Two more crucial words

Arete in Ephesus

statue of Arete in Ephesus (Turkey)

We have recently examined a very seldom used, yet crucial, word in ancient philosophy, and Stoicism in particular: amathia, meaning ‘disknowledge’ instilled into the soul by bad upbringing and bad education, consisting in false values and notions and beliefs. In other words, the opposite of wisdom (sophia).

This post is concerned with two more words that are, I think, crucial in order to properly understand virtue ethics in general, and Stoicism in particular: eudaimonia and arete. (Spoiler alert: this week’s “crucial words” series will end on Saturday, with a whopping five more words! Stay tuned…)

Both words — especially eudaimonia — are likely more familiar than amathia, but they are often misunderstood and their common English translations (respectively: happiness and virtue) lend themselves to significant misunderstandings, so much so that, I will argue, we should, as in the case of amathia, just try to retain the original term, at the least in discussions within Stoic or virtue ethical circles.

Let’s start with eudaimonia, which literally means “having a good demon” or spirit (like, you know, Socrates, who said that his demon advised him about virtue). While the most common translation is “happiness,” this really is off the mark. First off, because “happiness” means a number of different things even in the English language. I am “happy” to be drinking some nice Pinot Noir tonight, but that’s not at all what eudaimonia is about. I am also “happy” about my career decision to switch from biology to philosophy, and that is to some import to my eudaimonia, but it is very far from capturing the whole concept.

An increasingly common translation of eudaimonia is “flourishing,” which indeed gets a lot closer to the meaning intended by Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. However, again, there are many ways of “flourishing” in modern terms that have little to do with eudaimonia, or that indeed may be construed as counter to it. If by flourishing we just mean a satisfying life, then a banker, say, may be said to be flourishing if his business is going well. He may be able to afford a good house, marry well, raise children who have access to the best education, and so forth. But if he got ahead in his business by making shady deals, or even simply by treating others unethically, he is not having a eudaimonic existence.

As always with virtue ethics, the ethical dimension is inescapable. And yet, living a moral life may or may not be enough for eudaimonia. It was for the Stoics and the Cynics, but not for Aristotle, for instance. That’s because acting virtuously (I’ll get to that concept in a moment) was necessary and sufficient for adherents to the first two schools, but not for the Peripatetics (followers of Aristotle).

In fact, as I pointed out before, this point is crucial to separate the three schools in question. Roughly speaking, for the Cynics practicing virtue was the only thing that led to eudaimonia, and “externals” (i.e., everything else) were likely to simply get in the way of it — hence their rather ascetic life style. For the Peripatetics, virtue was necessary, but not sufficient. One also needed some externals, like education, health, wealth, and even a bit of good looks. The Stoics struck a middle ground: yes, virtue is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia, but some externals can nonetheless be preferred (and others dispreferred), as long as their pursuit doesn’t get in the way of virtue.

(Incidentally, that eudaimonia does not translate as happiness in the modern sense is attested by the famous Stoic contention that the Sage can be eudaimon even on the rack, while being tortured. Clearly they didn’t mean “happy.”)

Eudaimonia, all ancients agreed, is “the good composed of all goods,” and can perhaps best be understood as the type of life that, when we are on our deathbed, we look back to and are justified in concluding that “it was well lived.” Again, though, the idea is that one can say that of one’s life only if its moral dimension is significant, which is why Aristotle famously said that one cannot really say that a person was eudaimon until after his death: after all, someone could lead a very good and moral life until the last minute, then commit an act of atrocity or injustice that would permanently stain his existence. (That’s one argument to wait a bit after someone’s death before writing their biography…)

Aristotle considered a number of “models,” so to speak, for the eudaimonic life: a life of pleasure, a life in politics, or a contemplative life (i.e., the life of a philosopher). While he, perhaps not surprisingly, concluded that the contemplative life is the highest form of eudaimonia (because it is spent thinking about eudaimonia itself), he acknowledged that one can be eudaimon by other means, especially through a life of service to the polis. Epicurus, by contrast, regarded a life of pleasure (and, especially, lack of pain) as eudaimonic.

Interestingly, though, despite their disagreement, all ancient philosophers — including Epicurus — agreed that eudaimonia is tightly connected to arete. In fact, Aristotle said that eudaimonia consists in “virtuous activity in accordance with reason,” which is very much reminiscent of the Stoic take as well (“follow nature,” by which the Stoics meant the human nature of a social animal capable of reason), and which brings me to our second crucial word of the day.

