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For the moth, see Eudaemonia (moth).

Eudaimonia (Greek: εὐδαιμονία) is a classical Greek word commonly translated as 'happiness'. Etymologically, it consists of the word "eu" ("good" or "well being") and "daimōn" ("spirit" or "minor deity", used by extension to mean one's lot or fortune). Although popular usage of the term happiness refers to a state of mind, related to joy or pleasure, eudaimonia rarely has such connotations, and the less subjective "human flourishing" is often preferred as a translation.[1]

"Eudaimonia" is a central concept in ancient Greek ethics (along with "arete", most often translated as "virtue"). Some philosophers believed eudaimonia (not arete) to be the highest human good, and were concerned with studying ways to achieve it. Eudaimonia is often translated into English as "happiness". But "happiness" is more correlated to a subjective state or overall measure of such states as an assessment of the quality of one’s life, whereas eudaimonia refers to an objectively desirable life[citation needed]. Bad events that do not contribute to one’s experience of happiness, do affect one’s eudaimonia, so eudaimonia is not synonymous with happiness in this sense, either.[citation needed]

A moral theory which links virtue (arete) and happiness (eudaimonia) specifying the relation between these two concepts is one of the central preoccupations of ancient ethics, and a subject of much disagreement. As a result there are many varieties of eudaimonism. Two of the most influential forms are those of Aristotle and the Stoics. Aristotle takes virtue and its exercise to be the most important constituent in eudaimonia but does acknowledge the importance of external goods such as health, wealth, and beauty. By contrast, the Stoics make virtue necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia and thus deny the necessity of external goods.


Eudaimonia: etymology and translation

In terms of its etymology, eudaimonia is an abstract noun derived from the Greek adjective, eudaimon. This adjective is, in turn, a compound word composed of ‘eu’ meaning “well” and ‘daimon’ (daemon), which refers to a sort of guardian spirit. Therefore, to be eudaimon is to live well, protected and looked after by a benevolent spirit. Despite this etymology, however, discussions of eudaimonia in ancient Greek ethics are often conducted independently of any super-natural significance.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, (1095a15-22) Aristotle says that eudaimonia means ’doing and living well’. It is significant that synonyms for eudaimonia are living well and doing well. On the standard English translation, this would be to say that ‘happiness is doing well and living well’. However, it is important to notice that ‘happiness’ does not entirely capture the meaning of the Greek word here. One important difference is that happiness often connotes being or tending to be in a certain pleasant state of consciousness. For example, when we say of someone that “he is a very happy man,” we usually mean that he seems subjectively contented with the way things are going in his life. We mean to imply that he feels good about the way things are going for him. In contrast, eudaimonia is a more encompassing notion than happiness since events that do not contribute to one’s experience of happiness may affect one’s eudaimonia.

Eudaimonia depends on all the things that would make us happy if we knew of their existence, but quite independently of whether we do know about them. Ascribing eudaimonia to a person, then, may include ascribing such things as being virtuous, being loved and having good friends. But these are all objective judgments about someone’s life: they concern a person’s really being virtuous, really being loved, and really having fine friends. This implies that a person who has evil sons and daughters will not be judged to be eudaimon even if he or she does not know that they are evil and feels pleased and contented with the way they have turned out (happy). Conversely, being loved by your children would not count towards your happiness if you did not know that they loved you (and perhaps thought that they did not), but it would count towards your eudaimonia. So eudaimonia corresponds to the idea of having an objectively good or desirable life, to some extent independently of whether one knows that certain things exist or not. It includes conscious experiences of well being, success, and failure, but also a whole lot more. (See Aristotle’s discussion: Nicomachean Ethics, book 1.10-1.11.)

Because of this discrepancy between the meaning of eudaimonia and happiness, some alternative translations have been proposed. W.D. Ross suggests ‘well-being’ and John Cooper proposes "flourishing." These translations may avoid some of the misleading associations carried by "happiness" although each tends to raise some problems of its own. Perhaps the safest alternative is to leave the term un-translated (transliterated), allowing its meaning to emerge by considering how it was actually used by the ancient ethical philosophers.

What is eudaimonia?

