On Eudaimonia

And why it is much better than happiness.


We all say we want to be happy, but the pursuit of happiness often seems like a wild goose chase.

Maybe the problem is not so much with us, or the world we live in, but with the very concept of happiness.

A much better concept, I think, is that of eudaimonia, which literally means ‘good soul’, ‘good spirit’, or ‘good god’.

Eudaimonia is often translated from Greek simply as ‘happiness’—but that is very misleading. The word ‘happy’, which is related to ‘happen’ and ‘perhaps’, derives from the Norse happ for ‘chance’, ‘fortune’, or ‘luck’. From Irish to Greek, most European words for ‘happy’ originally meant something like ‘lucky’—one exception being Welsh, in which it originally meant ‘wise’.

Another word for ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’ in Old English is gesælig, which, over the centuries, morphed into our ‘silly’.

Eudaimonia, in contrast, is anything but silly. It has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with hard work. It is a much deeper, fuller, and richer concept than happiness, sometimes articulated in terms of flourishing or living a life that is worthwhile or fulfilling.

Many philosophical schools in antiquity thought of eudaimonia as the highest good, often even the very aim and purpose of philosophy, although various schools such as epicureanism and stoicism may have conceived of it in somewhat different terms.

What can be said is that, unlike happiness, eudaimonia is not an emotion but a state of being—or even, especially for Aristotle, a state of doing. As such, it is more stable and reliable, and cannot so easily be taken away from us. Although it leads to pleasure or satisfaction of the deepest kind, it does not come from pleasure, but is according to higher values and principles that transcend the here and now.

Socrates on Eudaimonia

Socrates, it seems, equated eudaimonia with wisdom and virtue. In the Greater Alcibiades, he says that he who is not wise cannot be happy; in the Gorgias, that nothing truly bad can ever happen to a good man; and in the Meno, that everything the soul endeavours or endures under the guidance of wisdom ends in happiness.

At his trial, in the Apology, Socrates gives a defiant defence, telling the jurors that they ought to be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honour as possible, while not caring for or giving thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of their soul. ‘Wealth’ he says, ‘does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.’

Socrates provided the ultimate proof that nothing truly bad can ever happen to a good man: When the jurors condemned him to death, they only made him and his ideas immortal—and he made sure not to stop them.

Plato on Eudaimonia

Plato broadly agreed with Socrates. In the Republic, Plato’s brother Glaucon argues that most people are fundamentally selfish, but maintain a reputation for virtue and justice to evade the social costs of being or appearing unjust. But if a man could get hold of the mythical Ring of Gyges and make himself invisible, he would most surely behave as it suited him:

No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.

We behave justly not because we value justice, but because we are weak and fearful; while the unjust man who is cunning enough to seem just will get the better of everyone and everything.

As part of his lengthy reply to Glaucon, Plato famously conjures up an idealized Republic to help him ‘locate’ (define) justice, first in the state and then in the individual. Plato argues that justice and injustice are to the soul as health and disease are to the body: If health in the body is intrinsically desirable, then so is justice in the soul. For Plato, an unjust man cannot be happy because he is not in rational and ordered control of himself.

Aristotle on Eudaimonia

It is with Plato’s one-time student Aristotle and his Nicomachean Ethics that the concept of eudaimonia is most closely associated.

For Aristotle, a thing is best understood by looking at its end, purpose, or goal. For example, the purpose of a knife is to cut, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what a knife is; the goal of medicine is good health, and it is by seeing this that one best understands what medicine is, or should be.

Now, if one does this for some time, it soon becomes apparent that some goals are subordinate to other goals, which are themselves subordinate to yet other goals. For example, a medical student’s goal may be to qualify as a doctor, but this goal is subordinate to her goal to heal the sick, which is itself subordinate to her goal to make a living by doing something useful. This could go on and on, but unless the medical student has a goal that is an end-in-itself, nothing that she does is actually worth doing.

What, asks Aristotle, is this goal that is an end-in-itself? This ‘supreme good’, he replies, is eudaimonia, and eudaimonia only.

Fine, but what is eudaimonia? For Aristotle, it is by understanding the distinctive function of a thing that one can understand its essence. Thus, one cannot understand what it is to be a gardener unless one can understand that the distinctive function of a gardener is ‘to tend to a garden with a certain degree of skill’.

Whereas human beings need nourishment like plants, and have sentience like animals, their distinctive function, says Aristotle, is their unique and god-like capacity to reason. Thus, our supreme good is to lead a life that enables us to use and develop our reason, and that is in accordance with reason.

By living our life to the full according to our essential nature as rational beings, we are bound to flourish, that is, to develop and express our full human potential, regardless of the ebb and flow of our good or bad fortune.

