The different types of eudaemonism

K21.1KharitesI just finished the very early draft of a sample chapter of a book I’ll be working on after the summer, tentatively entitled “How to Be a Stoic” (yup, just like this blog…). The chapter is a general introduction to what I call “the most important question of them all,” that is, the source of meaning in life.

It presents three frameworks for answering that question, which I claim has been at the center of all religions, much philosophy, and even some science. The first framework is nihilism (i.e., there is no meaning, period); the second one is the idea that meaning comes from the outside, in the form of a transcendental god or gods; the third option is a non-arbitrary construction of meaning from within, taking into consideration the nature of the human animal.

That third section of the chapter, then, describes five different versions of eudaemonism, the sort of philosophy to which of course Stoicism belongs as well. Below I reproduce a summary table that currently concludes the chapter, as a handy guide to the five major eudaemonic schools and how they differed from each other.

[the figure at the top left represents the three Kharites, from left to right: Eudaimonia (Happiness), Harmonia (Harmony) and Paidia (Play). Together, they were the retinue of the goddess Aphrodite. The painting dates from ca 450-400 BCE, and it’s found at the Museo Archeologico Etrusco, Florence, Italy]

School of Thought Concept of Eudaimonia
Socratic Virtue is both necessary and sufficient for a eudaimonic life. Lack of virtue makes the person literally sick in his soul.
Platonic (“Academic”) Virtue is necessary though not sufficient for the eudaimonic life: one also needs to fulfill a number of other human desires (“appetites” of the soul), but happiness cannot be achieved without reason and virtue, because the soul would be unbalanced without it.
Aristotelian (“Peripatetic”) Virtue is necessary though not sufficient for the eudaimonic life: only people who are lucky enough to be educated, somewhat wealthy, healthy, and even reasonably good looking can pursue eudaimonia. The essence of being human is the ability to reason, and the eudaimonic life is the pursuit of excellence in reason (which leads to virtue).
Epicurean Virtue is not an intrinsic component of eudaimonia, but only instrumental to achieving it. The goal of life is to maximize pleasure (in the long run) and minimize pain (also in the long run). The pursuit of virtue brings pleasure and reduces pain, so it is one of the tools to become eudaimon.
Stoic Virtue is both necessary and sufficient for a eudaimonic life. Its practice leads to a good flow in life (Zeno), and to tranquillity of mind (Epictetus). External goods are “indifferent” (to moral character), but can be “preferred” (health, wealth, education) or “dispreferred” (sickness, poverty, ignorance).
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Categories: Virtue Ethics

20 replies

  1. The table entry for the Aristotelian school made me laugh: “only people who are … reasonably good looking can pursue eudaimonia.”.

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  2. Massimo–the table is great. It’s been such a long time since my freshman Philosophy class in high school, and of course the Greeks were at the very beginning and I haven’t studied much of that since then… so this is very helpful.
    Also, the requirement for reasonable good looks might really be true. Maybe we, as modern Stoics, should take this into account.
    I can’t wait for your book. Can you follow it up with a workbook for an approach on practicing Stoicism?

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  3. Massimo, Thanks for your very illuminating table! However, I do not see how moral relativism can lead to the eudaimonic life. As long as I believed that virtue was something that I or society had made up, I would feel that I was being less than genuine by trying to live virtuously. I regarded it as just another form of masturbation.

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  4. 3d,

    yes, that was pretty funny. But Aristotle did have a good point, if one that the Stoics actually disagreed with: the idea is that if one is at a major disadvantage in terms of education, means, or even looks, one is unlikely to have a good life. It’s just human psychology.

    But the Stoic rejoinder there is that the moral worth of a person is (or ought to be) independent of those externals, and I agree.

    vienna,

    my book will contain chapters devoted to actual practice.

    Daniel,

    no eudaimonic philosophy was morally relativistic in the modern sense of the word. And at any rate, I have nothing against masturbation (and yes, you can quote me on this… 😉

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  5. Early Buddhism is definitely along the lines of your “third option”: one finds meaning (or at any rate eudaimonia) from within. Damien Keown understands Buddhist ethics as akin to virtue ethics although AFAIK he does not elaborate precisely which the virtues would be. There are many lists within early Buddhism that could make a rough fit with (e.g.) wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Perhaps the closest are the ‘seven factors of enlightenment’ (bojjhaṅghā), which are:

    mindfulness
    investigation
    energy (or: courage; viriya)
    joy
    tranquility
    concentration
    equanimity

    These do not include “wisdom” or “justice” per se, however this list usually relates to the process of mindfulness meditation in particular. We know from elsewhere in the texts that achieving mindfulness requires moral conduct (sīla), and that its goal, enlightenment, is often glossed in terms of wisdom (paññā). If so, sīla and paññā would be understood as part of what is achieved in achieving these seven factors.

