Originally written in December 2011
I recently got introduced to Aristotle’s idea of the purpose of human life, and it resembles very much my own view. It gave much clarity and refinement to my thoughts. According to Aristotle, Eudaimonia should be the ultimate human goal. Eudaimonia is a Greek word meaning flourishing, or simply happiness or well-being.
Earlier I have written a post in which I said that happiness should not be the goal of life. It might seem that I am changing my mind on it now, but that’s not the case. The reason is that the goal-happiness which I then said should not be the goal of life is not the same happiness meant by eudaimonia. So, let’s understand what eudaimonic happiness is.
What is eudaimonic happiness?
Eudaimonia means happiness. However, this happiness is not fun or pleasure but the feeling of having lived a good life. At the end of one’s life when one looks back on life and feels totally satisfied with the way one’s life has been, that means one has had a happy life, or one is happy in eudaimonic sense. It is more akin to contentment. In eudaimonic sense, happiness is a long term project, and can’t be attained by short term fun and pleasure alone. Most people mean happiness as fun and pleasure. When they are having fun they say they are happy. The happiness which should not be the goal of life is this fun and pleasure happiness.
In the above linked article I also wrote: Having a satisfactory life over a long period of time (not in moment to moment evaluation) is also generally called a happy life. In that sense if one means that the goal of life is to make a happy life then it’s fine. But if the goal-happiness means every moment one has to pounce on what brings one the greatest pleasure, without any regard for anything or anyone else but oneself, that’s a myopic and naive approach to happiness.
A satisfactory life over a long period of time is exactly what eudaimonic happiness is.
Pleasure can be a bodily pleasure like sex, tasty food etc. Fun can be when you are partying with your friends, dancing and activities like that. According to the idea of eudaimonia, when you are pursuing fun and pleasure, you are not necessarily pursuing happiness. That means when you are having fun or pleasure, you are not necessarily happy.
To understand this more clearly, eudaimonia is the ultimate goal of life, and thus should be pursued as final end. Whereas all other activities, including fun and pleasure, should be pursued as means to the end which should be eudaimonia. Meaning, fun and pleasure are not to be pursued as ends in themselves for their own sake. They are to be pursued because and to the extent they contribute towards the goal of good life. Fun and pleasure do not always contribute towards eudaimonic happiness, and that’s where it becomes imperative to take a closer look at it.
Fun and pleasure, and eudaimonic happiness
You must have heard some simpletons say it with certain air of superiority: My philosophy of life is simple. Have fun! If you’re having fun doing something, it’s right.
A simple example suffices to debunk this feel-good, myopic idea. Smoking is fun. Going by the principle of this “philosophy” one should smoke. In long term would one be better off if one smokes a lot, and thereby has a lot of fun, or if one doesn’t smoke? Not difficult to answer. One is better off by not smoking. That means a rational-intelligent person would not have short term fun of smoking, and will thus have a better life. And better life is a happy life in eudaimonic sense. We saw how the have-fun philosophy is faulty in principle.
The idea is this: Having fun and pleasure is not wrong, but it is only right to the extent it contributes to the goal of eudaimonic happiness. Those fun and pleasurable activities that don’t contribute towards making a good life are not to be pursued. The example I gave reaffirms the statement that fun and pleasure are not to be pursued as ends in themselves, but as – and to the extent they are – means to the end which is eudaimonia.
How to achieve eudaimonic happiness?
Now we know what eudaimonic happiness is and why it should be the ultimate purpose of human life. The next big question is how to go about it. What are the things and activities that actually contribute towards the eudaimonic happiness?
Revisit the smoking example I gave above. We saw that a rational-intelligent person would make a good life by not having short term fun of smoking. What would he be doing, in principle, to achieve eudaimonia? By using his reason and analytic capacity he evaluated the quality of fun derived from smoking vis-à-vis the desirability of overall good life. Instead of being directed by his base nature (desire for fun) alone, he made use of his intellect.
Fun and pleasure appeal to our base nature. An animal would not feel dissatisfied in life by indulging only in bodily pleasures, because that’s its nature. Human beings have the animal nature too. But in addition to that humans also have much higher and sophisticated capacities like thinking and reasoning. Therefore, just by indulging their base nature (having fun and pleasure) human beings can’t be fully happy and satisfied. Because that way they would not have a full human experience.
That clears the cloud. Those activities which are done making full use of human capacities provide the most gratifying human experience. It does not say that acting out of base nature is wrong per se, but such acts should be rationally analysed to see whether they are in accord with the long term project that is good life.
Enter virtue. Virtue is a central idea of the concept of eudaimonic happiness. Since virtue is essentially human construct, it can only be cultivated using our human capacities – reason and intellect. In the original Aristotelian concept the term Virtue is broadly covered (for which you may follow this piece) but for this post I am limiting its expounding.
If being virtuous means having less fun, then the goal of life must not be having fun. That is so precisely because eudamonia is a function of virtue, not of fun. Virtue does not preclude fun, but it’s not centered around it. Virtuous life is a way to eudaimonia.