversely ground their respective accounts of happiness in such theories.
Socrates and the Cynics as Weak Eudaimonists
Two classic examples of weak eudaimonists are Socrates and the Cynics. Socrates’ primary concerns are the good of the human soul and its flourishing through virtue (Apology 29d-30b, 36c-e, 38a). In his ethical inquiries, he also seems to presuppose some sort of distinction between the nature and well-being of the soul and that of the body. However, Socrates famously avoids offering philosophical theories about the nature of reality, the structure of the cosmos, or the true relationship between the body and the soul/mind, instead restricting his inquiries to the domain of ethics and the pursuit of a happy (eudaimon) life. For Socrates, we must first build a solid foundation of ethical truths, before we can be well-situated to discover and make use of non-ethical and theoretical ones.
Similarly, the Cynics “do away with the subjects of Logic and Physics and devote their whole attention to Ethics.” Their sole focus is happiness, which they say consists of living according to virtue, that is, satisfying our basic natural needs. The Cynics rely on certain assumptions about human nature to explain what our natural needs are, but (like Socrates) they are not concerned with providing fully developed theories about the world or human nature.
Democritus as a Weak Eudaimonist
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Democritus, a contemporary of Socrates, provides an interesting contrast to the other two. He does concern himself with the nature of reality, and the soul and the body, offering an atomistic account of such things (i.e., everything is ultimately made up of different kinds of indivisible bodies). He also delves into the nature of knowledge, drawing an important, hierarchical distinction between sense data and reason.
However, his account of happiness as a life of cheerfulness (i.e., a life which consists of a tranquil soul), while compatible with these non-ethical theories, is nevertheless not grounded or in any way necessarily dependent on them. By and large then, one can (at least in principle) follow the Socratic, Cynic, or Democritean way of life without committing themselves to any substantial views on reality, human nature, or the soul. It is this fact that makes these weak eudaimonist philosophies.
Plato and Aristotle: Early Strong Eudaimonists
Plato and Aristotle provide us with the earliest examples of a strong approach to eudaimonism. Both offer rich theories of reality, the natural world, human knowledge, and the human soul, all of which play an intimate role in how each conceives of happiness.
For Plato, happiness is roughly found in (1) contemplating Forms (i.e., immaterial and eternal entities that exist on the highest plane of reality and are the source of all knowledge and distinct being in the material world), in particular, the Form of the Good or Beauty; and (2) possessing a soul which is just by virtue of the harmony between its rational and non-rational parts.
Aristotle places happiness in virtuous rational activity, a practically happy life residing in moral activities directed by practical wisdom (phronesis), and a theoretically happy life (much like Plato) in theoretical wisdom (sophia) through the contemplation of scientific eternal truths concerning the cosmos and the natural world. This account of happiness is, in turn, grounded in Aristotle’s conception of how the nutritional (the part that deals with bodily nutrition, growth, and reproduction), appetitive (the part that deals with bodily desires), and sensory (the part that deals with the pleasures and pains of the five senses) faculties of the soul are brought into harmony with the rational (namely, practical and theoretical) faculties.
Epicurus and the Stoics as Later Strong Eudaimonists
This tradition of strong eudaimonism continues into the Hellenistic period, most notably with Epicurus and the Stoics. In contrast to their Cynic contemporaries, and in line with Plato and Aristotle, Epicureans and Stoics consider their respective philosophical accounts of reality, the world, knowledge, and psychology (i.e., the nature of the soul/mind) crucial to their views on how to live happily.
Epicurus conceives of happiness as a pleasurable life free of mental disturbance. To achieve such a life, he argues that we need correct beliefs concerning the cosmos, the body, and the soul/mind. Peace of mind (ataraxia) lies in understanding that the cosmos is composed of random configurations of atoms, and is thus not purposefully designed by a god (or gods) who can be pleased or displeased by our actions. Moreover, it is important to understand that the soul is also composed of atoms and cannot experience pleasure or pain when separated from the atomic compound that is the body. Such knowledge frees us from worries concerning the wrath of a displeased god, the harms of death, and/or the potential torments of an afterlife.
The Stoics, in contrast, argue that we find happiness through understanding that the world is purposefully designed for the sake of the Good by God (who shapes everything from within the cosmos rather than outside of it), which is to say that all things happen necessarily and there is nothing bad per se except erroneous judgment. Such understanding, in turn, frees us from harmful passions (pathe) and brings about good, virtuous, and rational emotions (eupatheia). Although Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics all differ in the content of their respective views on happiness, in form they all agree that happiness is the end point of ethics (like Socrates, the Cynics, and Democritus). More substantially, they also agree that non-ethical scientific theories play a direct and necessary role in living happily.