    Another group arguably more similar to the Greek virtues most likely post-dates the Buddha, but is nevertheless in the spirit of his dhamma: the ten pāramitā or perfections, seen as the culmination of virtue. They are:

    generosity
    moral conduct
    renunciation
    wisdom
    energy/courage
    tolerance
    honesty
    determination
    kindness
    equanimity

    Arguably perfecting these seven or ten constitutes eudaimonia for early Buddhism (that is, they are both necessary and sufficient), although usually they are understood as skillful tendencies we should look to improve. Usually eudaimonia (nibbāna) is defined as the extinction of greed, hatred, and ignorance, where “ignorance” is understood in regard to a lived understanding of the four noble truths.

    Obviously there is much more to be said. The upshot I think is that whereas early Buddhist dhamma doesn’t exactly fit the Greek virtue mold, it can be profitably interpreted in that light if so desired.

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  6. “no eudaimonic philosophy was morally relativistic in the modern sense of the word.” Interesting! It further calls question to a eudaimonic life without a confidence in objective morality.

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  7. Interesting – I appreciate the lists both from Massimo and Douglas Smith.

    I think when relating virtue to the accomplishment of a eudaimonic life it use to think in two classifications as follows;
    -useful capacities worth cultivating that allow us to attain a state where we can act virtuously
    -descriptions of the state of being that best promotes virtuous acts

    I see virtues like humility, curiosity, courage, kindness, patience, perseverance all as very important examples of the first type. If these capacities are well developed they can then be employed as appropriate in relation to context. Proper employment most importantly also requires (as I think Douglas was indicating ) a mindful engagement with context.

    I think the best term describing the desired state of being from which to best act with virtue is the aforementioned equanimity. This is acting from an informed position, unbiased so as not to be attached to any particular conceptual virtue, but seeing clearly the point where multiple alternatives engage. I suppose other terms for this type of virtuous embodiment would include wisdom or enlightenment. I think for Zhaungzi, virtue was synonymous with equanimity.

    I think there are likely many types of practices that can help us to both develop or cultivate the first type of virtuous capacities in service of the promotion of virtuous action and a eudaemonic life is one filled with virtuous action. I also think the Stoics hit upon some of the most useful and pragmatic practices in this regard.

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  8. “the third option is a non-arbitrary construction of meaning from within, taking into consideration the nature of the human animal”
    I am not so sure about the “non-arbitrary” part of this. The human nature might be just a developmental kernel or starting point from which each individual and each culture might develop into a different direction. There might not be much of a stable nature. Instead, the nature of humans might be to be world-open. This would mean thatt, humans and cultures are historical and can change. Meaning, then, is constructed from within in each individual and each culture, but this construction can change (and I think this is what we can observe both in individual biographies and in the history of cultures). The resulting arbitrariness does not make such constructed meaning meaningless because each individual’s subjective view is primary for that individual.
    So I would suggest as the fourth option: meaning is constructed from within, in a way that depends of history, culture and individual biography.
    The existence of the table you give is a case in point: different people have come up with different constructions (influencing each other historically), but did not agree. However, for each of them, their construction was probably satisfying.

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  9. Hi nannus,

    I would agree with you that life in general as well as it’s it’s classifiable components are contingent and in process of becoming, but that doesn’t imply that the unfolding is entirely arbitrary. As your definition points out the unfolding depends in part on historical patterns. As a metaphor I suppose this is why a protein is said to become de-natured when it’s typical patterned manner of unfolding is disrupted. I think the way we form meanings while maintaining a coherent world view are more open to change. Unlike the functional unfolding of proteins we can change our views, and are not constrained to a rigid (genetic) code in order for those views to maintain functionality. Nevertheless I think the influences behind any way of finding meaning are to some degree identifiable, and we have some choice in molding how are future views, values etc… unfold. So I don’t see a conflict with nature being contingent while the formation of meaning is non-arbitrary.