In his Nicomachean Ethics, (§21; 1095a15-22) Aristotle says that everyone agrees that eudaimonia is the highest good for human beings, but that there is substantial disagreement on what sort of life counts as doing and living well, i.e. eudaimon:

Verbally there is a very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is [eudaimonia], and identify living well and faring well with being happy; but with regard to what [eudaimonia] is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing like pleasure, wealth or honour… [1095a17]

So, as Aristotle points out, saying that eudaimon life is a life which is objectively desirable, and means living well, is not saying very much. Everyone wants to be eudaimon; and everyone agrees that being eudaimon is related to faring well and to an individual’s well being. The really difficult question is to specify just what sort of activities enable one to live well. Aristotle presents various popular conceptions of the best life for human beings. The candidates that he mentions are a (1) life of pleasure, (2) a life of practical activity and (3) a philosophical life.

One important move in Greek philosophy to answer the question of how to achieve eudaimonia is to bring in another important concept in ancient philosophy, "arete" ("virtue"). Aristotle says that the eudaimon life is one of “virtuous activity in accordance with reason” [1097b22-1098a20]. And even Epicurus who argues that the eudaimon life is the life of pleasure maintains that the life of pleasure coincides with the life of virtue. So the ancient ethical theorists tend to agree that virtue is closely bound up with happiness (arête is bound up with eudaimonia). However, they disagree on the way in which this is so. We shall consider the main theories in a moment, but first a warning about the proper translation of arête.

As already noted, the Greek word arête is usually translated into English as ‘virtue’. One problem with this is that we are inclined to understand virtue in a moral sense, which is not always what the ancients had in mind. For a Greek, arête pertains to all sorts of qualities we would not regard as relevant to ethics, for example, physical beauty. So it is important to bear in mind that the sense of ‘virtue’ operative in ancient ethics is not exclusively moral and includes more than states such as wisdom, courage and compassion. The sense of virtue which arête connotes would include saying something like ‘speed is virtue in a horse’, or ‘height is a virtue in a basketball player'. Doing anything well requires virtue, and each characteristic activity (such as carpentry, flute playing, etc) has its own set of virtues. The alternative translation ‘excellence’ might be helpful in conveying this general meaning of the term. The moral virtues are simply a subset of the general sense in which a human being is capable of functioning well or excellently.

Main views on eudaimonia and its relation to arête



What we know of Socrates philosophy is almost entirely derived from Plato’s writings. Scholars typically divide Plato’s works into three periods: the early, middle, and late periods. They tend to agree also that Plato’s earliest works quite faithfully represent the teachings of Socrates and that Plato’s own views, which go beyond those of Socrates, appear for the first time in the middle works such as the Phaedo and the Republic. This division will be employed here in dividing up the positions of Socrates and Plato on eudaimonia.

As with all other ancient ethical thinkers Socrates thought that all human beings wanted eudaimonia more than anything else. (see Plato, Apology 30b, Euthydemus 280d-282d, Meno 87d-89a). However, Socrates adopted a quite radical form of eudaimonism (see above): he seems to have thought that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. Socrates is convinced that virtues such as self-control, courage, justice, piety, wisdom and related qualities of mind and soul are absolutely crucial if a person is to lead a good and happy (eudaimon) life. Virtues guarantee a happy life eudaimonia. For example, in the Meno, with respect to wisdom, he says: “… everything the soul endeavours or endures under the guidance of wisdom ends in happiness…”[Meno 88c].

In the Apology, Socrates clearly presents his disagreement with those who think that the eudaimon life is the life of honour or pleasure, when he chastises the Athenians for caring more for riches and honour than the state of their souls.

Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honours as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth or the best possible state of your soul [29d].

… it does not seem like human nature for me to have neglected all my own affairs and to have tolerated this neglect for so many years while I was always concerned with you, approaching each one of you like a father or an elder brother to persuade you to care for virtue. [31a-b; italics added]

It emerges a bit further on that this concern for one’s soul, that one’s soul might be in the best possible state, amounts to acquiring moral virtue. So Socrates’ point that the Athenians should care for their souls means that they should care for their virtue, rather than pursuing honour or riches. Virtues are states of the soul. When a soul has been properly cared for and perfected it possesses the virtues. Moreover, according to Socrates, this state of the soul, moral virtue, is the most important good. The health of the soul is incomparably more important for eudaimonia than (e.g.) wealth and political power. Someone with a virtuous soul is better off than someone who is wealthy and honoured but whose soul is corrupted by unjust actions. This view is confirmed in the Crito, where Socrates gets Crito to agree that the perfection of the soul, virtue, is the most important good:

And is life worth living for us with that part of us corrupted that unjust action harms and just action benefits? Or do we think that part of us, whatever it is, that is concerned with justice and injustice, is inferior to the body? Not at all. It is much more valuable…? Much more… (47e-48a)

Here Socrates argues that life is not worth living if the soul is ruined by wrongdoing. In summary, Socrates seems to think that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. A person who is not virtuous cannot be happy, and a person with virtue cannot fail to be happy. We shall see later on that Stoic ethics takes its cue from this Socratic insight.


