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.