In this first of two installments defining eudaemonia we will attempt the impossible, circumnavigating the sphere of "the good."
For something to be eudaemonic it must be conducive to our happiness. It is not just our “happiness” because there are connotations attached: success, fulfilment, flourishing, promotion, evolution, action and contentment. In ancient Greek, “eu” is “well” and “daemon” is “spirit.” So it could be said we have room for interpretation. There is the philosophical movement of Eudaemonism, which is a system of ethics that puts a moral value on the likelihood of actions producing eudaemonia. Then there is eudaemonia itself, which is often incorrectly described as “happiness.” However, “happiness” alone does not completely define what eudaemonia is, nor even what it means to be happy. Any generalization of “good, right or true,” is also lacking. We will attempt to redefine eudaemonia as the worthy goal of anti-social engineering, a pathway to virtue. In order to do this we must develop an appreciation for the Aristotle's ethics and refine his philosophical habit of contemplation.
When we discuss the Nicomachean Ethics, we are looking at Aristotle's ideas on what the purpose of life is and how to go about living it. In his estimation, which, with minor adjustments, we share, Ari believes that all of us seek “the good life.” This good life is a product of our actions and everything seeks happiness. However, not everyone agrees on what makes them happy. Aristotle believes that the good life is sought by having a good spirit, which is something that can be developed with effort and time. Ethics are the study of bare principles and this is something we can practise. Virtue is the ability to choose “rightly” when considering alternatives, so too can we develop the habit. Aristotle delivers in his Ethics a practise that seeks what he calls the Golden Mean, a balance between excess and deficiency. He believes that like a horseman becomes excellent at his skill through practise, those seeking virtue can also hone their skills. He says, “We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Let's start with the idea of happiness, what is it? How do we find it? Aristotle asks us to examine things we choose for their own sake and things we choose for delayed rewards. (For him, being able to make this distinction explains a lot about what makes humans unique from other animals.) Ari argues that if you were to pursue everything you desired to its end, you will always wind up considering your happiness. For example, if someone asked me, “What would you do with ten million dollars?” and pursued the answers I gave with, “Why? Why? Why?” I would always end up saying, “because it makes me happy.” Something like this: “What would you do with ten million dollars?” I would buy a house. “Why?” So I could be comfortable and raise a family. “Why?” So I could love, be loved, share my life with people and pass something of myself onto the future. “Why?” Because it would make me happy. So happiness is not a means to an end, it is the end. It is the desired result of whatever thought or activity taking place. Aristotle believes that all human activities aim to accomplish something we consider “good.” Therefore, seeking something that is an end, in and of itself, such as happiness, should be an “ultimate good.”
Being happy, for Aristotle is “good.” Well, that's a start. He breaks the idea of “types of goods” into two groups: Apparent Goods and True Goods. Apparent Goods are the things we seek in life that may or may not lead to actual happiness. (The big boat, the expensive baubles, the promotion at work...) Don't confuse the idea of “good” with the idea of an object as a good. Good in this case is something we find eudaemonic, not merely existent. Apparent Goods can only provide pseudo-happiness. True Goods are real. So, as in the classic film, Citizen Kane, a grumpy old curmudgeon on his deathbed will come to realize that all of his wealth and power was for nought. He has missed out on the true goods of his life, in the pursuit of apparent goods. This means, of course, that we can be wrong about what we think is going to make us happy. This is particularly true when we become convinced by someone else of what will make us happy. (These we could call socially engineered goods.)
Still, “good” needs to become something standardized for us to all agree upon what it means. We all can determine our own pleasures, yes, but there must be some aspects of “goodness” that are definable. Aristotle says that everything has a function and the ability to perform that function well points to eudaemonia. You can, for instance, hammer a nail into a board with a flute but it is not going to work very well. Or, if you are a medical student, you might have a Professor who is an excellent Doctor but a horrible Teacher. Form, therefore, precedes function, but happiness is function living up to form. This is a key distinction that helps us separate eudaemonia from mere happiness. A flute cannot be “happy” or “unhappy” but its use as a hammer is definitely not eudaemonic. This harkens back to the Aristotelian definition of “essence.” (A knife is not a knife if it has no edge, a chair is not a chair if you can't sit in it, etc.)
So what is the human essence? We know our form quite well, what is our function? Ari, in his typical thoroughness, attempts to reduce this question to what humans are able to do, as what distinguishes us from other species. His answer is: Rationality, we are able to reason about what we know and choose. Specifically, because we are able to reason and other creatures are not, rationality must be our essence. Therefore, the good life is achieved by developing and exercising this ability.
Now, at this point, you might wonder about Ari's definition of rationality, or even reason, because many other animals can reason. This is true. A crow can solve multistage problems, build job specific tools and use them, all without being taught or otherwise having any previous experience with the particular skill set used. A crow, while a social animal, is certainly not on the same level as a man. This is true, so far. Herein lies the point, Aristotle, a huge fan of biology admittedly, was not an expert on everything. In fact, there are many aspects of the Nicomachean Ethics, as well as other works belonging to Aristotle, such as the Politics, that expose him to be, at least in part, a product of his times. (We shall not disparage him for this.) Ari's world is one where one knows his or her place. Women are lesser than men, but not quite “property.” Slaves, be they male or female, are property, therefore cannot be citizens. This can be the only place where Aristotle's ideas can come from. He has no qualms about fashioning “the good life” for his time and place, specifically. It doesn't occur to him that the world may abolish slavery, or perhaps even that exemplary ideas change. (Which is a rather odd thing to think about: If Aristotle can't remove the blinders we find limiting him a mere two thousand years later, can we remove ours in the present? Can we even identify our current blinders?) Humans are very fond of looking back and feeling superior. We need to reverse this process, to look forward knowing we're taking the right steps in the present, to get there. At any rate, we will take what we need from Aristotle and ignore his dustier ideas.
You might also have wondered about definitions of a word like “good.” How are we going to define “good” when we can't even properly define “red” or “7”? The answer, which Aristotle reminds us of throughout his work, is “you can't.” Everyone is different and what is good for the murderer may not be good for the milkmaid. Everyone must decipher their own ethics. Ari, in his “Doctrine of the Mean” is not unlike ourselves at this point, working through our own, private Philosophy Generator. The only thing that can be said about “goodness” is that it points to eudaemonia. Eudaemonia, in turn points to happiness, which seems to give us carte blanche. However, eudaemonia is not an end, such as mere happiness. Eudaemonia is an activity, a means to plural ends: Happiness and (something more.) We wish to define the “something more.”
For the ancient Greeks, eudaemonism was apparent. If one walked through the streets of Athens in the time of Aristotle, the eudaemonic citizens would be vibrant, successful, friendly and energetic. This is why eudaemonia is not an inner, emotional state in such a way that mere happiness is, but to be eudaemonic is to put energy into action. One may find happiness in sitting around doing nothing all day, but it would be short lived. Even the laziest person in the world contemplates, (which is an action,) and has friends, relationships, etc. (At least, this is the case for healthy humans.) Thus, there is an active role for you to place in your eudaemonia, it is your choosing and doing well. Choosing well is the path to virtue. Doing well, acting rightly and being aware of it mark eudaemonia. If these definitions are true, then Aristotle is correct to deduce that they are ongoing exercises. It is a process, not a result. The result will always be varying degrees of virtue.
Read part two: Promotive Eudaemonia
(This discussion was taken from my book Anti-Social Engineering the Hyper-Manipulated Self.)
Click here to watch the book trailer