Plato’s great work of the middle period, the Republic, is devoted to answering a challenge made by a sophist Thrasymachus, that conventional morality, particularly the ‘virtue’ of justice, actually prevents the strong man from achieving eudaimonia. Thrasymachus’s views are restatements of a position which Plato discusses earlier on his in writings, in the Gorgias, through the mouthpiece of Callicles. The basic argument presented by Thrasymachus and Callicles is that justice (being just) hinders or prevents the achievement of eudaimonia because conventional morality requires that we control ourselves and hence live with un-satiated desires. This idea is vividly illustrated in book 2 of the Republic when Glaucon, taking up Thrasymachus’ challenge, recounts a myth of the magical ring of Gyges. According to the myth, Gyges becomes king of Lydia when he stumbles upon a magical ring, which, when he turns it a particular way, makes him invisible, so that he can satisfy any desire he wishes without fear of punishment. When he discovers the power of the ring he kills the king, marries his wife and takes over the throne. The thrust of Glaucon’s challenge is that no one would be just if he could escape the retribution he would normally encounter for fulfilling his desires at whim. But if eudaimonia is to be achieved through the satisfaction of desire, whereas being just or acting justly requires suppression of desire, then it is not in the interests of the strong man to acting according the dictates of conventional morality. (This general line of argument reoccurs much later in the philosophy of Nietzsche.) Throughout the rest of the Republic, Plato aims to refute this claim by showing that the virtue of justice is necessary for eudaimonia.

The argument of the Republic is lengthy, complex, and profound, and the present context does not allow that we give it proper consideration. In a thumbnail sketch, Plato argues that virtues are states of the soul, and that the just person is someone whose soul is ordered and harmonious, with all its parts functioning properly to the person’s benefit. By contrast, Plato argues, the unjust man’s soul, without the virtues, is chaotic and at war with itself, so that even if he were able to satisfy most of his desires, his lack of inner harmony and unity thwart any chance he has of achieving eudaimonia. Plato’s ethical theory is eudaimonist because it maintains that eudaimonia depends on virtue. (Virtue is necessary for eudaimonia.) On Plato’s version of the relationship, virtue is depicted as the most crucial and the dominant constituent of eudaimonia.


Aristotle’s account is articulated in the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics. In briefest outline, for Aristotle, eudaimonia involves activity, exhibiting excellence (virtue, arête) in accordance with (3) reason. This conception of eudaimonia derives from Aristotle’s view that rationality is peculiar to human beings so that the function (ergon) of a human being will involve the exercise of his rational capacities to the highest degree. The basic thoughts are that well being (eudaimonia) will be gained when a creature develops its capacities properly and that reason is a distinctively human capacity. It follows that eudaimonia for a human being involves the attainment of excellence (arête) in reason.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The Greek term “eudaimon” is composed of two parts: “eu” means “well” and “daimon” means “divinity” or “spirit.” To be eudaimon is therefore to be living in a way that is well favored by a god. But Aristotle never calls attention to this etymology, and it seems to have little influence on his thinking. He regards "eudaimon" as a mere substitute for eu zên (“living well”). These terms play an evaluative role, and are not simply descriptions of someone's state of mind.” See Kraut, Richard, “Aristotle's Ethics,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2001 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

According to Aristotle, eudaimonia actually requires activity, action, so that it is not sufficient for a person to have a certain disposition to behave in certain ways. He thinks it is necessary that a person also exercise his dispositions, that is, exhibit activity according to the capacities of reason. Eudaimonia requires not only traits of character but activity. Aristotle clearly maintains that to live in accordance with reason means attaining excellence in its use. Perhaps it is true that any human being of normal capability will employ rational capacities to some extent, but this is not enough for Aristotle. He claims that performing a function well entails exhibiting certain excellences or virtues appropriate to that function. So, for example, being a good psychologist requires being highly attentive, so that we might say that attentiveness is a quality necessary for someone to be a good psychologist. From this it follows that eudaimonia, living well, consists in activities exercising the rational part of the soul in accordance with the virtues or excellences of reason [1097b22-1098a20]. The rest of the Nicomachean Ethics is devoted to filling out the claim that best life for a human being is the life of excellence in accordance with reason. Since reason for Aristotle is not only theoretical but practical also, he spends quite a bit of time discussing excellences of character which enable a person to exercise his practical reason (i.e., reason relating to action) successfully.