Arete is what commonly gets translated as “virtue,” obviously connected to the overarching concept of virtue ethics, as well as — in the case of the Stoics — to the four cardinal virtues: Sôphrosynê (self discipline, temperance), Andreia (courage, fortitude), Dikaiosynê (justice, integrity), and of course Phronȇsis (practical wisdom). (Okay, okay, I did sneak in a whopping four additional words here…)

Part of the problem with the term “virtue” is that one immediately thinks of the Christian conception, which includes ideas — such as purity, chastity, and so forth — that actually have nothing to do with the Greek meaning.

More subtly, however, “virtue” automatically carries an ethical meaning, while the word arete — which is commonly used by Homer in both the Iliad and the Odyssey — actually means “excellence” in a broader sense: moral excellence is certainly one, very important, type of arete, but one can be excellent at all sorts of things, including technical skills (an excellent musician) and physical ones (an excellent boxer).

This is important, because eventually arete came to describe excellence of character, one reason why a better term than “virtue ethics” actually is “character ethics,” the idea that what is important is to develop one’s character in life. Developing a character means to be able to pursue excellence at whatever one is good at (being a musician, an athlete, or whatever), but always in a noble, “ethical” manner (which excludes, for instance, the possibility of an excellent mass murderer).

It isn’t by chance that arete was a crucial component of the process of paideia, the training of a Greek boy to become a man (though arete, since Homer, was applied to both men and women). This training included three components: physical (at the gymnasion), mental (in oratory, rhetoric and science), and spiritual (in music, interestingly, and virtue). It’s a highly unfortunate thing that modern “education” focuses on the second component only (and badly, too), with hardly a concern for the first one, and not at all for the (crucial, I’d say) latter one.

Even the early Christians, influenced as they were by the Greco-Romans, acknowledged the importance of arete. Here is Paul, for instance, in Philippians 4.8: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence (arete), if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

So arete and eudaimonia are tightly interconnected, and together represent two more crucial words (in addition to amathia) to understand what the Stoics were after. Their common English translations, I have argued, are too approximate to render justice to the underlying concepts. While it may not be practical to re-introduce the Greek vocabulary in every conversation, we ought to keep the original terms in mind, and perhaps paraphrase, rather than translate, them, if we want Stoicism to be understood rather than belittled.


10 thoughts on “Two more crucial words

  1. Bruno Tourinho Raymundo

    Nice post, Massimo! I understand that virtue is sufficient to achieve eudaimonia, but would it be fair to say that one must pursue arete in an earthly (preferred indifferent) endeavor, given the chance? I can certainly picture someone being virtous but unable to achieve excellence in some particular career due to external circumstances (a disabled person that can’t become an athlete, for example), but let’s say a person has all sufficient external qualities but decide NOT to pursue excellence in them; would the Stoics look down on such person as not attempting to achieve arete? Is it a failure of virtue?


  2. Massimo Post author


    “would it be fair to say that one must pursue arete in an earthly (preferred indifferent) endeavor, given the chance?”

    That depends on who you ask. For Aristotle, that was part of the very concept of eudaimonia. For the Cynics, it was a distraction. For the Stoics, it was possible, as long as it didn’t interfere with the moral virtues.

    “let’s say a person has all sufficient external qualities but decide NOT to pursue excellence in them; would the Stoics look down on such person as not attempting to achieve arete?”

    No, since everything outside of moral virtue is indifferent for the Stoics.


    “are you just trying to teach us ancient Greek????”

    No, but it doesn’t hurt (too much), does it? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robin Luethe

    It is not often noted, but the beatitudes are not all that different than the words of ethics you have offered. Consistent with bothbut not mentioned by anyone are two others I often emphasize.

    Easiness: don’t make your life or others more difficult that you need to. Life is difficult enough without making it harder.

    Pleasantness: Enjoy life in so far as possible. If you need help be appreciative, even in the midst of difficulties you can make life easier and better for yourself and those around you. This really is a moral virtue.


