Have you ever come across the concept of eudaimonia? As interesting and intriguing it might sound, if you are able to live your life based on this idea, then it can truly change your life for good.
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 more powerful 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 can be 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 the various schools, such as the epicureans, the stoics, and the skeptics, 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 profound than happiness, more stable and durable, and reliable, and cannot easily be taken away from us. Although it leads to pleasure or satisfaction of the deepest kind, it does not arise from pleasure but is according to higher values and principles that transcend the here and now.
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 endeavors or endures under the guidance of wisdom ends in happiness.
At his trial, in the Apology, Socrates gives a defiant defense, telling the jurors that they ought to be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honor 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 did all he could not stop them.
Plato broadly agreed with his teacher 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 fabled 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.”