What about Eudaimonism in Today’s World?
Now that we understand the eudaimonistic approach to happiness and its two main branches, let us discuss how applicable this conception of happiness is today. First and foremost, happiness is something we all naturally desire. Who does not want to be happy or flourish in their life?
It is not clear how or why anything else would be more valuable than happiness. Nothing would be odder than saying, “I want to be happy for the sake of money, pleasure, social status, someone else, etc.” Either I would want these things because they are means to achieving my happiness (like money) or because they constitute happiness itself (like pleasure). Happiness could never plausibly be a means to such things. Consequently, we have good reason to agree with eudaimonists that the ultimate thing of value, which gives all other things value, is happiness.
However, many people might take issue with the objective dimension of eudaimonism, insofar as it provides a universal account of how one should live in order to be happy. Today we tend to think that no one can tell you what is, or should, be meaningful in your life – no one can tell you what it means for you as an individual to live happily. We all do and should have the freedom to choose what makes us happy, based on our own desires, because who knows what we want and need better than ourselves?
Three things can be said in response to this concern, and in defense of eudaimonism in this regard. Firstly, it is not true that we are always aware of what we truly want or what we need to be healthy and happy. Humans are complex creatures. On a conscious, surface level, we might be aware of ourselves wanting expensive wine and steak, billions of dollars, the love and affection of a certain person we are attracted to and idealize, etc. But do we want these things for their own sake, or for some other, unconscious, reasons that may or may not conflict with these conscious wants? And do we need these specific things to flourish in our life? For example, what if the person whose love we covet is toxic to our well-being? It is not uncommon for all of us to love, and desire the love of, people who are not healthy for us, and thus greatly detrimental to our happiness.
This is all to say that a happy life that is healthy and truly fulfilling should not be considered purely subjective. Our beliefs and feelings play a necessary role in our happiness, but because of the nuances of conscious vs. unconscious and harmonious vs. conflicting beliefs/desires, these factors are not sufficient to make us truly happy.
Secondly, let us assume a purely subjective approach to happiness for the sake of argument. Happiness is whatever you want it to be at any given moment. Such a view certainly allows for flexibility over time, because different things can make you happy at different times in your life, and it seemingly places happiness exclusively in your own hands. But if there is no stable, concrete core to happiness, and it is merely constituted by the random, shifting whims of the subject, does happiness not become much less meaningful and fulfilling in its arbitrariness? Eudaimonism might be more demanding in outline, but it promises a structured and stable life tailored to your deepest, most constant needs, which is far more satisfying than the chaos of purely subjective happiness.
This brings us to a third point: eudaimonism is not ultimately about what others think your happiness should be, but about who you truly are as a human being and an individual. Eudaimonistic philosophers go to great lengths to critically examine our conventional beliefs/feelings and our natures to offer a scientific understanding of true human goodness and happiness. They craft their accounts of happiness based on what philosophical investigations give them strong reasons to believe are the foundations of true human flourishing.
Here the distinction between form and content becomes important. We can reject Plato and Aristotle’s intellectualist accounts of the soul and happiness, Epicurus’s atomism and hedonism, and the Stoics’ intellectualist, deterministic, and providential ethics without giving up on eudaimonism itself as a paradigmatic approach to happiness. Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics differ from each other only in the content of their respective accounts of happiness, not the form or basic structure of these accounts.
If we think no previous eudaimonist has quite understood the world and happiness correctly, then we can bring our own sciences and critical investigations to bear on these themes, while nevertheless still thinking that happiness is solely intrinsically valuable, the ultimate standard of value, structurally stable, and partly objective and subjective.
The Complexity of Eudaimonism as an Approach to Happiness
The topic of weak vs. strong eudaimonism brings rich nuance to the discussion of the role of happiness. On the one hand, like Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics, we might try to ground eudaimonistic happiness in a unified conception of all the major sciences of today. On the other hand, like Socrates, the Cynics, and Democritus, we might feel that we can offer a coherent and true account of such happiness with nothing more substantial than scientifically plausible assumptions about the world and ourselves. The goal of this article is not to endorse a specific eudaimonistic conception of happiness, but simply to show the complexities of eudaimonism in its form and potential contents, both for the ancients and for contemporary thinkers.
The pursuit of eudaimonistic happiness might not be as simple or easy as other (namely, purely subjective) conceptions, but to quote Benedict de Spinoza (a 17th-century eudaimonist): “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”