Aristotle’s ethical theory is eudaimonist because it maintains that eudaimonia depends on virtue. However, it is Aristotle’s explicit view that virtue is necessary but not sufficient for eudaimonia. While emphasizing the importance of the rational aspect of the soul, he does not entirely ignore the importance of other ‘goods’ such as friends, wealth, and power in a life that is eudaimon. He thinks that one is unlikely to be eudaimon if one lacks certain external goods such as ‘good birth, good children, and beauty’. So, a person who is extremely ugly, or has “lost children or good friends through death” (1099b5-6), or who is all alone, is unlikely to be eudaimon. Eudaimonia depends to some extent on something over and above excellence of reason, and on good fortune in life and body.


Epicurus’ ethical theory is hedonistic. (His view proved very influential on the founders and best proponents of utilititarianism, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. See the article on utilitarianism.) Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and that pain is the only intrinsic bad. An object, experience or state of affairs is intrinsically valuable if it is good simply because of what it is. Intrinsic value is to be contrasted with instrumental value. An object, experience or state of affairs is instrumentally valuable if it serves as a means to what is intrinsically valuable. To see this, consider the following example. Suppose you spend your days and nights in an office, working at not entirely pleasant activities, such as entering data into a computer, and this, all for money. Someone asks: “why do you want the money?,” and you answer: “So, I can buy an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean, and a red Ferrari.” This answer expresses the point that money is instrumentally valuable because it is a means to getting your apartment and red Ferrari. The value of making money is dependent on the value of commodities. It is instrumentally valuable: valuable only because of what one obtains by means of it.

Epicurus identifies the eudaimon life with the life of pleasure. He understands eudaimonia as a more or less continuous experience of pleasure, and also, freedom from pain and distress. But it is important to notice that Epicurus does not advocate that one pursue any and every pleasure. Rather, he recommends a policy whereby pleasures are maximized “in the long run.” In other words, Epicuric claims that some pleasures are not worth having because they lead to greater pains, and some pains are worthwhile when they lead to greater pleasures. The best strategy for attaining a maximal amount of pleasure overall is not to seek instant gratification but to work out a sensible long term policy.

Ancient Greek ethics is eudaimonist because it links virtue and eudaimonia, where eudaimonia refers to an individual’s (objective) well being. Epicurus' doctrine can be considered eudaimonist since Epicurus argues that a life of pleasure will coincide with a life of virtue. He believes that we do and ought to seek virtue because virtue brings pleasure. Epicurus’ basic doctrine is that a life of virtue is the life which generates the most amount of pleasure, and it is for this reason that we ought to be virtuous. This thesis—the eudaimon life is the pleasurable life—is not a tautology as “eudaimonia is the good life” would be: rather, it is the substantive and controversial claim that a life of pleasure and absence of pain is what eudaimonia consists in.

One important difference between Epicurus’ eudaimonism and that of Plato and Aristotle is that for the latter virtue is a constituent of eudaimonia, whereas Epicurus makes virtue a means to happiness. To this difference, consider Aristotle’s theory. Aristotle maintains that eudaimonia is what everyone wants (and Epicurus would agree). He also thinks that eudaimonia is best achieved by a life of virtuous activity in accordance with reason. The virtuous person takes pleasure in doing the right thing as a result of a proper training of moral and intellectual character (See e.g., Nicomachean Ethics 1099a5). However, Aristotle does not think that virtuous activity is pursued for the sake of pleasure. Pleasure is a byproduct of virtuous action: it does not enter at all into the reasons why virtuous action is virtuous. Aristotle does not think that we literally aim for eudaimonia. Rather, eudaimonia is what we achieve (assuming that we aren’t particularly unfortunate in the possession of external goods) when we live according to the requirements of reason. Virtue is the largest constituent in a eudaimon life. By contrast, Epicurus holds that virtue is the means to achieve happiness. His theory is eudaimonist in that he holds that virtue is indispensable to happiness; but virtue is not a constituent of a eudaimon life, and being virtuous is not (external goods aside) identical with being eudaimon. Rather, according to Epicurus, virtue is only instrumentally related to happiness. So whereas Aristotle would not say that one ought to aim for virtue in order to attain pleasure, Epicurus would endorse this claim.

