The closest English word for the Ancient Greek term eudaimonia is probably “flourishing”.

The philosopher Aristotle used it as a broad concept to describe the highest good humans could strive toward – or a life ‘well lived’.

Though scholars translated eudaimonia as ‘happiness’ for many years, there are clear differences. For Aristotle, eudaimonia was achieved through living virtuously – or what you might describe as being good. This doesn’t guarantee ‘happiness’ in the modern sense of the word. In fact, it might mean doing something that makes us unhappy, like telling an upsetting truth to a friend.

Virtue is moral excellence. In practice, it is to allow something to act in harmony with its purpose. As an example, let’s take a virtuous carpenter. In their trade, virtue would be excellences in artistic eye, steady hand, patience, creativity, and so on.

The eudaimon [yu-day-mon] carpenter is one who possesses and practices the virtues of his trade.

By extension, the eudaimon life is one dedicated to developing the excellences of being human. For Aristotle, this meant practicing virtues like courage, wisdom, good humour, moderation, kindness, and more.

Today, when we think about a flourishing person, virtue doesn’t always spring to mind. Instead, we think about someone who is relatively successful, healthy, and with access to a range of the good things in life. We tend to think flourishing equals good qualities plus good fortune.

This isn’t far from what Aristotle himself thought. Although he did believe the virtuous life was the eudaimon life, he argued our ability to practice the virtues was dependent on other things falling in our favour.

For instance, Aristotle thought philosophical contemplation was an intellectual virtue – but to have the time necessary for contemplation you would need to be wealthy. Wealth (as we all know) is not always a product of virtue.

Some of Aristotle’s conclusions seem distasteful by today’s standards. He believed ugliness was a hindrance to developing practical social virtues like friendship (because nobody would be friends with an ugly person).

 

 

However, there is something intuitive in the observation that the same person, transformed into the embodiment of social standards of beauty, would – everything else being equal – have more opportunities available to them.

In recognising our ability to practice virtue might be somewhat outside our control, Aristotle acknowledges our flourishing is vulnerable to misfortune. The things that happen to us can not only hurt us temporarily, but they can put us in a condition where our flourishing – the highest possible good we can achieve – is irrevocably damaged.

For ethics, this is important for three reasons.

First, because when we’re thinking about the consequences of an action we should take into account their impact on the flourishing of others. Second, it suggests we should do our best to eliminate as many barriers to flourishing as we possibly can. And thirdly, it reminds us that living virtuously needs to be its own reward. It is no guarantee of success, happiness or flourishing – but it is still a central part of what gives our lives meaning.

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