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  10. Daniel,

    “It further calls question to a eudaimonic life without a confidence in objective morality”

    How so? and what do you mean by “objective morality”?

    nannus,

    “I would suggest as the fourth option: meaning is constructed from within, in a way that depends of history, culture and individual biography”

    I don’t have an objection to that, but it remains an empirical question just how much biology constraints culture, and the degree to which “human nature” evolves biologically and culturally. I am currently willing to bet on a larger role of biology in setting up the parameters than you may be. Ether way, since I’m not pushing Stoicism as *the* way to live one’s life, but only as a way that works with some people, I can accommodate quite a bit of cultural variation.

    Seth,

    “that doesn’t imply that the unfolding is entirely arbitrary … I think the influences behind any way of finding meaning are to some degree identifiable, and we have some choice in molding how are future views, values etc”

    Correct.

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  11. Isn’t Epictetus emphatic that externals are indifferent to Eudaimonia as well as indifferent to moral character? Isn’t virtue it’s own reward?

    In other words, isn’t virtue all that matters; all else being indifferent?

    I think there can be no wavering on this point for an aspiring Stoic, and yet what else could seem more difficult? If my child is suffering with cancer, this is not supposed to affect my Eudaimonia?

    Maybe the answer is best expressed by Christianity, which I feel was informed by Stoicism above all other philosophies. This answer was stressed by Kierkegaard a lot; which is that the individual can, paradoxically, contain two opposing states of being at the same time, and one does not take away from the other at all but rather reinforces it. For example, a gift is a gift to the degree it requires some real and felt sacrifice, and yet, Christ says it is more blessed to give than to receive. This is a paradox. Christ later experiences this when, it is written, he ‘endures the suffering of the cross with joy’.

    This is the virtue of love, of course. My grief can be absolute as my child suffers, and yet my Eudaimonia is not affected, because the very virtue that causes me grief (love for my child) is also that which causes me joy. The indifferent cancer is ‘used’, as Epictetus would say, for the greatest display and experience of this virtue. I have seen this, several times, on the face of the dying. Their acceptance of their fate (this is required) enables them to experience the love surrounding them.

    While Epictetus, afiak, doesn’t focus on the virtue of love as well as Stoic Christians do, I think his many thoughts on death does express a similar paradox regarding the virtue of courage/endurance/equanimity. A context of externals is required for equanimity to be displayed and experienced (Eudaimonia). Some contexts will hilite the equanimity more than others will. Death for example.

    I think a more in depth inquiry into the relation between those indifferent externals and our all important ‘use’ of those externals would be interesting. For example, while all externals may be equally indifferent in one sense, does our display and (perhaps more importantly) our experience of virtue (Eudaimonia) vary according to particular externals? In other words, isn’t equanimity in the face of death a (at least quantitative) different display and experience than exercising it in the face of losing my house? Or, do we, to the degree we are Stoics, see our ultimate loss in everything we lose, so that loss of anything becomes an occasion to practice and even experience our ultimate loss?

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  12. Wm., interesting points, but I’m not sure about you main one. The Stoics, including Epictetus, did make a clear distinction between preferred and dispreferred indifferents. Which would make no sense if the only important thing were virtue. Virtue is the primary component of eudaimonia, for sure, and the indifferent are such with respect to virtue. But that doesn’t mean one does not naturally, and justifiably, prefer health to sickness, wealth to poverty, and so forth.

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  13. Mass., I think you are right to emphasize that stoics can prefer health over sickness, and while it may seem an odd thing to have to emphasize that, it’s precisely because of the Stoic claim, as you put it, that virtue is sufficient for Eudaimonia. This can be misinterpreted into a pretty weird and inhuman position.

    I phrased my point badly, when I said “Virtue is all that matters”, I meant that it is sufficient to Eudaimonia; nothing else is required than Virtue.

    I’m sure Epictetus would have preferred not being a slave and having wealth, but I doubt he would have agreed that Aurelius’s wealth and power gave him some advantage over Epictetus in achieving and maintaining any level of Eudaimonia at all.

    BTW, here is an interesting question for the group. Whose position makes their Stoicism more impressive, Epictetus’s or Aurelius’s? I think most people would immediately say Epictetus (I do), but on more careful thought, this isn’t so obvious to me.

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  14. Massimo, Objective morality pertains to a morality (moral law) that exists apart from our own subjective thinking. For example, gravity is objective in the sense that it doesn’t depend on human thinking to exist or function.