The Stoics

Stoic philosophy begins with Zeno of Citium c.300 B.C.E., and was developed by Cleanthes (331-232 B.C.E.) and Chrysippus (c.280-c.206 B.C.E.) into a formidable systematic unity. Stoic ethics is a particularly strong version of eudaimonism. According to the Stoics, virtue is necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. (This thesis is generally regarded as stemming from the Socrates of Plato’s earlier dialogues.) We saw earlier that the concept of arete is not quite the same as that of the English ‘virtue’ since arete includes many non-moral excellences such as physical strenghth and beauty. However, the Stoic concept of arete is much nearer to our conception of virtue, which refers to the moral virtues. So when the Stoics write of virtue they mean states such as justice, moderation, and courage.

The Stoics make the quite radical claim that the eudaimon life is the morally virtuous life. Moral virtue is good, and moral vice is bad, and everything else, such as health, honour and riches, are merely ‘neutral’. The Stoics therefore are committed to saying that external goods such as wealth and physical beauty are not really good at all. Moral virtue is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. In this they deny the importance of external goods recognised by Aristotle, who thought that severe misfortune (such as the death of one’s family and friends) could rob even the most virtuous person of eudaimonia. This Stoic doctrine re-emerges later in the history of ethical philosophy in the writings of Immanuel Kant, who argues that the possession of a "good will" is the only unconditional good. One difference is that whereas the Stoics regard external goods as neutral, as neither good nor bad, Kant’s position seems to be that external goods are good, but not unconditionally so.

Eudaimonia and modern moral philosophy

Interest in the concept of eudaimonia and ancient ethical theory more generally has enjoyed a tremendous revival in the twentieth century. This is largely due to the work of Elizabeth Anscombe. In her article "Modern Moral Philosophy," Anscombe argues that duty based conceptions of morality are conceptually incoherent for they are based on the idea of a "law without a lawgiver." The point is that a system of morality conceived along the lines of the Ten Commandments, as a system of rules for action, depends (she claims) on someone having actually made these rules. However, in a modern climate, which is unwilling to accept that morality depends on God in this way, the rule-based conception of morality is stripped of its metaphysical foundation. Anscombe recommends a return the eudaimonistic ethical theories of the ancients, particularly Aristotle, which ground morality in the interests and well being of human moral agents, and can do so without appealing to any questionable metaphysics.

See also


  1. ^ See Aristotle's Psychology, By Prof. Daniel N. Robinson. (1999). Published by Daniel N. Robinson. ISBN 096720660X ISBN 978-0967206608

Further reading

  • Ackrill, J.L. (1981) Aristotle the Philosopher. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192891189
  • Anscombe, G.E.M. (1958) Modern Moral Philosophy. Philosophy 33; repr. in G.E.M. Anscombe(1981), vol. 3, 26-42.
  • Aristotle. The Nichomachean Ethics, Translated by Martin Oswald (1962). New York: The Bobs-Merrill Company.
  • Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. 1 and 2, rev. ed. Jonathan Barnes, ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, [1984]. Bollingen Foundation, 1995. ASIN: B000J0HP5E
  • Broadie, Sarah W. (1991) Ethics with Aristotle. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ASIN: B000VM6T34
  • Cicero. De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum [‘On Ends’], H. Rackham, trans. Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914). Latin text with old-fashioned and not always philosophically precise English translation.
  • Epicurus. "Letter to Menoeceus, Principal Doctrines, and Vatican Sayings," 28-40 in B. Inwood and L. Gerson, Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings, Second Edition Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1998. ISBN 0872203786
  • Irwin, T.H. (1995) Plato’s Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Long, A.A., and D.N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, vol 1 and 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)
  • Plato. Plato's Complete Works, John M. Cooper, ed. Translated by D.S. Hutchinson. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1997. ISBN 0872203492
  • Urmson, J. O. (1988) Aristotle’s Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Vlastos, G. (1991) Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801497876
  • McMahon, Darrin M., Happiness: A History, Atlantic Monthly Press, November 28, 2005. ISBN 0871138867
  • McMahon, Darrin M., The History of Happiness: 400 B.C. - A.D. 1780, Daedalus journal, Spring 2004.

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