  4. Robin Luethe

    Opps, I left out what I consider most salient about the beatitudes. Christendom has spent untold energy asserting why they don’t apply to common people, leaders, ordinary clergy and about everyone. But yet many common people manage to live out the beatitudes in spite of that horrible teaching.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Darko Mulej

    Maybe we should go one step further: arete superlative is aristos – the best, from which English got its aristocracy, that is ‘rule of the best’. Now ‘aristocracy’ have – or should have – negative connotation, which one can backtrack to arete, that is excellence, implying exclusiveness.

    Considering your previous point ‘eudaimonia is tightly connected to arete’ – I see these only as an ineresting proposition to meditate on, but not something obvious. My take would be ‘eudaimonia is tightly connected with knowledge’, for example knowledge about how the brain works. Maybe eudaimonia is state of the mind, that is particular activity of the brain 🙂


  6. labnut

    Christendom has spent untold energy asserting why they don’t apply to common people, leaders, ordinary clergy and about everyone.

    Hmm? ‘Untold energy‘, ‘horrible teaching? That does sound completely over the top.

    What you say simply does not square with my experience. Only a few weeks ago our parish priest stressed the point that the Beatitudes were the core of the Gospel. During the seven years or so since my conversion from atheism to Catholicism I have attended Mass on average twice a week. In that time the homilies contained an unrelentingly moral message of great nobility, and the Beatitudes were a part of that. I follow Pope Francis writings and speeches and they stress all the time the moral message of compassion, mercy, tolerance and forgiveness. I found the same was true of Pope Benedict and I believe it was also true of Pope John Paul(before my time).

    Contrast the words of Pope Francis with the unpleasant stuff said by Dawkins, Coyne, Harris et al. There is a shocking contrast and it does not redound to the credit of atheism.

    I do believe however that the Beatitudes should receive even more emphasis, as does our parish priest.

    But yet many common people manage to live out the beatitudes

    I agree completely when I see so many of my fellow Catholics manning the soup kitchens, medical clinics and other aid centres in our impoverished townships. I agree completely when I see how my fellow Catholics help rebuild broken down schools and pay the costs of impoverished but bright students to attend university.

    We are not the only church that does things like this but here is the funny thing, I have never, ever seen any atheist organisation doing anything like this. Makes you think, doesn’t it. Perhaps there are, but they are vanishingly small by comparison.


  7. Massimo Post author


    interesting point about the connection of arete to aristos!

    “My take would be ‘eudaimonia is tightly connected with knowledge’, for example knowledge about how the brain works. Maybe eudaimonia is state of the mind, that is particular activity of the brain”

    Well, whatever we feel and experience is made possible only through brain states, so in a sense yes. But no, “eudaimonia” refers to a value judgment on the worth of one’s life, not to a personal feeling.

    As for knowledge, the Stoics certainly argued that knowledge of nature and of correct reasoning (their physics and logic) is necessary to figure out how to live one’s life (ethics), but it is not sufficient, as the discussion about amathia shows: one needs wisdom, and wisdom doesn’t come from knowledge in that sense.


  8. Robin Luethe

    Pope Francis’s emphasis on the beatitudes has been wonderful, unexpected and deeply controversial. But I will emphasize that as I see amongst family, friends, blog writers, politicians there is little connection between religious beliefs and moral behavior. Repeated studies confirm that.


  9. Darko Mulej

    you have a point.

    But maybe sometimes wisdom is a simple consequence of knowledge?
    Let’s see this on example, how Capitalist economy works. If you study (and as a consequence have knowledge) of Louis Althusser and its ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’ or ‘Inverted totalirism’ of Sheldon Wolin, you begin to look at the world through diferrent optics. Who owns the media and which views they espoused? What values are inoculated through education? And religion? Why should such a gross inequality be OK? Why exactly is marijuana forbidden and alcohol not, although the latter is big health hazard? Why governments tolerate tax havens even if they robe them of vital resources so they are forced (really?) to implement austerity measures?

    Let me finish with rethorical challenge (or zen koan): Anyone in USA not voting for Bernie Sanders does not possess wisdom.

    (Less not to be accused of hijacking this thread for political campaigning, few remarks are in order:
    – Greeks have very vibrant political life, they invented democracy, so I think political debates are ‘in the Stoic context’
    – Even if the first divide is between Republicans in Democrats, more pertinent divide is between Sanders and all the others. He is the ony one who fights for ordinary people and againts the wealthy and corporation lobbies, which have ‘infested’ political body.)

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