To put this in modern terms, if we develop our thinking skills, if we guard against lies and self-deception, if we train and master our emotions, we will, over the years, make better and better choices, do more and more meaningful things, and derive ever-increasing satisfaction from all that we have become and all that we have done, and are yet able to do.

On Ataraxia

And why it is the ultimate cool.

Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and stoic philosopher

Prior to the advent of Christianity, there were, of course, the pagan gods, but, especially for the high-minded, there were also a number of philosophical schools.

The four major philosophical schools of Western antiquity were cynicism, stoicism, skepticism, and epicureanism.

Despite each having their own outlook and approach, all four schools emphasized the attainment of mental tranquillity and mastery, or ataraxia—making them, in my view, much more similar than different.

Probably the best way of grasping at this concept of ataraxia [Greek, ‘lack of disturbance or trouble’] is by looking at how it fitted into each of the four schools.


The first cynic appears to have been the Athenian philosopher Antisthenes (d. 365 BCE), who had been an ardent disciple of Socrates. Then came Diogenes (d. 323 BCE), the paradigm of the cynic, who took the simple life of Socrates to such an extreme that Plato called him ‘a Socrates gone mad’.

Diogenes held that human beings had much to learn from the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not ‘complicated every simple gift of the gods’. In fact, the term ‘cynic’ derives from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon, or ‘dog’.

Diogenes placed reason and nature firmly above custom and convention, which he held to be incompatible with happiness. Rather than pursuing wealth, renown, and other worthless things, people should have the courage to live like animals or gods, partaking in life’s pleasures without bond or fear.

The stories surrounding Diogenes, though embellished, or because embellished, help to convey his spirit. Diogenes wore a simple cloak which he doubled up in winter, begged for food, and sheltered in a tub. He made it his mission to challenge custom and convention, which he called the ‘false coins morality’. Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, he mused, ‘If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly.’ He used to stroll about in broad daylight brandishing a lit lamp. When people gathered around him, as they inevitably did, he would say, ‘I am just looking for a human being.’

His fame spread far beyond Athens. One day, Alexander the Great came to meet him. When Alexander asked whether he could do anything for him, he replied, ‘Yes, stand out of my sunlight.’

I mean, honestly, how much cooler can you get?


Diogenes was followed by Crates of Thebes (d. 285 BCE), who renounced a large fortune to live the cynical life of poverty. Crates married Hipparchia of Maroneia, who, uniquely, adopted male dress and lived on equal terms with her husband.

By the first century, Cynics could be found in cities throughout the Roman Empire. At that time, cynicism vied with stoicism, a broader philosophical system that emphasized perspective, self-control, and fortitude, and that, in the second century, could count the emperor Marcus Aurelius and senator Cato the Younger among its adherents.

Zeno of Citium (d. 262 BCE), the founder of stoicism, had been a pupil of Crates, and cynicism came to be seen as an idealized form of stoicism.

Here are five thoughts on ataraxia from the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius:

  • You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
  • If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
  • The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.
  • It is not death that a man should fear, but never beginning to live.
  • Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.


Skepticism and epicureanism also took off around the time of Alexander. Like the sophists whom he opposed, Socrates had skeptical tendencies, claiming that he knew little or nothing and cultivating a state of non-knowledge, or aporia.

Pyrrho of Elis (d. 270 BCE) travelled with Alexander across Persia and into India, where he encountered various schools of thought, such as Hinduism and Buddhism and their sects, including the ‘naked wise men’ or gymnosophists, with a common emphasis on inner peace. After all, what is the Hindu nirvana if not complete ataraxia?

Blending East and West, Pyrrho came to believe that knowledge is impossible and urged suspension of judgement with the aim of exchanging anxiety and dogmatism for ataraxia.

The Pyrrhonian skeptic Sextus Empiricus (d. 210 CE) compared Pyrrho’s prescription for ataraxia to a real or fabled episode in the life of the painter Apelles of Kos. One day, Apelles was painting a horse but failed so completely to depict its froth that he gave up and flung his sponge at the picture—thereby accidentally achieving the desired effect.

In the 16th century, the translation of the complete works of Sextus Empiricus led to a resurgence of Pyrrhonian skepticism, and the work of Descartes—’I think therefore I am’, and so on—can be read as a response to a skeptical crisis… with roots in Ancient Athens and Ancient India.


Like Diogenes, Epicurus of Samos dedicated himself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason: reason teaches that pleasure is good and pain bad, and that pleasure and pain are the ultimate good and bad. This has often been misconstrued as a call for rampant hedonism, but actually involves a kind of hedonic calculus to determine which things, over time, are likely to result in the most pleasure and least pain.

Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence, because overindulgence so often leads to pain; and, rather than pleasure, emphasized the avoidance of pain, the elimination of desire, and ataraxia.

‘If thou wilt make a man happy’ said Epicurus, ‘add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.’