    If we reject objective virtue, it would also seem that we also reject the meaningful and enriching life. I do not think that virtue can rest on a subjective foundation. As long as I believed that virtue was something that I or society had made up, I felt that I wasn’t being genuine by trying to live virtuously. Without the independent existence of virtue, apart from my own thinking, I was merely playing a game – something to make myself feel better, a game that made me also feel inauthentic. I was acting “virtuously,” but I didn’t really believe in virtue. It was just an idea I had created to make myself feel good and therefore stopped trying to be virtuous.

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  15. Daniel,

    I know what objective morality is (I am a trained philosopher, after all…), I was asking what you specifically meant by it. I completely disagree that a meaningful life cannot be built without objective morality. Indeed, since I don’t believe there is an objective morality in your sense of the term, and yet many people live meaningful lives, the statement is even empirically wrong.

    The other thing is that yours seems to me to be a false dichotomy: morality can be partially constructed, and yet reflect objective facts about human nature and the human condition, which means it wouldn’t be entirely objective or subjective.

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  16. It seems to me that the use of metaphorical language like “outside” and “inside” can trick us into thinking there is a real difference between rationally discerning and constructing ‘transcendent meaning from the outside’ (whether from some mythological deity or some other process), and non-arbitrary meaning from the inside. In other words, whether the Logos is entirely immanent, entirely transcendent, or both, makes not one bit of difference. It is what it is, and the moment it is accepted that the meaning we construct is non-arbitrary, it has been acknowledged.

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  17. Quick and dirty personal background: raised in a highly observant conservative Christian home, I went on to Bible college and seminary and pastored in a Southern Baptist church for a few years before becoming an atheist. I’ve been an atheist for about a year and a half now and still working to piece together my personal philosophy.

    Within Christianity is the idea that all people ultimately find meaning in the same way: a life devoted to God is a meaningful life and no matter what the individual circumstances, if a person lives for God, theirs is a life worth living. It’s an absolute imposition of meaning on every person, a one-size-fits-all approach to life.

    What I’m wondering from this post is how the different schools of thought view the application of their ideal. Christians say, “This is how you find meaning” – going so far as to say that the person who is not a Christian is not genuinely happy, even if they have convinced themselves that they are.

    How do the eudaimonic groups present their positions? What would you say about the person who is not virtuous, but seems genuinely satisfied with the course of his life? Or, to widen the scope a bit, I would say that most people have a balance of sorts between the desire for virtue and the desire for pleasure. We want to be good people but our satisfaction in life is not solely tied to our virtue. If I live well _and_ have security, stability, companionship, etc, then I am reasonably satisfied. When any of these are threatened, happiness wavers, which strikes me as being more than just a matter of preferred indifferents.

    So is the Stoic position along the lines of, “This is how I choose to find my eudaimonia” or “this is how humans best achieve eudaimonia” or somewhere between the two?

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  18. Chris, again, excellent questions.

    “What would you say about the person who is not virtuous, but seems genuinely satisfied with the course of his life?”

    The Stoics would say that he doesn’t know better. And Socrates would agree.

    “We want to be good people but our satisfaction in life is not solely tied to our virtue. If I live well _and_ have security, stability, companionship, etc, then I am reasonably satisfied”

    I don’t see a problem there, and I do think the doctrine of “indifferents” is sufficient to account for it. For instance, here is how the first chapter of the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics puts it:

    “Stoicism could underpin a thoroughly conventional set of social and personal choices, and was thereby enabled to commend itself more widely in the Hellenistic world than its essentially convention-defying forebear Cynicism.”

    In other words, the Cynics, with their minimalist life style, would face the problem you raise, but not the Stoics, who could enjoy a life of pleasure as long as they didn’t confuse it with a life of virtue (and so long as they would be willing to put the latter ahead of the first one, if need be).

    “is the Stoic position along the lines of, “This is how I choose to find my eudaimonia” or “this is how humans best achieve eudaimonia””

    I believe the ancient Stoics would have gone for the second option, they thought that “living according to nature” for a human being meant living socially and following reason (because those are the two fundamental natural attributes of humanity). I am personally content with the first option and a bit of a nudge toward the second one: I recognize that my choice of the Stoic “axioms” is a choice, and that it won’t work for others. That said, I do agree that we ought to behave socially and rationally, and that that does make for a better and more meaningful life, other things being equal.

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